Lifestyle sections have lately been detailing the public's renewed appetite for comfort food. If that rice-pudding desire translates to the big screen, then cinematic fairy tales that offer the reassurance of a bedtime story should benefit accordingly. Two such concoctions have arrived, one light as brioche and one grimmer than Grimm: Amélie, the latest fable from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), and its evil twin, Mulholland Drive, by America's own David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). Visually dazzling and full of imagination, these fantasies by directors at the top of their game depict invented universes where happiness and unhappiness trade places in a flash and the world as we know it can be transformed by a fall down a rabbit hole.
Amélie owes its incredible success ($40 million in France alone since spring) in no small part to the immense appeal of newcomer Audrey Tautou in the lead role. Her very name invokes the actress with whom she's most likely to be compared--Audrey Hepburn at her Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany's stage, innocent still and ripe for discovery. For Frenchness, think Juliette Binoche--minus the sex appeal. Add a Louise Brooks haircut, the biggest eyes this side of cartoonland and a sense of prankishness borrowed from the Eloise books. Give the character a Mary Poppins way with magic and a sweetness that her surname ("Poulain" is a brand of chocolate) promises and, bon, there you have her: a child-woman for the ages.
Amélie introduces its heroine as a little girl, imprisoned in a childhood ruled by a remote father who barely touches her and a warped mother who dies when hit by a suicide-bent tourist outside Notre Dame. She quickly grows up into an adorable but shy young woman who works as a waitress in a quintessentially Parisian cafe packed equally with irritable and amiable characters. At home in her garret, she leads a solitary life reading, dreaming, watching television and spying on a neighboring recluse who endlessly repaints Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. On her day off, she visits her daddy, who dotes on a garden shrine to his departed wife, topped by a colorful gnome.
On August 31, 1997, everything in Amélie's oddball universe changes with a thunderbolt: the death of Princess Diana! It is at this very moment that Amélie discovers a small tin box that's been hidden in her apartment for forty years. Inspired by Diana to make a difference in the world, she sets out to track down its owner. Her search is reminiscent of another French film, When the Cat's Away, in which a Parisian damsel sets off on a quest that leads her through the Bastille neighborhood and its picturesque characters. Where that film showed gentrification and evictions, though, this one's a magical mystery tour.
Voilà! Amélie is off and running when her once-upon-a-time boy is reunited with his beloved box of toys. When his destiny changes, so does hers: She commits herself, saintlike, to a life of good deeds. It's impossible not to be charmed by Amélie's missions, like her secret campaign for justice, centered on her mean neighborhood greengrocer who loves to demean his shy Algerian assistant in front of the customers. Amélie secretly copies the merchant's key, then sneaks into his apartment and subtly changes things in a manner calculated to drive him mad--such as replacing his beloved slippers with an identical pair, one size smaller. Amélie's more benign interventions--on behalf of a jilted widow, a hypochondriacal cashier and the reclusive painter--are equally inventive.
Unfortunately, Jeunet doesn't leave well enough alone. Dissatisfied with these minor intrusions, he dictates that Amélie must find love herself. But with whom? Whimsy takes over. Enter one eligible guy, Nino, whose hobby is hunting for torn-up pictures under photo booths in the Paris metro stations when he's not gainfully employed as a porn-shop assistant and funhouse spook. (Nino is played, incidentally, by Mathieu Kassovitz, director of 1995's gritty hit La Haine, a decidedly un-Amélie-like drama about racial tensions in Parisian projects.)
Bien sûr, this is a fairy tale, and so Nino's the one with whom Amélie must fall in love. But then there's the mystery of the stranger whose torn photo keeps turning up. And the mysterious notes delivered to Nino, stipulating mysterious rendezvous. And the paranoiac who stalks his ex-girlfriends with a tape recorder. Oh, there are dozens of zany pranks to escalate the irritation--oops, I mean charm--of Jeunet's conceit.
"Eurodisney in Montmartre" was one European critic's verdict. Actually, it's more like Jeunet let loose in the Disney archives. Piling cartoon references on top of his childhood visions of Paris-then, Jeunet has used a toolbox of stylized sets and special effects to create a world as quirky as his characters. Equally original but less phantasmagorical than the worlds he invented with former collaborator Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet here jettisons the nightmarish creatures that made them tick. Amélie's more reality-based world is magical in part because every trace of modernity has been erased. No Pompidou Center or Louvre pyramids intrude on the cityscapes. Virtually no immigrants, either. A glow of burnished memory polishes Montmartre, as its Frencher-than-French denizens, seemingly lifted straight out of some classic prewar French film, go about their pre-2001 lives.
Nobody is going to Amélie, of course, for a taste of realism. Rather, what it offers is a determinedly cinematic world in which references pile upon references to assemble a synthetic universe that resonates emotionally, reeking of familiarity and nostalgia. It is safe to speculate that Jeunet, who returned to France after an unsatisfying Hollywood stint on Alien: Resurrection, felt nostalgic himself for a golden age of French cinema unbeholden to the American movie juggernaut. With the trademark stylistic excess that he honed in his earlier features, and contentedly reunited with a screenwriter and cinematographer from his past, Jeunet has found a way to re-enter his own lost Paris.
For anyone loath to sign on to the Godiva-voltage sweetness of Amélie, there's a simple antidote: Mulholland Drive. Playing dark knight to Jeunet's virginal white one, David Lynch returns here to the pre-Straight Story vein of perversity that he mined for so long. It's a place where sweetness is preyed upon by maggots, where the dice are loaded and no one's hands are clean. Lynch polished his theme of innocence confronted by unspeakable evil in Blue Velvet, where youngsters Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern battled to free Isabella Rossellini from the grasp of psychotic evildoer Dennis Hopper. Twin Peaks introduced the moral and supernatural parlor games that Lynch has pretty much owned ever since: small towns in the grip of conspiracy, characters with secret lives, and forces of evil that might somehow be circumvented but probably never defeated. Basically, everyone's lying and nobody can escape.
Mulholland Drive is a fable of two women beset by mysteries. One blond, one brunette; one innocent, one not. The dark locale to counterbalance Montmartre? Los Angeles, of course--equally magical but dangerously so. Instead of sunshine, we get noir. Lynch wastes no time in having fun as he sends the luscious brunette Rita (Laura Harring) on the road to near-death in a car driven by hit men working for an unknown client. An amnesiac survivor, she takes refuge in an empty apartment. Of course, it's not empty for long. Along comes Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blonde straight out of Deep River, Ontario, trailing the faint scent of Lynch's Twin Peaks ingénue Laura Palmer. Betty seems as innocent as Amélie and just as ready to throw herself into helping to sort out someone else's fate. And Rita? Well, her hair color alone marks her as untrustworthy for this particular sort of coded intrigue. Like a couple of sexy, breast-enhanced Girl Scouts, the pair sets off to solve the mystery. What happened to Rita, and why? Who was after her, and are they still? Like Rita and Betty, the audience has to play detective. And be prepared for the red herrings.
Mulholland Drive was originally meant as a television series, where Lynch might have spun its narrative into multiple complications week after week. Here, truncated into the ruthless logic of a finite cinematic form, it builds its meaning into a jigsaw puzzle of cinematic references. The brunette's name, Rita, is filched from a Gilda poster. Betty could be straight out of Hitchcock's Vertigo. An elderly, excessively enthusiastic, suspiciously helpful couple who share a taxi with Betty from the airport must be on loan from Rosemary's Baby. Betty's apartment, on loan from Aunt Ruth, could have been lifted from any postwar LA film noir, the kind peopled by unsavory men and untrustworthy women. For authoritative cinematic history, look no further than Coco, the landlady of the apartment complex. She's played by veteran actress Ann Miller. A living footnote, Miller was an RKO contract player from the age of 14, an ingénue in Stage Door in 1937, a dancer at MGM in its golden age of musicals and a star on Broadway. Her presence functions as legible commentary: With what she knows, no wonder her character is suspicious and prone to offering unsolicited advice.
Despite the film's considerable length, time flies as the audience is kept busy poring over the clues littering the subplots. One involves a self-important movie director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who lives high off the hog until he's betrayed by his wife (with Billy Ray Cyrus, for gawd's sake) and threatened by the mob to hire a particular actress, or else. Then there's the Winkie's diner that one terrified guy has seen in his nightmares so many times that he finally goes there to eat. And there's a nightspot that Rita somehow remembers, El Club Silencio, where she and Betty witness a full-throttle rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" lip-synched in Spanish. This over-determined show-stopper is vintage Lynch, combining the pleasurable and the ominous with the savoir-faire of a bartender who knows full well that his cocktail is lethal.
Mulholland Drive has all the trappings of a fairy tale, from the monster hiding out back to the princess who's in danger. There's even a magic key and a magic box. When the two are combined, everyone is thrown into an alternate reality, where the actors are the same but their characters are completely different. There, good and evil are scrambled. The rules change, time runs backward and our hard-earned holdings fall subject to fraud. Have I mentioned that the film manages to seduce us and humble us, one after the other, with its cleverness?
If, in the end, Mulholland Drive is too clever by half (the final section really, really doesn't make sense), no matter. Lynch's superb command of mise en scène makes his images and situations their own reward, rendering even the simplest gesture creepy and imbuing any innocence with evil. Lynch's ending even takes the audience by surprise, leading moviegoers to ascribe its crossover plots to the effects of parallel universes or the unreliable testimony of self-serving narrators. So what if it ultimately makes a terribly imperfect sense? God is in the details, and its details are sublime.
Telluride, Toronto and After
For folks involved in film, seasonal clocks can be set by the annual confluence of international film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Venice) that shape reputations and kick-start the movies that show up on screens throughout the fall and winter. Usually, festivals are measured by which premieres and stars they snag, which prizes are awarded. This year, however, only one factor comes into play: whether festivals and films ran before or after September 11.
Telluride took place in the bucolic setting of the Colorado mountains in the prelapsarian weeks prior to September 11. In addition to hot-off-the-press premieres, the Telluride festival is known for its tributes and archival revivals. Each year features a guest director who brings some special expertise to spice up the mix. (Full disclosure: I was the 1996 guest director.) This time it was Salman Rushdie, who unspooled Indian classics and chatted about science fiction films to the thrill of the crowd. (A few days later in Toronto, opening my copy of the Globe and Mail, I was surprised to find Rushdie's name on the front page. An item on September 11 reported that the FAA had alerted Air Canada that it could not board him as a passenger, bound for Toronto that week, due to "extreme security measures" that required air traffic to operate under a "heightened state of alert.")
Yes, Telluride was before all that. Still, it's a festival that often has a political spin buried in its offerings. (Its very first festival, after all, honored Leni Riefenstahl.) The roster of films this year included everything from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French blockbuster Amelie to a documentary on Walt Disney. No Man's Land, by first-time Bosnian director Danis Tonovic, was a popular hit, offering an antiwar message that combined M*A*S*H-style humor with the despair of Waiting for Godot.
Telluride's succès de scandale was Dear Fidel, a quirky German documentary on the life and love of Marita Lorenz, a German-American woman whose love affair with Fidel Castro during the first year of the Cuban Revolution led to a subsequent assignment from the CIA to murder him. Conspiracy alert: She was also a member of a convoy that drove from DC to Dallas on--guess which day. And, yup, Lee Harvey Oswald (she calls him "Ozzie") was one of the gang. The documentary, by investigative journalist Wilfried Huismann and producers Detlef Ziegert and Yvonne Ruocco, is packed with these astonishing stories and more, plus all-important witness corroborations. The confused editing might boggle the mind, but Dear Fidel's central subject never fails to fascinate. Showing up in person for the premiere, Lorenz basked in the crowd's attention and told even more stories: For example, her daughter (by Venezuelan ex-dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez) is now married to the son of Orlando Letelier! Check out the website (www.dear-fidel.com) and prepare to be astonished.
The pure cinema part of the Telluride schedule featured an award and retrospective tribute to Catherine Breillat, the French director whose brilliant examinations of female sexuality freed from societal constraints have made her one of the most original filmmakers of our time. That her cinema is itself freed from societal constraints, and thus free to explore sex explicitly on screen and ignore taboos regarding both age and agency, is not incidental. Romance, the 1998 film in which she used actors alongside porn stars, pierced the facade of feminine wiles and instead constructed a character who was willing to go to any lengths for satisfaction.
Breillat's new film, Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!), went on to both the Toronto and New York festivals after Telluride, and opens in New York City on October 10, with a national release thereafter. A deliberately troubling film about adolescent female sexuality, Fat Girl can easily be interpreted as a long-overdue riposte to the French coming-of-age movies centered on summertime first loves, such as Eric Rohmer's beloved Pauline at the Beach. Breillat explores the hypocrisy of a society that weighs down the sexual act with sentimental and moralistic baggage through one summer affair between a beautiful teenager, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and Fernando, the Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) who woos her after a chance meeting in a beachside cafe.
For a clear-eyed view, Breillat has written into the narrative a plump and grumpy younger sister, whose role is to accompany the Lolita-ish teenager throughout the flirtatious escapade. Protected by age and weight, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) dissects the terrible contract by which a teenage girl is allowed to possess beauty and "lose" virginity. In a hilarious cameo, Laura Betti, Pasolini's star and muse, appears as Fernando's social-climbing, bejeweled mother.
Naturally, since this is a Breillat film, sex and death are never far apart. There's unpredictable violence lurking at the movie's end, just when the audience relaxes, thinking it knows what's up. From its tranquil beginning to its shocking finish, Fat Girl shows Breillat to be a world-class artist working at the top of her form--even when the lessons of gender, sexuality and social custom may be hard to swallow. Without her, they wouldn't be available to us at all.
Telluride is not known for favoring women directors, but this year was different. Alongside Breillat was a new talent from Argentina, Lucrecia Martel. Her first feature film, La Ciénaga, churned up attention at virtually every festival and, like Fat Girl, was programmed at Toronto and New York. (It will also have a wider theatrical release, at New York's Film Forum in October and elsewhere throughout the fall.) La Ciénaga is an astonishing debut that mixes a Gabriel García Márquez sort of setting with a thoroughly cinematic imagination. Summer is a time of disintegration in Martel's universe, constructed from her memories of growing up in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina near the Bolivian border that's haunted by its own fears and illusions. In La Ciénaga, a middle-class family comes unglued over the course of several days in which petty disasters add up to major calamities. What distinguishes the film is Martel's wholesale reinvention of Latin American film language, so long bound by the rules of realism and/or melodrama. With La Ciénaga, cinema gets a shakeup, and the result is intoxicating.
La Ciénaga does what cinema at its best can do: It reveals a universe we've never even imagined and then gets us to look differently at both the society and medium we'd underestimated. Here, that means seeing water balloons thrown by young men at young women in the glorious frenzy of a fiesta. Or the modern-day stigmata self-inflicted by a boozy mother who, drunk, drops her glass on the patio and falls right into its jagged remains. Or the aura surrounding a maid, adored by the children she cares for and depended upon by their parents, who is nevertheless accused of stealing whenever anything cannot be found. Martel lays open a system of contradictions--individual, familial, racial, class--that show up like fissures in the bedrock of Argentine society. It's the audacious vision of a true artist who has paid close attention to the society around her.
When I arrived in Toronto, I was half-afraid I'd already seen the two best films in the festival. I needn't have worried. The lineup was terrific. Fat Girl and La Ciénaga were still standouts, but they had good company in the 300-plus films from Albania to Zanzibar and most places in between, including Hollywood. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive proved to be a terrific return to form for him, all dark intrigues and homicidal corruption. Alfredo Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También? spiced a road movie with riffs on adolescent masculinity and the Mexican elite. From Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan sent Lan Yu, a gay melodrama looking at the tumultuous relationship between a businessman and a student hustler. Chilean Patricio Guzmán brought El Caso Pinochet, an examination of the legal and political work of trying the ex-dictator. Toronto is known as an exceedingly democratic festival, with something for everyone--its programmers even sign their catalogue entries so you know whom to blame--and the scope pays off for moviegoers who choose wisely.
Midway into the festival, it began to look possible to divine a new trend in American independent cinema. A series of accomplished films deployed a new narrative structure, tracing a large cast of characters across a series of ever-interlocking dramas. Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects (based on a collection of stories by A.M. Homes) both carry their audiences through multilayered journeys of loss, anxiety and redemption with commanding complexity. In Thirteen Conversations, tricks of fate direct a series of characters whose interconnections are slowly exposed through a complex structure that moves across time and locations. In The Safety of Objects, Troche's script stitches disparate stories together into a treatise on lives touched by tragedy and redeemed by connections that bind them through a similarly complex structure of events. A film by another American woman director, Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, offered a brighter and leaner version, with a family story of interconnecting events that culminate in cinema's funniest McDonald's scene. Unlike earlier films that played with narrative--Happiness, American Beauty--these women do not rely on irony. Instead, they're perfecting a new approach to storytelling for complicated times.
Not surprisingly, films at Toronto played differently before and after September 11, a date that fell directly mid-festival. It was astonishing how quickly the hippest buzz dissolved once the events of the world intruded and, conversely, how much excess meaning accrued to those films with the "luck" to consider life-and-death issues, now utterly amplified. Indeed, after the 11th, Toronto was not the same event. The first half wound down as the press corps, in high spirits, emerged from a screening of Mira Nair's deliriously joyous film, Monsoon Wedding (which had been named the Venice festival's grand prize winner the day before), to enter a lobby filled with weeping colleagues staring at a giant monitor above the concession stand carrying the now-familiar scenes of unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath, all parties were canceled, industry presence was diminished and lines of Torontonians wound around the block, eager for the diversion and transport that movies deliver so well.
Suddenly it seemed that the festival was spilling over with films about loss, sudden death, fatal accident and families rent by grief. There were so many I tired of counting (The Safety of Objects, by the way, is one). Three are such exceptional films that they would have been singled out at any time; now they resonate, trembling like a tuning fork with the nervous hum of recent weeks. From Italy, there's The Son's Room; from Taiwan, What Time Is It There?; from France, L'Emploi du Temps (Time Out).
Laurent Cantet's Time Out is an unemployment thriller, detailing the desperate denial and increasingly psychotic behavior of a middle-management family man who loses his job, and with it his identity, sense of safety and all bearings. He never tells anyone what has happened. He cuts off all contact with his old colleagues and concocts one strategy after another--from pyramid investment schemes to outright smuggling--in order to maintain his face-saving fiction. As the screws of his deception tighten, a Hitchcockian shadow of slowly and excruciatingly built tension begins to shadow the film's events. Surely this will end violently? But Cantet is a latter-day Marxist whose last film, Human Resources, looked at a father-son struggle based on a factory floor. Here, he seems to tell us, nothing can compare with the violence experienced by any human caught up in mindless white-collar management, whether working or laid off. In that sense, the lie told by Cantet's protagonist--claiming that he's got a new job with a Swiss NGO doing business in Africa--is merely one more irony in his doomed flight from capitalism.
Tsai Ming-liang appeared in these pages earlier this year when his film The River had a delayed US release. Now he's back, with a wonderfully mature film, What Time Is It There? A comedy of sorts, it considers, among other things, how a son and mother cope with Dad's sudden death. The mother weeps and tries valiantly to communicate with her husband on the other side, utilizing variously a cockroach, a carp and a Buddhist priest. The irreligious son, played as always by Lee Kang-sheng--star of all of Tsai's films since his 1992 hit Rebels of the Neon God-- is shaken, too. He works as a street vendor. When an attractive customer insists on buying the watch on his wrist instead of the one he's selling--arguing that the dual-time dial is essential for her trip to Paris the next day--she sets the film's structure in motion. As her geographic absence begins to stand in for his father's passing, the son performs his mourning by changing every clock in Taipei to Paris time, seven hours ahead.
It's a hilarious conceit, which Tsai carries through with smart cinematic wit. One scene explicitly evokes Harold Lloyd's silent-film antics. In another, our hero purchases a video--Truffaut's 400 Blows--and watches the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud stealing a bottle of milk and gulping it down. Constant cross-cutting to the watch-bearer, now a lonely Parisian, reveals her chance encounter with the now-aged Léaud himself in a Paris graveyard. The themes of love and loss, nurturance and abandonment, couldn't be clearer; for added resonance, consider that actor Lee is often compared to James Dean, who so famously drank milk from the bottle in Rebel Without a Cause.
Nanni Moretti has made a career's worth of film grounded in humor, but here he has turned serious. The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this spring, is a portrait of a family, first in happiness and then in grief, its moods bifurcated by the accidental death of an adored son. Conveniently, Moretti's script supplies the father (played by the director's favorite star, himself) with a profession uniquely suited to its needs and ours: He's a psychoanalyst. Prior to his personal tragedy, the doctor is able to handle his patients with ease, even though each one seems to have a problem that echoes his own issue in some way. But after the terrible twist of fate--how cruel film scripts, and life, can be-- he is less and less able. The marriage, too, enters difficult territory. All seems to be lost. And then a letter arrives out of the blue from an unknown girl, and everyone gets a second chance.
The experience of watching The Son's Room two days after the WTC tragedy has forever marked my sense of it. In return, it makes me confident of this film's ability to crack open the heart and heal its wounds again. Totally different from one another, each of these three films takes up loss (of child, parent, job) and looks for a remedy. All three appeared in the New York Film Festival as well and will, one hopes, open across the country quickly. We need them. The movie theater needn't be the place, as the late Pauline Kael once wrote, to "send our minds away." It can be the place where we find them again. And with our minds, our hearts.
"It looked just like a movie." Need I say which? Independence Day, for sure. The Towering Inferno, for those who remember it. Or Titanic, the ship gone up instead of down, with no Kate Winslet to offer succor. Escape From New York. Or Batman, with the Joker set loose and no Batman to protect Gotham. Hollywood has perfected the art of the fictional disaster to such an extraordinary degree that life itself, even at its most real and most heinous, can end up looking like an imitation. Until, that is, the moment of impact is over and the happy ending goes missing, no credits roll across the screen and, worst of all, no dead spring back to life.
When real-life disasters hit, American movies tend to leave the hard work of analysis and healing to television docudramas, cable presentations and independent documentaries. Unfit for the big screen, headlines become fodder for the small one; important subjects are scorned as "movie of the week" fare. Calamities like the AIDS epidemic, for example, were covered by independent videos and films years ahead of the movie industry.
When Hollywood does move from fictional violence to the real stuff of national crisis, it usually relies on two formulas to animate its scripts: biopics of fallen heroes and the epic battlefields of war. For peacetime dramatizations of national heroes, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee fill the bill. JFK and Malcolm X explored old wounds and prompted national soul-searching. Both directors have delved into the muck of social conflict in search of new answers (Born on the Fourth of July, Bamboozled), but they are the exception in an industry more reliant on recasting its own past hits and genres.
At its best and worst--Apocalypse Now and Pearl Harbor--Hollywood loves a good battle. Even when the United States has been militarily inactive, the impulse for war has been kept alive onscreen by repeating past victories (over the Nazis and Japanese in WWII) and defeats (in Vietnam). During the cold war, spy missions captured the imagination--hence the rise of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and the reinvention of James Bond. And when the end of the cold war created a short-term shortage of enemies, the deficit was filled by the introduction of drug lords and smugglers. With the narcotraficante cast as the new antagonist, movies were good to go, and a whole new chapter was about to begin, with Traffic as its likely opener. Now that, like the rest of life, will change.
The press has already reported that studios are hurriedly shelving or postponing the release of films on which they've already spent millions for fictional disaster sequences. Instantly notorious is the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage, which won't be in theaters any time soon. Nor will Big Trouble, an ill-timed comedy based on the Dave Barry novel of the same name about a man whose life is transformed by a (ha-ha) bomb in a suitcase. Men in Black II has switched its climactic showdown from the World Trade Center to the Chrysler building. And the Spider-Man trailer has been pulled because of its sensational shot of Spiderman spinning a web between the Twin Towers. Pity LA's midlevel execs, busy screening dailies and purging scripts, recutting trailers and shuffling opening dates. Out of respect for the American people's great loss, yes. But equally out of fear of their own impending box-office calamity.
Keep in mind that the narrowly averted Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild strikes of this spring have already resulted in a huge stockpile of films that were rushed into production and now await release. What are those films and their stories? And how will they play, if released into this scared new world? It's too early to know whether they'll be able to soothe the soul, just end up irrelevant or, worse yet, be offensive.
But one thing is sure. The aftermath in which we now find ourselves demands new scripts entirely, something that an entertainment industry more attuned to disaster simulation than disaster relief may have a hard time providing. Certainly it will try. You can be sure that at this very moment Hollywood is working hard to determine the mood of the public. Short-term, reports tell us that folks are returning to the movie theaters and concert halls. People want to feel community, to find solace, to employ denial for a moment's peace.I would guess that romantic comedies, easygoing family dramas and any films that go down smooth will do well in the short term. Here are some thoughts and suggestions on what could happen next.
First up, diversion: We'll be reminded of just why Busby Berkeley was so successful in the Depression era, designing ostentatious musicals to take people's minds off their troubles. Expect escapism for shot nerves.
Second, revision: Hollywood will know how to fit the new stories into its existing formulas without blinking an eye. The heroism of the men who may have wrested control from the hijackers over the skies of Pennsylvania is a natural for the big screen. And surely the harrowing stories of people who made it out of the towers, and the tragic tales of those who didn't, will be the stuff of scripts for years to come. This is no cynical complaint, either; they deserve to be films. But it may take a while for an audience to be able to sit through any replay of the events of September 11, 2001.
Third, reinvention: Film history offers a host of examples of what gifted filmmakers living in times of national catastrophe can produce. Postwar Europe, devastated by the ruins of cities, populations and economies, gave birth to one of the most influential film movements of the past century, Neorealism. It was a totally new cinematic approach that brought the grit of documentary into the passionate narratives of fiction. After it, the movies were never the same. Latin American cinema followed Italy's example: The first Cuban directors studied in Rome with the Neorealist masters, Brazil and Argentina took note and a new vision of cinema was shaped.
Today our filmmakers once again have to help audiences imagine the previously unimaginable. And, again, there's new technology to supply the immediacy and freshness that the new aesthetics, as well as audiences with a desperate need to make sense of an unprecedented set of experiences, will demand. There are some useful precedents. In Britain Michael Winterbottom captured the humanity in the new global conflicts with Welcome to Sarajevo. In 1974 Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault made the searing Les Ordres to tell the world the story of 400 Montrealers rounded up under the War Measures Act. And Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is a necessary revival, for its message of recognizing both the humanity of your enemy and the insanity of war.
Fourth, a worst-case scenario, the cinema of paranoia: Just imagine The Manchurian Candidate as the model for a new genre. I fear a widespread retooling of film noir, spliced together with the old Commie-threat scripts, into a new terror noir in which every stranger is a dangerous enemy, where community has broken down, civil liberties lie in tatters and no haven beckons in a world run amok. Something like I Was a Teenage Terrorist. Touch of Evil, recast for the East-West borderline.
Film noir flourished during the cold war, so it's ready-made to rise again. Its subtextual message of masculinity in crisis will play well too, to those generals enraged by impotence in the instant of the Pentagon hit. Paranoia can be fun as a plot device. As national policy, however, it is extraordinarily dangerous, leading to the worst sort of demagogy and extremism. Let's hope screenwriters resist the urge, and studios the desire, to take us on that kind of cinematic ride.
Finally, let's hope independent filmmakers of honor and conscience can find the financial backing in these dark times to give us documentary and dramatic visions of coexistence, humanity and peace. We need films that can project hope and internationalism onto the screen, and fast. As a film critic, I know well the power of images. Now, more than ever, we need the right ones.
Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right, they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat, Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, LouieBluie) has conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes, whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage girls with sublime accuracy.
Best friends Enid (Thora Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have it all: Thrift-shop outfits--assembled with a jaundiced eye for fashion--accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers, the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca's high school graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects will be, well, reduced.
The summer after high school is quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it's meant to be a nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its target with a bull's-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone of teenage girls' friendship--the overidentification and competition, the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way out.
Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She's first seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a "bookish fellow" to the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an opportunity for a prank, it sets the film's plot in motion. Enid and Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the Wowsville diner for his no-show date.
They're still kids, of course, for all their daring. That they're being cruel doesn't occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then over and it's time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid's sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to thrill anyone who's ever darkened a multiplex. She works--for one day--at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she's ordered to push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the movies to the customers. Enid's insolent enactment of these rules is hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh, profession. And leads her instead to Seymour.
Who's Seymour? As embodied by Steve Buscemi in a career-elevating performance, Seymour is the sad-sack guy framed with the fake blind date. Post-prank, though, Enid gets curious and starts tailing him. Seymour may have his own adult dead-end job (professional life doesn't fare well in this film, where people have jobs, not careers), but he has an avocation, a passionate hobby unsullied by filthy lucre: his 78 rpm record collection of pure blues music. All it takes is listening to his 1931 Skip James recording of "Devil Got My Woman" to hook Enid. Seymour fills her ideal of an uncompromised life, as she transforms his commitment to blues from pathetic geek characteristic to banner of permanent rebellion.
"Only stupid people have healthy relationships," confides Enid. "That's the spirit," agrees Seymour. No good will come of this, to be sure, but like a satisfying journey, the road toward the messy tragedies at story's end is strewn with pleasures. Not least among them is the character of Roberta (Illeana Douglas, in her best role since To Die For), the truly horrifying teacher of the "summer art class for retards" that Enid has to take to complete her high school requirements. Roberta introduces herself to the students by showing a fiercely feminist avant-garde video, then praises anything--however awful--backed by a feminist screed and disapproves of Enid's cartoons, which were actually supplied by R. Crumb's daughter Sophie from her own sketchbooks. Enid lampoons Roberta until, when encouraged even a little, she tries to court her favor in some of the film's most poignant moments. (Dare I disclose her portrait of...Don Knotts?)
By the time Enid finally "gets on the bus," Ghost World has plumbed its characters' depths with a deep-sea diver's precision and exploded the hypocritical balloon of social mobility and material success that is fast replacing ideals and principles in the age of Bush. Never underestimate a teenage girl's ability to destroy everything in her path, even if that means screwing up her own life in the process. If teenagers are a society's truest barometer, then Ghost World offers a rather worrisome forecast.
Along the way, though, Ghost World tips its hand more than a bit, despite Affonso Beato's seductive camerawork, which has a way of making it all go down like a storybook. If middle-aged men hadn't made this film, for example, would Enid really be so sympathetic to a loser like Seymour? Who, by the way, has the same 78 rpm obsession as director Zwigoff. Which, excuse me, we're supposed to believe this hip outsider girl-child is so easily hooked on? And would feminism be a bad joke? Would LA suburbs be the seat of all evil, at a time when San Francisco was dot-comming and dot-bombing its way into the history books? And what's up with the wheelchair jokes?
Still, Ghost World gets points for avoiding the calculated, prefab cynicism characteristic of overpraised films like American Beauty, on the one hand, and Happiness, on the other. We care about these characters and, despite themselves, they care for one another, too. Irony meets empathy here and both are better for it. Conservative compassion be damned.
Note: For another version of girl power in unexpected quarters, check out Legally Blonde. Sure, it's improbable, what with being a Hollywood product showcasing Reese Witherspoon's star power and all, but it's got wit and even bite. The scenes of female bonding across class in the beauty parlor would be enough to make it worthwhile even if it weren't the best empowerment movie for teenage girls to come along in ages.
Also worth catching are two fantastic films currently on screens around the country. Scott McGehee and David Siegal's The Deep End is a sun-drenched noir that lets Tilda Swinton prove herself as an action hero--and a likely heroine for PFLAG in her efforts to clear her gay teenage son's name and get him that scholarship to Wesleyan. And Lumumba is a historically astute and politically pointed history of what really happened in the Congo in its most tumultuous moment--as dramatized by erstwhile documentarian Raoul Peck, who experienced the African transition to independence firsthand and recently served as Haiti's minister of culture.
As bloated Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and A.I. disappoint to a staggering degree this summer, foreign films without huge promotional budgets are delivering offbeat, heart-stirring cinematic experiences afflicted with one minor marketplace burden: subtitles. You'd think that an American public addicted to website scrolling, instant messaging and cell-phone menus would no longer balk at scanning words onscreen. But, no, mon Dieu, in American movie theaters, English rules! While Miramax finesses the problem with ad campaigns and trailers implying its foreign films are actually English-language (see the one for With a Friend Like Harry, for example), a trio of wonderfully genuine films are now on screens, supplying a welcome relief from the linguistic bait-and-switch game.
Hailing from Iceland, Vietnam and Taiwan, and radically different in style, all three are set within a circumscribed universe of families (one single-parent, one extended, one nuclear) beset by sexual tensions, deceit, betrayal and some decidedly odd forms of reconciliation. Plot points and character arcs come to hinge on the cold of a Reykjavík winter, the heat of a Hanoi summer and the intrusive waters of Taipei. Fierce narrative inventions combine and collide with stylistic panache. Maybe Iceland's 101 Reykjavík, Vietnam's The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Taiwan's The River are old-fashioned, for in place of digital effects and sci-fi concoctions, they expertly deliver the kind of cinematic magic that can transport an audience unreservedly into a believable and all-consuming parallel universe, only to be spat out at the end, on a summer evening, on a city street or multiplex asphalt, forever transformed.
At last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where 101 Reykjavík had its North American premiere, first-time director Baltasar Kormakur was jazzed: His film was getting major buzz, his bar back home in Reykjavík was thriving, he had a major role in another Icelandic film at the festival and he'd just been invited into the cast of the new Hal Hartley movie, Monster. Back then, he couldn't have known that the buzz would evaporate without his landing a major distributor; luckily, New York's Film Forum has performed yet another rescue to our benefit, one that will hopefully incubate an audience.
If 101 Reykjavík has energy to burn, its protagonist most certainly does not. A slacker terminally tied to his mother's couch, Hlynur divides his time between drinking, surfing porn on the web, masturbating in his creaky bed, shagging women and visiting the unemployment office, where his surliness nearly loses him the stipend he relies on for his, um, lifestyle. Liquor virtually jump-starts the film's energy, as scenes of Iceland's younger generation partying its way into oblivion carry the same kind of freshness that Icelandic bands and singers have already brought to the global music scene. No surprise, then, that the film's soundtrack is credited to Damon Albarn, star of the Brit pop group Blur, and Einar Örn, who started the Sugarcubes with Icelandic diva Björk. The driving rhythms of the music may not be synchronized with any productive energy on the part of Hlynur, but they are indeed in pace with the sexual energies and essences that suffuse this film.
For that, there's Victoria Abril to thank. Made famous by her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors, Abril would seem an odd casting choice for an Icelandic film. What's she doing in Reykjavík? Why, she's playing Lola, a clever deus ex machina dropped into this frozen universe to teach flamenco dance--and set the blood of the natives on fire. Poor Hlynur! Lola is introduced as a friend of his mom's, setting the stage for a madcap sex farce, rife with mix-ups.
With Mom conveniently absent over the holidays, and Abril left to babysit mama's boy, Hlynur cannot imagine any impediment to his lusty fantasies. When Mom returns with her own agenda, though, even this jaded couch potato of a son is shocked. Mom announces proudly that she's now a lesbian and Abril is the woman of her dreams. Be happy for us, my son. And that's only the beginning.
101 Reykjavík is a straightforward sort of movie, but its unabashed innocence and stylistic aplomb are wonderfully endearing. Equally pleasing is its refusal to follow the rules of niche marketing, which would certainly prohibit a single film from aiming so broadly. A brash young heterosexual male, his masculinity mangled by a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects, gets his comeuppance. That's one film. A middle-aged woman, responsible for aged relatives and an overdependent son, finds happiness in the arms of a foreign female. That's another. Add to that count Abril's character, an expatriate who's sick of wandering and ready for a nest, and Hlynur's girlfriend, whose pregnancy falls victim to his commitment phobia, and the mix becomes wonderfully complex. It's such a relief to find all these characters together in one movie, with a killer soundtrack to boot, that 101 Reykjavík surely deserves to be seen, if only to inspire legions of viewers to dream of Victoria Abril while stocking up on Icelandic pop and mixing a cocktail.
The time-honored trope of family gets a further, equally unpredictable workout in two Asian films from directors mining nearly opposite terrain, nationally and aesthetically.
Tran Anh Hung is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker whose early work (The Scent of Green Papaya) was suffused with nostalgia for a preliberation Vietnam, where a privileged boy romped through a fabulous manse in tandem with the child-maid in whose care he was entrusted. Shot on a soundstage in France, it was a hard sell to anyone looking for a film devoted to history, politics or modern Vietnam. As if in retaliation against his critics, Tran's next film (Cyclo) moved ruthlessly into the present, tracking the rough life of drug dealing and prostitution in the contemporary, corruption-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, with The Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has melded the best of both early works into a lush, poignant film, set in a near-timeless Hanoi, that traces a trio of sisters through the cycles of family relations, the vagaries of their husbands, their brother's future and finally the youngest sister's coming of age.
Public and private are fascinatingly intertwined, as are past and present. The film's action, for instance, is bracketed by two memorial observances: a banquet at the start of the film for the clan's mother and another, which they head off to prepare at film's end, for their father. In between, the fantasies and dreams of the three daughters reprise the themes of their parents' marriage in subtle ways.
Lou Reed supplies the anthem to which Lien, the youngest sister, and her beloved (too beloved, perhaps) brother Hai awaken. Other tunes haunt other locations. Visual beauty accompanies emotional shifts, from serenity to pain, from suspicion to temptation, amid shifting family fortunes. One sister suspects her husband of infidelity, another doesn't. One husband is faithful, another may not be. Nothing is quite what it seems in this romantic universe, certainly not the business trips taken by the set of husbands, with momentous results. Yet nothing is ever entirely defined either, as ambiguity itself becomes the essence of the work.
To be honest, plot is not the point here. Instead, prepare to succumb to a higher power: the shimmering essence of a Vietnamese summer. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot a great deal of Wong Kar-wai's meditative In the Mood for Love, has outdone himself. In one jewel-like shot, the surface of the water in an antique bronze bowl at the center of an adulterous liaison bubbles into a cloud of luminosity, turning the air liquid with its force. Surfaces reflect the temperature, skin shines with humidity and the languid universe of Southeast Asia claims a magnificent visual register. How ironic that the films shaping our views of modern Vietnam these days seem to be made by French--or American--hyphenated filmmakers, whose cinematic canvas has become a space for them to work out their own complicated relationships to this magnetized place. The emerald green so emblematic of Vietnam is present here, not in the sorts of battle scenes that characterized Apocalypse Now (to be re-released this month in Francis Ford Coppola's definitive director's cut) but rather in the quieter battles of a family.
It's the quotidian feel of life that is worshiped in Tran's film. Such a religious word is not out of place: The Vertical Ray of the Sun, no mere movie, is a prayer rung out across the movie palace, a benediction to the everyday, a stirring of the skin where no breeze has traveled, a visual altar upon which to gaze. Ultimately, what Tran offers is a way of experiencing life as a thing of beauty and a process of, dare I say it, enlightenment. What's important in the universe of Vertical Ray is the tenderness of life, the joy of human connection and the sense of continuity. Luckily, it's got the marketing muscle of Sony Classics behind it, beefed up with Crouching Tiger revenues, so it might just win some hearts.
The River, only now having a limited theatrical run five years after its debut, makes a completely different parable out of the common shards of parental eros, adolescent frustration and city life. More King Lear than Midsummer Night's Dream, The River continues director Tsai Ming-liang's obsession with disjointed families, isolated individuals and sparer-than-spare narratives. Instead of lush landscapes, Tsai plunges us into a cerebral world of perfect frames and rigorous compositions, where alienation becomes palpable and the physical world offers few comforts.
Ever since he first came to notice (with Vive L'Amour and Rebels of the Neon God), Taiwanese/Malaysian filmmaker Tsai has been a cinephile's favorite for his uncompromising visual minimalism and perverse goings-on. In The River, a fractured family carries out its business in near-silence, interacting like strangers. Mom is having an affair with a porn salesman, Dad is cruising for anonymous sex in gay saunas and teenage son Hsiao-kang is, well, trying to find his way to adulthood by blundering into absurd situations.
In one hilarious scene that serves as the film's central emblem, he's hired as an extra by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. His role? A corpse, floating in the murky waters of a local river. Afterward, he warms up with a quick sexual tryst in a hotel room with one of the production assistants. But his luck is short-lived. He soon develops a pain in his neck which may or may not be a result of his dead man's float. It gets worse and worse, even more so after a motorcycle accident that sends his neck even further out of joint and leads his mother and father on ever-escalating searches for a cure. And we, the audience, are there with them as life gets reorganized around the mysterious ailment. Soon the physical universe falls prey to maladies, too. The apartment ceiling begins to leak, occasioning another round of investigations. While his father constructs ineffective barriers and his mother performs heroic acts to stanch the flow, Hsiao-kang suffers, and suffers some more. Existentialist to the core, but never without a perverse sense of humor, The River is a minimalist masterpiece.
Admittedly, this plot summary is far more coherent than the film itself. In fact, I was halfway through the film before I realized that this was a family, before I understood that the father and mother were in fact a couple, or that the pain in Hsiao-kang's neck is not simply metaphorical, or suggestive, or a joke, but a veritable cosmology guiding the film. By the time the father and son show up, with characteristic abruptness, at the same pitch-dark gay sauna, we, the audience, thoroughly retrained by Tsai to be simultaneously saturated with anticipation and detached from narrative expectation, are ready for anything, even a terribly transgressive rewrite of the Oedipal myth.
The River ends with a spectacular rejection of film logic: We never do learn what's wrong with the poor boy's neck.
During the false calm that descends between the announcement of Oscar nominations and the bad-TV night of their awards, the smug nominees are routinely re-released to a presumably eager public in order to boost box-office returns and build a swell of public opinion for their candidacy. Into this big-stakes arena this year ambled a little film, The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse), which launched its national release at New York's Film Forum. Nothing could be further from the bombast of Oscar contenders. Its director, Agnès Varda, is a veteran whose first film (La Pointe Courte, shot in 1954 when she was 26) predates the French New Wave, a movement she soon joined; today, she's its most tenacious and intrepid survivor.
The Film Forum has used the occasion to mount a retrospective of Varda's films, made over fifty years with considerable charm, occasional sentimentality and, in hindsight, historical acuity. My favorite is her 1961 classic Cleo From Five to Seven, a prescient study of a young woman's wait for test results to determine whether she has breast cancer. For a hint of Varda's current interest, there's her 1985 hit Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless drifter whose brushes with society disturb the surface but cannot save her life.
Vagabond and The Gleaners and I both explore society's margins, but whereas Vagabond was an imaginative fiction, Varda's new film has the indelible urgency of documentary. It explores the world of "gleaners," by definition those people who harvest what others reject. In the countryside, that might mean potatoes too large or small for the market or grapes ripening in untended vineyards. In cities and towns, it's a range of trash and discarded objects and leftover market produce, the kind of harvest derisively dismissed as "dumpster diving" on this side of the Atlantic.
No such judgment impedes Varda's research, as she refuses to separate out those who glean for food to survive from those who simply glean for fun: She levels the gleaning field. Varda interviews professional artists who recycle detritus in their studios; inspired amateurs who construct Watts-like towers; rural poor who forage from trailers; urban poor who glean in trash bins; eccentrics who keep tabs on refuse-collection routes; even a celebrated chef who gleans herbs on the hillside. And there's no shortage of ordinary country folk who glean, indulging in a "field day" after the official harvest is done, simply because their grandparents taught them to do so.
Varda has always been very much of her moment, so it comes as no surprise that her film about waste is economical of means: a digital production--shot with a Sony DV CAM DSR 300 and a Sony Mini DV DCR TRV 900 E, if you must know, given how quickly camera names are replacing genres as aesthetic signposts. More noteworthy than the equipment, however, is the response; The Gleaners and I has already spent more than eight months in French theaters. In addition to a clutch of festival awards, in February it was declared the best French film of 2000 by the French Union of Film Critics, which broke with tradition by not choosing a dramatic film.
Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it's due in considerable part to Agnès Varda's own presence. Her voice on the soundtrack supplies a kind of thinking motor to propel the audience along the literal roadways of the French countryside, like an erudite travel guide who sees past the surface. She appears frequently in front of the camera, too, interacting with her subjects and whimsically posing with a sheaf of wheat. There are times when she's in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Varda acknowledges her own habits of gleaning, too: souvenirs carried back from Japan or, well, the footage of this film.
American films about the homeless--Dark Days, for instance, last year's chronicle of a subway-station encampment--tend to emphasize the distance between "us" and "them," usually exoticizing their subjects into another species entirely. Varda tries for the opposite, throwing herself, on screen and soundtrack, into the breach. Indeed, the French title is an explicit recognition of this bond between director and subject, while its English translation creates a rupture. Such directorial presence is a violation, of course, of the "direct cinema" style of documentary that has so dominated US practice since the 1960s, but Varda aligns herself with the "essay film" tradition of French filmmakers like her old pal Chris Marker, or Latin Americans like Patricio Guzman. This kind of film essay, which Varda calls "cinécriture," opens documentary up beyond the limited frame of the quotidian to allow space for analysis as well as emotion.
Varda provides back stories to grant a context to her subjects and their way of life. She also ingeniously and movingly illuminates their stories, enlisting history, poetry and even the Bible to justify the practice of gleaning. Consider Deuteronomy 24:19: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow."
To prove that French law agrees with Scripture, Varda shoots French attorneys in formal black robes. Clutching red volumes of the French Penal Code, they are incongruously posted in fields and on street corners. One traces the right of rural gleaning back to a 1554 statute, while another affirms the legality of urban scavenging, for "these objects cannot be stolen since they have no owner." Nonetheless, Varda witnesses gleaning's modern curtailment by property owners' citing it as a violation of private property. Varda not only charts gleaning's legal progression but, in one scene, tries to reverse it: She notifies a food kitchen of potatoes dumped into a field, then accompanies the group to "glean" hundreds of pounds to feed the poor.
Another personal touch is Varda's emphasis on nineteenth-century French paintings that celebrate gleaning as a joyous activity: Jean-François Millet's Les Glaneuses, Jules Breton's La Glaneuse and Le Retour de Glaneuses, among others. One painting, Léon Lhermitte's Les Glaneuses, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is tempting to imagine its becoming an emblem for a US pro-gleaning movement inspired by Varda's film. With the Girl Scouts updating their image with hip new commercials, maybe they'll consider instituting a merit badge in gleaning.
Since a few million folks are less likely to see The Gleaners and I than to plunk down hard cash for big-budget movies with platformed releases, perhaps the opportunity to comment on the Oscar nominations should not be, er, wasted. This is one of the better vintages, actually, with less wincing than usual. It's a year in which Hollywood passed over many of its own shiny releases (What Women Want, Cast Away) for Best Picture and Best Director honors, in favor of films and directors who started out looking like independents--Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh--but ended up right where they wanted to be all along: at the helm of polished big-budget features (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Lee's case, Traffic and Erin Brockovich in the case of Soderbergh's double header).
Ang Lee has become the great synthesizer, capable of transforming most any genre from melodrama (Sense and Sensibility) to period action movie (Ride the Whirlwind) into a polished evocation of love lost, honor gained and times gone by. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he is happily claiming his success in melding romance with action (the same trick, by the way, James Cameron managed with Titanic). While a recent succession of articles, including one by Lee's longtime collaborator James Schamus, have kept busy by arguing the film's relative success or failure with Asian audiences, its triumph in the West is undisputed.
As for Soderbergh, he is less a synthesizer of genres than the expert devotee of just one: a clear-cut story stripped down to its formulaic essence, then deployed in a contemporary setting, all visceral, fast-paced and consequential. In effect, he's retooled the traditional studio formula to fit contemporary themes, from sexual angst (sex, lies, and videotape) to modern corruption (The Limey) and law enforcement (Out of Sight, sort of). Soderbergh's most appealing quirkiness is his recent emphasis on father-daughter ties, a zone of affection too often left out of movies.
Both Soderbergh and Lee happily place women in the middle of their films, making them central players even in stories that demand combat--with firearms or swordplay. Like all real Hollywood movies (and unlike indies, until recently), they also rely on star power to animate their scripts and draw audiences to the product. With ever-larger budgets, they're drawing bigger names and more freedom in deploying them: In Lee's case, the power to cast Asian stars speaking Mandarin instead of English; in Soderbergh's, the ease of piling star upon star upon star.
Interestingly, the pre-awards commentary on this year's nominations ranged beyond the usual movie writers. In the New York Times, pundit Neal Gabler claimed that the nominations of Gladiator and Traffic as Best Picture constituted a Hollywood endorsement of family values. His article's location in the Week in Review section instead of Arts and Leisure signaled the paper's attachment to his position.
Is he right? With crowd-pleasing spectacles like Gladiator, it's best not to examine the narrative details--or sources--too closely. A cursory reading of history reveals that Marcus Aurelius doted on his son Commodus, who didn't kill him but did succeed him, with eventually dire results. Historical texts note that leaving the throne to his son was the one feat for which Marcus Aurelius remains roundly criticized, and they further point out that Commodus was the first emperor "born in the purple." Hmmm, a ruler who takes power thanks to Daddy but is not up to the task? Sounds uncannily relevant, but more to this nation-state than to any pro-family rhetoric.
Gabler left Erin Brockovich and Crouching Tiger off his family report card, wisely enough, since they don't remotely fit his argument in their shared selection of crime-busters who have grander loyalties than mere blood ties. As for Traffic, well, family man and drug czar Michael Douglas does forsake power to try to "save" his daughter, but he's a failure at both tasks. The film's clearly marked hero is Benicio Del Toro, corrupt cop turned secret crusader. But family? The film's whole point is that Del Toro has none. His cop does what he does (turn mole for the DEA) for the good of community. Traffic's final scene catches him relaxing his long-stoic features at last, as he happily watches kids play baseball on the diamond he's made the DEA build in the Mexican town that drugs once ruled. Kids, yes; family, no.
As for the final Best Picture contender, Chocolat--the fluffy film that Miramax muscle and Juliette Binoche charm propelled onto the slate--it delivers the most resounding slap of all to the sanctity of the family. Binoche's character, an all-knowing chocolatier who happens to be the daughter of a runaway wife and mother of an illegitimate girl, is the only force capable of healing the wounds wrought by church and family in a French provincial town. It's too bad that Robert Nelson Jacobs's screenplay (also nominated) removes the pro-witchcraft and anti-clerical message of the original novel, though it's easy to imagine Miramax's relief at avoiding Catholic rancor at the box office.
Family is an odd grid on which to try to place this year's nominations, actually. Every category was filled with honorees playing outside its bounds. There's Javier Bardem, for instance, in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, brilliantly embodying the spirit, and not incidentally the body, of the notorious Reinaldo Arenas. While he may have been a literary lion and martyr to a cause, Arenas was nobody's idea of a family man. And Ellen Burstyn may indeed play a mother in Requiem for a Dream, but she and her son are hardly on the same page, once the drugs kick in, let alone in the same family unit. Pollock explains family so little that we never learn whether Ed Harris or Marcia Gay Harden, in their scenery-chewing roles as glorious geniuses, even had fathers: we see his monstrous mother and unhappy brothers without ever knowing the first thing about them, while she seems to have dropped from the sky ex utero.
The Gleaners and I did not make an appearance in the still-troubled Foreign Film section, where national politics still dominate the process. Happily, the directing debut of Agnès Jaoui, The Taste of Others, did. It's not incidental that the French nominated a woman, for women directors have played a major role in the remarkable resurgence of the French cinema in recent years. Jaoui is an established actor and screenwriter i n France, not yet well-known in the United States. Other French women directors are, though: Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, to name two recent favorites. Nor have French male directors been slacking: Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont have attracted US fans, and Patrice Chéreau is likely to follow.
The events at the March 25 Oscar Awards won't change the fact that French cinema will continue to demand our attention. Not since the days of the French New Wave have so many exciting films emerged from its industry, and not since the 1960s has it had so much to offer audiences in the way of rethinking our cinematic expectations. Nations go in and out of fashion, not just in terms of tourism or trade agreements but in their cinemas as well. France, it's clear, is back.