Friday, February 29, 2008

Film Review #151: Resisting Paradise
Director: Barbara Hammer
Cast: Marie-Ange Allibert Rodriguez, Marguerite Matisse, Henri Matisse

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. When filmmaker Barbara Hammer went to France in the spring of 1999 to Cassis, a few miles east of the port city of Marseilles, famous for its limestone cliffs and its wine, she intended to investigate the unique quality of light that had drawn painters to that region. For example, the painter Pierre Bonnard left Paris for good in 1910 for the southern coast, and Henri Matisse had moved south in 1917, settling near Nice. They carried on a lively correspondence into their later years – living until 1947 and 1954 respectively – about the light and landscape that so nurtured their palettes, and both refused to budge during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. We have all probably seen light a little differently since the Impressionists, whether we realize it or not. And for Hammer, this project would be a natural investigation. A painter once herself, she’s engaged in experiments with light, editing, format, film emulsions, and approaches to subject matter in 80-some videos and films over the last four decades. She even notes Matisse’s remark that cinema “has advantages” over painting.

Once there, Hammer discovered others had moved through Cassis and the southern coast during World War II besides painters hunting perfect light – refugees fleeing the Nazis, and resisters, both in the thousands. While Matisse painted, his estranged wife Amélie, his son Jean and his daughter Marguerite were part of the French Resistance. The Gestapo caught and tortured Marguerite, who drove to Paris three times a week with messages, and shipped her to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

As Hammer uncovered an aging network of survivors from those years – Lisa Fittko took Jewish refugees on foot through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, Marie-Ange Allibert Rodriguez supplied identity papers and food stamps from her City Hall office – another convergence de-railed her film plans.

In March 1999, NATO began bombing the break-away Serbian province of Kosovo, intending to drive out the Serbian police and paramilitaries engaged in atrocities against the majority Albanian population, the latest convulsion in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia that had stretched across the 1990s.

Every night in Cassis, Hammer says, she watched Kosovar refugees on French TV as they fled “ethnic cleansing.” When they streamed home again in June, revenge killings against the Serbs started, even as the UN tried to organize elections. So the film that Hammer finished in 2003 – and is bringing to Syracuse next week for two guest screenings – is not what she set out to make. Instead she decided to investigate these questions: What are our responsibilities during war? How can art exist during political crisis?

Convincingly gorgeous, Resisting Paradise captures what could so visually intoxicate Bonnard that he could “drown” in the landscape there. Hammer’s capacity to recreate this on-screen endows her questions with a power that carries this film well past the standard educational documentary. To address those questions, she creates a kind of dialogue between the painters, with snatches read from their correspondence, and “ordinary people,” made up of re-enactments, readings and voice-overs, archival footage, new interviews and footage that imagines the transformation of what’s seen to what’s painted.

The comparison is unsettling and challenging. Matisse writes to Bonnard that “a little painting no bigger than your hand sold for 100,000 francs – this is a golden age for artists!” His grandson follows, describing his mother’s torture (and it sounds like water-boarding to me). Lisa Fittko describes the seemingly failed escape and suicide by morphine tablets of philosopher Walter Benjamin, whom she guided to Spain’s border, where the Spanish police stopped his party and held them overnight in order to send them back. Forger of identity papers and food stamps Marie-Ange Rodriguez, who says she is “87 ½” and in fact died shortly after Hammer’s interview, recalls, “I was never afraid. Everyone knew and no one betrayed me, never, even those on the side of the Germans.”

That comparison also made some artists at Harvard, to whom she showed the film while it was still a work in progress, feel “attacked.” In order to soften Matisse, she added more footage of his grandchildren. Though Jacqueline Matisse Monnier and Claude Duthuit provide the details of their mother’s and grandmother’s treatment at the hands of the Gestapo, they also insist that Matisse – given his health – could do nothing other than he did.

Now we can hardly miss more synchronicity in Hammer’s bringing this film to Syracuse at this point. After years under UN administration, Kosovo finally declared independence on February 17th. Within days, 150, 000 Serbs protested in their capital’s streets, burned and looted foreign shops, and fire-bombed embassies of nations supporting Kosovo (ours included).

Hammer hasn’t been to Kosovo, but last May she was in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, where traveling in a car with Serbian plates meant hurled eggs and angry shouts. Speaking by phone on Monday from Woodstock, where she lives when not in Manhattan, Hammer said these events of recent weeks “really bring this full circle and may lead to a situation similar to 1999.”

Hammer visits Onondaga Community College in Syracuse on March 6th as the guest of the Reel World documentary series, part of Art Across Campus. Reel World brings indie documentaries with limited release to campus with screenings that welcome the wider community; this year’s Art Across Campus explores how artistic expression documents wartime experience. Faculty organizer Linda Herbert says Hammer’s vast body of work – experimental documentaries and queer cinema landmarks like Nitrate Kisses (1992) – and the start of Women’s History Month all make this “a perfect fit.”

Renting Hammer’s films is hard – only offers History Lessons (2000), the third in her trilogy of experimental documentaries about lesbian and gay history (besides Nitrate Kisses, 1995’s Tender Fictions) – but Women Make Movies carries her earlier films, some are for sale on her website (, and she’s considering other commercial DVD distribution. She’s also represented in the landmark WACK! international exhibition of 1970’s Feminist art, on view now until May at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, where she’ll speak on a panel of experimental filmmakers this Saturday.

Hammer has also just finished two films about the dying tradition of women deep-sea divers of the matriarchal Korean island of Jen-Ju Do. Like Resisting Paradise itself and My Babushka (2001), which documents her search for her Ukrainian roots, the two Jen-Ju Do films address concerns ranging wider than queer history. On Monday Hammer commented that Lover Other, her 2006 film about two women who were both artists and lovers and resisted the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey during World War II, is “really a coda” to Resisting Paradise, which had no lesbian or gay figures in it. “I went as far as I could go with lesbian history,” Hammer says. “I’m also an artist, a resister myself.”

A shorter version of this review appears in the 2/28/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Resisting Paradise has two screenings at OCC, Thursday, March 6th in Storer Auditorium, Ferrante Hall, 2:00 & 7:00 PM. Q&A with Barbara Hammer at both screenings & DVDs available of Resisting Paradise, plus Nitrate Kisses, Lover Other and Dyketactics. Film & parking are free.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Film Review #150: Billy Elliot
2000/DVD 2001
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis

Stephen Daldry, who switched from stage directing to movies with the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot and went on to literary cinema like The Hours (2002), says that Billy Elliot is “not really a dance film.” Something like the 1935 Fred Astaire vehicle, Top Hat, is his idea of a dance film. There are clips from Top Hat inserted into this gritty tale of an 11-year-old miner’s son who secretly leaves Saturday boxing lessons to learn ballet, pirouetting in and out the white-tutus in the midst of the UK’s worst labor strike since World War II. Set in northeast England in 1984-85, this story does not employ clips of classic Hollywood fantasy about tuxedo-clad high society to embody Billy’s aspirations. No, they appear only as remote, grainy images flickering on the tiny TV of Billy’s addled old grandmother, whose recurrent line, regretful and longing, is, “They always said I could’ve danced professionally if I’d only had the training.”

Those old musicals trafficked in a little vaudeville melodrama, but audiences were after the escapist entertainment when Fred, Ginger and all those supporting extras took flight. Instead, Billy Elliot – though it has three or four wonderful dance sequences – repays a second look eight years later because it’s a surprisingly complex and savvy drama about how men struggle with social constraints – from wildly divergent styles of fatherhood, convictions about men’s aggressive nature that spring from hard times and class friction, and whatever largely consigning the “artistic side of life” to women comes to mean about the sexuality of artistic men.

Daldry’s cast is superior. For the title role, he reportedly combed through some 2,000 auditions to find relative newcomer Jamie Bell (now appearing in Jumper as Griffin), also a native of Billy’s northeast England, who hid the ballet aspect of this role from his own school mates during filming. Julie Walters – Molly Weasely in the Harry Potter films – plays the prickly, chain-smoking dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who gives Billy private lessons and puts the Royal Ballet in his head. Pitch perfect as the profoundly reticent, still-grieving widower wrenched by disturbing emotion, Gary Lewis (Prime Suspect: The Final Act) is Billy’s dad Jackie.

It was a savage time. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives closed many open pit mines in the nationalized coal industry to increase efficiency and profit. Over 11,000 strikers were arrested. Ten died in the running battles with police that swept through housing projects. Swaths of northeastern England and southern Wales remain virulently anti-police. Billy gets his letter of acceptance from the Royal Ballet the same day – March 3, 1985 – that the forever-after weakened miners’ union “caved in,” ending the strike.

Daldry takes some care depicting this violence on both sides: police and strikers in ferocious, shouting tugs of war on picket lines, phalanxes of police beating their shields with batons – Billy’s rough hothead older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) is clubbed bloody – and enraged strikers pelting scab-carrying buses with eggs and rocks. The strike also caused extreme privation. Billy’s father Jackie weeps twice during this story, first when he’s forced to smash his late wife’s piano with a sledge hammer to burn the wood for heat on Christmas Eve, the second time from fear when he rides the scabs’ bus to work so he can buy Billy’s bus ticket to London. In this life – nasty, brutish and short – men fight tooth and nail, 11-year-old boys take boxing lessons, and an incensed father who’s never been to London because “they don’t have mines there” equates ballet with “poofs.”

Billy isn’t gay. That’s why Mrs. Wilkinson’s precocious daughter Debbie is in this film, starting a pillow fight with Billy that fills the air with feathers and looks forward to the sexual charge of Billy’s breathtaking leap onto stage years later in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But his forlorn friend Michael (Stuart Wells), whom we first meet refusing to box, is. At first sharply put off, Billy’s growing comfort with Michael parallels his growing acceptance of his own desire to dance. And one of the film’s pleasures is the increasing physical affection among the Elliot men as their definitions of manliness expand and they start supporting Billy’s dancing.

The role of women in the film is less satisfying. Formerly, all Billy’s support has come from women – from Mrs. Wilkinson, from his mother Jenny’s example, from his grandmother’s love of dance. Even the pivotal question at his Royal Ballet audition, which restores this tongue-tied boy’s voice – “How do you feel when you dance?” – comes from the sole woman on the interview panel. And moved as Jackie Elliot is by how good Billy’s gotten, the deal maker is that “his mother would’ve let him.” Still, Mrs. Wilkinson disappears from the story abruptly and for good after Jackie’s conversion – I would at least have liked to see her in the final scene that gathers many of the principals together ten years later – as if Daldry insists that men must not delegate some matters.

Interestingly, the film delays powerfully muscular, masculine ballet until the end, fast forwarding to Billy at age 25 by splicing in footage of dancer Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s 1995 all-male revival of Swan Lake. This production on Broadway earned Adam Cooper a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical and was extremely popular with teen-age boys, causing a minor surge in dance lessons. Young Billy’s major dance sequences – his sense of self and skill still awkward works in progress – instead rely on dazzling tap work down the bleak brick alleys of his town, danced not in toe shoes but laced-up boots, especially his raw anguish when his father at first forbids the Royal Ballet audition. We get to watch both men grow up.

This review appeared in the 2/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Film Review #149: Keepin’ it Reel ‘08: Exploring Hip-Hop
Annual film fest at Community Folk Art Center, Syracuse, NY, 2/14-17/2008

“There is a huge love for Hip Hop,” Diane Weathers told WAER Syracuse in a phone interview in early March 2005, “based on its early exuberance, diversity and creativity. We wanted to be clear we wouldn’t allow this to be used by people who wanted to attack Hip Hop – that wouldn’t work with this group. We were just women bothered by what we saw who wanted to talk about it. And the response was global.”

That January, Essence Magazine had launched its Take Back the Music campaign, aimed at gangsta rap that disparaged women and glorified pimps. Then editor-in-chief of the magazine celebrating its 35th anniversary, Weathers had just been in Atlanta, where Essence joined with Spelman College in late February 2005 for an historic, overflow town meeting on the topic. The previous spring, Spelman’s student government “disinvited” the Hip Hop performer Nellie from visiting campus when he refused to meet with them about “Tip Drill,” the music video in which he “swiped” a credit card down the bare backside of a young thong-wearing woman.

Efforts so far this decade to reclaim Hip Hop's giddy inventiveness and freedom also focused on women’s positive participation. Gwendolyn Pough’s Check it While I Wreck It, published just before she moved to Syracuse in 2004, detailed a lineage of strong Black women’s verbal eloquence and framed women's Hip Hop participation as an extension of that. New York City-based Martha Cooper, who’d photographed the Hip Hop scene from its earliest days in 1970s South Bronx, brought out a new book, We B*Girlz (2005), about the world-wide phenomenon of women dancers’ crews and battles. Performers like Jean Grae and Missy Elliot emerged. Vibe Magazine published Hip Hop Divas.

The movies getting under way at the same time tell a story wider yet. Byron Hurt includes the infamous “Tip Drill” clip in Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006), which kicks off the Community Folk Art Center’s annual film festival this Thursday. Besides cinematic critiques of thug misogyny and homophobia, the smartly-chosen program goes a long way toward busting narrow commercial stereotypes. There’s African Hip Hop, the rise of graffiti, the world of women deejays, Hip Hop as youth mentoring tool, Christian Hip Hop. And 16-year-old local filmmaker Zakharii Willets, who goes by Ziggy, debuts his short, Hip Hop: My Generation, just before Hurt’s film on Thursday.

Award-winning and PBS-aired, Beyond Beats and Rhymes puts an accomplished, sophisticated overview right up front, and Hurt will be here in person for discussion. On-screen, the ex-quarterback is articulate and persuasive (“I love Hip Hop,” he begins, “but we’re in this box, manhood…”). He says he first confronted this when he worked as a counselor to prevent male violence against women. His movie's exploration ranges from decades of violent white movie heroes to the lengthy construction Cross-Bronx Expressway, started in 1946, that ripped a borough in half and was surely as much a factor in the rise of Hip Hop as any reaction to affluent white disco music (one interviewee opines, “If they put an expressway through your neighborhood, then you understand Hip Hop.”).

Hip Hop's culture thrives globally, from Brazil to Tokyo to Germany to Australia and New Zealand to the Middle East, where much far-below-the-radar peace work is getting done by young Israeli and Palestinian rappers. Michael Wanguhu packs Hip Hop Colony (2006) with historical context and thoughtful interviews about equatorial Kenya, which got Western-style FM radio in 1995. Three years later, Kalamashaka made the first Kenyan hip-hop album. But this film’s best moments are the segments of rough footage of a joyous back-yard jam among Kalamashaka, Big Mike, Bamboo and the great Harry Kimani. Matter-of-factly un-gangsta, the film’s “dedicated to our moms.”

Asian-American Danny Lee’s Rock Fresh (2004) documents the international scope and methods of serious graffiti as Hip Hop's visual style and expression, following five artists. Rock Fresh screens Saturday afternoon following a free workshop for high school youth. Lee’s King of Hollywood opens later this year.

Liberian-born, New York-based Dante Kaba will be just back from Ghana when he travels to Syracuse on Saturday to screen Mistress X (2005), his portrait of women Hip Hop deejays.

Matt Ruskin’s The Hip Hop Project (2006) covers four years with Bahamas-born Chris “Kazi” Rolle, who grew up homeless in Brooklyn, and the Hip Hop-based program for at-risk youth he founded in 1999.

Finally, Christopher “Play” Martin “takes the Gospel to the streets” in Holy Hip Hop (2006), revealing robust urban ministries and radio programming in eight major US cities.

You could call this film festival a Valentine for love vindicated.

This review appears in the 2/14/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column, usually reviewing DVDs. Nancy interviewed Diane Weathers for Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, aired 3/10/05. Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hip Hop Colony, Holy Hip Hop, & Rock Fresh are available now on DVD, & both The Hip Hop Project & Mistress X soon will be.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Film Review #148: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Andrew Dominick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard

Theirs is one of our favorite stories of sidekicks-gone-wrong. Not quite 20 in September 1881, Bob Ford met his childhood idol near Blue Cut, Missouri, just as Jesse James and his older brother Frank were embarking on what they intended would be their last train robbery before retirement. At 34, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) had robbed over 25 trains since 1867. Other than Frank (Sam Shepard), who soon left him, and some feckless younger cousins, the rest of his gang was dead or locked up. Bob (Casey Affleck) hoped for a chance to show his “daring and grit,” and insinuated himself with a little set speech not unlike a novice job-seeker today. Initially rebuffed in no uncertain turns – Frank tells him “Scat!” and pulls a gun, and Jesse’s crew stands up en masse from a campfire when Bob tries to casually sit down with them – Bob had a way of glancing off into space so as to miss rejection, and he persisted.

Eight months later almost to the day, Bob shot Jesse James in the back of the head with a six-shooter Jesse had just given him while the domestically fastidious robber stood on a parlor chair after breakfast to dust a framed print of a horse. Because his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) had also raised a gun, Bob shot Jesse quickly, so as not to miss out on the reward and fame. He also feared Jesse’s revenge for other disloyalties just come to light and anyway his love had been souring for some time. Later, the Fords toured the US, re-enacting their betrayal on stage more than 800 times, until Charley committed suicide and Bob – running a tent saloon ten years later outside the silver mines in Creede, Colorado – was himself shot to death by another fame-seeker.

New Zealand native Andrew Dominick wrote and directed this film from Rob Hansen’s novel. Previously Dominick worked in Australia, seven years ago making Chopper, based on another violent, charismatic thug’s exploits and celebrity. (Aussie ex-convict Mark Read’s inventory of murders actually exceeds that of Jesse James, and he’s lived so far to enjoy lucrative profits as a pulp fiction writer and rap artist.) Now this film, released last October to disappointing box office, closely follows historical events but adds a rich, layered imagining of Jesse’s symphonic mood swings and Bob Ford’s evolving infatuation and resentment. This year’s Oscar nominations have their glaring omissions – Brad Pitt’s excellent Jesse among them – but Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford earns his spot for Best Supporting Actor and then some.

The great Roger Deakins is cinematographer. He’s Oscar-nominated this year a second time for the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, but his work here is clearly superior and more daring. I watched this film with an art historian whose exclamations of pure visual pleasure punctuated the film’s lengthy running time. In Deakins’ use of extreme shadow and focused light for what are essentially intensely still portrait studies, she saw Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt. Unlike the Western movie’s classic landscape with those sweeping Texas vistas – see No Country – Deakins here offers two sharply contrasting world visions. Often Jesse appears against the open sky, wading in wind-rippled prairie grass. The prospects of others are pinched, muddy and bleak. Door frames truncate their vistas, intervening upright posts and roofs chop their frame into halves and thirds, short-sightedness blurs their peripheries, chill emptiness washes out their colors to near abstraction. Whatever Jesse may evoke, for most folks frontier life was monotonous, harsh, and flat. It’s no stretch to imagine Bob Ford – all his dreams hidden scraps inside a shoe-box that his brothers tease him for – in one of today’s bombed-out urban cores.

Over 20 films – the first made in 1921, starring Jesse James, Jr. – have recounted these events. Long at 160 minutes, difficult, rewarding, with far less “action” that we expect from Westerns, this film requires some commitment to watch. Both the dialogue and voice-over narrative (actor Hugh Ross delivers a meditative, often sparely lyrical reading that’s also at odds with an action film’s expectations) make you want to jot down line after line. Very early, for example, we hear of Jesse, “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed.”

Quickly, Dominick's version of the Blue Cut train robbery lives up to this kind of heightening. In real life, Jesse barely escaped the Blue Cut fiasco in one piece. On-screen, with the train’s light shivering through the forest, the rolling fog conjuring sudden silhouettes, Jesse’s almond-shaped eyes glittering out of the night, brutes stalking up the aisle among passengers – well, right here’s our home-grown hi-jacker, fearsome, deeply sadistic, both alluring and repellant.

Civil War Missouri was a border state ripped apart by guerilla fighting. Jesse’s own family was tortured and Frank James rode with the Quantrill’s Raiders irregular militia. Jesse was probably an actual terrorist too – in 2003 biographer T.J. Stiles argued persuasively for this – long recalcitrant after a war whose breadth of death and brutality we are only lately discovering. Scholar Drew Gilpin Faust’s new and revelatory This Republic of Suffering just got a two-page spread in Newsweek. Dominick’s film includes a taken-for-granted overlap of that Civil War, its aftermath and the settling of the West that has bracingly reappeared in recent Westerns – Seraphim Falls and David Milch’s Deadwood, for example. For many years classic Hollywood Westerns, as I have written elsewhere, glanced away from this continuum - not unlike Bob Ford, really - as if settling the West were an opportunity to forget, both in its new beginning and its on-screen portrayal.

Those impatient with the time national reconciliation is taking elsewhere need only look within.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was released last Tuesday on DVD. This review appeared in the 2/7/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #147: Golden Door
2006/US DVD 2008
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Cast: Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Filippo Pucillo

There has never been a ship-launching on screen quite like this. Sicilian peasant Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) gathers his two teen-aged boys, his mother, and a couple pretty young neighbors – mail-order brides under his protection until Ellis Island – on deck. He’d collared his younger son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) when the boy panicked on the swaying gang-plank. Now the rough chaos of hundreds boarding subsides and the crowd drops away as the camera pulls straight up. From a hundred dizzying feet above, the crowd on deck and land merge as one mass and pause together, listening maybe for the steamer’s whistle, poised to edge away. In this hush, just the wind and some gulls crying, and the ship’s own mournful creaking as it shifts and starts to glide out. A ribbon of sea opens, dark in the shadow of the dock, then parts the crowd in two. Flashing like a blade, the widening gap reflects the sky’s light, and suddenly, the immensity of this step, this journey.

Italian director Emanuele Crialese says he had this scene – its God’s-eye view so easily the central image for both his film and any immigrant’s undertaking – planned out and fully story-boarded two years before he started shooting in Buenos Aires, whose port stood in for the Italy of a century ago. National cinemas all have their visual vocabularies. One reason that Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is so mesmerizing stems from cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sprawling vistas, which restore – even if subliminally – the specifically American frontier landscape of early Westerns. The Coens’ new vision of American “possibility” may be terrifying, but we’re still more at ease with that open space in our origin stories.

This resonates elegantly with Crialese’s filmmaking and subject. One thing we’ve learned from Italian cinema – from Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) onward – is that you first look for that horizon. No sky on-screen, no hope or future.

Golden Door is persistently filled with sky. As the Mancusos leave their village forever, Crialese films them from below, looking up at them perched sorrowfully atop a cart, dressed in the cast-off boots of a local baron and the cloaks of dead bandits so they take the spirits of their dead with them, with only the sky’s coming storm behind them. Salvatore and the mysterious, resourceful, large-spirited English redhead Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as magnetic here as in I’m Not There) enact their silent courtship pacing on-deck against the sea’s golden horizon. Upon first tasting American white bread, Salvatore – already long sustained on dreams – says, “It’s like eating a cloud.” Crialese casts the New World’s uncertainty as the steamer’s fog-shrouded deck when they enter New York’s harbor, and the frosted windows in the solarium at Ellis that hide the near-by city. Salvatore and another newcomer scale the massive window frame, peer through clear panes near the ceiling at Manhattan’s tall structures, speculate on taking their livestock up elevators, and Salvatore muses, “I’d like to live in the sky.”

Golden Door recounts his anguished decision to leave home, the harrowing week-long passage in steerage, and survival of Ellis Island processing. He has two sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa), perhaps 20, and the younger, Pietro. Others assume Pietro is deaf-mute but he’s clearly neither; we first meet him imitating bird songs to tease some girls on a rocky hillside and he will find his voice at a critica moment on Ellis. Salvatore’s twin brother left for America after Pietro’s birth; Salvatore’s wife may have died in that childbirth. His mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) argues the spirits are angry about the coming move because they fear the sea. Eventually she relents but cannot adjust. Her “resistance to rules” – she erupts in rage when a nurse attempts a rectal exam without warning her of what’s coming – gets her deported as “feebleminded.”

Golden Door occurs roughly in 1913, midway through a decades-long tide of immigration that straddled the century's turn to a jittery US. For one thing, single women weren’t allowed to enter unaccompanied. Hence the shipboard industry of the marriage broker Don Luigi (the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli, whose death during filming cut off a larger subplot). Lucy Reed refuses his efforts at recruitment in favor of finding her own prospect. And hence the nerve-wracking procedures of men claiming their intended fiancés at Ellis – neither of the village girls Salvatore chaperones are pleased with their mates – and an improvised exchange between Salvatore and Lucy across the crowded hearing room that hints at how well they’ll compliment one another in their new life.

Second, the pseudo-scientific “fitness” testing regimes that occur on-screen were put in place after eugenics pioneer Henry Goddard visited Ellis Island in 1910 and his doctored-up book on the Kallikak family appeared in 1912. Goddard’s views on inherited feeble-mindedness and moral degeneracy led to immigration quotas based on favored nationalities and to sterilization laws that the Nazis later admired and copied. Crialese brilliantly contrasts the ritual-infused Sicilians and their visions with such official and officious white-coated voodoo in the name of progress. When the doctors bizarrely instruct Pietro to open a door that has a brick wall behind it in one such exam, this supposedly primitive boy shoots them a look that says, “These people are crazy.” Crialese's gift for juxtaposition extends as well to his startling - and near-perfect - use of Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" in the soundtrack. See this film before deciding on the candidates' immigration prescriptions.

This review appeared in the 1/21/08 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 #146: Molière
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Laurent Tirard
Cast: Romain Duris, Laura Morante, Fabrice Luchini

Clearly he’s sincere. Pelted with cat-calls and rotten fruit – his chin drips with the juice – this actor carries on with his tragic lines, declaiming, deep-voiced, and sorrowful. Thirteen years later, famous and called to Paris to entertain the royal court, he’ll still hanker after serious high art; Madeleine, his long-time mistress and partner in leading this acting troupe, informs him he’s still terrible at it. Meanwhile, things are really not going his way. As the crowd turns belligerent, two officers of the law barge in on his faltering performance with one of their own – a solemn march on stage, a scroll unfurled, a portentous declaration of charges against him. Like many a young man suddenly cornered by creditors and facing arrest, the young Molière improvises desperately. We’ve seen this somewhere – yes, maybe in old Marx Brothers movies or on Saturday mornings with Bugs Bunny – the prankster leaping behind some ponderous authority figure, seeming to vanish, tapping him from behind so one cop swings around and slugs the other. Pleased with himself and the chaos he’s stirred up after a few rounds of this, Molière bows lavishly, basks in applause. Cut to Molière flying through the air, heaved into a dungeon’s pile of straw.

Maybe a victim of American angst with subtitles, bad memories of high school English class and stereotypes that historical film biographies are dull, 40-year-old French director Laurent Tirard’s second feature was not the stateside summer comedy hit it deserved to be. Now on DVD, this funny and winning little film gets another chance to shine.

Molière arises – much like Shakespeare in Love (1998) and last year’s couple of Jane Austen movies – from a missing chunk of time in the 17th century playwright’s résumé and the invention of events that, inserted with some mysterious lost love into that gap, explain his career. This way of accounting for art has its enemies; it can be formulaic, sentimental and, when you think about, it suggests that an artist’s imaginative reach is really not so powerful after all. But Molière has abundant redeeming qualities.

Tirard makes this dead white European male – he calls his approach “anti-rock star” – worth getting to know. Molière was just 22 in 1644 when he went to debtors’ prison and then disappeared for a while. He had already joined forces with the theatrical Bejárt family to form Illustre Theatre – French audiences likely know that Madeleine is the historical Madeleine Bejárt – the rep company with which he toured southern France, honing his comic stage-craft. As celebrated as Molière later became for his hilarious, biting social mockery in a dozen full-length comedies and other shorter farces, Tirard’s young playwright searches, sometimes clumsily, for work worth doing and for what purpose art has in a society starting to crack apart. US audiences might easily confuse this film’s time frame with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, but more than a century was to pass between the mutual contempt and envy of this film’s aristocrats and rising merchant class and the savagely bloody eruption of 1789.

Tirard’s ensemble cast is a quiet triumph, starting with Romain Duris as Molière. After 30-some films abroad, Duris’ arrived here in Russian Dolls and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (both 2005); Gypsy cinema fans also know him from several Tony Gatliff films. Fabrice Luchini is Jourdain, the rich merchant who plucks Molière from prison to provide some secret drama coaching – under his wife’s nose (he spirits Molière into his household as Tartuffe, a priest-tutor) – in his far-fetched quest to seduce a younger and more glamourous woman. As Jourdain’s wife Elmire, Laura Morante is a gracious, wise older woman who briefly loses her head over Molière, understands his gift, and sees him a last time when he returns to Paris. Edouard Baer is Count Dorante. His chateau roof leaking, his pockets empty, and his son wanting – scandalously – to “work,” the predatory nobleman sizes up Jourdain as his meal ticket.

The film’s comedy and unexpected generosity toward women provide a window on Molière’s work that may make the playwright’s work more inviting. Elmire may stay in her “place” with her husband, but Molière’s youthful country interlude concludes by turning on his agreement to secure Elmire’s daughter’s happiness in return for his own departure. Tirard lifts and adapts scenes from those later plays that rely on reversals, mistaken identity, perfect comic timing and penetrating observation of others. The funniest explore “acting” itself – on stage (in a marvelous jab at “method” acting exercises, Jourdain plays a dewdrop hanging from a leaf that Molière counters with a spirited demonstration of three horses), as social place and social climbing (Elmire howls when Molière mimics her husband’s pretensions), as unattractive cold deception, as comical bad acting, and as a zestful plot in service of tricking the evil Dorante and saving Jourdain’s daughter from an ill-advised arranged marriage. You might give all of comedy a second look.

This review appeared in the 1/24/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #145: The Battle of Algiers
1966/DVD 2004
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Saadi Yacef, Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin

If you’ve happened to hear that as a young man the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo was inspired to forsake photojournalism and take up making movies by watching a single decisive film, and you’re lucky enough to find a copy of Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 Paisá, you will see from the very opening scene what attracted the sensibility of one who also studied composing, grew up under Mussolini, led an anti-Fascist resistance in the city of Milan during World War II and went on to make the legendary cinema vérité-like epic of Algeria’s independence, The Battle of Algiers (1966). I was lucky enough to borrow a personal VHS copy of the European release version, with the English-language dialogue of American GIs and British troops subtitled in Italian, and right there – in the opening scene, where the Yanks are advancing through the narrow, twisting stone alleys of Sicily at night, rifles at the ready, and then up to a ruined seaside fortress in the moonlight, in the first leg of the liberation of Italy – you can see a cinematic vision that fed Pontecorvo’s filming of the running battle through the twisted streets and over the rooftops of the Arab quarter – the Casbah – in Algiers.

Paisá is – criminally – not available on US format DVD right now. An anthology of six episodes set in different parts of Italy from 1943-45, it chronicles the Allied liberation of Fascist Italy from the perspective of ordinary people interacting with, primarily, US GIs, often turning on misunderstandings due to language and O’Henry-like twists. Paisá also exposed Pontecorvo to the long tracking action shots that provide a deep visual pleasure that today’s jump cutting can’t approach, and to unashamedly moving music as backdrop. A good deal of the emotional heft of The Battle of Algiers, for example, comes – one realizes afterward – from the fact that Ennio Morricone’s score gives the same dirge-like music to Arab and European deaths alike, all equally tragic and wasteful.

There is also a strange shock of recognition in Rossellini’s film, which curiously the subtitles seem to spark first. We’re not used to English speech translated into another language in the text crawling under the action. It seems backwards somehow, snags your attention. But here is a film with American characters that an outsider made, and he got us right. This is one of Paisá’s many exhilarating pleasures and, as significant, one cause of an accumulating deep trust in the director’s vision. While it’s harder to track than a particular visual approach, this capacity to portray those who are different so that they recognize themselves – and experience themselves as seen by an outsider – may be the more important lesson that Pontecorvo took from Rossellini. Despite initial French furor - they walked out of the Venice Film Festival when the film premiered there, and the film was effectively banned in France until 1971 - this quality has since earned The Battle of Algiers unque respect across factions, nationalities and shades of opinion, from the Pentagon to Al-Jazeera.

This is worth mentioning at some length because Pontecorvo’s film has been so decisively influential among filmmakers working today. The Criterion’s 2004 DVD set – highly expansive with three discs – includes interviews with Spike lee, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Mira Nair. The Indian director says Battle of Algiers is “the one film in the world that I wish I had directed.” So how these two Italian directors perceived and filmed war and liberation has come to gradually permeate what’s on our screens. What is further remarkable is how little the course of war and its political justifications have changed.

The Battle of Algiers covers the years 1954-57, culminating in the title’s battle, and largely following the conversion to politics and rise to leadership of a young street thug, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), after he witnesses from his cell what was actually a pivotal execution by guillotine of two Algerians in the prison’s courtyard which inflamed public opinion because it treated men who defined themselves as prisoners of war as criminals. Most of the Algerian characters in Battle portray actual historical figures – some, such as Ali, named literally – and all nonprofessional actors. Saadi Yacef, who sought Pontecorvo to propose making Battle, plays a character in the film named Jaffar who is essentially modeled on himself. The French paratrooper commander, Col. Mathieu, is a composite of French commanders, played by the French film actor Jean Martin. An booklet that's part of the Criterion set sorts out the fine points of correlations between historical and composite characters.

Dramatically, soon after the film opens we see Ali La Pointe trapped behind a building’s inner wall in a crawl-space hide-out, ordered to come out by waiting French troops. Ali La Pointe did not come out. The resulting explosion entombed him and his little band. Three years after the end of this war, Pontecorvo rebuilt the house where Ali died on the same spot and blew it up again for this film.

Pontecorvo structured The Battle of Algiers as a flashback from this moment in 1957, when fresh French paratroopers had arrived, surge-like, in response to escalating attacks against police and troops and – a new tactic – three women had planted bombs that detonated in public gathering places that Europeans frequented. Pontecorvo was especially intent to portray the role of women in Algerian independence; the powerful montage in which they prepare for and carry out the three public bombings occurs without dialogue and backed by the Algerian anthem, “Baba Salem.” French troops, whose use of torture in interrogation has of course compared to more recent controversies, then arrived to break a looming national strike called by the National Liberation Front (FLN), which was timed to coincide with United Nations debate on Algerian independence.

Criterion outdoes itself with this set’s bonus features, which more than repay the several evenings you’ll spend watching them and which will leave you angry at what you didn’t learn in school, and aghast at how old and familiar the argument is that terrorism justifies torture. These include a string of interviews with surviving French officers and nationals – the yet unrepentant colonel who headed the death and torture squad, the French officer (a decorated hero in French Indochina) who resigned and exposed atrocities, the French-born newspaper editor who was himself tortured for siding with the Algerians – as well as recent interviews with Saadi Yacef and Zohra Drif-Bitat (one of the three women bombers), both of whom sat in the Algerian parliament at the time of this DVD release. There’s a short 1989 documentary that Pontecorvo made upon revisiting Algeria, a documentary about his film career narrated by Edward Said, and a conversation among ABC News’ Chris Isham, former national security coordinator Richard Clarke and the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator Michael Sheehan, film in May 2004.

But first watch the movie itself.

This review appeared in the 1/17/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.