Saturday, June 27, 2009

Film Review #202: Away We Go
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Still peeved at Sam Mendes for last year’s disappointing and leaden Revolutionary Road and the waste of its two fine leads, many film critics have gone right on being cranky at him for his latest movie. Billed somewhat vaguely as a road-trip comedy about pregnancy – certainly a change of pace from his previous efforts – Away We Go opened in theaters on June 11 and comes to Central New York this weekend, trailing sour grapes.

In order to keep you reading, let me say I liked this little film a lot. It has some disadvantages, so let’s get them out of the way. The wrong poster can ruin a movie before you know what hit you. The ads for Away We Go feature Peter Max-style cartoons with wobbly sun rays, portentous arrows and log cabins drawn in cramped, faux-child perspective. These seem from an earlier era and suggest the movie might be about aging hippies. Then, the soundtrack comprises lyrics and guitar-strumming by Scottish musician Alexi Murdoch of the kind usually described as “evocative” and “folky.” It may be me, but increasingly I find such soundtracks grating and misguided. I think these two factors may be largely to blame for some usually better-tempered reviewers crossly calling this film “smug.”

Meanwhile, as Burt and Verona, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are anything but wasted. Together they manage the rather underrated feat of portraying an unmarried, earnest, genuinely loving though not particularly stylish couple in their early 30s who are expecting a child and aren’t sure where they fit, all the while without falling into parody, revealing themselves to be fools or revealing us to be rightfully cynical. These are roles that are deeply embarrassing when an actor falls short. But Burt and Verona are, as Roger Ebert says, nice people, and watching them figure out their next moves through a series of trials and toxic encounters provokes laughter that’s unexpectedly affectionate and expansive. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, writers who happen to be married, wrote the script while they too were expecting, which may explain a lot.

As you know if you’ve heard anything about Away We Go, the story opens with Burt and Verona six months pregnant, living near Denver because that’s where his folks are. Massively narcissistic, Jerry and Gloria (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) suddenly decide they’ll move to Antwerp, Belgium for a couple years, just before Burt and Verona’s daughter arrives. There is the suggestion that Gloria might be overly focused on whether her granddaughter will be “dark” like Verona, the first of several seemingly off-hand zinger references to Verona’s mixed race. There is sometimes that rare movie in which you see a character transported to another age before your eyes. Stunned at his parents’ dinner table over their decision to leave him at his finest hour, Burt is suddenly that decent 14-year-old, a little gawky and serious, who can’t quite believe how the adults behave, caught in the act of deciding how he never wants to be. Later, watching Verona sing his brother’s daughter Camilla to sleep through a cracked doorway, you see Verona will be the mother Burt hopes for their daughter too, and that he knows that. A little while before this, when Burt erupts in madcap mayhem over a stroller, you see why Verona loves Burt steadily and doesn’t mind stapling their trip itinerary to the inside of his jacket.

Anyway, Burt and Verona embark on a sampler tour of cities where they might live. Although Mendes has shown himself prodigiously able to create distinctive American milieus before, there’s not much specific in any of these places except for some patched-on aerial footage – Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami. But Burt and Verona aren’t looking yet for a sense of place. This waits till the end, in her old family home. Instead these two, rather forlorn at their loss of parents, have to work through hitching their wagons to other stars for a while. Having sound instincts and clean hearts, work through this they do.

We should understand these encounters as set pieces – the brash alcoholic former boss and mother of two sullen kids who hits on Burt(Alison Janney), the wise sister-confidante, the insufferable PC cousin (a delicious Maggie Gyllenhaal), the unhappily diligent college buddies, the brother whose wife has left him with a young daughter to raise – as conventions in an Odyssey-like tale of young heroes who will be tested, tempted, distracted and finally reminded of finding their way home. Burt and Verona may never marry – she adamantly refuses, doubting the institution – but they do understand how to make and speak their commitments, even if it is on a backyard trampoline.

This review is from the June 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Away We Go opens June 26 at Manlius Art Cinema with screenings on Friday at 7:30 and on Saturday and Sunday at 2, 5 and 7:30.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Film Review #201: Vagabond
Director: Agnes Varda
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Yolande Moreau, Macha Meril

From the start she has liked these tracking shots that seem to go rogue. Agnès Varda had no formal training in cinema when she made her first feature in 1954, but in the opening moments of La Point Courte she turns a seaside village’s sleepy summer ambiance to sudden visual exhilaration with one such shot. We are all settled on the figure of a man standing at a corner when another emerges casually from the background, walks up an alley and enters a house. Varda’s camera swerves to follow the second man, flying along outside in the street as he walks from room to room within, catching him briefly through successive windows before finally we’re allowed inside at the noon meal too.

In Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Varda tracks a glamorous singer awaiting a cancer diagnosis in real time through a series of encounters – sometimes following a little girl up the street and sometimes coming to rest on a bickering couple at the café table – as she circumnavigates the city of Paris (wonderfully re-created with a map and a motorcycle in the 2007 Criterion Collection DVD’s extras), much as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom circles the city of Dublin in Ulysses.

Before turning to film, Varda had worked as a photojournalist, a fact often remarked upon to explain her gorgeous framing. But surely these tracking shots are a further masterful adaptation of the demands of still, two-dimensional composition to the moving image’s additional realms of space and passing time. When Varda made Vagabond in 1985, she used a series of twelve linked tracking shots – each begins with an image that echoes how the previous one ended – combined with variations on the theme of Polish composer Joanna Bruzdowicz’s La Vita quartet, as a quiet scaffold for her story, the rapid disintegration of a young vagrant named Mona (17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire) who freezes to death in the vineyards of southern France during one of the coldest winters on record.

Emerging from the near-freezing sea after an impromptu bath in the film’s first flashback after the discovery of her body – and even here she is spied upon by two guys on scooters who idly consider whether raping her in worth their trouble – Mona encounters a number of people in her last weeks, losing the accoutrements of hippie wandering as she goes. Some offer assistance and care, some have other ideas bordering on depraved indifference and worse. Their impressions of her – much as in Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane – piece together a sort of portrait, which Varda inserts documentary-like, with some individuals facing the camera, after a narrator (Varda herself) explains early in the film that she sought out their remarks upon the discovery of Mona’s body in a ditch, much as the police search Mona’s pockets.

Vagabond will screen to great fanfare this Saturday in Santa Monica, California, part of American Cinematheque’s major retrospective of Varda’s half-century-plus career (June 24 – July 1). Now 80, Varda has a heavy post-screening talk-back schedule and will also introduce a sneak preview on the retrospective’s last day of her new film. The Beaches of Agnès, which won France’s Cesar award for best documentary, then opens theatrically in Los Angeles on July 3rd (and in New York City on the 1st at Film Forum).

A look-back at her life and work with the through-line of beaches that have been important to her personally and figured in some of her films, The Beaches of Agnès is replete with clips from Varda’s many earlier films. Those from Vagabond are especially telling by their very judicious brevity – a series of moments when Mona kicks a metal door, punches a building and vigorously gives a lecherous truck-driver the universal sign for “Up yours!” as she departs his cab when he throws her out in the middle of nowhere. Sandrine Bonnaire’s Mona – a bravura performance that won awards then and remains fresh and gripping – was neither sentimentalized nor softened, even in her best moments. But the clips from Beaches suggest we should take another look at how deeply angry and alienated such a woman might actually be – whether a female drifter, apparently few in number in mid-80s France (though Varda did research their existence), or those for whom such a figure might stand even now – whether she has a thought-through philosophy to go with his destitution or not.

While containing some of Varda’s most masterful filmmaking innovations, Vagabond also has some of the heftiest performances she’s directed. Besides Bonnaire, there’s a very young Yolande Moreau as a gullible maid (the Belgian comedienne currently stars in the well-received drama Séraphine, just opened here in the US) and Macha Méril as the fastidiously manicured ecologist Mme. Landier, who befriends Mona during a field trip, recounts by phone from her own luxurious bathtub how much the girl stunk, and wakes in the night from tearful guilt at having left her alone in the woods.

Vagabond also displays Varda’s signature use of local non-actors in pivotal supporting roles, often essentially playing themselves. These include the rollicking elderly brandy-drinker Aunt Lydie (Marthe Jarnais), the soulful-eyed Tunisian farm worker Assoun (Assouna Yahiaoui), a drop-out scholar-turned-goat-herder and his wife (Sylvaine and Sabine Berger), a pair of father and son garage mechanics (Pierre and Richard Imbert), and Setina herself, the young drifter upon whom Mona was modeled.

It would be a good idea to get ready for Beaches, and Vagabond is not a bad place to start.

This review is from the June 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Vagabond at Netflix in the 2008 Criterion DVD release, along with several other Varda titles. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing DVDs both new and enduring as well as theatrical releases.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Film Review #200: Our City Dreams
Director: Chiara Clemente
Cast: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Marina Abramovic, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero

“I needed to be in New York because it’s, like, the biggest, loudest, dirtiest, most intense city we had,” recalls the young Brooklyn-based printmaker and installation artist Swoon, “so that’s where I needed to be.”

Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1977, Swoon “landed” in New York two decades later for art school, and it’s been her home base ever since. In Chiara Clemente’s City of Dreams, we encounter Swoon as she’s transitioning from her “street pieces” – large-scale wood-block prints made as she crouches on the floor of her apartment, put up with wheat paste on the sides of gritty buildings next to graffiti – to preparing her first solo gallery exhibition at Deitch Projects in 2005. There is also footage of cross-country travels and, in the summer of 2006, collaboration on the construction a connected fleet of river boats in Minneapolis called the Miss Rockaway Armada. Appealingly down to earth, Swoon is just verging on serious success. She’s exhibited at PS1 and the Tate; MoMA has just bought six of her prints. And, while she’s wary of what might come with such attention and keen to keep some open space about herself, she also feels that “we’re actually in a moment when it’s actually encouraged to be a woman artist.”

Swoon is the first of five women artists that Clemente profiles in Our City Dreams. All are transplanted New Yorkers by choice, all captured at a recognizable juncture in quite accomplished – even rarified - careers, and all working representationally with the human form, crossing media when it suits them, and in various ways entirely willing to discard restraints imposed by traditional framing. We see just enough of the work of each to want to see more, and the subtle ways in which their work echoes each other’s ties their stories together as much as their choice of home base. This deceptively unassuming film enjoyed only a modest theatrical run earlier this year, but has an afterglow born in the web of associations among its subjects. Clemente clearly knows her terrain and has won an extraordinary degree of confidence from her subjects; my guess is this film will enjoy a steadily rising reputation as times goes on.

Clemente, whose father is the Italian painter Francesco Clemente, grew up in New York and left at 18, certain she’d never return. After eight years – divided largely between Rome and Los Angeles – Clemente returned in late 2005. She had already made short documentary films in Italy about a number of artists, among them Jim Dine and Frank Gehry. She decided, after a three-hour studio visit with the Cairo-born fabric-artist/painter Ghada Amer, that she could best return to her city by following other women artists who also chosen this spot as their anchor.

They range in age from Swoon, who is likely to remain elfin at 80, to Nancy Spero, who actually does celebrate her 80th birthday uproariously during the film, a witty, curious, sharp-as-a-whip, still-working artist despite quite advanced crippling arthritis in her hands. Each woman recounts how she decided to be in New York, though part of what emerges is the city’s cosmopolitanism and the ease with which its residents come and go. Perhaps it could be said of no other city that making a film about its artists provides the opportunity for trips as far-flung as Venice, Cairo, Serbia and Paris (well, via footage of early careers) and Thailand, not to mention heartland America (Minneapolis figures in more than one story).

Over roughly two years shooting, Clemente follows them, apparently crossing paths fairly often (besides Minneapolis, the Venice Biennale, the Deitch and Gagosian galleries appear with some regularity). After Swoon, there’s Ghada Amer (“born 1963, Cairo; landed in New York City, 1996”), who combines tapestry and paint with sewn drawings of women, often with their limbs entwined. Amer travels back to Cairo for a project born of rug-making and visits her parents, a diplomat father who encouraged her and a hesitant mother who likes to look at the work only “from a distance.” This furnishes one of several rich portraits about the complexity of parental support for artist off-spring.

Kiki Smith, daughter of painter Tony Smith (born 1963, Nuremburg, landed in New York City 1975 – by way of New Jersey and San Francisco), works in drawing, clay sculpture, print-making and painting. Besides filming Smith as she peddles around New York on her bike, gray hair streaming, Clemente follows her preparing for her retrospective, 1980-2005: A Gathering, at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, musing on work some of which she herself has not seen in a quarter century, considering whether she’d have been an artist at all if her father had lived longer.

Marina Abramovic (born 1946, Belgrade, landed in New York, 2003) is a pioneering performance artist. All these artists do work that is representational and involves the female body, though Abramovic most directly makes her own body the medium. Abramovic, who cut her stomach with razors in 1975 (Clemente includes footage of this piece, Thomas Lips), is now 60, and has scarcely let up. Likening performance to ballet in the physical rigor, training and sensitivity required, Abramovic also coaches younger performance artists, and speaks about this as a medium with particular clarity. She also travels to Thailand after the Tsunami for God Punishing, a piece involving dozens of Thais who join her in wielding whips in the ocean surf.

Nancy Spero (born 1926, Cleveland, landed in New York, 1964) met her husband, the painter Leon Golub, at the Chicago Art Institute. They went first to Paris in the 50s, but in the midst of the Vietnam War, she recounts, “We finally decided that we had to face the music, that we were American painters.” Like all the artists here, she encounters Clemente at a certain turning point that summarizes her journey thus far and makes clear why she remains important.

Compact at 85 minutes, Our City Dreams is absorbing and satisfying. Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini provides an understated, effective score that serves the film especially well, right down to use of an older ballad of affectionate whimsy about “old Amsterdam” over the closing credits matches the film’s large spirit.

Our City Dreams releases on DVD next Tuesday, June 23rd. It’s already listed at Netflix & is available at “Make it Snappy” is a regular column in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, reviewing both DVDs and films in theatrical release, new and enduring. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Film Review #199: Throw Down Your Heart
Director: Saschia Paladino
Cast: Béla Fleck, Oumou Sangare, Anania Ngoliga

When violinist Itzhak Perlman decided to explore the roots of Eastern European Jewish music – that amalgam of dance, folk song and liturgy that we know broadly as klezmer, traced from Yiddish-speaking enclaves among the Rumanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Greek, Turkish and Rom communities between the Baltic and Black Seas, violently scattered by World War II, transplanted to the Lower East Side where it met swing, flowering in popularity well beyond the Catskills since the 70s – he took a camera crew. The resulting documentary was In the Fiddler’s House (1995). Along the way, Perlman learned from masters of this vernacular – at a festival in Poland, the Klezmatics advised him to play more “slinky” – and the classical concert virtuoso memorably came to realize that conventional Western notation could not begin to capture and convey the tonal richness and rhythmic nuances of that music.

In 2005 the banjo player Béla Fleck took a year off from his group The Flecktones and embarked on a similar journey to the African nations of Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and through Senegal to Mali with his half-brother, filmmaker Saschia Paladino, and a small crew in a frequently over-heating van. Paladino had already made a short film in 2004 with Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer (Obstinato: Making Music for Two), Fleck had done extensive international touring and just since 2002 has appeared in at least half a dozen concert DVDs.

But Fleck has long believed the banjo was originally a West African instrument that slaves brought to the US, developed because drumming was forbidden on plantations and then appropriated by white musicians. The film’s title comes from the exclamation – “Bwada moyo!” – that translator John Kitime tells Fleck captured Africans made when they saw the ships in slave ports and understood they would never go home.

Fleck wanted also to reintroduce the modern banjo to African musicians and he wanted, mightily, to make music with them. Many of this film’s most memorable moments concern these sessions. Whether in remote villages with musicians whom Paladino only allowed Fleck to meet when the camera was rolling, or with cosmopolitan recording artists, we watch patient and accomplished musicians instruct the diffident 11-time Grammy winner. In Tanzania he plays with Anania Ngoliga, a blind thumb pianist. In Mali, there’s kora master Toumani Diabate, and Lexus SUV-driving diva Oumou Sangare, with whom Fleck records a haunting track called “The Worried Songbird.” He jams with Madagascar's guitarist D’Gary. He encounters families of musicians like the Jattas – “I smell banjo,” he says before meeting this clan – and what seem like clear banjo forerunners. This sparingly subtitled film has six languages – besides English, there's Lusogan, Swahili, Jola, Bambarra and French – or perhaps, if you go by the moments most moving for audience and musicians alike, just the one.

Central New Yorkers know Fleck well. Besides the air time he gets on Eric Cohen’s WAER jazz show (88.3 FM), he’s performed at Syracuse Jazz Fest three times. With the Flecktones, he capped off the first night of the 25th anniversary fest in 2007. In 2005 he played with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. And Russ Tarby, now the City Eagle’s music columnist, remembers introducing Fleck in 1996 when Jazz Fest was still held downtown in Clinton Square. With this year’s Jazz Fest just two weeks off, it’s a good time to see this film.

Next week you can do that in Ithaca, where the film screens three evenings at Cornell Cinema. Better yet, Laura Austin says Redhouse Arts Center might include the film in a series of music documentaries they will put together from a grant that’s just come through.

Throw Down Tour Heart, which first screened at San Francisco’s Roxy in March and has won a number of festival awards, had a conventional theatrical release on April 24th at IFC in New York City and last week in Los Angeles. But it’s also done a steady, under-the-radar business well outside the multiplexes, with almost 30 more short runs now booked across the country. Fleck and/or Paladino show up for talk-backs after some of these, and Fleck continues U.S. concerts all summer with combinations of half a dozen musicians from the film. (He’ll also be nearby in Utica on September 30th playing with Edgar Meyer and classical Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain).

Last weekend in Brooklyn, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, about whom another documentary is forthcoming for US theatrical release this month (Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love), opened the ten-day Muslim Voices Festival with a sold-out concert. And in DC, Mali’s guitarist Amadou Bagayoko and singer Mariam Doumbia – they are married and perform together – this week told interviewers they are quite comfortable that New York’s white indie bands like Vampire Weekend, Yeasayers, Harlem Shakes and Dirty Projectors are influenced by African music because their own show, “Welcome to Mali,” is after all “globalist.” So Fleck is right on time.

A version of this review appears in the June 11, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the regular film column "Make it Snappy." Syracuse Jazz Fest runs June 26-27 at Onondaga Community College. Throw Down Your Heart screens next week at Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Hall in Ithaca (8:00 PM on Monday & Wednesday, June 15 & 17, 7:30 PM on Friday, June 19.) Rounder released the soundtrack CD in March; audio samples and MP3 downloads of all 18 tracks at The movie DVD releases next fall. Keep track of screenings for the movie at Find In the Fiddler’s House on-line in VHS and since 2006 on DVD.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Film Review #198: Deep Red
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Clara Calamai

In the first scene after the opening titles of Italian horror master Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975), jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) stops the group of musicians he’s rehearsing and tells them they were great, maybe too great. He’d like it more “trashy,” since it’s music inspired by brothels. That they’re playing on the central altar of an ancient Roman church is a nice establishing touch.

Soon after, this ex-pat Englishman, who insists his hyper-alert “jumpiness” is only artistic temperament, becomes obsessed – like most Argento heroes – with an image he can’t quite recall or understand from the scene of a violent murder, in this case one he’s glimpsed through a window from the street below. (Hemmings, who starred as the photographer in Antonioni’s thematically similar but more well-behaved Blow-up a decade earlier, brings those rich echoes to this role.)

A little while later, the professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) – an associate of the initial victim, the “Lithuanian psychic” Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) who was also Daly’s neighbor – surmises that the murderer must cue himself with a certain piece of child-like music, evidently on cassette, to create the conditions of psychic release necessary for killing. It’s with a certain witty pleasure that one realizes Argento cues us musically too before each murder, with the progressive rock group Goblin’s score, but first visually with silent montages of empty hallways and corners where a killer might lurk. For that matter, there in the seat of Old World European culture – with its brooding cathedrals, halls of learned scholars, streets crammed with massive Renaissance-era sculptured fountains, and ornate old mansions – one need only scratch a little way beneath nearly any crumbling surface to find what’s beastly and what modern life’s advances can only tenuously, intermittently manage.

As represented by the arm-wrestling feminist reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s frequent lead, co-writer and mother of their force-of-nature daughter Asia) and her clunky jalopy, modern life survives, though barely. Seeking knowledge is dangerous and arriving too quickly – say, through telepathy like the luckless Helga – deadly.

Some call Deep Red Argento’s best film. He is not terribly concerned with credible narrative. Besides the eye-rolling coincidences, you’ll lose track of how many times you tell these people, “Don’t go back up there!” Our own stereotypes as much as Argento’s unfolding plot keep the killer secret for so long. Nor are his films really character-driven in the usual way, though certainly concerned with the psyche. Instead, Argento’s movies take us straight to cinema’s wild and mesmerizing heart, the moving image and the search it incites within us for what’s illusion and what’s real. In Deep Red this plays out largely in terms of appearance – from the transvestite Ricci (Geraldine Hooper), to Daly’s sudden flash of memory that his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) was with him in the street during the murder, to Carlo’s mother Martha (former diva Clara Calamai, star of Visconti’s steamy 1942 Ossessione) and her wall-full of photos from her by-gone acting career. Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography matches this, full of disorienting angles, meticulously composed frames, heart-stopping pans and high contrast. It may be trashy, but it's not accidental.

Deep Red (also Profondo Rosso and, in its heavily censored version, The Hatchet Murders) was a box office hit when it first came out during the hey-day of Italian giallo film (based on erotic horror pulp fiction) and has enjoyed numerous resurrections here and abroad. Re-released theatrically in the US in 1980, it went to video in 1991 and – part the larger surge in horror cinema that’s followed the World Trade Center attacks – has had five separate DVD editions in the US just since 2001.

Central New York has a large and literate audience for horror films, which also occupy a sizable share of local filmmaking, so it’s no wonder the Shaun Luu Horror Fest is in its fifth year, now with a full day of films and a second day devoted to live bands. Deep Red was a wonderful choice.

This review appears in the June 4, 2009 Syracuse City Eagle print edition & is posted on the paper's website at See Deep Red on the big screen in 35 mm next Saturday evening, June 13th, at the Eastwood Palace, 2384 James St. The Shaun Luu Horror Fest is a two-day fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society and Golisano Children’s Hospital that includes a day of music on Sunday across town at the Westcott Theater. Deep Red screens in the evening segment of adult programming (16 years and over) that starts at 5:00 PM, after local shorts and the feature Black Devil Doll. For the full line-up go to – click Entertainment.
Film Review #197: Johnny Got His Gun
Director Dalton Trumbo
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Josan Robards, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi

In 1971, at the age of 65 and the height of the Vietnam War, screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo decided he would take up directing. He had talked with his friend the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel about the project and for a while was going to have him direct Johnny Got His Gun – apparently the shot where Donald Sutherland (as Jesus) leans out the cabin window of a troop train locomotive carrying new recruits off to war, crying into the wind with his long silk neck scarf blowing back, was Buñuel’s idea – but Trumbo wound up doing the job himself.

There are plenty of Trumbo films out there to sample – critical and box office successes alike – including a couple Oscar-winners (ironically both of those scripts credited to “fronts” during the 13 years Trumbo spent black-listed and couldn’t work openly in Hollywood films). But Johnny Got His Gun was part of Trumbo for a long time. Based on a news clip he’d seen about a British soldier with devastating injuries from the trenches of World War I, Trumbo’s 1939 novel kept the time frame but shifted young recruit Joe Bonham’s story to the US military. And after he’d published the novel, Trumbo saw combat intimately in the South Pacific as a war correspondent. Trumbo’s son Christopher – also a screenwriter and author of the simply new theatre’s current local stage production about his father’s black-listing (which contains an account of some of that war-time reporting) – says that making the film was “the best response he could manage to the carnage of the war in Vietnam.”

Long unavailable in the US on DVD despite the exposure given it by the metal band Metallica in their 1989 music video, One, the film has been popular in Europe since a 2004 DVD release there. Now Johnny Got His Gun has been digitally restored, released here just last month on a new DVD with an array of enticing extras. Whether due to the impending DVD release of a stage version of the novel or that of Christopher Trumbo’s work about his father, we should be glad we can now see this film.

Johnny Got His Gun presents the story of 18-year-old Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who brushes off the urgings of his girl-friend Kareen (Kathy Fields) to “just run away” rather than ship out. Once in the French trenches, he quickly loses his own company and throws in with some British troops. One fearsomely rainy night, he’s sent out to bury a German soldier who had died caught in the barbed wire above their trench and whose rotting body had begun to stink. A direct shell hit on the way back from this errand injures Bonham horribly and irreparably. A military doctor, Col. Tillery (Eduard Franz) declares Bonham “completely de-cerebrated” by his injuries but worth keeping alive, secretly, for research purposes. But Bonham’s in there, walled up in the remnants of his body. Tillery later reappears – white-haired now and a general – the only mark of how much time has passed before Bonham’s breakthrough Morse Code communication with the “fourth nurse” (Diane Varsi), who first inscribes a message on his chest with her finger as he frantically nods his head.

Except for the very graphic early passage necessary to tell the story and provide Bonham’s last direct apprehension of the world, there’s little dwelling on the extremity and horror of trench warfare, and little recollection of it from Bonham himself. There is a surrealistic poker game with Jesus on the way to the front for recruits who know the time and circumstances of their coming deaths. The best line here is Jesus’ own self-delighted aside after he manifests a stiff drink for one nervous boy – “I used to do that at weddings!” – which lays the groundwork for his later confession that he’s entirely a trick anyway.

Yet Johnny Got His Gun is deeply compassionate and, horrific as the trenches might be, suggests that yearning for what they take away is worse. Bonham doesn’t have many nightmares about the war itself. Instead, we hear his voice-over in the hospital scenes as he discovers his predicament – what remains of him is mostly shrouded – and we accompany his mind, unlatched from its anchor, during vividly detailed flashes of his past and Fellini-like imaginings of what’s ahead. As Bonham’s father, Jason Robards appears in both realms with a range to match. He’s gruffly tender when he enfolds Joe in a hug on their last camping trip together after Joe loses his prized fishing pole, braying as the carnival barker who hawks tickets for “Joe Bonham, Self-supporting Basket Case” from a dilapidated wagon that crosses what I presume to be Death Valley. Bonham’s last and only night with Kareen is equally affecting.

Trumbo was a young man when he wrote Johnny Got His Gun, just 33. It’s nice to have this film back at a time we still need it, along with the knowledge that he didn’t come to think better of his youthful excess.

Okay, how to see this? Onondaga County Library has two copies of the new DVD, one in the Fayetteville branch, the other in Solvay. No Blockbusters in the CNY region presently carry Johnny Got His Gun (nor plan to). Just the movie is available in Instant Play format from Netflix, but not the new DVD’s extras. These include a new interview with actor Timothy Bottoms, an hour-long profile of the filmmaker (Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood), a 1940 radio adaptation with Jimmy Cagney as Joe Bonham, Metallica’s 1989 music video One, the original trailer and some making-of footage with commentary by the film’s DP, Jules Brenner.

A shorter version of this review appears in the May 28, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly & is posted on the paper's website, Meanwhile, see the excellent stage production of Christopher Trumbo’s play, Trumbo, presented for the second performance by simply new theatre, inc., this Saturday, May 30 at 8:00 PM at the Civic Center’s Bevard Room downtown. Ticket information at Read Nancy’s review from this week’s Syracuse City Eagle on – go to Entertainment.
Film Review #196: The Souls of Black Girls
Director: Daphne Valerius

As part of its participation in Th3, the monthly city-wide arts night held on every third Thursday, the Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) often screens a film with a discussion afterward, in case gallery visitors wish to stop awhile. While these are sometimes movies you could rent or buy on DVD and just watch at home, CFAC programmers have demonstrated a talent for pairing their visual arts gallery shows with cinema in ways that engenders lively discussion.

This month’s film – which screens Thursday the 21st at 7:00 PM – is Daphne Valerius’ 2006 documentary, The Souls of Black Girls. This too is available in commercial DVD format. But in screening this film at the same time as the wonderful 37th Annual Teenage Art Competition Exhibition, CFAC makes an added point about the power of images to sway how the young feel about themselves – and indeed how we feel about them too – on the one hand with images imposed upon us and on the other, those we bring ourselves to create.

Souls examines how media images – both historic and current – have established and maintained standards of beauty, and the corrosive effects on women of color from an early age of the pull toward European standards of what’s desirable, or even acceptable, in terms of color, hair, features, body size and type.

Valerius is herself a rising young media professional, now based in Los Angeles – reporter, broadcast journalist, producer, filmmaker, TV host, actor and speaker – born in Brooklyn of Haitian immigrant parents. She says The Souls of Black Girls emerged from her own struggles with self-image as a woman of color growing up in the US, and she calls the damage that can result – if one cannot, as actress Regina King says in the film, “shake it off” – a self-image disorder.

Hence The Souls of Black Girls begins with retro images of little girls in beauty parlors, copying Mom and avidly discovering fashion magazines. Periodically we see montages of contemporary magazine covers, splashed with Ashley Judd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jane Seymour. Valerius’ parents moved away from Brooklyn while she was still little, taking her and two younger siblings to Rhode Island, where she says, “I was always that one Black girl in the white neighborhood who liked the white guy and didn’t know why he didn’t like me.”

Like the Delaware artist Lori Crawford – whose Bag-It examined the old practice of measuring skin color by the “brown paper bag test” and came to CFAC in the summer of 2007, provoking lengthy audience response during her crowded gallery talk – Valeruis’ film was once a masters’ school project. In fact, it started earlier, with undergraduate research on self-image and media at St. John’s University in New York in 2003 that she then continued as a broadcast journalism masters student at Boston’s Emerson College.

Valerius first envisioned a short film of perhaps 15 minutes distilled from focus groups with teenage women, and some of the most powerful moments in the film occur in the clips she uses from this material. (One young woman elaborates on the simple dictum, “Suck in your stomach!” A white student talks about the case of Beyoncé, saying, “She’s got this long hair and that perfect color – nobody even thinks of Beyoncé as ‘Black.’”)

However, along the way, Valerius met Public Enemy’s Chuck D while still at St. John’s and the actor Regina King at a film festival; both became involved in the project’s development and Valerius added other interviews as she went. These include Pamela Edwards of Essence Magazine (a publication that has waged its own campaign to clean up the misogynist branch of Hip-Hop lyrics), cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis, actor Juanita Jennings (who was written out of TV’s As the World Turns when she refused to cut her dreads), BET producer Darlise Blount (TV is “where women get instructions,” she says), actor/producer/children’s author Jada Pinkett Smith, and PBS journalist and moderator Gwen Ifill (“My father told me to say thank you if anyone called me ‘black.’ It shut people up. Second, I internalized it.”), and a host of others. Chuck D’s inside views of the music industry culture and executives, Black and otherwise, are especially trenchant. Regina King (currently Det. Lydia Adams in the new cop series Southland) discusses seeking roles, from Shalika in John Singleton’s early Boyz n the Hood (1991) on, in which “there were a bunch of girls all across the country saying, ‘That’s me!’”

The Souls of Black Girls is accomplished, eloquent and vivid filmmaking. Valerius wrote, directed, produced, shot the interviews and background footage, and edited the film herself. Since then, she’s also completed another documentary about those caught in Rhode Island’s juvenile court and detention system, The Voices of Project Peer.

Daphne Valerius’ The Souls of Black Girls screens this Thursday at 7:00 PM at Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St., part of this month’s Th3 city-wide arts night.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the May 21, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle.
Film Review #195: Mere-bi/Mother of All
Director: Ousmane William Mbaye
Cast: Annette Mbaye d'Erneville

There is a wonderful scene late in the new film Mère-bi (Mother of All), Ousmane William Mbaye’s portrait of the charismatic Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, in which she is sitting with her grandson, Laity Ahmet Mbaye, teaching him to recite poetry. He looks to be about 14. In the poem at hand, she praises her own son – Laity’s father, who’s also filming this conversation – for getting through his circumcision at about age six without crying. She wants her grandson to read one line with more verve and shows him what she means, drawing one phrase out with an elegant sweep of her arm. He reads the line as she did and goes on; when he’s done, he asks her about the ceremony.

“This man, the Namane, he puts sand on your lap to see if you’re trembling,” she says. Laity listens intently, his eyes wide and the corners of his mouth pulled back a little in apprehension. When she reaches the part where “he cuts it in one go!” and demonstrates with another sweep of her arm – she adds, “The blood gushes!” – Laity’s head snaps back at the thought of it, after which the old woman and young teen relish a laugh together.

Now 82, d’Erneville says in the film that with grandchildren “you have this feeling of infinity.” She still directs the Henriette Bathily Museum of Women, named for her close friend and colleague, which she founded in 1994 at the historic slave port at Gorée Island, and she says her sole ambition now is that her magazine Ciné Culture Afrique be printed regularly and survive.

Mbaye, 58, distilled this film – first about 90 minutes long and now 55 – from 50 hours of footage shot over 15 years. Besides being a poet, D’Erneville was Senegal’s first degreed journalist, valedictorian of the program founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1952 when he headed radio broadcasting for overseas France. That year she began broadcasting to West Africa from Paris, to which she had gone in the late 40s as a student. She continued as a journalist when she returned to Senegal in 1957 with her husband and the first two of four children. Léopold Sédar Senghor – poet, major intellectual in the emergence of the Négritude movement, Senegal’s first president, and d’Erneville’s tutor in Paris – had exhorted Senegalese ex-pats to go home and build their newly independent country. There, D’Erneville founded Senegal’s first women’s magazine, Awa, was Radio Senegal’s program head, a prime mover in the film festival RECIDAK, a founder of the national writers association, a poet and writer of children’s books and a teacher. The mother of four, d’Erneville divorced her husband, whom she had met in France, when he tried to curtail her many public activities. Mbaye treats this matter-of-factly in his film, including a number of clips of his father during which Ndakhte Mbaye adds his comments.

Mère-bi has screened just twice in the US recently before Mbaye took it back to Africa and Europe for upcoming festivals in Cameroon, Spain, Milan, Brussels and Cannes. It’s been airing on national television in Senegal and in June will air on TV5-World. One of the two US screenings occurred during Syracuse International Film Festival (SYRFILM), the result of its having been recommended by Senegal’s Ben Diogaye Beye, SYRFILM’s African liaison and a visiting artist here last year.

Mbaye brought the film to Syracuse directly from Old Dominion University’s ONFilm Festival in Virginia, where his sister, Mariè-Pierre Myrick, lives. As it happens, the poem in that scene with her grandson is “Kassacks,” written in 1958, from d’Erneville’s book Kaddu. “Kassacks” appears in A Rain of Words, the new anthology of 47 women poets from 12 French-speaking African nations, published late last year by the University of Virginia Press, edited by Irène Assiba d’Almeida and translated by Janis Mayes.

Mayes teaches at Syracuse University and takes students abroad for Paris Noir, the program focused on the mid-century cultural and political ferment in Paris among African intellectuals who gathered there to study, from which emerged the movement called Négritude. Mayes was alerted to the Syracuse screening by Myrick and d’Almeida, and in turn alerted others. The film, which screened in the same time slot as the crowd-drawing Appaloosa, still had a sizable and enthusiastic audience, and Mbaye sold DVDs of the film while here.

Mayes said afterward that the “audience response was fantastic,” adding that “women especially have not received the artistic and scholarly attention they have earned and deserve. Mère-bi is a stunning record of the force of her decisions, and more. My very favorite part of the documentary is at the end, when this beautiful, dynamic woman responds in Wolof – in poetic verse – to her son's teasing question, ‘What do I mean to you?’ And my next favorite part is the response she gives when asked if she regrets not having married again! Wow. ‘Have you seen my photographs? Believe me, I had opportunities.”

Greg Thomas, who also teaches at SU and has a new book out himself, attended the Syracuse screening and calls d’Erneville “legendary.” He says the film “is the best of tributes in the great Pan-African tradition – just beautifully and custom made for the whole Pan-African world.”

In one scene Mbaye asks Myrick for one word to sum up their mother and she replies, “Multicultural.”

Mbaye spends considerable time on this subject in the years well before d’Erneville ever reached Paris, from tracing his family’s roots – both the Serer tribe and the Frenchman “who began a family in Senegal in 1780” – to the effects of d’Erneville attending the teachers’ training school at Rufisque run by the ardent Gaullist, Germaine Le Goff, who “taught us to straddle two worlds” by loving both Africa and France, a revolutionary idea at the time that had its detractors among both Europeans and Africans. There is a wonderful scene, apparently filmed three or four years ago, in which d’Erneville reminisces with three of her old classmates; you can only be grateful that Mbaye, who cut his film by a third to fit television length, spared this conversation.

Later, driving through Dakar, d’Erneville reflects. “Each time I hear ‘La Marseillaise,’ I feel something inside,” she says, adding that it’s the same with “Pincez tous vos Koras,” Senegal’s national anthem. “I like Samba Diabare Samb, I like Youssou N’Dour. But I also like Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand. I can’t say it’s a duality. There’s no struggle. It’s a symbiosis.”

D’Erneville also hosted for many years a weekly salon called Club Africa in the large courtyard of her Dakar home, modeled on gatherings she’d attended during her student days in Paris, both at the homes of French intellectuals and artists like the young actress Simone Signoret and those among African students living in the Latin Quarter. These gatherings of young artists, intellectuals, activists and journalists in Dakar particularly earned d’Erneville the nick-name “Mère-bi.”

Contacted in Dakar by email before I sat down with Mbaye at the Renaissance Hotel the morning he left Syracuse, filmmaker Ben Beye – who also appears in the film – wrote back quickly, “I'm very glad you met my friend Willy and that you'll interview him. We did lot of things together and not only in the film business. Mère-bi – his mother – was my boss when I was working as a radio broadcaster. I can say that she's also MY mother. In fact she is the mother of everybody from Willy's generation. Tell him that his friend Ben wants him to make Syracuse people know about Club Africa.”

Like Ben Beye, Mbaye has been coming to the US for some years as part of an on-going exchange between African and African American filmmakers as well as to visit friends and his sister on holidays in Virginia. Beye first came in 1978, invited by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art as one of a group of Senegalese filmmakers. Then Mbaye first came in 1981 – Ben Beye also made that trip – for a gathering hosted by the National Black Program and Consortium. The opportunity to meet colleagues in a relaxed setting was a huge draw for Mbaye to come to Syracuse, along with the film’s editor, Laurence Attali. Here’s part of our conversation.

NKR: I understand that your film was recommended by Ben Beye, who was here last year.

OWM: Yes, he talked to Owen Shapiro and my film was accepted. I am really happy to be here because at this festival I meet many filmmakers of different nationalities, and it’s difficult to meet them in other places. Here we have time to talk with them and we are in the same hotel, so it’s easier to make contacts. I think it’s a good thing. I’m really happy.

NKR: How did you come to make this film? You’ve been working on it for some time.

OWM: Yes, for many, many years. About 15 years, over 50 hours of footage. I made this portrait as an example to young people. I think it’s time now to show to young people the people who believe in something, who fight for something, and who win. Because now I think young people think it’s not possible. But sometimes you make some sacrifices in your life and in your love, but if you have an idea, you can follow the idea and win. And it is to show African youth that now you can be African and be emancipated. Some Africans think to be open about the world is to take on the culture of others. You can keep your culture and be open and attain modern life, you know? That’s the example I want to show.

NKR: Your sister uses the word “multicultural” to sum up your mother. And that comes through very strongly, that your mother has been able to move between cultures and to be very accomplished in each one.<br>
OWM: Yes, exactly. It’s that I want to show young people. You can have your culture, you can have your religion, and be open to others. And if you’re not open, you have a terrorist. If you are not open, you become a fanatic. We have the capacity – you can be Muslim, you can be Catholic, and also give the other their choice to be what they want to be. My mother and her generation traveled. She was born in the village. She went to school at St. Louis – in Senegal – after which she went to France. She returned to Senegal for independence and tried to make something for the country and the people. That’s why she’s open. And I think the young people today who travel can go anywhere, but they don’t open their eyes.

NKR: She was in Paris at a very important moment and you were yourself born in France.

OWM: I don’t remember my childhood in France. I just remember my education in Senegal. But Senghor and the Négritude movement – a cultural movement – they were with French intellectuals. You see that Picasso opened his eyes. He came to see African art and took its influence – because he’s open. If you are not open, you cannot make a body of work. And I think the best period was Négritude because they mixed African, they mixed Caribbean, they mixed French – and they spoke the same language. After, the same people wanted to create unity in Africa. But the French colonists didn’t want Africa unified. French colonization worked to break old alliances, old confederations among tribes.

NKR: The French wanted you to fight with each other.

OWM: Yes. And they broke the unity. It’s why Africa has so many problems. The United States is very strong because it’s united. Now you can’t name any country that can be strong alone.

NKR: The area that your mother work in and emphasized was arts and culture. Was there a choice on her part to emphasize arts and culture instead of politics?

OWM: Yes. Because my mother, when she come back to Senegal, she wanted to serve Senegal. She began with the women’s movement and culture. A little politics. But she didn’t want to be political, though all the Senegalese politicians met and talked with her. She made the first women’s association. She made the first journal about women. And the politicians were with her in Paris. They knew each other a long time ago.

NKR: Your mother is 82 now, very healthy and still working.

OWM: Yes. She is still working for the museum, because she doesn’t have money for the film journal. So she directs the museum in Gorée Island. And when you see her – [laughs] – when she goes to the meetings, she goes to the island, she takes the boat – she has energy.

NKR: Tell me a little bit more about your own filmmaking, because you’ve been making films for many years and have won some major awards at festivals such as Carthage, Milan and elsewhere.

OWM: Before Mother, the last movie I made was Fer et Verre in 2005, another portrait of a Senegalese woman, the painter Anta Germaine Gaye. Before that I made Xalima la Plume, a portrait of the Senegalese musician Seydina Insa Wade. Before that, my mother had organized a film festival in Senegal – RECIDAK – and I worked with her seven years. Before that I was Ben Beye’s assistant in his first film, the short film Les Princes noirs de Saint-Germaine des Prés. I worked on that film in Paris with Ben and also on his film Sey, Seyeti in Dakar. I made Dial-Diali, a short film about the aptitude of Senegalese women to charm the men. After that I made Fresque, about five Senegalese painters who go to Paris to make a fresco for a big salon near the Eiffel Tower. And I made Dakar Clando, which opened the Rotterdam Festival. I made Duunde Yakaar and my first film was a short film, Doomi Ngacc. That is about the village of my grandfather and the title means “child of.” I was also assistant director to Ousmane Sembene for his film Ceddo. I was assistant director for many films, also screenwriter, art director and producer.

NKR: You know I have emailed Ben Beye about meeting you and he said to ask you especially about the Africa Club. Would you tell me about the Africa Club?

OWM: You know, in Senegal, just after independence there was only one political party, with no opposition. And the young people – like us – formed a cultural group for talking to each other about politics without having a political party. We found the theater and cinema and conferences, you know, to talk to people. We didn’t have a party – instead we had a cultural and social club, and the name of this club was Africa. And my mother opened the house for the group Africa. And after that started I began working in cinema.

NKR: Ben said that your mother was his mother. And that she’s really the mother of your generation.

OWM: Yes.

NKR: And he said that Club Africa was where everybody met everybody else. How has that been for you?

OWM: Ben is a friend, but in Africa, Ben is my brother. Because my mother is the mother of all. My sister in Virginia, she put that on the poster for the film screening, “Mother of all.” Sometimes I say I have many sisters and brothers but we don’t have the same blood. But they are my sisters and brothers! Really, because they consider my mother like their own mother. If I see them, I say, ‘My sister! My brother!’ because we have the same education, the same upbringing. They were all the time in my mother’s house. I don’t know if Americans understand but in Africa it’s easy. Because Ben is my brother, I can’t fight Ben. Not only my friend and my colleague. There are other filmmakers – they are my colleagues, but Ben Beye is my brother.

NKR: One of the things I remember Ben talking about when he was here is that many of the movie theaters in Senegal have closed.

OWM: Yes, now the movie theaters are broken down. If you go to Dakar, you cannot see movies in the cinema. There’s no regular theater in Dakar. And Dakar was the city of cinema in Africa! We have tried to form “cine-clubs.” I started a cine-club in one restaurant in Dakar and some younger filmmakers started another cine-club in the cultural center. It’s really hard! And now you have a generation who never see a movie in the dark. They watch a movie on the computer or on TV. I say it’s a problem. For movies you must be in collectivity and in the dark. There’s movies, there’s television. It’s not the same. I think there is a transformation of the mentality of young filmmakers who don’t see movies in the dark. They don’t make movies like real movies. Because they are young now and they have rap songs, they make their films very fast, without concentration. A young filmmaker may make one, two, three films and never see a classic film.

NKR: When you were growing up there were lots of movies in Dakar.

OWM: Yes, yes. You would go with your girl friend, with your friends, with your family. If you had a meeting with anyone and you didn’t see a film, you were not happy. For two days after you go to see them, we would still talk about the film.

NKR: Are there some films you’ve seen here at this festival that you were glad to see?

OWM: I didn’t see many films because I have a problem with the language. My English is not good and I don’t understand the subtitles. But I understand that the editing makes the structure of the films. I saw a Hungarian film yesterday and two of Rob [Nilsson]’s, Need and Northern Lights. Yes – very beautiful. I liked his films very much.

NKR: Any rising young filmmakers in Senegal whose names we should know?

OWM: Yes, we have a young filmmaking generation and I think they can do well. I want to mention my partner – Laurent Attali, who did the editing of this film. She’s also co-producer, and she’s a filmmaker. She has directed many films in Senegal. We worked hard together because Mother is a film that only four persons made. Because there is the character, Annette d’Erneville, first. Me, I directed. Laurent Attali, editing. And the musician, Doudou Doukouré. It was enough – we four made this film.

NKR: And you shot it?

OWM: Yes, directed and shot and sound. It’s why this film is particular for me.

NKR: How did you come to work with Laurent?

OWM: Laurent came to RECIDAK after she come to Senegal to make a film, and I drove her around Senegal – for contacts for making a film – and I would tell her what I think, and we began to work on her film and after that, we continued to work on my film. She lives fifty percent in Senegal and fifty in France. Now she has Senegalese nationality. We go to Paris together today. She stays in Paris. I go on to Dakar and I come back for Cannes. Mère-bi will be at Cannes at the international market. The organization Culture France invited me.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 17. & the full interview ran on the paper's website, - click Entertainment. Nancy covers the arts and writes the film column "Make it Snappy." She served on SYRFILM’s pre-screening committee this year’s festival and also in 2008.