Thursday, February 27, 2014

Heart of Spain + Photo League Shorts

Jacques Lemare, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Kline

HEART OF SPAIN                 B                
USA  (30 mi)  1937  d:  Herbert Kline     co-director:  Charles Korvin (Geza Karpathi)

Herbert Kline was a native of Davenport, Iowa who grew up in a middle class household before running away from home at the age of 14, bumming his way around the United States as a youth before becoming an important figure in the early history of American documentary film in the 1930’s, where the Great Depression raised his social awareness, becoming editor of a leftist magazine called New Theater in Chicago, becoming the first to publish and help stage the plays of Clifford Odets.  Later, he joined the Photo League, an organization of politically progressive documentarians in New York who were among the first to shoot American documentary films, which were not recognized at the Academy Awards until 1942.  Initially affiliated with the Workers International Relief, a Berlin based organization affiliated with the Communist Party that shot a silent film The Passaic Textile Strike (1926) to generate sympathy and raise funds for striking workers from the 1926 Passaic Textile Strike, involving more than 15,000 textile mill workers in New Jersey, becoming the first Communist-led work stoppage in the United States, one that lasted over a year, where the film document remains one of the early American labor films to have been preserved largely intact and is in the Library of Congress film collection. 

According to the Anthology Film Archives, the Film and Photo League was launched in New York in 1930 by a dedicated group of leftist and left-liberal photographers, filmmakers and critics, many avowed Marxists and party members, also others who considered themselves idealists using documentary film as a radical instrument of social change.  Branches opened in other cities as the Depression lengthened, with participants documenting the breadlines and Hoovervilles (a popular name for shanty towns built by the homeless during the Great Depression), hunger, and unemployment marches, restless protests and disputes.  Their films were shown directly to workers’ groups, in union halls or strike headquarters and even outdoors at night.  Workers often knew little of similar struggles occurring around the country or abroad, nor of the widespread results of economic crisis and class conflicts.  The Film and Photo League films thus became solidifying agents in political education, aiming to inform, to build morale and to agitate. Their efforts during the early years of the Depression helped to define social documentary film and photography as a genre, focusing on the gritty realities of urban life, taking a closer look at ordinary people, where inequity and discrimination were tangible in their work, though on December 5, 1947 the U.S. Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League for its anti-American subversive element.  By 1951 the Photo League could no longer sustain itself, and it officially closed its doors, a casualty of the Red Scare. 

Among the surviving Film and Photo League films that have recently been preserved and restored by Photo League filmmaker Leo Seltzer:

Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special 1931 (1931,16mm, 7 min.) 
The National Hunger March 1931 (1931, 16mm, 11 min.) 
Detroit Workers News Special 1932: Ford Massacre (1932, 16mm, 7 min.) 
Hunger: The National Hunger March to Washington 1932 (1932, 16mm, 18 min.) 
America Today and the World in Review (1932-34, 16mm, 11 min.) 
Bonus March 1932 (1932, 16mm, 12 min.)

Much of these early films are sharp contrasts to the more conservative oriented commercial newsreels that played in local movie houses, as they ignored the controversial subjects that these leftist films tapped into, showing footage of people marching in protest to the economic conditions of the Depression, reminding viewers that President Herbert Hoover ran his campaign promising an economic downturn that would not last for more than 6 months.  In that era, unemployment meant eviction with people becoming homeless, as one-fourth of the nation was unemployed with no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no help for the poor, where legions of people lost their homes and were living on the streets, lined up by the hundreds in soup lines across the nation’s cities.  These films capture people lined up around city blocks for food, including the first mass demonstration with protesters marching in Union Square in New York on March 6, 1930 demanding unemployment insurance, jobs, food, and clothing, while another documents thousands of people marching from various places across the country to Washington.  One of the most gripping is the newsreel coverage of the city of Detroit, arguably the nation’s hardest hit city during the Depression, where 10,000 children stood in bread lines while 80% of the auto industry was shut down and lay idle.  At the time Henry Ford was the richest man in the world, while he was also a vicious anti-Semite, an admirer of Hitler, and an ardent foe of unions.  Built in the 1920’s, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan was the largest industrial complex in the world.  Workers in the Detroit area decided to organize a Ford Hunger March on March 7, 1932 to focus attention on Henry Ford and his huge River Rouge complex, but when they reached the city border of Detroit and Dearborn, the protesters were met by police ordering the marchers to turn back.  When they refused, police fired tear gas and can be see using billy clubs in the only known footage of the armed, unprovoked attack by Dearborn police and Ford “hired security guards” who opened fire on unemployed auto workers at the gates of the River Rouge plant, killing four men, one of whom was black (Curtis Williams) and not allowed to be buried with the others in a nearby cemetery within sight of the smokestacks of the River Rouge complex, so his ashes were scattered over the plant from an airplane.    

The Bonus March is considered one of President Calvin Coolidge’s greatest blunders, as he proclaimed America was a nation of businessmen and relied upon the advice of business entrepreneurs like Henry Ford who advised him that if the government started paying unemployment insurance, loafers would quit their jobs to collect the checks and the level of unemployment would rise, while Silas Strawn, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, echoed those comments and warned that benefit payments would undermine the industriousness and work ethic of America.  When 10,000 WWI veterans marched on Washington in the spring of 1932, many or them homeless and out of work, this was an embarrassment to Hoover, but he was unreceptive to their demands that the $500 Bonus checks stipulated from a 1924 law to be paid out in 1945 be released immediately due to economic hardships.  On June 15th, the House passed the bill to pay the Bonus stipends immediately, but despite the presence of tens of thousands of veterans on the White House lawn, the Senate defeated the bill by a vote of 62 to 18.  The veterans refused to leave, however, despite the fact Congress adjourned for the summer, and remained firmly planted in a ramshackle camp of huts and tents throughout the summer, where Hoover was convinced this was not a grassroots movement of impoverished veterans, but a mass of communist agitators, ordering General Douglas MacArthur, along with Patton and Eisenhower, to lead Army cavalry and infantry units, using armored tanks and tractors, to clear out the 20,000 veterans along with another 25,000 people who had gathered, setting fire to the shacks and demolishing anything remaining in their tracks, turning the camp into a raging inferno.  This July 28th attack on veterans, leaving 4 dead and over a thousand injured, is captured on film, showing people frightened and barely able to hang on, losing what little they had left.  Hoover became a political pariah for decades afterwards even within his own party, where it would be another 30 years before a Republican would sit in the White House.  In 1936, Congress overrode President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s veto and paid the veterans their Bonus checks early.   

Charles Korvin (born Geza Karpathi) was born in Piestany, Austria-Hungary, attended the Sorbonne in Paris where he remained for ten years as a still and motion picture photographer, emigrating to the United States in 1940 where he worked as an actor and photographer, but a decade later Korvin was blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and did not work in Hollywood for the next ten years.  It’s important to consider the influence of the Spanish Civil War on the 1930’s American left, as even the Communist party retreated from their attack against capitalism and joined forces with the Popular front movement of liberals, socialists, pacifists, and progressives in a coalition against fascism.  One of the films that captured the public’s imagination was the Joris Ivens documentary THE SPANISH EARTH (1937), a documentary about the Spanish Civil War financed by a handful of American intellectuals that included John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett. One clever devise used by Ivens was to intercut the familiar New York landscape while showing the dire situation in a war ravaged Madrid, as the left was convinced it was necessary to show a connection between the plight of the Spanish people and American’s struggle to overcome the Great Depression.  That same year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Montreal physician Dr. Norman Bethune approached both Kline and Korvin in making HEART OF SPAIN, a film designed to raise money for needed medical services, where Kline originally intended to enlist in the loyalist struggle against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, but agreed instead to work on this project, living with the mobile medical clinic and filming it in operation, where Bethune, along with his American colleague Dr. Edward Barsky, served on the front lines saving wounded soldiers through blood transfusions, where blood was preserved through refrigeration and sodium citrate.  The film offers rare archival war footage, including the bombed out ruins on the streets of Madrid, taking us to the graves of unknown Canadian soldiers, featuring a mother from Madrid, Hero Escobedo, and her actions donating blood and speaking with wounded soldiers.  Edited by Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz from Frontier Films, an outgrowth of the Photo League, also responsible for Native Land (1942), they added newsreels and other source material, where most of the film is comprised of short shots in a somewhat non-linear, fragmented style, allowing the scenes to speak for themselves.  While there is a narration by John O'Shaughnessy, the film’s aesthetic acts more as a time capsule, an unconventional study of the struggle against fascism. 

It’s surprising how there was a current of anti-fascism running through the American left during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, from popular novelists John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, to American film directors King Vidor or John Ford, both of whom expressed anti-fascist sympathies.  Any study of the American left in the 30’s, however, should also include how American communists and other leftists were sold out by Stalin himself in the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 (aka the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact), a historic non-aggressive pact made with the Nazi’s that undermined their decade-long efforts in combating the international wave of fascism, where even the Communist Party of Russia caved in, which is one of the contributing factors to the rise of post war, anti-communist  fervor of McCarthyism in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  While the Russians eventually came under attack and joined the Allies in a united front against Hitler during WWII, Stalin already undermined the hopes and ideals of the Russian revolution, as reflected by the John Reed Clubs in America which included black American author Richard Wright, and instead built a totalitarian police state, the remnants of which still exist in Russia today under Putin.   

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Detroit Unleaded

DETROIT UNLEADED             C+               
USA  (90 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Rola Nashef                Official site  

While there is a shortage of Arab-American films, and far fewer (if nonexistent) comedies, so this Lebanese-American film is in a world by itself, expanding and developing her earlier short film by the same name in 2007.  Writer/director/producer Rola Nashef was born in Lebanon where her earliest childhood memories are of the civil war conflict before her family moved to America.  Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, the population was integrated between blacks, whites, Arabs, Mexicans, and other Hispanic groups, where the prevalence of jobs in the auto industry created a melting pot.  When her family moved to Detroit, she was stunned to find it more segregated, but despite the ghetto image, Detroit is becoming more multicultural, where there’s a prevalence of Arab men working behind bulletproof glass cages in gas stations, and where the director contends “It’s still the cheapest place to make a movie.”  While the common perception is one of racial hostility between the Arab and black communities, Nashef’s experience is far different from the stereotype perpetuated by an angry, racist-tinged Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO (2008).  Perhaps her younger age has something to do with it, as this is a film about people whose lives are still in front of them.  Its predecessor may be another film written and directed by a Palestinian-American woman, Cherian Dabis in AMREEKA (2009), a family drama that explores both the existing prejudices in the Middle East and in coming to America, yet its warmhearted spirit filled with lovable characters elevates the material and drew plenty of praise.  In much the same way, Nashef has drawn an intricate character study of intersecting lives, all coming together in the holy grail of a mini-mart gas station.  In Chicago, at least, the Goodman Theater put on a theatrical stage production in 2008 of Brett Neveu’s play Gas for Less, Review: Gas For Less: Chicagoist, where the action takes place in a similar setting, but it’s interesting to see how one tragically exhibits fading dreams, like the end of an era, while the other uses comedic interactions to pick up on the idea of a new beginning. 

The film’s opening prologue shows gas at only $1.93 a gallon, something of a time capsule in itself, but also a friendly Lebanese-American gas station owner Ibrahim (Akram El-Ahmar) that engages with his customers, seen in an era before the plexiglass where he’s out in the open sharing his hopes and dreams for a better life in America, proud to have a son that wants to go to college in California.  But he’s tragically shot and killed in a robbery, where his son Sami (E. J. Assi) resentfully foregoes college to run his father’s business, actually located near East Grand Boulevard and Woodward, where gas prices now hover over $4.00 a gallon and the station has been equipped with plexiglass, where Sami is stuck for long hours working behind a thick and ugly protective glass cage.  As the station is open 24/hrs a day, he shares a daily shift with his cousin Mike (Mike Bateyeh), a guy who dreams that he and Sami will eventually own dozens of gas stations.  Mike is hugely ambitious to the point of being manic, something of a hustler where he fills the back of the cage with various crap he buys from mostly black street vendors thinking they can make a few extra bucks.  Hardly a social critique, more along the lines of Kevin Smith’s CLERKS (1994), the film instead relies upon a steady stream of diverse customers, each bringing their own personalities into play, where the rhythm of the film is generated by these sudden faces that appear in front of the glass, where some are regular customers, others may be over-excited kids that are stoned, with each thankfully breaking a cycle of neverending boredom.  A running gag throughout the film is a feud with an unseen neighboring gas station owned by another Arab relative, where the competition is always luring customers with cheap deals or fancy cappuccino coffee machines.  But Sami’s world changes when Mike’s attractive and brash talking cousin Najlah (Nada Shouhayib) walks in selling phone cards, bringing her behind the cage to wait for Mike to show up, where a little awkward small talk leads to an initial attraction, but Naj insists no one can know about it, as she doesn’t want to be the talk of family gossip where all they talk about is who’s seeing who.

Unlike the gabby and ever cheerful Mike who loves the job and takes an interest in all the customers, Sami is quieter, sitting sullenly behind the glass, rarely befriending any of the customers, where only visits from Naj seem to perk him up.  From the outset, it’s clear neither Mike nor Naj’s overprotective brother Fadi (Steven Soro), who can be forcefully bullying at times, approve of this relationship, as she’s in a higher economic bracket where better things are expected for her, so the entire developing relationship takes place in secret behind the glass without ever going out on a date, where he brings her behind the cage and they simply talk to each other.  One of the things this director gets right is she has an ear for the breezy rhythm of naturalistic dialogue, creating believable, if underdeveloped, characters who are amusing throughout, accentuating a cultural dynamic of how this couple is so challenged to actually be with each other, where part of the fun is seeing just how it all plays out.  One of the better scenes is when Naj and her girlfriends go out clubbing in skimpy party dresses, but the night is short circuited when Fadi shows up, so a quick escape leaves them with few options, one of which is paying a visit to her “gas station guy.”  With the others still waiting in the car overreacting to everything they see, Sami is awestruck by what he sees, as to him, she’s mesmerizingly beautiful, a stunning contrast to what he’s used to seeing in the store.  When he chances a kiss, she’ll have none of it, claiming she’s not that kind of girl, leaving him puzzled and bewildered, while silently displaying her own confusion and inner conflict.  The film loses an opportunity to explore what’s underneath many of the mostly black customers, where one grows curious about any progression in developing attitudes about their Middle-Eastern counterparts, but there’s also a longstanding customer that goes back to the era of Sami’s father who provides a certain stability and dramatic heft to the narrative, as he’s representative of the changing neighborhood outside where people are going through hard times.  While the film may be overly optimistic and naively upbeat, where some of the quirky characters with their eccentric behavior are somewhat cliché’d, the film was actually more interesting when it was a comic struggle just to see one another, intriguing even when nothing was happening, turning predictably conventional by the end, like a fairy tale ending, but at least it stakes out new territory. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Camille Claudel 1915

La Valse/The Waltz (Camille Claudel, 1893)

Camille Claudel

CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915      B        
France  (95 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Bruno Dumont 

There is always something missing that torments me.

Madhouses are houses made on purpose to cause suffering…I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures. 
—Camille Claudel in letters to her brother Paul

Another realistically severe Bruno Dumont film that seems designed to inflict as much misery and punishment on the audience as is humanly possible, an arthouse trend that is happening all too frequently these days, as if forcing the viewer to experience such extreme degree of discomfort is somehow a doorway into artistic perception, as if the rigors of sadistic horror from Pasolini’s SALÒ, OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975) or Michael Haneke’s punishing Funny Games (1997) have somehow been unleashed upon the industry, and what was once considered rare and extreme is now more commonly accepted.  Violence has made its inroads into the human psyche to the point where no one blinks anymore at human torture.  While no one is accusing these uncompromising artists of exploitation, but Dumont joins a growing field of highly acclaimed directors, like Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) (2012, 2013), or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), who are perfectly willing to unsettle and extinguish any comfort zone with the audience, where if the expression is slavery, humiliation, or human torment, by God that’s what they will make the audience feel.  Perhaps it’s this insistence that the director must inflict trauma into the lives of the audience that comes into question, as art has the unique capacity to get “inside” a subject and explore internally without making the audience personally experience subjects like war, for instance, or suicide, incest, or murder, but instead poetically explore the subject through psychological implications.  One of the very best war movies ever made is Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) (1976), which powerfully examines the unending dread, fear, and madness associated with the conditions of war without accentuating the graphic nature of battle scenes, where the audience is lured into this dizzyingly intense psychological state of mind without forcing the audience to endure spilled guts and mutilated bodies.  Nowhere in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, perhaps his darkest tragedy, are we placed on the front lines, as the human drama takes place almost entirely behind the protected walls of a castle under assault—the point being, we don’t remember the blood of the battlefield afterwards, but are instead riveted by the human torment.  Somewhere along the line modernism has become associated with emotionally browbeating audiences, forcing them to capitulate to the director’s terms of emotional assault.  Thankfully, freedom of choice still offers us the capacity to say no to these rules of engagement.

Dumont is perhaps the closest practitioner to the Bressonian school of cinema, a formalist whose minimalist structure reflects an economy of means, known for reducing film to its bare essence, something of a perfectionist in filmmaking, where questions of faith constantly arise throughout his body of work, and this is no exception.  Up until this film, Dumont never used a name actor before, preferring to use unknowns, as his films are more about ideas and concepts and not about performances, a view shared by Bresson, where instead their artistic greatness relies upon the meticulous construction of their work, paying great attention to detail, where the viewers begin to identify with the world as the characters do, literally transporting the audience to a different time and place, where it becomes immediately recognizable and familiar, effectively using silences and long, observational gazes.  Veering away from the animalistic brutality of his earlier work, this is a thoroughly undramatic historical drama based on actual events, drawing upon the life of Camille Claudel through letters and medical records, much as Bresson relied upon actual historical trial records in The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc) (1961), yet where Bresson’s Joan remains impassive and overly detached, Dumont uses perhaps the most internationally acclaimed and highly expressive French actress Juliette Binoche in the role of Camille, where in keeping with Dumont’s portrayal of realism, he has chosen an artist to reflect the life of another artist.  While Dumont doesn’t concern himself with the backstory, Camille was 19 in 1883 when she became a student of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, 24-years her senior, which developed into a passionate but stormy love affair where she inspired Rodin as a model for many of his works while also assisting him, as the two artists mutually influenced one another.  Rodin also had another longterm mistress, Rose Beuret, the mother of his son, and despite Camille’s pleas, Rodin refused to leave the stability of his family, so Camille left him in 1893 after a 10-year symbiosis of art and romance, continuing to communicate for another five years before a final break up, moving into her own studio and working feverishly, exhibiting her works at recognized art galleries.  Camille’s mental outlook, on the other hand, deteriorated, suffering from paranoid delusions, developing a persecution complex where she believed that Rodin and his supporters were plotting against her, becoming obsessed by the injustice of her mistreatment, suddenly finding herself alienated from the inner circle of artists, with Rodin taking credit for her works, she felt betrayed and persecuted by Rodin until her dying day, believing she was exploited as a woman.   

While she lived in a filthy art studio with her cats, broken sculptures, and her shutters sealed from the light, Camille remained critical of Rodin even as his fame and public prominence grew, believing Rodin wanted her voice silenced and was trying to poison her.  Her family, on the other hand, found her behavior intolerable, believing her “scandalous” actions only undermined the family’s reputation and good name, and just three days after her father died in 1913, the man who largely supported her and was her biggest defender, the family placed her in an asylum, where the perception is she was literally driven insane by the prejudice and discrimination of a male-dominated art world that was incapable of accepting a woman’s talent as equal to a man’s, where like so many other neglected women artists she was perceived as threatening.  Even today she is largely considered to be the most gifted female sculptor that ever lived, yet her accomplishments remain overshadowed by her infamous relationship with Rodin, who went on to fame and glory afterwards, apparently at her expense.  While this background history is a footnote, it is not included in the film which opens two years later in 1915 with Camille inside the Montdevergues Asylum, a Catholic run mental institution with Dumont using actual caretakers and mental patients from Saint Paul de Mausole, the institution in the south of France where Vincent Van Gogh stayed for a year in 1889 creating numerous works of art, where a similar device was utilized decades earlier by John Cassavetes in A Child Is Waiting (1963), which includes handicapped children from the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, one of the first State facilities for mentally impaired children.  In both films, professional actors are seamlessly integrated into an actual hospital setting.  The audience is immediately pulled into the noise and incoherence of the sounds of an inexplicable madness, where Binoche sits silently and plays uncomfortably off other patients.  Dumont creates an impressionist, near wordless work where sound alone is so oppressive that one instantly senses a need for relief, yet Camille is stuck in the suffocating atmosphere of endless rooms with no relief, made worse by being unheated, so one can only imagine the cold in these massive rooms where humans tend to get lost in the enormity of the empty space where time can only linger, becoming a matter of little consequence, as no one is “living” a life here, but instead exists in a state of mental paralysis.  The only way to survive in this madness is to lose one’s humanity, as you can’t allow yourself to feel the forcible oppression without being reduced to tears.  Powerlessness is everywhere, as patients can’t control their disturbing behavior, where one can’t help but be affected by it, as in this setting there is no place to escape from the surrounding madness.

Much of the first half of the film simply captures the rhythm of the daily life, where despite having the freedom to walk the grounds as she pleases, the interactions with others are mostly unpleasant, and the overwhelming feeling of boredom and endless confinement pervades every moment.  Camille, while profoundly unhappy, is not as seriously disturbed as the others and is often asked to look after some of the other patients, while it’s obvious she seeks solitary quiet and reflection every moment she can, simply overwhelmed by the unending noise and the horrifying effects of being stuck there.  When it’s announced that her brother Paul will be visiting in two days, it’s the first time we see her smile, where it gives her something to look forward to, changing the focus, as for her this moment offers a glimmer a hope.  Through the incessant unpleasantness of her confined life, it’s quite clear how important this opportunity is and Camille looks forward to being released, something even the doctors are recommending.  When we are introduced to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), a Christian poet, playwright, and diplomat, the point of view shifts, no longer seen through Camille’s eyes, but through diary entries and a few lengthy monologues about Christianity from the brother, an ardent believer whose beliefs border on mysticism.  While his presence is altogether bizarre, seen having dumfounding conversations alone in a room, as if conversing with his own soul, casting a dark shadow across an already dour picture, this inner narration is difficult to stomach because of the sheer fanaticism it exhibits, where the viewer is likely to be put off by the otherworldy tone of his outbursts, yet he is the rational member of the family, and the only one the family allows to have any contact with Camille.  But once he gets into a room with his sister, where the viewer is highly sensitized to the ramifications, Camille literally pleads for her life, but faraway brother Paul is unmoved and undaunted, convinced more than ever that her Godless sins have not yet found the light, that she still needs to accept God in all his crooked wisdom, not always easily ascertainable, even as she questions His existence anywhere on the premises, as what kind of God would allow people to suffer so?  It’s a cruel fate, made even crueler by the devout Christian rationale of her brother who insists she still needs time to get well, and exits unceremoniously, where imprisoning his sister is his way of saving her, reflective of the tortuous struggle for women to find a voice and a place in art history.  Twenty years later she would write, “I live in a world that is so curious, so strange.  Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare,” where Dumont’s portrait of doom expresses the reality of that nightmare in just three days.  Camille would spend the rest of her life (nearly 30 years) in that asylum, dying of malnutrition at age 79 during the height of WWII, where her family refused to retrieve her body, eventually buried in a communal grave.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Time Traveler's Wife

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE        B                     
USA  (107 mi)  2009  d:  Robert Schwentke

While Chicago was all abuzz about Johnny Depp and Christian Bale being in town making Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009), this film quietly goes about its business of featuring some of the best Chicago locations since John Hughes shot films in the area.  Secondly, Florian Ballhaus, son of noted Fassbinder and Scorsese cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, seems to be having a whale of a good time behind the camera, which swoops down hallways and flows through various rooms with an unabashed relish as it enthusiastically follows the paths of various characters.  The film does an excellent job of weaving this time traveling story into a coherent whole as it is chock full of interruptions that take us through different time periods.  But the film gets right to it from the outset, when in no time a young boy scared out of his wits from a car crash stands alone on the side of the highway visited abruptly by an older version of himself who tells him not to worry.  Now that’s an opening!  Not sure when the idea of time traveler’s being naked came into vogue, but they’re all the rage now.  Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original TERMINATOR (1984), where much of the humor was showing Arnold naked and then finding a way to put some clothes on.  Here as well, each of the moments where he finds himself suddenly arriving from another time period are rather humorous, as he’s always desperately trying to find clothes.  Sometimes it’s done with sound cues alone, as we hear in the background “Somebody stole my wallet” as he coolly hops on a Ravenswood train, wallet in hand, or at one point he arrives in the middle of a natural museum exhibit where all the children gleefully point to the naked man.  Unfortunately his time traveling is involuntary so he is helpless and can’t stop himself from disappearing at a moment’s notice or from arriving stark naked, and usually starving, broke, and in trouble from another time span.  However he can predict the future, because he's already been there.  Again, not sure what the rules are for what you can and cannot mention about the future, but this dilemma was woven into the fabric of the movie. 

Easily some of the best scenes are early on when Henry, a naked adult time traveler (Eric Bana) from the future comes to visit a charming 6-year old girl (Brooklyn Proulx) named Clare, The Time Travellers Wife :: Young Clare Scene YouTube (3:15), where without an ounce of prurient possibilities spends the day playing and telling her magnificent stories, and then explains in exact detail when he’ll be arriving again.  She, of course, becomes fascinated and puts clothes out for him when he arrives and starts making entries in her diary as if this is the coolest experience in the world.  And, of course, it is, much like getting visits from Santa Claus.  That’s the whole thrill of time traveling, the anticipation of wondering what will happen in another time and place.  The same thrill awaits someone waiting patiently for a visitor from a different time period, as what new information will they bring?  It’s curious that they meet so young, and that they eventually strike up a loving and healthy near same age relationship worthy of marriage, but he changes ages when he travels, shown humorously at his own wedding.  There’s an interesting turn of events when 20-year old Clare (Rachel McAdams) meets 28-year old Henry at the Newberry Library in Chicago, but he has never seen her before, yet she has known him almost her entire life and claims they’ve been waiting a long time for this first dinner date.  It’s only afterwards that he goes back to visit her in her childhood.  So the film does a good job playing with these expectations and the strange time chronology.  Both McAdams and Bana are excellent and are onscreen the entire film wrapped in an agonizing tenderness, but their appeal is mostly because they’re intelligent adults who insist upon their own identities and actually have adult conversations together about love, their own failings, and loss.  Adapted from Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, the book was a metaphor for the on again off again state of failed relationships, especially the tendency for men exiting relationships abruptly, but the movie acknowledges these difficulties while accentuating the staying power of love. 

In the book, young Clare lives in South Haven, Michigan, while in the movie, the entire state apparently is her back yard, as no one has ever had a back yard so endlessly vast as this child, who plays alone completely unattended in the green fields that go on for miles, the site for so many of their early visits.  When Clare and Henry do finally get married at her parent’s lavish estate, with all their family and friends in attendance, he inexplicably disappears several times, only to return in various states of duress (completely clothed, by the way) from other time periods, arriving at the altar finally as a suddenly older, graying around the temples, and unshaven version.  It must be said, the Mychael Danna wedding band cover version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” The Time Traveller's Wife - First Dance YouTube (2:30) was the sappiest version ever heard, but an apt choice.  Later, a comfortably married Clare wants to have a baby, but she keeps losing them unexpectedly, which is causing a great deal of friction between the two, as Henry doesn’t wish to be the cause of someone else having his extreme genetic condition, so he gets a vasectomy, only to time travel back to an 18-year old Clare who at that moment receives his first kiss.  In the book version, Clare is perfectly happy to hear these events recounted later in life, but in the movie version she erupts in anger at him for taking advantage of her in that situation, manipulating her and not allowing her freedom of choice, all under the façade of fate, that it has been predetermined.  This is ultimately the thrust of the movie, as in the throes of love, neither one has control over their own free will, as he disappears at a moment’s notice against his will while she is forced to wait indefinitely, never knowing when or if he’ll ever return, requiring a trust factor that is otherworldly.  In loving him, she literally takes on the role of Penelope who had to wait an entire decade for the return of her adventurous Odysseus, as in both instances, they spend their entire lives continually awaiting their lover’s return.  For those expecting a sci-fi time traveling story, this one has little sci-fi and is all about the lengths one is willing to go for love.  The film version takes some liberties with the end, altering the dark and heartbreaking ending with something a little more hopeful.  It’s still a weeper.   

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winter's Tale

WINTER’S TALE          B-         
USA  (118 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Akiva Goldsman                  Official site

I have been to another world, and come back.  Listen to me. 
—opening narration from the book

Magic is everywhere around us, you just have to look, look closely. 
—opening narration from the film

Every action and every scene has its purpose.  And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent — a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be.  There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery. 
—lyrical prose expressing one of the themes from the book

What is essentially a children’s fantasy story is expanded into a darker adult world of corruption and evil, yet retains the Hollywood fairy tale romance where love conquers all, in this case even death, though hardly as one might expect.  Adapted from Mark Helperin’s 1983 novel, this follows a similar pattern of making Hollywood movie versions of extremely popular fantasy novels, like Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES (2009), Robert Schwentke’s The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and even Andrew Adamson’s THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA:  THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005), where in each case love retains a mythical status that is larger than life, while the complexity of the books is lost in the Hollywood movie adaptations which have been met with critical disappointment.  Set in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, the city itself resembles an ice palace, as the rivers are frozen over with small groups of people seen skating on the shores, also cooking things outdoors on skewers where the hustle and bustle of snowy outdoor activity may resemble the chaotic conditions of a Pieter Bruegel painting, like The Hunters in the Snow or The Census at Bethlehem.  The film also leaps ahead a hundred years into the present, while also backtracking several decades to a traumatic incident early on where an Eastern European family is turned away at Ellis Island due parental illness, and in a ridiculously desperate act the parents place their baby into a tiny model boat called the City of Justice and release him to the winds of fate, eventually washing ashore in the Bayonne Marsh of New Jersey where he was raised by shoremen, eventually expelled to New York, where a strange wall of clouds surrounds the city.  The boy turns out to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), who has learned his trade as a professional thief from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, both speaking a thick Irish accent), who appears to be a demon of some sort, as his every breath is hellbent upon bringing evil into this world.  Breaking away from Pearly, Peter Lake relies upon his own wits, using stealth measures to steal and remain undetected, which infuriorates Pearly who wants the world to fear the inevitable presence of evil in their midst. 

Much like the angel Lucifer breaking away from God in heaven, this is a film that concerns itself with angels and demons, opposite forces that continually intermingle with strange, otherworldly powers, where one simply has to accept the supernatural elements that come into play in this story, where much of the narrative concerns itself with the power of light, where the constant image of light reflections are seen throughout.  In contrast, Pearly and his men are aligned with the dark forces and are always dressed in dark colors, where Pearly himself has an unbecoming scar across his face.  While Peter Lake is living in a loft high above Grand Central Station’s main concourse, Pearly’s men eventually track him down to an abandoned pier where his days appear numbered until a white stallion horse appears out of nowhere and literally flies him away to safety.  This as much as anything describes the somewhat oppressive moralistic lines at play in this film, where human characteristics are minimized in order to enlarge an interconnecting theme that we are all linked together, that everything has its purpose, and that miracles can happen.  One of the troubling aspects of the film is the sheer lack of subtlety or nuance in the way the film is presented, where themes are literally driven into the audience’s head like a pile driver, and where the special effects (other than the wintry setting) are largely disappointing.  That said, the central developing romance may remind some of TITANIC (1997), especially the mingling of different social classes and the elevated power of love, which is ultimately so transcending.  Peter Lake finds himself in what he believes is an empty home of a wealthy family, and what was intended to be a successful haul turns out to be love at first sight, where the astonishing beauty of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, from TV’s Downton Abbey) literally takes his breath away, immediately altering the course of his destiny, where Colin Farrell does an excellent job conveying this emotional upheaval taking place within, especially after discovering she’s a virgin who’s never danced with a man before or been kissed, but is also dying of consumption, making their time together precious and unbelievably tender. 

While there are dual themes of doom, with Beverly’s impending death and Pearly’s obsession to kill Peter Lake, they are enhanced even further by the presence of Lucifer himself, amusingly played by Will Smith in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt spending his days reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, cultural references that are a good half century yet to occur.  Apparently Pearly has to petition for a change of rules in order to chase down and destroy this couple in a geographical area outside his jurisdiction, as his intent is to prevent any miracles from happening, allowing nothing that would give the populace hope.  While this is admittedly silly, Pearly has an underworld network that extends just about anywhere, where his reach is as mythical as his reputation.  Once more Peter Lake and his flying horse rescue the fair maiden from the clutches of evil and fly her to the family mansion along the frozen riverbank where her family awaits.  His presence draws the attention of her inquisitive father (William Hurt), but also Beverly’s adorable little sister Willa (Mckayla Twiggs), both of whom are curious about his intentions.  While it’s a race against death, for a few precious moments love prevails, where the audience is drawn into their enchanting world, largely from their delicate chemistry together and the appeal of their performances, where this mystifying love is one for the ages, as we understand exactly what he means when he tells her “You are impossibly beautiful.”  But reality sets in, no miracles happen, and evil prevails, where Peter Lake is thrown into the East River and left for dead, except that he inexplicably survives without his memory, doomed to wander for a hundred years unable to recall who he is, yet retaining his same age the entire time, adding a bookend element to the story that is just as bewildering as the rest of the film, but it’s charged with the “love conquers all” spirit that only exists in fairy tales.  Colin Ferrell and Russell Crowe work well together, adding plenty of weight to the forces of good and evil, while Jessica Brown Findlay adds her own youthful charm and innocence.  The acting is altogether engaging, easily the best thing in the film, as it retains a bit of the magical allure that the rest of the movie lacks.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Oblivion (El Olvido) (2008)

OBLIVION (El Olvido)           A-                   
Netherlands  France  Germany (93 mi)  2008  d:  Heddy Honigmann      Official site

Heddy Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1951 in Lima, Peru, where she studied biology and literature at the University of Lima.  She left Peru in 1973, traveled throughout Mexico, Israel, Spain, and France, and later studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome.  Since 1978 she has been a Dutch citizen and presently lives in Amsterdam, although her filmmaking career has taken her around the world.  As the child of exiles, it’s not surprising that the plight of exiles and outsiders is a recurrent theme in her documentaries, as is memory, music, and love.  Her subjects have included cab drivers in Peru, immigrant musicians on the Paris Metro, senior citizens in Brazil, and Cuban exiles in New Jersey.  In addition to the elegantly composed imagery of her films, Honigmann’s most often recognized talent as a documentary filmmaker is her ability to make an emotional connection with the people she films, an empathetic ability to listen and to elicit surprisingly intimate responses from them. As Honigmann has described her approach, “I don’t do interviews.  I make conversation.”

From the outset, the audience is treated to a wonderfully told story filled with the most graciously expressed, eloquently understated personal outrage by a bartender as he explains what he’s making as he prepares a Peruvian national drink, a pisco sour, blending and shaking it to perfection as he speaks, describing how he has personally served it several times to different Peruvian presidents, as the presidential palace in Peru’s capital city of Lima is nearby.  This gentleman may as well speak for an entire nation, as one common element of nearly all the persons populating this film is a blisteringly low view of its nation’s leaders, who can be seen in succession in archival footage taking their vows of honor, promising to fulfill their duty for all Peruvian citizens.  Instead, for the last 25 years Peru has been caught up in a cycle of corruption, bribery, and large scale inflation that has devalued whatever little money people might have earned, creating a permanent underclass living on the margins of society.  Using her camera like a surgical instrument, Honigmann has a Louis Malle documentary style, which is to say her camera’s intrusion into people’s lives is impassive, used strictly as an outside observer, respectfully listening to and responding to total strangers, where her role is to authenticate her subjects in their natural environment, whether it be roaming dogs on the street, or jugglers or street children performing tricks while cars stop at red lights hoping to persuade motorists to offer them a few coins, a distinguished waiter proudly and respectfully serving his table guests, or people returning home to their ramshackle huts built in the slums on the side of a ravaged hillside, where instead of handrailings a rope can be used to offer support as people climb up endless stairs carrying their groceries up a dirt hill that seems to rise into the horizon.

This director lets the viewer gaze and decipher for themselves what they think, where Godard might over-intellectualize, and Herzog over-dramatize, but in Honigmann’s hands, her moving and intimate portraits of shoeshine boys, child acrobats, a leathergoods repairman, a bartender, a distinguished waiter, a man who has handmade presidential sashes for decades, a frog-juice vendor, street singers, or proud yet mournful mothers become a quiet, understated reflection of life in this city, where begging for money may seem common, but a family of five or six living off the proceeds is the grim everyday reality.  Much of this is heartbreaking because of the matter of fact way so many lives have been permanently affected, where there’s little to hope and dream for, where some of these kids can’t even remember when they were happy, or had a good or bad memory, or when they were in school.  As far back as they can recall, they’ve always had to work—this from a young teenager who works from dawn til dark and earns only pennies a day.  Yet none of these subjects asks anyone to feel sorry for them, or that they’re victimized.  One man who lost nearly all his savings due to record levels of inflation has tears well up in his eyes, not of sadness or regret, but because he knows he would have been lost without the help of his family for which he was eternally grateful and appreciative.  Rather than being perceived as one of the lost or forgotten ones, like the troubled criminal infested youth depicted in Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS (1950), they are thankful to be among the living, still proudly having a chance to work.  When the sounds of Chopin add an entirely new dimension to what we’re seeing onscreen, there’s a hauntingly quiet reverence for human dignity, even in these marginalized lives, which the camera eloquently visualizes with a profound sense of unsentimentalized clarity, perhaps deserving the same company of some of the better documentary works of Chantal Akerman, which are provocative, unsparing, quietly unsettling, and poetically dense works.