Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

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

16 June 2011

When We Leave (Die Fremde) (2010)

It is difficult to discuss When We Leave (Die Fremde, 2010, written and directed by Feo Aladag) without mentioning lead actress Sibel Kekilli’s earlier role in Head-On (Gegen Die Wand, 2004, written and directed by Fatih Akin). In both films, she plays characters that are similar in situation—the assimilated daughter of a conservative German-Turkish family—although quite different in personality and in the strategies they adopt to cope with their problems. In Head-On, her character (also named Sibel) is rebellious and self-destructive in the extreme, willing to risk suicide or a sham marriage to a down-and-out alcoholic rather than remain trapped within the narrowly circumscribed life imposed on her by her father and brother.  In When We Leave, her character Umay is an obedient and loving daughter and sister who has followed the more traditional path that Sibel rejects; now, however, she finds herself a young mother trapped in an abusive marriage and living with her husband’s family in Turkey. I’ll avoid too close a comparison of the two films since i can think of very few films that would not be eclipsed by the head-banging, punk-infused, adrenaline rush that is Head-On. But the influence of that film is clearly at play here and must be noted. In one scene, for example, Umay accidentally slashes her arm with a knife while engaged in a heated argument with her father over whether her son will remain with her in Germany or be returned to his father in Turkey.  Both Umay and her father react with horror at the sight of her blood-soaked arm, shocked—however briefly—out of their roles as adversaries. The visual reference to Head-On is inescapable.  In that film, Sibel makes numerous attempts on her own life by slashing her wrists and forearms, in one case smashing a bottle in a crowded bar and slashing furiously at her arm with the jagged edge. Sibel’s self-injury is not a cry for help but a cry of rage; she defiantly holds out her bleeding arms as if to scream at the world, “Look what you’ve done to me!” Umay, in contrast, is by nature a gentle soul pushed by circumstances to fight for herself and her child.

At the opposite end of the emotional register is a pair of scenes that are perhaps the most closely paralleled moments in the two films. In one of the most memorable shots in Head-On, Sibel is seen blissfully strolling down the street, still wearing her wedding gown, after having spent her wedding night with someone other than her bridegroom. A striking parallel to this memorable “walk-of-no-shame” shows Umay walking home, happy and at peace, after spending the night with her new German boyfriend. With Sibel, the viewer is struck by the outrageousness of the image of this wild-child who seems—at least for this brief moment—to have succeeded in becoming totally free of all social restrictions. The scene in When We Leave, seems quite conventional by comparison: Umay doesn’t want to be utterly free in the way that Sibel does; she merely wants to be free of the abuse and subjugation of her husband, father, and brothers, and to enjoy a relationship with a loving man.

While Head-On is as dark and gritty as the seedy bars and graffiti-ed Hamburg squats in which it is set, it is ultimately a hopeful film that allows for the possibility of redemption. In this sense, When We Leave paints the more pessimistic picture: it seems that despite every right move she makes, despite her good intentions, despite the tidy Berlin streets and the well-ordered social service mechanism, there is no escape for Umay. Her desires are modest and reasonable: she wants to raise her son in an environment where neither of them is subjected to violence. But, as is made clear early in the film, she has no power to protect either herself or her child within the marriage. Her husband uses physical force and confinement to maintain control over both of them. When at one point she objects to his treatment of their son, he drags them both off and locks them in their respective rooms, where neither of them can do anything more than cry until the husband/father decides to let them out. But Umay does not remain trapped in that room or that marriage. She does, in fact, what the viewer hopes she will do: she grabs her son and leaves the bastard. She returns with her child to Germany, where she has every expectation that she will be welcomed back into her parents’ home; but as soon as it becomes clear that she has left her husband, that welcome evaporates. Her mother commiserates when she sees the bruises on her back, but she is powerless to even imagine how to help her. By leaving the abusive marriage, Umay becomes a liability to her family, making them the object of gossip and derision, and threatening to ruin her younger sister’s chances of getting married. Faced with the threat of losing her son and subjected to the same level of physical abuse from her brother that she had already suffered from her husband, she once again takes action, calling the police to get an escort to a women’s shelter. Umay loves her child, she takes him and herself out of a dangerous situation, she goes to work, she returns to school; she does everything right, except that she refuses to reject her family in the way that they have rejected her. Though it would clearly be best for her to start a new life away from her family, she continues to try and force them to make a place in their lives for her son.

The film does not entirely succeed in avoiding stereotypes, particularly in the two-dimensional treatment of Umay’s two main adversaries: her husband and her older brother. For the most part, however, the characters reflect the complexities and tensions of a crosscultural existence, particularly across generations. Umay’s parents are torn between their traditional values and position within a conservative community and their love for their child and grandchild, but they are firmly rooted in their cultural values and belief system and must ultimately and regretfully, choose them over their rebellious daughter. Most interesting are the younger family members: Umay, her sister Rana, and younger brother Acar. Among themselves they speak German, while their parents speak Turkish. They wear western clothes and appear to be comfortably assimilated into German mainstream culture. At the same time, however, all three must deal with the conflicting demands of tradition: Rana with little choice but to enter the sort of marriage that her sister is trying to escape, Acar constantly chided to “be a man,” and most especially Umay. Sibel Kekilli conveys a wonderful combination of almost childlike vulnerability and sphinx-like stoicism in this role. When We Leave opens with a brief look at the end of this family tragedy then moves back in time to follow events as they unfold. I won’t disclose the ending here, but from that opening scene it is pretty clear that things will probably end badly for Umay. Yet I found myself hoping for a different ending and rooting for this determined young woman as she tries again and again to find a place in the world where she and her son can live without fear.

06 June 2011

A Face in the Crowd (1957); written by Budd Shulberg; directed by Elia Kazan

How have I lived this long without knowing about A Face in the Crowd?  This 1957 film, based on a Budd Schulberg short story (“Your Arkansas Traveler”), tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a guitar-strumming drifter and unapologetic ne’er-do-well, who goes from drunk tank to penthouse before his inevitable fall from grace. For anyone who grew up knowing Andy Griffith only as the wise and loveable sheriff of Mayberry, his performance as Lonesome Rhodes will come as quite a shock.  Rhodes is uncouth, undisciplined, and unwashed: you can almost smell the whiskey-sweat on him!  He attracts the attention of Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), an idealistic Sarah Lawrence graduate with a degree in music, when she comes to the local jail—tape recorder in hand—to get material for her radio program.  Marcia takes an immediate interest in this presumed diamond in the rough and manages to persuade the station owner, her uncle, to allow Rhodes to host his own radio show.  Predictably enough, his rise to stardom is meteoric, propelled more by the populist appeal of his personality than by his talent as a musician, and before long he makes the move from radio to TV and becomes an even bigger star.

Unfortunately for Marcia, Lonesome Rhodes is all rough and no diamond.  He sings of being  “a free man,” and taps into the popular fantasy of a life lived entirely on one’s own terms. In reality, though, Rhodes is the darkest manifestation of that principle, a kind of id-monster (to borrow a term from the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet), existing only for his own pleasure, with no regard for the havoc he creates for those around him.  Perhaps his most memorable and revealing trait is his laugh, which Marcia finds captivating:
Marcia: You put your whole self into that laugh, don’t you?
Rhodes: Marcia, I put my whole self into everything I do.
It is, despite Marcia’s admiration, a terrifying laugh: loud, explosive, and seeming to teeter on the edge of madness. The poster for the film catches that laugh, the character in profile, head thrown back and teeth bared, like a hyena about to tear into its prey.

Griffith’s acting is a bit too histrionic for my taste, but Neal delivers a memorable performance, moving from a smart, idealistic girl filled with youthful enthusiasm, to a bitter and disillusioned woman.  She ages visibly over the course of the film, not so much through the use of makeup and costumes as through a weariness that slowly saps the light from her eyes as she becomes increasingly unable to defend the behavior of the media monster that she has created or to rationalize the heartless way that he treats her.  In the opening scene of the film, we see her flooded in daylight, as snappy and sassy as the heroine in a screwball comedy from the thirties.  She bounds out of the car, the intrepid girl reporter on her way to cover a lighthearted story from a not-very-serious jailhouse. But the moment she moves to the corner of the holding cell where Rhodes is sleeping off a bender, shadows begin to intrude on the scene. For the rest of the film, that darkness never truly goes away, resulting in an effectively discordant and disturbing blend of the ominous and the folksy—a kind of Arkansas noir.

Lonesome Rhodes discovers that stardom—and more particularly the power that comes with it—is as fine an intoxicant as bourbon.  It brings him fame, fortune, and enough sex appeal to convince a seventeen-year-old baton twirler (played by Lee Remick in her screen debut) to elope to Mexico with him.  Perceived as a beloved and trusted everyman by his listeners, he delights in his ability to persuade his audience to buy the products he promotes and ultimately to even support the politician he is paid to endorse.  It is in this perceptive and seemingly prescient treatment of the intersection of television, politics, personality, and corporate interests that A Face in the Crowd is perhaps most interesting to a viewer in the present day.   The film came out at a time when the television set was just establishing itself as the focal point of America’s living rooms, yet more than fifty years later its exploration of the persuasive power of that medium—particularly when combined with cynicism, faux-populism, and demagoguery—is both chilling and timely.  Lonesome Rhodes may be a fictional character, but his real-world counterparts are not hard to find.

Welcome to the Tattered Film Palace

I've been wanting to start a film blog for quite a while, but kept waiting for the perfect moment, the film i just had to write about.  I really expected that film to be Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which I've been waiting impatiently for since i first heard rumors of it a few years ago.  I am a great admirer of all Malick's films, but I experience them on such an emotional and personal level that i find it hard to even talk about them, let alone write about them.  I went to the first showing of The Tree of Life in Chicago last Friday afternoon and loved it to an almost pathological degree.  "Time to start the blog," I thought, then found myself unable to get beyond: "Omigod, omigod, omigod, it is such an amazing and profound movie!  Omigod, omigod!"  Not a very auspicious beginning.  So I decided to lower the stakes and make this a much more casual undertaking. I am not certain what if any shape this blog will take eventually, but for now, I simply plan on writing about whatever films I happen to be watching or thinking about at the moment.  My taste and interests tend to be pretty eclectic, so hopefully you will find one or two that interest you.