Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

18 December 2011

The Interrupters

Ameena Matthews in a scene from The Interrupters.

Last evening, i had the opportunity to see The Interrupters,  a documentary so powerful that it will make you question what you thought you knew about violence and courage. It is set in Chicago, a city where in the past few years it seems that hardly a night goes by without the news carrying another story of a young person dying in a violent confrontation, or in some cases as the innocent victim of a stray bullet. There are lots of theories about what to do to stop the violence, most of which involve more guns, more police, or even deploying the National Guard. The Interrupters suggests that there is another way. It is the story of a remarkable group of people, the members of the violence interrupters unit of an organization known as Ceasefire. 

Ceasefire was started by Gary Slutkin, M.D.,  an epidemiologist who spent a decade with the World Health Organization treating infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera in the developing world. The premise of Ceasefire is based on his observations that violence is America's epidemic, and that it can be treated through methods similar to those used to treat other infectious diseases: primarily by isolating it and preventing its spread. This may seem like lofty-minded, out-of-touch liberalism of the kind that sounds good on paper but would never work in the real world, but what makes it work are the interrupters themselves, tough and fearless people who combine the theoretical base of Ceasefire with their own experience as former gang members and convicted felons and their commitment to saving their communities. When an act of violence occurs and is about to escalate into the endless chain of retaliation and further violence, they step in, quite literally, and try to defuse the situation. They don't succeed every time, but surprisingly often they do. 

The film focuses on three members of the violence interrupters unit: Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Ricardo "Cobe" Williams. Each has their own story and their own style. I won't go into detailed accounts of their biographies here as they've been written about in press releases and other reviews of the film; but each of them has past experience with gang life and has served jail time. Their pasts make them especially able to reach out to the kids in their neighborhoods; they are respected because they know firsthand what the young people they interact with are going through. There is a gentle sadness about Eddie Bocanegra, born of his remorse and inability to undo the murder that sent him to jail at the age of 17. In the film, he is shown working primarily with two groups: a class of young kids in an art program and a family so overcome by the death of their young son and brother that they spend each day at the cemetery. Seeing this soft-spoken man in action, it is inconceivable that he could have killed someone in cold blood. But he did. And that really is the point: It is the senselessness and contagion of violence that turns what should have been a sweet (and maybe even a little nerdy) kid into a murderer; but that transformation doesn't have to condemn a kid like Eddie to a permanent state of hardened criminality. 

If the term "in your face" did not already exist it would have to be invented just to describe Ameena Matthews. She might be all of five feet tall but she looks like a colossus striding into the middle of a confrontation between rival groups and managing to restore calm. She is equally capable of shouting in the face of a guy twice her size or giving a hug to a child, as the situation warrants. She is shown primarily working with a troubled young woman named Caprishia. If this were a Hollywood drama, all Caprishia's problems would be solved in the end, but life is seldom that simple. Ameena seems possessed of boundless patience, tempered by a healthy dose of tough love. There is no guarantee that her efforts will be rewarded with success, but she understands that, and helps the viewer to understand it as well. What matters is that she (and we) not give up on a girl like Caprishia, or the many others like her. 

Cobe Williams is a warm and genial guy, whose past was scarred by the murder of his father and his own involvement with drugs and conviction for attempted murder. Lest you think that the violence interrupters are adrenalin junkies who thrive on the danger of their work, the filmmakers show the trepidation Cobe feels as he goes to the home of a volatile and very angry, armed man. After listening patiently to his angry threats and complaints, Cobe manages to calm the guy, who goes by the nickname "Flamo," by jokingly inviting him to dinner. It seems preposterous, but somehow that's why it works. It is enough to get him away from his gun and his house, and start him talking about what had happened. I was very fortunate to attend a screening where Cobe Williams was in attendance and conducted a brief Q & A after the film. He talked a bit about Flamo's post-film life: he has stayed out of trouble with the law, is gainfully employed, and is testing the waters as a stand-up comic (Anyone who has seen the film can attest that he definitely has some talent in that direction!). 

One of the most moving episodes in the film involves Cobe's work with seventeen year-old Li'l Mikey Davis who is trying to get his life back on track after serving a few years in jail. Mikey is one of the film's great success stories. His younger brother's hero-worship makes him deeply aware of his own potential for perpetuating the cycle of violence, imprisonment, and possible death; with the help of Cobe, Mikey turns his life around. He owns the mistakes he made as a fourteen year old with a gun, and asks to visit the barbershop he held up so that he can personally apologize to his victims. It is a powerful and painful moment when the owner of the shop lets him know how badly his actions have scarred her family. The scene can be summed up with one word: courage. It is courage that makes this seventeen year-old kid man up, and even greater courage that allows his victim to let him do it. 

As in his previous documentary, Hoop Dreams (1994), director Steve James gives us a compellingly personal and intimate look into the lives of people who are rarely given media attention that goes beyond stereotypes. As the opening credits of The Interrupters are running, we hear a voiceover montage of news stories reporting on death after death of inner city kids. For those of us who don't live in these neighborhoods, that's often all we get: an opaque and incomprehensible litany of violence. The willingness of the people involved to share their stories, often at their most traumatic moments, is a step towards changing all that. Unlike the old model of locking away the victims of infectious diseases in sanatoria, institutions, or ghettos, The Interrupters helps to show that violence, and its toll on the young, is no more inevitable than the contagions of the past. It is an inspiring story in the truest sense, one that leaves you with not only a sense of admiration for the tough, caring, and committed members of the violence interrupters unit, but also with a deeper belief in the possibility of healing.

If you are in Chicago, you can see The Interrupters now through Thursday, 22 December, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Other scheduled showings can be found on the Kartemquin Films website.

An interview with Ameena Matthews aired on NPR's Fresh Air in August, 2011.

Watch the trailer for The Interrupters here.

16 December 2011

This is the Way the World Will End

There is nothing else in life quite like the feeling of emerging from a movie theater in the middle of an afternoon so completely swept up in the world you had surrendered yourself to for the past couple of hours that you are utterly stunned to discover that life as you knew it had continued in your absence. Not every movie succeeds in doing this, and few so well as Melancholia. I stepped out of the theater after seeing it and, for a brief moment, was amazed to discover people going about their business as if unaware that the world had just ended.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, is a formally beautiful film divided into three parts: a brief prologue, and two main sections. The prologue foreshadows the film's apocalyptic end: birds fall dead from the sky; a mother, clutching her child, sinks knee-deep in the mud of a rapidly melting earth; a horse falls to the ground in such excruciatingly slow motion that we watch each crease in his neck take shape--first one, then another--as he agonizingly arches his head to the side. The film opens with a close-up of Kirstin Dunst's character seemingly frozen in time, barely revealing any movement to assure the viewer that this is a person and not a portrait; but then in what could be called sudden in no context other than the slowness of this moment, birds begin to fall from the sky. Time seems to stand literally but not entirely still; it is manipulated in a remarkable and unsettling way in these opening shots, as though the elements of the frame are moving at different speeds, ranging from the slow to the glacially slower. It is the paradox of time and perception, the illusion of imperceptible slowness with which a planet hurls itself through the heavens. There is something maddening in all this, something that goes beyond the apocalyptic imagery to reflect the psychic world that the film inhabits: the feeling of stuckness, of being almost but not quite paralyzed, of falling just short of being able to act to save either yourself or your world. Public and private are one in Melancholia, apocalypses are both personal and global, and the one constant is our inability to change the outcome.

The first of the film's two main sections focuses on the wedding of Justine (Kirstin Dunst), the younger of the two sisters around whom the narrative is centered. The reception is an elegant and lavish affair; but despite the meticulous planning of the older, take-charge sister, Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg), things do not go smoothly. A stretch limo bearing the bride and groom gets hopelessly stuck trying to negotiate the meandering country lane leading to Clare's castle-like home, where the reception is being held. The newlyweds giggle together as the chauffeur tries unsuccessfully to steer the car around an especially sharp turn. The bride and groom each takes a turn behind the wheel, before eventually giving up and taking off on foot for the reception. When they arrive--two hours late but still in high spirits--the bride is immediately chastised by her sister for keeping her guests waiting. The dynamics of the sisters' relationship are clear: Justine is the flighty one, Clare the caretaker; nonetheless, the sisters are clearly attached to each other. The wedding festivities proceed, and the marriage seems like it is off to a very good start. The bride and groom look lovingly at each other, laugh together over the minor catastrophe of the limo, and genuinely seem like a happy couple. Marking the auspicious beginning of their marriage, a new star appears in the sky, as if waiting to be wished on.

There are the usual annoying guests at the reception: a roguish father, played by John Hurt; a marriage-loathing mother, played to bitchy perfection by the incomparable Charlotte Rampling; a passive-aggressive boss who toasts the bride by announcing that she's been given a promotion, and then pressures her to come up there-and-then with a tagline for an ad campaign. Gradually Justine's smile becomes more forced, but it is clear that this is due to much more than the annoyances of her parents and boss or the demands of her sister and brother-in-law that she not ruin the wedding they've put together for her at great expense. The burden of being a bride, of smiling and being happy, slowly overwhelms her until she is so completely incapable of going through the ritualized motions that she stands frozen on a balcony unable to toss her bouquet, and eventually Clare has to grab it off her in exasperation and toss it herself. Justine becomes increasingly elusive, disappearing from the reception (and her new husband's side) for long periods of time. I have a fondness for images of runaway brides (though not for the movie of that name). I've written before of the wonderful moment in Gegen die Wand when Sibel returns home from spending her wedding night with another man. The sight of Justine zipping across the grounds in a golf cart, her veil and train streaming behind her, then squatting to take a pee on the manicured grass of the golf green, surrounded by billows of flouncy white fabric, is a similarly exhilarating moment. We think, briefly, that she will succeed in escaping, even while not understanding yet what it is that she feels the need to escape: convention or the handsome and adoring (if somewhat simple and inarticulate) young husband that she seemed so in love with only a few hours before. Eventually it becomes clear that Justine is at war with herself, battling between depression and a desperate play at normality. Normality doesn't stand a chance, and the groom is gone before the last of the wedding cake is eaten.

The final chapter of the film is set in the aftermath of the disastrous wedding. "Things," as Yeats said, "fall apart." Justine is now husbandless, jobless, and reduced to a near-catatonic state of depression; Clare brings Justine to her home (the site of the ill-fated wedding reception) so she can care for her. The new star that seemed like some lovely omen at the wedding has turned out to be the planet Melancholia, which had heretofore been hidden by the sun, but which now is heading toward the earth. The beautiful blue planet dominates the sky. Clare's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is enthralled by this remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime sight and shares this enthusiasm with the couple's young son. Together father and son follow the progress of Melancholia, excitedly anticipating the moment when it will pass most closely to the earth. John is a wealthy and confident man. An amateur astronomer, he owns a powerful telescope, which features prominently throughout the film. It now takes on an almost talismanic role as John hopes to capture and briefly possess this strange phenomenon in the sky. The same impulse is mirrored in the makeshift lasso-like device fashioned by his young son (Ironically, the child's homemade instrument ends up being the more accurate gauge of the planet's proximity). The practical Clare, meanwhile, is filled with dread. Despite her husband's insistence that she stop reading doomsday prophesies on the internet, she cannot shake her fear that the two planets will collide. Hedging his bets, John stockpiles supplies but swears Justine to secrecy, lest Clare take this as a sign of a crack in his confidence about their ultimate survival. It is the interplay of moods--the husband's enthusiasm, the wife's growing fear, and the passivity of the previously rebellious sister--that sets the tone as we await the inevitable.

Ultimately, Melancholia, is a kind of depressive's manifesto, an argument that all those powerful, practical, take-charge sorts like Clare and John are no match for a universe that really cares not at all about us and our little lives. It is Justine, poor damaged Justine, who succeeds, if one can call it that. She has tried to play the game their way, but couldn't; but she has also already played out her own private version of this grand and cataclysmic drama. In surrendering to the forces of her own troubled soul and an indifferent cosmos, she is the one person capable of helping her family face the inconceivable with grace and a small dose of comfort.

Watch the official trailer for Melancholia here.

20 November 2011

Hitching a Ride with Monte Hellman

Warning: Spoiler alert.

Since i first saw it at the Gene Siskel Film Center last August, i've wanted to write about Road to Nowhere, directed by the legendary Monte Hellman, but it's one of those movies that i needed to spend more time with before i could figure out what to say about it. I got a copy from Netflix and watched it again last night, and am now convinced that this is a movie i need to own. I was blown away by it the first time i saw it, but even more so the second time. I should confess that the DVD had been sitting here for a while, because i was a little nervous about undoing that great first impression. I rarely like watching movies at home as much as i do in the theater. The viewing conditions at Casa de Demeanor are less than ideal: Admittedly, the 21" computer screen is a big improvement on the 13" TV, but i still live next to a very loud and active elevated train route (think Blues Brothers), and am easily distracted by a sink full of dirty dishes or a ringing telephone. In spite of all that, Road to Nowhere drew me back into its tangled world of stories within stories and proved to be an even more satisfying film the second time around. I feel like i've just scratched the surface of this dense and delicious composition and look forward to watching it many more times.

Road to Nowhere is a very welcome addition to the genre of movies about making movies. I'm a sucker for this genre: whether it's Singin' in the Rain, Day for NightBarton Fink, or The Player, i love watching movies that pull back the curtain and show some of what goes on behind the scenes as a movie is being coaxed, cajoled, pushed, and prodded into existence. In this case, the movie is not a big, glitzy Hollywood production, but a low-budget picture, being filmed in the mountains of North Carolina. Just as an aside, I have to say that i'm kind of obsessed with film locations and loved this one. I had to carefully scan the end credits to get the name of the Balsam Mountain Inn where much of it was filmed. It is so beautifully rustic, with its horizontal wood paneling, the perfectly cozy setting for all the creepiness and duplicity that surrounds the making of the movie within a movie. 

The plot of the film within a film--also entitled Road to Nowhere--revolves around the double-suicide of Rafe Tachen, a powerful, middle-aged, American politician, and Velma Duran, a beautiful and mysterious young woman. So far this sounds like it could be the usual Hollywood fodder, slightly elevated by the fact that it's "based on a true story." The film apparently has a compelling screenplay, as evidenced by the fact that Scarlett Johansson is willing to play Velma for scale. But Scarlett never has a chance because the director (Tygh Runyan) finds himself increasingly captivated by Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown young actress who bears a striking resemblance to the "real" Velma (for good reason, as we learn). He offers her the role, despite her insistence that she is not experienced enough for it, and gradually he falls more deeply and obsessively in love with her. The rest of the cast and crew become progressively more disgruntled: the lead actor (Cliff de Young) unhappily watches the narrative shift away from his supposedly central character and increasingly focus on the leading lady; the screenwriter sees his script get butchered to the point that he questions whether a single line of his dialogue will survive; critical scenes are only afforded one take, while Laurel is indulged with multiple takes whenever she is not entirely happy with her performance. Meanwhile, the action cuts back and forth between the making of the film (with its assumptions about the unhappy fate of its two main characters) and another plotline in which we learn that the suicides never happened, that the crooked politician (also played by de Young) is alive and well and had earlier hired Laurel to impersonate Velma as part of a scheme to get away with a fortune. 

The twists and turns of plots and plots-within-plots are enough to keep the viewer guessing. The dual roles played by de Young and Sossamon can leave the viewer scrambling to keep track of which plot they are watching from one moment to the next. Even the opening credit sequence turns out to be the credits for the film-within-a-film. All of this makes for a very unsettling yet ultimately pleasurable experience: this is the kind of movie you can spend hours afterwards discussing and debating. But beyond that, Road to Nowhere is a movie that expresses a deep love for its medium. Mitchell Haven, the character/director, who not coincidentally shares the same initials as director Monte Hellman, is frequently shown watching other movies on television: The Lady Eve, The Spirit of the Beehive, The Seventh Seal. During the scene in which Haven explains his decision to cast the unknown Laurel Graham in spite of Scarlett Johansson's interest in playing the role, the characters of the screenwriter and an insurance investigator who has hired on as a consultant play a game of chess. It seems at the time like a simple bit of business to add texture to the scene, but when Haven is later seen watching the iconic scene in The Seventh Seal where Max von Sydow's character plays chess with Death in an attempt to save his own life, that earlier scene takes on a more ominous tone. 

In an early scene in which Haven and his screenwriter meet with a studio executive, they describe the script as "the film noir of our dreams." "Don't ever use that word again," the executive only half-jokingly replies. But there are traces of noir everywhere and on both levels of the narrative: from the femme fatale and the morally ambiguous insurance investigator (Hello, Double Indemnity!), to the almost overwhelming use of shadow to obscure the action and keep the audience literally and figuratively in the dark. A few minutes into the film, there is a long take of a cottage in the woods. It looks homey, like something in a fairytale. Then a gun goes off. The first time i watched the movie, i found myself wondering what had happened, who had been shot. The second time, i thought of the very similar moment in that great noir classic, The Big Sleep.  

The restlessness in the opening shots of Velma/Laurel in her bedroom, painting her fingernails, blowing a hair dryer first on her nails and then in her face, reminded me of Faye Dunaway's petulant opening scene in  Bonnie and Clyde, another bored and restless girl about to embark on a dangerous road; the final shot of the film, in which the camera approaches a photograph of Laurel with infinitesimal slowness until it ends with an extreme closeup of her mouth, reminded me again of the opening of Bonnie & Clyde but with the eroticism of the shot of Faye Dunaway's red lips in the earlier film now transformed into something darker, almost vampire-like. I have no idea if this is an intended homage or not, but this is a film that invites the viewer to share in its love of the movies and to make these kinds of connections. Road to Nowhere is a movie lover's movie, through and through, and a thoroughly satisfying ride down a road filled with hairpin turns. 

Watch the trailer for Road to Nowhere here.  
Road to Nowhere is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.com (at a very good price at the time of this writing). Pay no attention to the negative reviews; they were written by people you probably wouldn't want to watch a movie with.

12 November 2011

Keeping Them Down on the Farm

As you have probably noticed if you've been reading this blog regularly, i don't usually write about new movies. Up until now, the only exception to that rule has been The Tree of Life, but even there, i waited until i'd seen it three times before i felt confident enough to write about it. But tonight, i'm going to make an exception and maybe mark this as the beginning of a shift in my modus operandi

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins in what first appears to be an idyllic setting, a communal farm somewhere in the Catskills. The steady rhythm of a hammer, the chirping of crickets, the soft voices of people working together, all blend together to lull the viewer into imagining--however briefly--how peaceful it would be to live this way, far removed from sirens and cell phones, and all the other endless assaults on the eardrums and the soul that are part of most of our daily lives. It doesn't take long, though, for a slow sense of uneasiness to creep into this bucolic scene. A pleasant-enough shot of the men in the communal family, gathered around the table sharing a meal, cuts to a strange image of the women waiting languidly outside the room, one of them half-heartedly toying with a strand of another's hair. It is only after we see them outside that we realize the strangeness of their absence from that earlier image of the family dinner. The women in this family do not eat until the men have finished. The oddness of this realization begins to compound itself until it quickly becomes apparent that this group is more cult than family, dominated by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a troubled young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who leaves the cult but cannot leave it behind. At various points, she goes by each of the names in the title of the film: Martha was her name before she found her way to the farm and the name she reclaims when she leaves; Marcy May is the new name she is given by Patrick, part of the process of stripping away her identity as a person with a life beyond this new family; Marlene is the generic name assumed by all the women in the group when they answer telephone calls from people in the outside world. We never learn how Martha originally found her way to the farm, but it isn't all that hard to imagine how this lonely and vulnerable young woman would have been an easy target for the promise of a peaceful, embracing family. Eventually, she runs away but why she does so becomes clear only gradually. Her story emerges in a series of flashbacks that flow so imperceptibly through the narrative that at first it takes a conscious effort on the viewer's part to separate the two timeframes of her story. Martha is taken in by her recently-married older sister Lucy and her husband. Old strains in the relationship between the two sisters quickly re-emerge and are compounded by Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) guilt over not having been better equipped to care for Martha when their parents died, a guilt that Martha constantly and manipulatively reignites. But caring for Martha remains no easy task, despite Lucy's efforts. Martha cannot instantly be restored to normalcy simply by leaving the farm: the emotional problems that brought her into the cult do not magically disappear when she leaves it, but are instead compounded by what she experienced there. 

Powerful performances by Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes help to make this such an unsettlingly good film. Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a nuanced performance as Martha, ranging from strong-willed to submissive, from manipulative to nearly catatonic. Originally seduced and enthralled by Patrick, she eventually must confront the reality of the evil in which she has become enmeshed and manages to make her escape; but once she has found her way to the bourgeois safety of her sister's home she shifts between extremes of behavior: at one minute leaping into a lake naked in front of her stunned sister and brother-in-law, at another curled in bed in a fetal position.  Without ever providing many details of her backstory, Olsen's performance manages to satisfy the viewer's curiosity about what kind of girl could end up in a situation like this one. 

John Hawkes is a smoldering presence on the screen: alternately gentle and brutal, but always exerting complete control over the members of his constructed family. He is not a man to be crossed, and although his first tactic is always a soft and reasonable tone, when that doesn't work he is capable of terrible cruelty. He is a skinny but sinewy figure, all ropy arms and piercing eyes; the other men in the group are bigger, burlier, and younger than he, but it seems inconceivable that any of them would go against him and win. Everything about him is deliberate and designed to reenforce his dominance over the others. There are echoes here of Teardrop, the character he played in Winter's Bone; but watching him in this role, i could hardly believe that this was the same actor who played the sweet but woefully inept shoe salesman in Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. In that film, he plays a distraught father trying desperately to come to terms with his divorce and to win over the love and admiration of his children. His most defining moment comes at the beginning of the film when he decides to impress his sons with a magic trick, setting his hand on fire. Unfortunately he forgets the most important part of the trick, and uses lighter fluid instead of alcohol; consequently, his spectacular trick ends with a badly burned hand. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, his character controls his family through the sheer force of personality: he burns, but with a very different fire, one capable of incinerating anyone who dares to cross him. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene trailer.

15 October 2011

You Can't Handle the Himalayas

Black Narcissus (1947) is one of those films that manages to fill me with both love and loathing.  I love it for Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking cinematography, hate it for the creepy presence of white actors in brownface, and simultaneously love and hate it for its very complicated eroticism. It is a film rightly hailed for its exquisite use of Technicolor, from the majestic, sun-tinged Himalayan landscape to the sudden shock of the red dress, redder lips, and increasingly red-rimmed eyes of a nun driven mad by desire.  That Himalayan landscape is itself a marvel of artifice in a film shot mostly in the studio and entirely in England and Ireland.

Just look at this gorgeous shot near the end of Black Narcissus, the rising sun just beginning to illuminate the snow-capped mountains in the background, as Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) reaches the end of an all-night vigil, hoping for the return of the wayward Sister Ruth (Kathleeen Byron):

This particular type of shot, found in more than a few movies, never fails to dazzle me, to momentarily take me out of the narrative and make me whisper, “How beautiful!” It’s a shot most often associated with John Ford: the moment in The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) stands in silhouette, in a field of light, color, and openness, but tightly framed and contained by darkness.

John Wayne in The Searchers
This visual composition can be found in a lot of my favorite movies.  Here it is in a shot of Uncas (Alan Roscoe) keeping watch over the Munro sisters in one of the earlier versions of The Last of the Mohicans (1920), directed by Maurice Tourneur:

Had I world enough and time, I’m sure that I could find many other examples as well, but you get the picture (literally). It is a beautifully composed image, gorgeously balancing the solitary figure within the space between light and darkness, between openness and constraint.

But, enough of this giddy praise. On to one of my pet peeves: white actors slathered in bronze make-up to play the role of the exotic Other. My almost visceral reaction to this phenomenon might seem to fly in the face of my own mantra that film must be considered within the context in which it was made. Unfortunately, for much of the 20th century in Hollywood that context involved the belief that acting was by and large the domain of white people and that people of other races were usually best represented in film by slightly darkening those white people.  So I guess it’s safe to say that what bothers me isn’t the films or the actors themselves so much as the context of racial weirdness that led these bizarre characterizations to be accepted by filmmakers and audiences alike. A corollary of this is the "natives-show-a-lot-more-skin-than-white-people" rule. Going back to The Last of the Mohicans, we have Wallace Beery, in brownface and some very odd warpaint, as the malevolent Huron guide, Magua:

 The remarkably strange casting of the ultimate Aryan gal, Marlene Dietrich, as a Mexican saloon keeper in Touch of Evil (1956):

Charlton Heston in the same film, as Mexican sheriff, “Mike” Vargas. The mustache is an additional marker of his Mexicanidad:

 And finally, Jean Simmons as Kanchi, the dangerously erotic and nubile Indian girl brought to stay with the nuns in Black Narcissus:

The same actress as Ophelia in Hamlet the following year:

Even the relatively modest flash of shapely, bronzed gams and the pleasure with which she eats the piece of fruit in this, the viewer's first sight of Kanchi, accentuates her sensuality and establishes the contrasts between her and the nuns, in their heavy layers of white fabric and large crosses. 

If the meter were only right, you could almost imagine the good sisters bursting into a chorus of "How do you solve a problem like Kanchi?" 

Of course, as a British film set in India and released in the same year as that country gained its independence from England, Black Narcissus carries some additional colonialist baggage. The uneasiness of the colonizer is expressed here in climatological terms—the directness of the light, the thinness of the air, and their potential for putting one in danger of losing control of one's emotions and desires. India is an eroticized landscape. The order of nuns sent here to run a hospital and school are housed in a decaying palace, that was most recently and most significantly a brothel. The iconography of Christianity, focused on the chaste Virgin Mary, is juxtaposed with the sinuous murals and statuary already in place in the palace. The feminized sensuality of the perfumed and bejeweled young general (Sabu) and the even more bejeweled and hot-to-trot Kanchi (Jean Simmons) contrast with the increasingly less controlled asceticism of the sisters swathed in their white habits. The British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) has already appeared to cross the line and gone (at least a little) native. He is a slightly ridiculous figure, a long-limbed Englishman in very short shorts, making his entrance on a pony much too small to carry him with any vestige of dignity.  

Appearing throughout the film with his bare legs and chest exposed, Mr. Dean transgresses the aforementioned "natives-show-a-lot-more-skin-than-white-people" rule. In fact, the only character less clothed than him is the holy hermit who sits in silence on the mountain side. Dean seems a sorry representative of British decorum and an irritant to the contemplative celibacy of the two youngest nuns, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and the already emotionally overwrought Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).  Sister Clodagh, who is the recently appointed sister superior of the convent, struggles to put the secular life behind her. A young woman who has turned to the religious life by default after being abandoned by her fiance, she finds herself in chapel losing track of her prayers and drifting into memories of happier times in the Irish countryside. She and the perennially underdressed Mr. Dean act as foils for each other in a way that would inevitably lead to a Tracy-Hepburn type of romance under other circumstances; but despite the temptations of memory, Sister Clodagh is firm in her religious commitment. Poor Sister Ruth, on the other hand, is quite literally marked from the beginning as the character most likely to surrender to her least spiritual urges. In her first encounter with Mr. Dean, she bursts into Sister Clodagh's office while he is there. Her hands and her white habit are smeared with blood, and she is wild-eyed with excitement after having saved the life of a local woman who was bleeding to death. Despite what would seem to be a positive--even heroic--entrance, her exhilaration seems troubling, as though she were so starved for stimulation that her life-saving actions are motivated more by personal than by charitable concerns. The color red will mark the unfortunate Sister Ruth again when she finally rejects her vows and exchanges the white habit of the nuns for a red dress, lipstick, and a poignantly awkward-looking pair of snow boots. Alas, for Ruth, there is to be no happy ending, as she is never perceived as a woman motivated by love, but rather as a victim of her own weakness, rapidly devolving into homicidal lunacy. 

This theme of pitting controlled and over-dressed western civilization against id-driven native sensuality and impulse always drives me a little crazy, but at the same time, it provides rich fodder for further exploration. Watching Kanchi’s wild dancing made me want to dig out my copy of Bride and Prejudice (2004) and watch Gurinder Chadha's comical response to this stereotype in the Cobra Dance scene. Looking at David Farrar in his short shorts, led me scrambling to YouTube in search of the ironing scene in Beau Travail (1999). In that film, an adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd set in a North African encampment of the French Foreign Legion, director Claire Denis completely disrupts the standard erotics of the colonial narrative, making the Legionnaires the object of both the viewer’s and each other’s gaze. I admit that it's a little disturbing that I find a bunch of guys in shorts ironing to be such a turn-on, but so be it.  And now I'll be on my voyeuristic way to watch Beau Travail once again.
Legionnaires ironing (Beau Travail)

13 August 2011

Judging Stuff by Its Cover

During my annual end-of-summer home-reorganization ritual, i put my DVDs in alphabetical order. These two ended up next to each other. I wonder how many others i could find with the same confrontational composition.

05 August 2011

My Original Post on The Tree of Life

I wrote this in May, after seeing The Tree of Life for the first time, but then never posted it. So here is it now. Pardon the redundancy, but i can't seem to stop talking/writing about this film:

To begin, it was the perfect movie-going experience: the very first Chicago showing of The Tree of Life, a 1:00 matinee at the Century Center. I thought I was perhaps being a bit too enthusiastic in getting there a half hour early (I’m never early for anything) but it turns out my timing was perfect, arrived just in time to be offered a free ticket by a guy who somehow ended up with one too many tickets. So, I walked into the theater a good twenty minutes early, and the theater was already half full. I ended up sitting next to the “perfect date,” a New York film fanatic, somewhere in my age range, with similar taste in movies and good movie theaters. While waiting for the film to begin, we talked about Herzog (both loved Fitzcarraldo), the new Woody Allen (I saw it the day before, he hadn’t yet), the lack of good places to see films. A kindred soul! After the movie we discussed our impressions of it: what did it all mean? Which brother died and how? I am always tentative in these things, never one to assert my interpretation, but this time I knew, the blond brother was killed in Vietnam. Told through the simplest of nuances, the time frame, the telegram. We compared notes on the period-perfect details of mid-fifties Americana: those awful, brightly colored, aluminum drinking glasses that we were all forced to drink iced tea from in the '50s and early '60s; the little striped polo shirts on the boys in the film, just like the ones my brother and three oldest nephews used to wear (the kind they are wearing in a poem I once wrote about my father); the bizarre love we had of running behind the bug truck in the summer (I remember the DDT smelling sweet. Did it really or is my memory embellishing the scene?).

The theater was sold out, and not with your usual matinee crowd (god save me from the loud-whispering seniors who people most of the matinees in Evanston): we were the cult of Malick! There was something odd going on with the projector and during the previews only the bottom half of the frame was projected on the screen. I wanted to yell at someone, then realized that I didn’t have to: two guys immediately ran out to the lobby to report the problem. The reaction in that room was so wonderful—one guy let out an anguished “This is my worst nightmare!” – I felt like I had found my tribe! The opening quote from the book of Job was lost to the projection problem, but immediately thereafter the situation was resolved.

It is difficult, probably impossible, for me to write coherently about Tree of Life.  It is not story-driven, nor really even character-driven. Dialogue and voiceover float by in isolated words, phrases, and unanswered remarks. With the exception of the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) the characters are more archetypes than well-rounded characters. Yet somehow we find ourselves caught with them, feeling their sorrows, their angers, their love. What is it then? A quiet epic, a dialectic of “nature” and “grace” as the mother’s voice explains in the opening moments of the film: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” But even that is too simple, for “nature” as she uses it here, is the self-focused aspect of human nature, while “grace” is the ability to embrace life, to feel the joy of it. The parents embody these two conflicting approaches to life: the father, aggrieved, dissatisfied, stern, embodies “nature,” while the mother, who literally floats above the ground at one point in the film, is the epitome of the life of grace. Paradoxically, Nature (the natural world) is the domain of grace: even the butterflies recognize it in Mrs. O’Brien. So, yes, it is an ancient story, the story of the boy caught between these two forces, the story of Oedipus. But Jack ultimately acknowledges that he is more like his authoritarian and despised father than like the mother he adores.

The visual elements of the film inscribe a dialectic of hard/soft, linear/sinuous, skyscraper/tree, the obdurate line of the father’s jaw / the curving arch of the mother’s foot. As is typical of Malick's works, the musical soundtrack is a powerful component of the film, but here it serves a diegetic function as well: the father is a talented pianist, and the gentle second son shares his talent; but even in this, the father's pleasure is blunted by the thought that he has given up his dream of becoming a great musician. As talented and appreciative of great music as he is, he cannot prevent himself from perceiving it through the warped lens of his own frustrated ambitions.

At the end of the film I sat weeping while the credits ran, because Terrence Malick had touched my heart. If there is nostalgia in the film, it is nostalgia tempered by grief: grief for the lost mother, the unknowable father, the brother who died too young.
The majesty of the natural world—a familiar motif to anyone who has watched Malick’s other films—is here given an operatic and sublime level of grandeur. There are volcanoes erupting in rivers of lava, comets striking the earth and setting off concentric waves, sweet jesus there are even dinosaurs! I haven’t decided yet what I think of those dinosaurs, and will have to revisit them when I see the film again. It is all so filled with beauty, power, and precariousness.

The Tree of Life

Last night I found myself debating whether to go see The Tree of Life this weekend. This would be the fourth time that I’ve seen it; in other words, 50% of the movies I’ve seen this summer have been The Tree of Life. Is it time for an intervention?

I’m amazed that there are people who have actually written coherently and thoughtfully about the film, while I can’t seem to get beyond a semi-orgasmic or possibly Pentecostal “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I’m addicted to this movie, even while I hover over it protectively, occasionally discouraging people from seeing it because I don’t want to hear their critiques of its length, lack of narrative, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah.  I can’t write about it in the way I might write about another film, because I experience it in a way that is unlike my experience of any other film. And yes, I’m including all of Malick’s earlier films in this category. If you know much about me and my relationship to movies, you know how much I love every film that Terrence Malick has ever made (Okay, I only recently learned of a student film that I haven’t seen, but will turn that into my next Grail). You may even know that, until this summer, Days of Heaven was my favorite film; the one film that I have never been able to bring myself to show in a film class because I couldn’t bear to hear any complaints from students about it being “boring” (I’ve had many brilliant students over the years, but there are always one or two who unabashedly expect to be entertained all semester).  So yes, as I readily admit, I worship at the church of the holy Malick. 

But this is different. The first time I saw The Tree of Life, I sat breathless and stunned when it was over, completely overwhelmed by feelings of what? Peace, grief, joy, wonder, nostalgia, longing? Yes, all that and more. With each subsequent viewing, those feelings have only intensified. I want to describe it as a beautiful film, but perhaps the Victorian concept of the sublime would be more accurate. Like Malick’s other films, the natural world plays a leading role in The Tree of Life, but it is a natural world filled not only with beauty, but also with awe, majesty, and more than a little terror. 

I have to confess that I’m completely amazed that the film is still showing in Chicago after more than two months. I really expected that the other Malick geeks and I would all scurry to see it in the first week, and maybe it would linger for a second week, but then it would be gone. But no, clearly this movie is resonating with a lot of people (or else, like myself, the same few keep going back to it over and over). I’m not going to tell you to go see it because, as I’ve already confessed, I don’t want to hear about why you didn’t like it. But if you want to take a chance on having a profound and moving cinematic experience, go ahead. Don’t wait for the DVD—I can’t even imagine how terrible it would be to watch the creation of the universe sequence on a small screen. Go ahead and see it; you may even find yourself afterwards viewing the world around you with the sense of wonder of the child you used to be. And now I’m going to sign off, go outside and look at the trees, the sky, the cosmos. And tomorrow or the next day, I’m going back to see The Tree of Life again.

14 July 2011

Revisiting The Last Waltz (1978)

I saw The Last Waltz when it first came out in 1978. I can’t say that I was the most astute viewer at that point, but as a fan of The Band and the unbelievable line-up of other musicians in the film, I loved it. I loved it for the music. I loved it for Robbie Robertson’s great-god-almighty good looks. I loved it because Lawrence Ferlinghetti read a poem in it. In the thirty-odd years since it was released, I’ve watched a lot of movies, picked up a couple of degrees, and taught a few film classes; so it was with a little trepidation that I decided to revisit this old favorite. I should confess at this point that of late I’ve felt the need for the occasional foray into nostalgic pleasure as an antidote to an extended bout of melancholy or whatever it is that strikes a person in late middle age when suddenly their life seems to jump off the tracks and they find themselves asking, “What the fuck happened and what am I supposed to do now?” If I were a heterosexual male, financially solvent, and far less given to introspection, I would probably buy a Harley and update my profile on Facebook with pictures of myself straddling the aforementioned hog and crossing my arms in that funny way that almost makes it look like you still have nice, bulgy biceps. But I’m not. So instead, I’m revisiting some of the cultural touchstones of my youth to see if they still have the power to infuse a little je ne sais quoi into my life (or at the very least, help put the present in perspective). And so I decided to take another look at The Last Waltz.

It’s no secret that The Last Waltz is one of the best rockumentaries ever made, maybe even the best. It’s a beautifully crafted film, directed by Martin Scorsese, with cinematography by Michael Chapman, and stunningly evocative set designs by Boris Leven. It documents what had to have been one of the greatest concerts in rock and roll history, including performances by everyone from Bob Dylan to Ringo Starr, from Joni Mitchell to Dr. John, from Muddy Waters to Neil Diamond. And then there’s Van Morrison, kickin’ it (literally) in a skin-tight, rhinestoned, aubergine outfit, looking for all the world like a bedazzled leprechaun. 

Commemorating, as it does, the end of a musical era, The Last Waltz is both celebration and elegy. This is conveyed beautifully through the pace of the film, which alternates between exuberance and introspection, moving from raucously energetic concert footage to quieter, more downbeat interview segments. Additional musical performances with the Staples Singers and Emmylou Harris, which were recorded some time after the concert on a stark MGM soundstage, provide an eerily liminal counterpoint. The combination of these three elements is a study in filmmaking technique: from the intimacy of the interview segments, to the fluid crane shots of the scenes on the MGM soundstage, to the dynamic coverage of the actual concert. The DVD commentaries give fascinating insights into the technical challenges of filming a six-hour live concert that pushed cameras, lights, and crews to their limits. Additional constraints were put on the camera crew by the physical limitations of the aging Wonderland ballroom and the importance of not being so obtrusive as to disrupt the audience’s experience of the concert. Yet somehow it all works beautifully. So much so that, without listening to the commentary, you’d never imagine that the remarkable three-minute close-up of Muddy Waters singing “Mannish Boy” was the serendipitous result of a miscommunication between Scorsese and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond.

There is an inherently melancholic undertone to The Last Waltz, as it chronicles the final time that this group of people will perform together as a unit. The intentionally anachronistic, fin-de-siècle elegance of Boris Leven’s set design, the opening waltz motif, and even Michael McClure’s lovely recitation of Chaucer, all contribute a feeling of nostalgia by hearkening back to earlier times. There is a wistful quality to the post-concert interview segments, an inescapable awareness of what’s been lost. Watching the film in 2011 this feeling is, of course, compounded both by the knowledge of the bitterness that followed the breakup of The Band, and more particularly by the deaths of Rick Danko in 1999 and Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986.  But these sadder undercurrents contribute to the texture of the film without ever overwhelming it. The Band had the talent and good fortune to flourish during an extraordinary period in the history of rock music, sharing the stage and recording studio with an incredible array of fellow artists. They knew and worked with just about everyone, and everyone came to their final party. The Last Waltz is our invitation to join that party.

View the trailer for The Last Waltz here.
The Last Waltz is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Make sure that you get the special edition: the commentaries are great!

03 July 2011

My Own Private Ozon-Fest

In the middle of a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the Gene Siskel Film Center to watch Francois Ozon’s Potiche, starring the eternally luminous Catherine Deneuve and France’s answer to the teddy bear, Gérard Depardieu. I think there is a local ordinance against going to the movies on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July when you are supposed to be either relaxing at the beach or eating an enormous turkey leg with your bare hands at the Taste of Chicago. But I’ve never been one to play by the rules, and this in particular is one that I take great pleasure in breaking whenever the opportunity presents itself. Watching Potiche was like sitting in a dainty but ornate wire café chair, snacking on meringues and champagne. This is a movie that tickled my nose and made me giggle with its silly send-ups of French sexism circa 1977 (hmmmmm…) and clever allusions to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg 1964), the film that originally brought a 20-year old Deneuve international attention.

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche

The word “potiche” loosely translates as “trophy wife” and that is what Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol has been for over thirty years, the charming but inconsequential wife of a mean-spirited umbrella tycoon (Fabrice Luchini), who has taken over control of the company started by his wife’s father. In the opening scene, we see Suzanne in a most un-Deneuvian red jogging suit, pausing to scribble a few lines of verse about a squirrel that she encounters on her morning run.  She is a sweet, silly, and unnecessary woman, whose children are grown and whose husband Robert chastises her if she doesn’t leave every bit of the cooking and housework to the servants. The husband, meanwhile, is getting his jollies elsewhere (including a strip club called Badaboum, which sounds much funnier when Deneuve says it than when Tony Soprano says it in New Jersey-inflected English).  But then the workers at the umbrella factory go on strike, Robert has a heart attack, and Suzanne steps in and takes control with the help of her husband’s archenemy, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), a Communist Party deputy mayor and—as we learn—Suzanne’s former lover.  As the plot unfolds, Suzanne emerges as a force of nature in pearls, a woman with a few secrets and a few tricks up her sleeve, who achieves power and success without ever losing her composure or coiffeur.

Coincidentally, I watched Ricky (2009) at home on Friday night, making Potiche my second film directed by François Ozon in twenty-four hours.  Ricky is a perversely funny movie featuring a rather un-cherubic flying baby. I’m still puzzled by some elements of it, in particular how the very grim opening scene (in which the mother tries to put her child in foster care) relates to the rest of the film. I’m also ashamed of myself for laughing so hard when baby Ricky manages to escape from a shopping cart while in a supermarket with his mother and proceeds to crash into everything in the store like a rabid bat. I thought it was really funny. I’m sorry.

Potiche is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago until Thursday, 7 July.