Friday, September 4, 2015

The Iron Ministry (update)

USA  China  (82 mi)  2014  d:  J.P. Sniadecki

Guest review by Evan Wang

With the perfect Mandarin he speaks, director J.P. Sniadecki doesn’t leave the audience much indication of his existence in this documentary, even though he is apparently involved in most of the conversations with other passengers. His face is never shown, but not deliberately hidden. Quite brilliantly, he managed to become an undistinguished part of the environment; an observer, but not more so than anyone else on the trains.

Being a member of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, where acclaimed documentaries Leviathan and Manakamana were produced, Sniadecki has obviously added a distinctive touch of his own to the lab’s elaborately conceived cinema vérité style. As shown in The Iron Ministry, his films might seem less “sensory” or meditative, but definitely have more to say on the ethnographic part, benefiting from the higher extent of involvement. After all, it is almost an impossible task to be a “fly on the wall” at probably the most packed location in the most populous country of this world.

After an opening that consists of complete darkness and the noise generated by a departing train, the audience is invited on board to start an overnight journey across China, which in fact took the filmmaker 3 years to shoot. Therefore, besides spatial dimensions, we are also travelling through time. In one of the very first eye-catching scenes, a blood-dripping liver just hangs there while someone doing his butcher works in the soiled cart. For me, a train-traveler in China for about 20 years, this is something I have never seen. According to Sniadecki, trains like that have already disappeared from the rails by the time the documentary is finished, and we would find ourselves in the comfy space inside the newest bullet trains toward the end of this film. Between these two points, we hear from all kinds of people from different parts of the country, talking about their stories, political opinions and future plans, including a “miracle kid” improvising a funny parody of the do’s and don’ts announced through the loudspeakers. More importantly, we also see them reading, knitting, dining, and sleeping in every available corner of the carts. Balancing all those are rather abstract shots of sceneries outside the windows, usually blurred by speed, and close-ups of curious mechanical parts on the trains, which reminded me of what I saw earlier this year in an American docudrama, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors. Also echoing that film, the sometimes disorganized collage is well unified by the delicate sound design, mixing together broadcasted music and chaotic tumult to an intriguing effect. At certain points, it is pretty much hypnotic, but for anyone who shares the same experience, only in the way that it is supposed to be during such a journey. At the end of it, the camera lingers on piles of discarded packages from instant food, and other trash waiting to be cleaned up. Instead of the most awful place to be trapped in for two days of your time, however, it looks more like the aftermath of a carnival. It is not just what goes on aboard the trains, a temporary respite before they reach their next destination, it is the life of Chinese people transitioning into the future.

Before going back to darkness, the last identifiable image that appears on the screen is an eye, probably from the train operator, once again implying what the film is really about. Theoretically, filming on trains is prohibited in China, but for Sniadecki and the people present in his film, what is not allowed to be documented, is seen.

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Postscript – guest reviewed earlier, The Iron Ministry, previously unseen by this viewer

THE IRON MINISTRY           B+               
USA  China  (82 mi)  2014  d:  J.P. Sniadecki                       film's website 

One of the better ways to learn about a new city or geographical region is to simply immerse yourself directly into the middle, walk around, and then pay close attention to what you observe.  This unusual film offers a window into the rapidly changing transition taking place in modern China.  Providing a snapshot of various journeys on China’s railway system, American filmmaker and academic J.P. Sniadecki creates an interesting experiment in social realism, using abstract experimental imagery to explore China’s changing place in the world.  Shot over the course of three years between 2011 and 2013 on different railway systems throughout contemporary China, the footage is cleverly edited together to create the impression of a single trip, what the director calls one “cinema-train,” where the resulting film takes place entirely inside the cramped space aboard the trains, and where each train starts and ends remains unclear, but the result is an incredibly intimate portrait of the Chinese population traveling throughout their own country.  A fascinating slice-of-life documentary where Sniadecki writes, shoots, directs, produces, edits, and is a sound recordist in a film that is amazingly ambitious, where the role of the filmmaker is like an unseen guide who may initiate conversations shown onscreen, where passengers may be seen talking directly to the filmmaker.  Sniadecki is an American born on a goat farm in Michigan, who grew up in the rustbelt of Northern Indiana, studied philosophy at Grand Valley State University, flying to Shanghai in May of 1999 to study Chinese philosophy and culture and has lived and worked for several years in China and has learned to speak fluent Chinese, making several earlier films in China including YUMEN (2013), about an abandoned oil town in China’s northwest Gansu Province, and PEOPLE’S PARK (2012), one continuous 78-minute long tracking shot on a summer afternoon through the crowded spaces of the People’s Park in Chengdu, Sichuan, where here as well the man with the movie camera is often stared at out of the corner of people’s eyes, but his identity is never revealed.  Beginning and ending in the pitch black of the train stations, the audience is introduced by means of sound alone, aided by the exquisite sound designer Ernst Karel, one of the key figures of the Sensory Ethnography Lab :: Harvard University (SEL), the school where the director pursued his doctorate in media anthropology, creators of an unembellished, starkly realistic style of documentary, where this film bears a close resemblance to Manakamana (2013).  The abstract nature of the initial images can be a bit unsettling, a black screen followed by geometric designs that bear no resemblance whatsoever to a recognizable reality, where it takes awhile before discovering you are actually on a train.  There’s no voiceover to place you where you are, as you’re never anchored to any specific event.  There’s no music track.  All you hear is the sound heard within the train itself.  As Sniadecki explains, from My Cultural Landscape: Planes, Trains, and Musicals:

To capture as many different encounters as possible, I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of coverage. I hopped on trains in many different corners of China, as well as through the major arteries of the railway system. Some rides were 40+ hours, others were 20 minutes. I never had a clear goal for each journey.

Ernst [Karel] is an amazing sound artist. I have informal training in music as well, so we approached the film’s sound design as a sonic composition. Attention to attack, release, resonant frequencies, atmosphere, dynamic range, and tonality all played a part in the design. We were open to and excited about the musicality of the train itself, whether by including songs actually played and recorded on the train, or by using the train sounds themselves to compose something akin to musique concrete.

The West is currently fascinated by China, by just how vast and huge it is, becoming a symbol of transition, where major cities have already built skyscrapers and modernized, offering a dream of prospective job opportunities, while the rural areas have yet to see similar signs of progress, where this film allows unique insight into an often unknown culture by providing such closeness into the everyday experience.  One of the things the film does best is provide insightful observations on personal space, where Sniadecki’s camera moves slowly throughout the economy class sections of overcrowded trains, where every inch of available space is inhabited by humans and their cargo, packed to capacity with exhausted riders sleeping on the floors as well as the aisles, where it’s inconceivable that this meets any safety standard, as should there be a fire or accident, it would be near impossible for anyone to escape.  Nonetheless, this super-confined space on the train provides the director an opportunity to mix himself into the conversations happening around him, where a whole range of conversations may discuss culture, politics, ethnicity or religion mixed together with other people who are just traveling, some are happily engaging in a drinking session, while others can be seen sleeping, reading, playing cards, or listening to music, where you’re forced to ignore or pay particularly close attention to those who are seen nearby.  The camera follows closely behind the train’s official vendor and his food cart as he sidesteps the stragglers on the floor, slowly navigating his way through the myriad of obstacles in the car offering packaged snack food, though he’s out of instant noodles, which is what everyone’s continually asking for.  Another view offers just a glimpse of the floor as someone attempts the futile job of sweeping underneath the seats and the aisles, creating a mass of garbage that is swept throughout the length of the train car.  Perhaps most surprising is seeing an elderly butcher smoking using a bamboo cigar-holder while hanging his freshly cut slabs of meat in an available open space on the train, blood still dripping on the floor, obviously selling his wares, where there’s no conceivable refrigeration, and who knows the length of his journey.  One of the shots is a view of oscillating fans attached to the ceiling which are the only means of ventilation.  At one stop, people are seen boarding the trains loaded up from head to toe with fresh farm produce, which they obviously intend to sell, carrying baskets of vegetables on each end of a pole around their shoulders, making it extremely difficult to get through the door, but when they do, they are easily consuming the space of about three individuals.  It becomes clear that Sniadecki is enamored with Chinese life and culture, where his interest becomes our interest, and his loose narrative allows us to submerge ourselves in his images and eavesdrop on nearby conversations.  By immersing the viewer so completely into the experience of riding a train, the film itself becomes part of the journey.. 

According to a New York Times interview with Sniadecki, Q. and A.: J. P. Sniadecki on China, Trains and ‘The Iron Ministry’, the term “Ministry” in the title refers specifically to “the Ministry of Railways, which was considered a secretive yet expansive ‘kingdom unto itself’ within a government known for its opacity.  The Chinese Ministry of Railways once had its own schools, courts, housing, factories, and police force.  The three years that I spent shooting this film coincided with the last three years of the Ministry’s reign as a separate world:  In March 2013, after high-level cases of corruption were exposed, the Ministry was officially dissolved and transformed into the state-owned China Railways Corporation.  It is said that control over this corporation is divided between China’s elites, and ongoing privatization and expansion have been easy to see.”  While the initial trains seen are so rickety and antiquated that they’ve already been eliminated by the nation’s new railway system, replaced by faster, more modernized trains.  Sniadecki spends more time in the chaos of the cheaper sections, barely lingering at all in the more upscale areas, which are quieter, considerably less populated, where passengers are seen sitting apart from one another and are usually engaged in solitary activities with their smartphones.  In an 80-minute film, most time is spent observing, while the conversations themselves comprise only about 20 minutes or so, where two women talk about the horrible wages and working conditions in factories, continually having to work longer hours, both yearning for something better.  Several articulate young men speak about the rising costs of housing, making it difficult to buy property, which becomes a demand by the family of the bride in prospective marriages, making it exceedingly difficult to marry young.  All seem to agree that subsidized housing is a joke, only given to those with political connections, a social condition not likely to change anytime soon as there is no democratic means to vote for a change, instead they can only idealistically hope that the Party will listen more and pay attention to those people they are supposed to represent.  If not, they may have to leave the country to seek a better life elsewhere.  This view is not all that different from American citizens losing faith in their government, where politicians often feel disconnected to those more ordinary citizens they were elected to serve.  There is an open discussion on Hui Muslim minorities in China, claiming it’s difficult to find mosques in China, yet whose mere existence allows one overly optimistic Han Chinese passenger to conclude that China treats all minorities well.  But this is countered by an intense intellectual discussion between Sniadecki and Tibetan author and activist Tsering Woeser (unidentified in the film, as she is simply seen as another passenger, who along with fellow Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei published a book documenting Tibetan self-immolations entitled Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World, while according to Prominent Tibetan Activist Tsering Woeser Claims ..., the government is suspected in deleting her recent post on Facebook referring to the self-immolation of Tibetan monk Pawo Kalsang Yeshi who was the 142nd monk to set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule in Tibet since 2009), one of the few Tibetan authors and poets to write in Chinese, yet who eloquently expresses how China is using trains and their ability to reach hard-to-access regions to literally rape Tibet economically by flooding the Tibet Autonomous Region with Chinese citizens into Tibet, with their primary goal being to create a suffocating economic stranglehold, where their presence is creating an elite, super rich class of Chinese, while previously the wealth was more evenly spread throughout the entire region, comparing Tibetans to American Indians, suggesting the role of the railroad industry in each instance was used for exploitation and genocide.  Because of her intimate familiarity with the subject, she was no ordinary passenger, but felt like a plant in perhaps a scene staged by the filmmaker in order to get this particular message across.  Easily the most amusing part of the film comes from a mischievous young boy perched in an upper bunk, seen making sarcastic train announcements in the beginning that take on a surreal quality, a moment that does not feel staged, but there’s absolutely no doubt that he was “performing” for the camera.  One is left wondering what this imaginative kid would be up to in another ten years or so: 

All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask that those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them please hurry aboard and ignite them where there are crowds to contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast, so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once.

This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit on your face and you may spit in the mouths of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein. As a disposable train, this one has been operating safely for 30 years. If you discover your head over your feet, you’ve arrived at the last stop: Heaven.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Original members of N.W.A. (left to right), Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren
Standing (left to right) Laylaw, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. while seated (left to right) Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren before their performance during the Straight Outta  Compton tour in Kansas City in 1989

USA  (147 mi)  2015  ‘Scope d:  F. Gary Gray                     Official site

The sound begins over the Universal logo, where the first words spoken onscreen come straight out of Dr. Dre’s prologue to the N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton album released August 9, 1988: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”  Without any major tours, and with no radio airplay, the album reached platinum status, making the artists major stars, eventually going double platinum.  In a startling series of terrific opening sequences, one by one, the film introduces each of the three major figures, opening with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in the midst of a contentious drug deal at a local crack house when the cops show up with a tank and battering ram, everyone frantically running in all directions, with Eazy vanishing over a rooftop several doors down as the main title comes up.  In one of the most brilliant musical choices, the immediately recognizable opening notes of the breezy jazz of Roy Ayers, roy ayers everybody loves the sunshine - YouTube (3:58), perfectly defines time and place and the laid back culture of Southern California, taking us back to a hot Los Angeles summer in the 70’s as Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is having a serious argument about the future with his mother (Lisa Renee Pitts, excellent in the role, one of the few women featured in the film), who wants him to find a real job instead of the small handouts received as an up and coming DJ at local clubs, where the friction is deep enough to cause a split, as Dre takes his record collection and moves into the home of a friend.  Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is seen writing rap lyrics while riding the bus back into the inner city from his suburban high school in the valley, where the bus is intercepted by some serious, gun-toting gang members who feel compelled to school the young novices about dying on the streets when you come between the Bloods and the Crips.  Eventually all the featured characters are brought together by Dre, seen as the mastermind behind the music, like the Quincy Jones of rap, a “Master of Mixology,” taking all the records in his collection and breaking it down, adding new riffs and a bolder bass beat, rebuilding it into something altogether new.  Adding Cube’s raw lyrics and a stable of rappers, including DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), they convince Eazy to get out of the drug business (where sooner or later it’s likely he’d either get caught or killed) and invest his money in the music business, starting their own company, Ruthless Records, which led to the first release by N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit’ Attitude).   

The history of Hip-hop and rap music didn’t start with N.W.A., as Hip-hop’s origin was the East coast’s South Bronx of the early 1970’s, representing an expression of rebellion and discontent, a predominantly black genre that grew out of crime-ridden neighborhoods languishing in urban poverty, pioneered by lower-class black artists in New York with white record producers between 1975 and 1983.  Despite an effective boycott of the music by both black and white radio stations that continues to this day, what N.W.A. did was provide a ghetto swagger and bravado, a racially charged indignation about the black urban experience of the late 80’s that was expressed through graphically raw and ferociously explicit lyrics, eventually catching on in mainstream America, showing an ever-increasing nationwide popularity where by 1991 white suburban teenagers are consuming 80 percent of the market, according to Walter Edward Hart’s Sociology Masters thesis of December 2009 at the University of Texas, The Culture Industry, Hop Hop Music and the White Perspective: How One-Dimensional Representation of Hip Hop Music Has Influenced Racial Attitudes, The Culture Industry, Hip Hop Music And The White ....  The first rap groups to break through to white audiences were Run DMC in 1984, two middle class black kids of college educated parents whose image onstage evoked gang street life, while Public Enemy, whose theatrical black nationalism was featured so prominently in Spike Lee’s iconic film Do the Right Thing (1989), where their single “Fight the Power,” Do The Right Thing Intro - YouTube (3:40), was the biggest college hit of 1989. 

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

Rap contains powerful cultural, social, and racial associations that speak to the racial divide in America, using visual and often inflammatory rhetoric to conjure up images, where the music can often send unintended cross-cultural messages.  N.W.A began a popularization with gangsta rap, but not with their 1987 debut release, “Panic Zone,” N.W.A. Panic Zone (3:31).  A bigger impact was made with the B-side, “Dope Man,” N.W.A. Dopeman (6:18), which is essentially an Ice Cube record that describes the grimy details of a world mostly hidden from view for most middle class listeners, black or white, allowing a fascinating glimpse into another culture.  Eazy-E’s rendition of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” was less concerned with social commentary and was more about conveying a day-in-the-life of a particular lifestyle, as voiced by someone who lived and breathed that lifestyle before he ever walked into a recording studio.  What’s interesting about the music is not only that it led to Ice Cube’s role in the dramatically powerful John Singleton film BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), but that it allowed the world a window into the South Central Los Angeles community at the same time as the Rodney King beating took place at the hands of the LA police, where N.W.A.’s music elicits howls of youthful rage, spewed with a venomous urban slang that white audiences had never heard before.  While rap is still proportionally more popular among blacks, its primary audience is white and lives in the suburbs.  By June 22, 1991, three months after the Rodney King incident was captured on YouTube, Video of Rodney King Beaten by Police Released - ABC News (1:16), the #1 song on the Billboard magazine charts was Niggaz4life by N.W.A., a rap group from the Los Angeles ghetto of Compton, Watts and South Central, casually unveiling a universe of violence, drugs, guns, and elicit sex, whose records had never before risen above No. 27.  The music is at its most dramatically powerful while depicting the draconian methods used by the Los Angeles police force to control ordinary citizens, especially in black neighborhoods like Compton.  Where once conversations were needed and a degree of human interaction between white and black cultures was required, but the searing lyrics of N.W.A. captured explosive images that were previously off limits to mainstream America, providing a shockingly explicit description, offering a disturbing snapshot of life and a chilling prophecy of the Rodney King beating a few years later, where all the officers were subsequently acquitted, leading to outrage and subsequent riots, turning the neighborhood into a war zone, all captured on live television, where now a flip of the switch of the TV stations could take you straight into the heart of the black community.  According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Director of African and African American Research at Harvard University: 

Both the rappers and their white fans affect and commodify their own visions of street culture, like buying Navajo blankets at a reservation road-stop.  A lot of what you see in rap is the guilt of the black middle class about its economic success, its inability to put forth a culture of its own.  Instead they do the worst possible thing, falling back on fantasies of street life.  In turn, white college students with impeccable gender credentials buy nasty sex lyrics under the cover of getting at some kind of authentic black experience.

What is potentially very dangerous about this is the feeling that by buying records they have made some kind of valid social commitment.

According to Hank Shocklee, co-producer of Public Enemy: 

If you’re a suburban white kid and you want to find out what life is like for a black city teenager, you buy a record by N.W.A.  It’s like going to an amusement park and getting on a roller coaster ride—records are safe, they’re controlled fear, and you always have the choice of turning it off.  That’s why nobody ever takes a train up to 125th Street and gets out and starts walking around.  Because then you’re not in control anymore: it’s a whole other ball game.

Chuck D of Public Enemy described rap music as “Black America’s CNN,” where the film clearly understands the value of N.W.A.’s art in terms of its observational description of life in poor black neighborhoods, and while the media called N.W.A’s music gangsta rap, their own chosen term was reality rap.  While rappers later embraced the gangsta label, including N.W.A. themselves, it was only with the understanding that “gangsta” was by itself an inadequate description of their music, as the term could be used in a derogatory fashion by the media to undermine the music’s significance, becoming trivializing and stereotypical.  With a story written by four different screenwriters, there are plenty of disconnects in the latter stages of the film, with characters disappearing or barely making a presence, where the film is highly entertaining up to a point until it gets bogged down, not knowing what to do with the group’s success.  The early struggles are easily the strongest part of the film, where the talented kids are seen as visionaries, promoting a provocative style of music that had a voracious listening audience, yet the older black club owners didn’t want to hear that gangster shit in their clubs, thinking it was too aggressive and would only invite a gang element and the cops around, causing needless trouble and headaches, so they had to play it on the sly when the owners weren’t around, but it caught on instantly leading to wild enthusiasm in the crowds, where there’s an electricity to the group’s genesis and their early success.  There’s an interesting similarity to Mia Hansen-Løve’s house music tribute, Eden (2014), showing the introduction of Chicago house music in Paris clubs in the early 90’s, as both films feature DJs working a party scene, prominent drug use and both capture the texture of the times, where the first time people hear this music there’s an instant connection, sounding raw and simple, which sounded amazing and felt like something new.  STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a much more significant story, considering the social implications, because the brilliance of the music is its striking reaction to the surrounding conditions of routine racial profiling and police brutality to anyone black, where the stereotypical mindset of the cops is to continually assume gangbanger or outlaw, associating black males with negativity and unwarranted threats of imminent danger.  The stark public reaction to hearing West coast songs like “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton - YouTube (4:21) or “Fuck tha Police” N.W.A. "Fuck Tha Police" Music Video (5:14) is like hearing black punk music, as it has an immediate incendiary effect, where even today, protesters in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri wear “Fuck tha Police” T-shirts.

Fuck tha police
Comin straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority

Fuck that shit, ‘cause I ain’t tha one
For a punk muthafucka with a badge and a gun
To be beatin on, and throwin in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fuckin with me ‘cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics

The film doesn’t really get into the East coast versus West coast differences or even show a sociological impact, but simply follows the lives of a few main players.  A contentious aspect is the portrayal of white manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who eventually partnered exclusively with Eazy-E to manage their recordings and negotiate contracts, which at least allowed N.W.A. to get into a recording booth and record their first album for Ruthless Records.  Playing fast and loose with the facts, this all too conveniently fits the stereotype of a white manager ripping off black artists, as exemplified by Morgan Neville’s well documented portrait of Darlene Love and others in 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), a veritable history lesson on the roots of racism in the music industry.  Since this film is told from the point of view of its own producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who hand-picked the director as well, where Gray got his start in the industry making music videos for both of them, a knock on the film is that he is little more than a conventional Hollywood director, where he had a chance to connect this film to the disturbing racial animosity of the present, where decades later white cops are still shooting unarmed black youths in record numbers, headline-grabbing tragedies that continue to haunt black communities across the nation.  Certainly part of the N.W.A.’s appeal across racial lines is that their message was so bluntly angry and real in response to these problems, but the film doesn’t go that way, taking a less provocative, safer approach by strictly remaining a biographical profile, and the film suffers because of it.  Instead it turns into a performance video style movie where N.W.A. goes on the road and becomes an instant success, becoming a self-gratifying, congratulatory movie, paying only lip service to how the FBI wanted to censure their music and how the police in Detroit actually stopped a concert after warning them not to perform “Fuck tha Police,” becoming a rallying point in the film, generating plenty of sympathy for the recording artists, but never elevating the material to being about more than just these few guys.  At least early on there are several excellently staged sequences of police brutality, incidents that feed the lyrics of their music, but in the end they’re just a bunch of rich guys living in huge mansions with swimming pools, where they’ve become part of the establishment.     

Like so many successful groups before them, N.W.A split up at the peak of their success, as Heller and Eazy-E were at the top of the food chain living in lavish mansions while the rest of the guys were still living at home with their moms.  It wasn’t hard to see that something wasn’t right.  Nonetheless it took these guys a long time to come to the realization that they needed to “own” their own material and not leave it in the hands of dubious  managers.  Ice Cube figured it out early, and the rest initially called him a traitor for leaving the group and going solo, but he wasn’t getting paid for what he was contributing.  So for him it was a no-brainer.  But the film is very fuzzy on what actually happened, leaving out pertinent details in the rise and fall of N.W.A., including how Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) lured both Ice Cube and Dre from Ruthless Records to his own Death Row Records, playing fast and loose with the facts, but simply showing Knight to be a huge man surrounding himself with gun-toting gangsters, a man with a hair-trigger temper and freaky psychotic tendencies.  Remember this is the man who is allegedly behind the shootings of Biggie and Tupac, who had members of the LA police force working on his security detail in order to keep him protected from the police, but this is also a man who in a state of rage actually ran his car over two men on the set while making this film in January 2015, leaving one dead and the other hospitalized, where he remains incarcerated at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.  While they did show lavish pool parties that reflected the Southern California Hugh Hefner Playboy lifestyle for the rich and famous, they never showed any of these guys (except Eazy-E) even smoking a joint during their rise to success while also failing to mention the misogynist lyrics and battery charges filed against Dre for abusing women, some over an extended period of time.  But you won’t see that here, making this more of a condensed, feelgood portrait, where Dre comes off as a saint and musical genius, where the only time he throws a punch is protecting his little brother.  Not sure the film needs to spend as much time as it does documenting the hospitalization and eventual death of Eazy-E from AIDS in 1995 at the age of 31, who died from the effects of his own lifestyle, slowing the film down to a crawl, going to great lengths to ratchet up the sympathy in a memoriam tribute.  By the end, Dre walks away from Suge Knight as well and the rest is history.  While Dr. Dre claims to be the first rap billionaire, according to Tatiana Siegel from The Hollywood Reporter, July 31, 2015, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube Break Silence on N.W.A Movie, Suge ..., his current net worth is estimated to be closer to $700 million, Ice Cube is at $140 million, DJ Yella has become a porn producer of more than 300 films, directing 26 and performing in three, while MC Ren released a single solo album in 1992 that has currently sold just under a million copies.    

Connecting the N.W.A. story with today, one realizes how little has actually changed between blacks and police, and why, after such a brilliant opening, the film loses its direction, caught up in its own commercialization instead of at least mentioning people who have become household names for the most tragic reasons, as there is no mention of Michael Brown being shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 7, 2014, or Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot 14 times by police for disturbing the peace in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 30, 2014, Eric Garner died from a police choke-hold for selling illegal cigarettes in the streets of New York on July 17, 2014, John Crawford III was shot and killed by police at a Walmart in Dayton, Ohio on Aug. 5, 2014, Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man was shot 3 times, once in the back by a white police officer in Florence, California on Aug. 11, 2014, Dante Parker died in police custody after being repeatedly stunned by a Taser in Victorville, California on Aug. 12, 2014, Tanisha Anderson died after officers slammed her head on the pavement while taking her into custody in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 13, 2014, Akai Gurley was shot and killed by a police officer, claiming “accidental discharge,” while walking in a public housing stairwell with his girlfriend in Brooklyn, New York on Nov. 20, 2014, Tamir Rice, age 12,  was shot and killed when police mistakenly thought his toy gun was real in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 22, 2014, Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook a pill bottle for a weapon in Phoenix, Arizona on Dec. 2, 2014, Jerame Reid was shot and killed after a car was pulled over by police, where he was a passenger exiting a car with his hands in front of his chest in Bridgeton, New Jersey on Dec. 30, 2014, Tony Robinson was shot 3 times for allegedly disrupting traffic in Madison, Wisconsin on March 6, 2015, Phillip White died in police custody after a violent encounter with police where he appeared to be in medical distress and may have been bitten by a police dog while pinned to the ground in Vineland, New Jersey on March 31, 2015, Eric Harris was shot and killed by a 73-year-old reserve deputy officer who allegedly mistook his own gun for a Taser, captured on a police dashcam video in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 2, 2015, Walter Scott was shot in the back by police while running away from a traffic stop for a broken tail light in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 4, 2015, Freddie Gray who died in a hospital of a spinal cord injury a week after he was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police van where he was not seatbelted and taken to a police station instead of a hospital, where he was found already in a coma from a broken neck in Baltimore, Maryland on April 19, 2015, Kris Jackson was shot dead for a parole violation, killed while attempting to climb out a window wearing only shorts and socks, with his legs hanging out the window, unarmed, yet he was perceived as a “deadly threat” in South Lake Tahoe, California on June 15, 2015, while Joshua Dryer was shot and killed by police as a passenger when the driver was being uncooperative during a traffic stop in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 23, 2015.    

According to Oliver Laughland, Jon Swaine, and Jamiles Lartey from The Guardian, July 1, 2015. US police killings headed for 1,100 this year, with black ..., of the 547 people killed by police in the United States by June 29, 2015, 478 were shot and killed – and more than 20% were unarmed, where black people are being killed by police at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people.  While 31.6% of black people killed were found to be carrying no weapon, that was true for only 16.5% of white people.  To show just how exaggerated this excessive force has become, police shot and killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes for throwing rocks at cars, firing 17 shots at him, “armed” only with a rock, an incident caught on video in Pasco, Washington (with a population of 67,000) on February 15, 2015, while only 6 bullets were fired by the Finland police force (with a population of 5.4 million) for the entire year of 2013.  Not released until August, 2015, one year after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, perhaps a more appropriate film ending might have been the eulogy for Freddie Gray, where the Reverend Jamal Bryant offered his own personal reflections to Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, from Stacia L. Brown at the New Republic magazine, April 30, 2015, Looking While Black - The New Republic:

On April 12 at 8:39 in the morning, four officers on bicycles saw your son. And your son, in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, did something black men were trained to know not to do. He looked police in the eye. And when he looked the police in the eye, they knew that there was a threat, because they’re used to black men with their head bowed down low, with their spirit broken. He was a threat simply because he was man enough to look somebody in authority in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother ... you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. He knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Crimes and Misdemeanors

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS             A                    
USA  (107 mi)  1989  d  Woody Allen

I think I see a cab.  If we run quickly we can kick the crutch from that old lady and get it.
―Clifford Stern (Woody Allen)

The 80’s was a particularly good decade for Allen, arguably his best, with films like Stardust Memories (1980),  A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), ZELIG (1983), my own personal favorite Broadway Danny Rose (1984), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), RADIO DAYS (1987), SEPTEMBER (1987), and ANOTHER WOMAN (1988), a time when he discovered the incomparable Mia Farrow, making this their 9th of 13 films working together, mirror images of one other with all their pent-up anxiety and inner turmoil, ending the decade with this film, doing away with the feel good Hollywood ending, where the edgier, more pessimistic tone was a direct response to Allen’s feelings that he had been too “nice” to the characters at the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, though arguably this may be his most openly Jewish effort, much like the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), as each is a journey that attempts to fathom the essence of their Jewish soul.  While some of the basic ideas for the film were stolen outright by Noah Baumbach in While We're Young (2015), a film that attempts to deal with the overall ethics and moral responsibilities of artists, it was Allen who was the original trailblazer, paying homage to Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Bergman among others, but the film is so undeniably and uniquely Allen that it could not have been made by any other director.  According to Roger Ebert in his 1989 review, Crimes and Misdemeanors - Roger Ebert , “Who else but Woody Allen could make a movie in which virtue is punished, evildoing is rewarded, and there is a lot of laughter ― even subversive laughter at the most shocking times?”  Since Dostoyevsky’s title was already taken, this is Allen’s flipside to Crime and Punishment, a moralistic film that searches for meaning throughout, guided by God, religious teachings, and the lessons of philosophers, only to discover this can all be thrown out the window for people of wealth and privilege, where ultimately the laws of God do not apply to them.  Money apparently offers them divine privilege and protection for their crimes, as after a brief period of agonizing guilt afterwards, the feeling dissipates and the man’s conscience can be clear, no longer feeling the slightest tinge of guilt, literally getting away with murder.  At its most outlandish, it asks what would the world look like today had the Nazi’s won?  Jews that survived the Holocaust have a unique relationship with God, perhaps best expressed by Elie Wiesel in his book Night, his personal take on surviving Auschwitz as a child while watching his entire family and nearly everyone else around him die.  A devout religious student as a child, throughout the ordeal he kept asking himself, where was God at Auschwitz?  How could he allow that to happen?  Apparently these same kinds of questions haunted Allen as a child, where this film represents a seemingly futile search for faith in the moral wasteland represented by the Reagan years (1981 – 89).   
According to David Evanier from the Jewish Book Council, January 28, 2014, David Evanier on Woody Allen's references to his Jewish ...  
Woody Allen became a comedy star at a time when every preconception about American life came into question. He entered a social milieu that somehow was waiting for and anticipating him. He was the antithesis of the traditional male hero: the archetypal schlemiel with a whining, high voice. His humor was very personal and unique; it was not interchangeable with other comedians. There was a presumption, whether it was true or not, that he was telling you something more personal and autobiographical about himself and his experiences.

It almost strains credulity that a Jewish comedian and film actor who placed his Jewishness front and center and consciously proclaimed it, utilizing constant references to his Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, and with ambivalent ways of defining gentiles (white bread and mayonnaise were the most popular reference) could capture the imagination of and even beguile a huge audience as Woody Allen has done. Jack Benny, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, and Groucho Marx preceded him, but these were not comics advertising their Jewishness; it was implicit and polite. Borscht-belt comics were open about their ethnicities by the 1950s, but they were entertaining largely Jewish audiences. Allen was a national comic from the start.

Allen’s boyhood was lived during the Holocaust from afar and he is obsessed with it. He wrote in Tikkun of his rage when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night: “Wiesel made the point several times that the inmates of the camps didn’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War Two and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horrors Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.”

The film wastes no time getting right into the heart of the action, as within minutes, Martin Landau as Judah Rosenthal is immediately identified as a “guilty man,” like a villain in a Hitchcock film, intercepting and reading aloud to himself a letter intended for his wife from his mistress of several years, airline stewardess Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), where she’s fed up with hiding and being alone and is ready to expose it all, which puts Judah in a precarious position, where much of this film is told through brief flashbacks, which act as his conscience, where he sees his life passing before his eyes.  As a successful ophthalmologist and a pillar of the community, this revelation could demoralize his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom), who enjoys the privileges of being married to a successful partner and upset the stability of a loving family, as both parents are adored by their daughter Sharon (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and her fiancé Chris (Greg Edelman).  All this could be ruined if word gets out.  And there’s charges of embezzling as well?  The central dilemma is Rosenthal goes on a panicked tailspin, still trying to smooth things over with Dolores, who won’t give up easily, as she wants what’s been promised to her.  Anjelica Huston plays totally against type here, as she’s usually a strong, dominant character, but here she’s a long-suffering woman who’s continually been taken advantage of, who is reduced to nervous exhaustion in his presence, and grows neurotically angry and insecure in his absence.  Each of the scenes they play together is a flurry of heated emotions, where Rosenthal is concerned that the dam is about to break.  Alternating with Rosenthal’s ugly dilemma is the plight of a relatively unknown documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern (Woody Allen), something of a sad sack character who is involved in a loveless marriage with his wife Wendy (Joanna Gleason), where they haven’t had sex in a year (The last time I was inside a woman was when I was in the Statue of Liberty,” he quips), where the only satisfaction he receives out of life is taking his young niece to matinee revival movie houses, where clips from old movies have a hilarious way of commenting on the present, much like Rosenthal’s flashback episodes.  Cliff has discovered an aging intellectual, Professor Louis Levy, to be the subject of a film he’s been working on for some time but has yet to complete it.  Interestingly, Levy is played by Martin Bergmann, known personally as a friend and therapist by Allen, a clinical professor of psychology in New York University’s post-doctoral program, though his character appears to have been based on Primo Levy, Italian writer, essayist and Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz.  Once again, Allen uses Levy’s eloquent speeches as if summoning up the voice of conscience.  In the opening moments, we hear Judah’s conscience speaking during a testimonial dinner speech honoring his generous philanthropy.

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.”  The eyes of God.  What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like?  Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed.  And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

This is a film with plenty of one-liner zingers, like the Woody of old, where we appreciate the comic wit of this man, who is like an encyclopedia of Jewish humor going back to the vaudeville era when comedians had to suffer through the catcalls and boos of an audience that impatiently waited for the next girlie act to show up, yet by the end of the film Woody’s character is in abject despair.  An interesting counterpoint throughout is the use of vintage jazz music that sounds so upbeat and happy.  Allen’s nemesis is his wife’s highly accomplished and extremely successful brother, Lester, Alan Alda, introduced with Darryl Hannah on his arm in an uncredited cameo, a multi-millionaire TV producer who’s also something of a narcissistic egomaniac in the mold of Donald Trump, where he has to constantly be the center of attention, which irks Cliff to no end, as he can’t get anyone to pay attention to him or his films.  In reality, Allen loved Alda’s improvisational style and asked him for more, greatly expanding the role, which Allen wrote as they were filming, where his personality was supposedly based on comedy writer Larry Gelbart.  As a favor to Wendy, Lester agrees to hire Cliff, who’s forced to abandon his principles (a vow of poverty, apparently) by agreeing to film a documentary on the life of Lester for a great deal of money, where he meets one of the producers on the set, Hallie (Mia Farrow), as she fends off a series of romantic attempts by Lester.  Hoping to find a fellow comrade in arms in the war against Lester, they quickly become an alliance of two, where Hallie shows interest in his documentary, suggesting it could run in the fall television campaign, and of course they play hooky on Lester by attending old vintage matinee movies, where Cliff falls madly in love, though for Hallie it’s more of a budding friendship with a business acquaintance.  Meanwhile, Judah is eating himself alive and confesses his infidelity through the confidentially of one of his patients, Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi that is going blind, who urges him to come clean with his wife and hope for forgiveness, “It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world.  You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning, and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power.  Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live,” while also having flashbacks of his own father Sol (David S. Howard) at temple, instructing him as a young child, “The eyes of God see all.  Listen to me Judah, there is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight.  He sees the righteous and He sees the wicked, and the righteous will be rewarded, but the wicked will be punished for eternity.”  In one of the more memorable flashbacks, at a family Passover dinner, where Sol again claims “God will punish the wicked,” his more feisty and radical sister May (Anna Berger) reminds Sol that Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews and got away with it.  With all of this gnawing away inside his soul, Judah calls on the aid of his brother Jack, the more down to earth Jerry Orbach, who has sinister underworld connections, afraid of what he’s doing but he’s desperate to stop Dolores or he’ll be ruined, so he instructs Jack to “take care of it.”  Those few words set in motion a most foul deed, to which the agonized Judah responds when it’s over, “God have mercy on us, Jack.”         

Beautifully edited in a gorgeous symmetrical design, where each sequence is quick, establishes itself, and moves on to another, creating a fluidity of character and ideas that continually spark interest, making terrific use of old movie clips, all tying the past into the present, the film is listed as #3, behind ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979) as #1 from an October 4, 2013 Guardian Poll, "The 10 best Woody Allen films".  Interesting that gas was only $1.03/gallon when this film was made, also that Allen uses Judah’s favorite composer to accentuate the fragmented thoughts and jarring darkness of his actions, setting the murder motif to a Schubert String Quartet in G major, Op. 161, D.887, 1st movement by the Julliard String Quartet, 1.Franz Schubert D. 887 Last Quartet No. 15 in G major I ... YouTube (10:00), followed by a quick edit to an amusing film clip of “Murder He Says” from HAPPY GO LUCKY (1943), Betty Hutton -- Murder, He Says - YouTube (2:51).  While Cliff is supposed to be painting a flattering portrait of such a successful, larger-than-life man, instead he focuses on how he perceives Lester, like the belligerent manner that he treats his staff, repeatedly showing his gargantuan ego and tyrannical rage, edited next to archival footage of Mussolini delivering an animated speech to the cheering throngs, but apparently he goes too far with footage of Lester privately cornering women with sexual advances, which promptly gets him fired.  “What is the guy so upset about?  You’d think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before.”  But perhaps even more deflating, he receives news that Professor Levy committed suicide, leaving behind a note that simply said, “I’ve gone out the window.”  Cliff is beside himself in disbelief, claiming “When I grew up in Brooklyn nobody committed suicide.  Everyone was too unhappy.”  Hallie explains they could never use his film after this event, but in real life it matches what happened to Primo Levy, who committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 67, which likely had a major impact on this film, much like the use of Bruno Bettelheim’s appearance in ZELIG (1983), another Holocaust survivor that committed suicide by asphyxiation a year after this film was released.  Continuing the downward spiral, Hallie is leaving for work in London for 3 or 4 months, leaving Cliff feeling like he’s been abandoned and handed a prison sentence.  Cut to a shot of Alcatraz and clips from the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), as months, months, months pass by before the film jumps ahead 4 months later to a wedding reception (at the Waldorf Astoria) for the daughter of Ben, the now completely blind rabbi, where Wendy and Cliff are finally getting divorced, but Cliff is even more devastated over his worst fear realized, as Hallie and Lester arrive to the party happy and engaged.  Hallie quietly returns his one love letter, “It’s probably just as well.  I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce.  You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin,” leaving Cliff alone and in despair, sitting away from the party having a drink, where he is joined by Judah in a chance encounter, hearing that he’s a movie guy, pitching his “fictionalized” idea of a chilling murder for a movie, one where the guy actually gets away with it.   

And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person―a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scot-free. His life is completely back to normal.  Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

However it is Professor Levy speaking from the grave who gets the last word, spoken over the jazzy refrains of “I’ll Be Seeing You”:

We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions.  Moral choices.  Some are on a grand scale.  Most of these choices are on lesser points.  But!  We define ourselves by the choices we have made.  We are in fact the sum total of our choices.  Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included, in the design of creation.  It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.  And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

Movie Clips used in the film

Happy Go Lucky (1943)
Francis (1950)