You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest
budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally
compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but
respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to
the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.
Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards
of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of
his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to
rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al
Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your
attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American
movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film
of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.
I care about The Believer, first of all, because its
writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most
American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of
course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a
discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we
may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in
itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a
compelling enough character.
So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The
Believer by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De
Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and
infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and
slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head
buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his
brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes
with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but
it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so
horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood,
as a Nazi activist.
Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because
I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when
the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand
Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a
theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine,
the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.)
The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with
Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September
2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an
intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since
Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March
of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that
audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.
Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts
in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the
exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is
methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the
elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots
all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a
victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first
opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny
howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he
stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.
Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory,
in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We
see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys,
except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to
slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard,
moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that
Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims,
perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.
You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny
takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there
theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room
exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will
object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil,
and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of
the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce
the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)
But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations,
and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with
equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an
"above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders
(Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but
dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him
into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up
with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long
before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and
starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder
Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.
I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's
Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself.
According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to
rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not
able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean
one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many
wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die
away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around
his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then,
like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the
T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.
It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most
American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and
yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.
So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.
It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose
premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska,
has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and
the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless,
the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They
send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle,
Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose
police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top
detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.
I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed
puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to
come from Detroit?"
Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in
person. That's the point of the leather jacket.
It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going
out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the
climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an
agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more
like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it
was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip
and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a
symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script
says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something
that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.
Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd
be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no
more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes
before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has
nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do
with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced,
convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care
of business, while everybody else is goofing off.
Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a
laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now,
in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young
squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these
performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's
who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't
notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster
I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim
the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever
breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we
may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.
Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne
Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine,
the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968,
grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade
napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and
Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too,
including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the
jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their
courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's
showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The
distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.
Say what you will against the Hollywood event film, and you can say it
twice about Spider-Man. Twice, because this movie has been so
successfully pre-sold, mall-booked, cross-marketed and revenue-streamed
that Columbia Pictures confidently scheduled Spider-Man 2 before
it ever let an audience see
the first. Violent? The fight scenes in this picture must have cost a
hundred Foley artists a hundred nights in the recording studio, banging
away at a hundred anvils. Crass? The product placements are literally as
big as Times Square. Crude? The camera is perpetually drawn, as if by
animal magnetism, to the cleavage of Kirsten Dunst, the better to
examine two of her character's few defining features. It is not enough
to say that Spider-Man is a big movie. It is a big, big movie.
And Spider-Man is also a small movie, which hangs from the thin,
very odd thread of its lead actor, Tobey Maguire. A little late in life,
though not implausibly so, Maguire plays high school senior Peter
Parker: the smart, shy, artistic, dateless victim of his graduating
class, the kid voted Most Likely Not to Be Voted Anything, who happens
to get bitten by a mutant spider and so turns into--what? A superhero?
More like a freak. As conceived for comic books by Stan Lee and Steve
Ditko, Spider-Man was the first really alienated guy to swoop around
fighting crime in a funny outfit. His strange powers made this teenage
outsider into even more of an outsider--and Spider-Man the movie
stays true to that idea, thanks mostly to Maguire.
Consider his voice, first of all: a nasal tenor instrument, with which
he's in no hurry to say anything. Maguire doesn't cultivate a stammer,
as did James Stewart (whom he occasionally calls to mind), but he does
give a consistent impression of letting his words trail a beat or so
behind his thoughts. You might recall his doing so in The Ice
Storm (in which, for my money, he was the film's one point of
contact with reality), or in The Cider House Rules (where he was
used for his air of moping fragility, yet somehow held his own against
Michael Caine), or yet again in Wonder Boys (where Michael
Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. kept competing to see which one could play
more broadly, and Maguire very quietly and subtly took control of the
movie). It's characteristic of him that in one of his better moments in
Spider-Man, he says nothing at all. "Just got contacts?" asks MJ
(Dunst), the girl of Peter Parker's dreams, when she sees he's no longer
wearing glasses. The question sounds casual, but the occasion is
charged; MJ has noticed for the first time the color of Peter's eyes
(spider-power has corrected his vision), and he's just been granted his
first chance to look into hers. Maguire considers her question, pauses
as if a dozen possibilities were crowding his head and then settles on a
reply: He grins. It must be the right choice. At the screening I
attended, the audience answered his smile with laughter.
Maguire can get that effect because he generates a time zone of his own
around his body, and also because that body is a mismatch not only for
its surroundings but for itself. The carriage is stiff. The smile, when
granted, loops goofily up and down the long face. The features of that
face don't quite come together. Although the assertive cleft chin might
well belong to a superhero--or a movie star--it cohabitates a bit
uncomfortably with rosebud lips, a delicate nose and eyes whose natural
tendency is to watch for trouble. The impression, as a whole, is one of
pleasant ungainliness--which may be why Maguire seems as surprised as
the audience to discover what's happened to his musculature. When he
awakens after the spider bite, this 98-pound weakling finds that his
torso can bulge and ripple, just like something from an old Charles
The allusion to Charles Atlas seems deliberate on the part of the
director, Sam Raimi. He knows those ads had their rightful place on the
back covers of comic books, where they held out a fantasy of power to
the medium's core audience, the Peter Parkers of this life. That's
something comic books share with event movies; they're both made to
appeal to boys in their adolescence, or barely out of it. The
difference, of course, is that event movies mount their appeal by
deploying resources of a vastly greater scale, comparable (let's say) to
that recently used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Part of what I like
about Spider-Man is that despite its staggering budget and
daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of
the source material. Raimi uses Maguire for that purpose, and he also
uses a second, uncredited star: New York City.
To an extent that's very rare with digitized, semi-cartoon pictures,
Spider-Man is a movie shot on location. You see the Columbia
University campus, Midtown, the Flatiron district, SoHo, the East River
and (maybe most gratifying of all) the row houses and little commercial
streets of Queens. Very often the action that takes place in these
settings is computer-generated, with Spider-Man swinging from building
to building by his web, or performing the kind of acrobatics that were a
prime attraction of The Matrix. Even so, the real city remains an
irreducible presence in Spider-Man, as when Peter discovers his
new abilities and goes leaping across the rooftops in exhilaration--the
roofs, in this case, belonging to the same squat apartment buildings you
see every day from the elevated train.
So there's something humble, plain and slightly old-fashioned working
within this mega-movie--or perhaps even working against it. As I turn
from Maguire and the settings to the story and its themes, as elaborated
by screenwriter David Koepp, I notice that the conflict between big and
small is more than an accidental effect in Spider-Man. It's the
The plot, in brief, concerns a surrogate father who happens to be an
all-powerful homicidal maniac. Norman Osborn (played by Willem Dafoe,
the movie's Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one) is a
millionaire scientist who at first befriends the impecunious Peter,
offering him concern and sympathy. But Norman is also a military
contractor who hungers for that next big contract, as a result of which
he undergoes his own transformation, developing a monstrous alter ego
known as the Green Goblin. Whereas Norman is kind and gentle toward
Peter, the Green Goblin schemes to destroy Spider-Man, striking at him
through the people he loves.
As someone who has been a son and is presently a father, I wasn't
convinced. Spider-Man tosses out a notion of the paternal
relationship, but it conveys nothing of the feeling of bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh. (Paradoxically, the relationship between MJ and her
father has emotional weight, even though it's a side issue in the movie.
Her father bullies and belittles her--which may be why she takes a
liking to Peter. He's the one male animal she encounters who is strong
but doesn't act it.) But if we agree not to take the movie's terms more
seriously than they deserve, then the father-son conceit can be made to
yield some sense. Let's say the father is a stand-in for Columbia
Pictures, a Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and the son is Sam
Raimi, who at one moment gets sweet talks and huge sums of money from
his corporate parent and at another is reminded, no doubt forcefully,
that the parent is in fact his master, who will kill for those revenue
Does this interpretation seem far-fetched? Then think about Peter's
Uncle Ben, the other surrogate father in the film and the movie's moral
voice. Raimi has waggishly cast Cliff Robertson in the role--no doubt
because Robertson, too, went through a life-altering, science-fiction
change in the movies, in Charly, but also perhaps because he was
the one who uncovered malfeasance at Columbia Pictures in the late 1970s
and so brought down its management. Robertson's mere presence in a new
Columbia release is a kind of history lesson, and a rebuke. Who better
to tell Peter, practically with his dying breath, that power brings
responsibility? Who better to play a wise, elderly working stiff from
Queens, in contrast to Dafoe's military-industrial tycoon?
And who can doubt that such a contrast is needed, when Spider-Man
portrays modern economic life as an endless series of downsizings? The
older people in the movie are pushed out of their jobs; the younger
can't get any. Why, the very notion of hiring someone seems repugnant to
the editor of the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons) when Peter comes
looking for work. "Freelance!" he bellows. That's the best thing for
young people today. Then, as a substitute for decent freelance pay, the
editor goes on to promise "Meat--Christmas meat!"
As an object of commerce, Spider-Man belongs to the world of the
Daily Bugle, and to the Green Goblin. As a work of the
imagination--as a movie, rather than a blockbuster--it belongs to Cliff
Robertson and Tobey Maguire, to New York City and to New York's people
(who put in a surprising, crucial mass appearance late in the film). I
liked seeing this conflict played out openly, in the first summer-season
mega-production of 2002. But that's not why I gave my heart to
What really moved me was the exchange between Peter and MJ at the end of
the film. It's a scene that comes out of nowhere, if you've ignored the
small movie within Spider-Man and seen only the product
placements and special effects. But if you've registered the moments of
wit and feeling that surface throughout the picture, intermittently but
steadily, you will feel that it's right for the movie to end here, in a
graveyard, with MJ at last caressing Peter's face and doing it with a
black-gloved hand. Finally she can speak of what she wants, amid death.
Peter wants to reply, and could do so eloquently; but, being Tobey
Maguire, he chooses to hold back.
And so it ends, triumphantly, unhappily--that is, until Spider-Man 2.
What date shall I assign to Chris Marker's magnum opus, A Grin
Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace
the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing
for the first time in the United States, where it's being shown in the
form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it's a film from 1993; and
yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977,
when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the
hungry zombie it's since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The
last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of France. In the
film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had
begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against
the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student
protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in
Bolivia of Che Guevara. It's fair to say that the main body of A Grin
Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why
Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest
how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits
1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela.
Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own,
Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party.
That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the
party's political base. In Marker's words (which are spoken throughout
the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves
into "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will
have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First,
though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it
Marker gives a filmmaker's reply: He goes back in time to The
Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie--begins
twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat,
Marker shows us Eisenstein's celebrated vision of the Potemkin
mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over
with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a
great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of
conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein's Odessa steps, more
or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker
shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with
an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and
she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it
two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl
sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration,
the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat
is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is
to be astonished at the world of footage that's been piled up here, some
of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known
and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include
images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes
of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an
unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat
Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of
Iran's grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of
Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory
gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with
a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that
firm's managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student
collective's newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d'Estaing
playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments;
behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the
Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas
canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so
associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement
made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was
stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion;
Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the
distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from
the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when
the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But
then, Marker comments, "I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200
people were killed so the games could begin," and we have that footage,
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also
make your head clear, Marker's montage is not only associative but
diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two
main sections. Part One, "Fragile Hands," concentrates on the events of
1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two,
"Severed Hands," begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,
continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of
Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat's grin, late in the
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He'll jump from
source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the
concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he'll digress
to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either
filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police;
and then he'll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his
essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier
part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call
dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn
their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi
Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the
picture, so does Giscard d'Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem
with the New Right. In Marker's view of history, the development of the
New Right may have been the New Left's greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point
with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he
unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of
Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him--"How
could you, a Communist, be doing this?"--when that intertitle from
The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way
that's now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat
also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star.
Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many
performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little
drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on
the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good
sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit
of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking
spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che
Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work
himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a
dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition,
profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile
sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to
the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated,
feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your
friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even
better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things
done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the
Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a
Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn't show up at all; yet
activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as
ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose
to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We've had a few, despite
all of history's tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation
reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York's Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami's most recent documentary, which premieres in the
United States on May 3 at New York's Cinema Village, is about nothing
other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN's International
Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a
trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS
on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are
left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to
the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of
a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a
wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will
be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the
Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that
encourages women to band together and become economically
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what
Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It's enough to say
that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami
film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you'd expect. It's also
lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.
Filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa tend to divide their attention between city life today and village life once upon a time. This rule has its exceptions, of course; but if you're searching for an African film that truly overcomes the split, deftly merging the contemporary with the folkloric, I doubt you'll find
anything more ingenious than Joseph Gaï Ramaka's retelling of Carmen. Set along the coast of modern-day Dakar, this Karmen Geï drapes current Senegalese costumes upon the now-mythic figures of Mérimée and Bizet, puts old-style songs and African pop into their mouths and has its characters dance till they threaten to burst the frame.
The film's American distributor, California Newsreel, suggests that Karmen Geï is Africa's first movie musical--that is, an all-singing, all-dancing story, rather than a story with song and dance added on. If so, that breakthrough would count as another major achievement for Ramaka. But nothing can matter in any Carmen without Carmen herself; and so I propose that Ramaka's true claim to fame is to have put Djeïnaba Diop Gaï on the screen.
Practically the first thing you see of her--the first thing you see at all in Karmen Geï--is the heart-stopping vision of her two thighs slapping together, while a full battery of drummers pounds away. We discover Karmen in the sand-covered arena of a prison courtyard, where she is dancing so exuberantly, lustily, violently that you'd think this was a bullring and she'd just trampled the matador; and at this point, she hasn't even risen from her seat. Wait till she gets up and really starts to move, shaking and swerving and swiveling a body that's all curves and pure muscle, topped by a hairdo that rises like a mantilla and then spills down in ass-length braids. A rebel, an outlaw, a force of nature, an irresistible object of desire: Gaï's Karmen embodies all of these, and embodies them in motion. The only part of her that seems fixed is her smile, shining in unshakable confidence from just above an out-thrust chin.
Is it just the memory of other Carmens that brings a bullring to mind? Not at all. There really is a contest going on in this opening scene, and Karmen is winning it, effortlessly. She is dancing, before a full assembly of the jail's female prisoners, in an attempt to seduce the warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle). Pensive and lighter-skinned than Karmen, dressed in a khaki uniform with her hair pulled back tight, Angélique yields to her prisoner's invitation to dance and soon after is stretched out in bed, sated, while Karmen dashes through the hallways and out to freedom.
From that rousing start, Ramaka goes on to rethink Carmen in ways that vary from plausible to very, very clever. It's no surprise that the Don José figure (Magaye Niang) is a police officer; the twist is that Karmen snares him by breaking into his wedding, denouncing all of respectable Senegalese society and challenging his bride-to-be to a dance contest. The chief smuggler (Thierno Ndiaye Dos) is a courtly older man who keeps the lighthouse; and Escamillo, the only person in the movie big enough to look Karmen in the eye, is a pop singer, played with smooth assurance by pop star El Hadj Ndiaye.
Ramaka's best invention, though, is Angélique, a previously unknown character who is both a lovesick, uniformed miscreant and a doomed woman--that is, a merger of Don José and Carmen. By adding her to the plot, the film gives Karmen someone worth dying for. The details of how she arrives at that death are a little muddled--the direction is elliptical at best, herky-jerky at worst--but thanks to Angélique's presence in the story, the climax feels more tender than usual, and more deliberate. Karmen shows up for her final scene decked out in a red sheath, as if to insure the blood won't spoil her dress.
Karmen Geï has recently been shown in the eighth New York African Film Festival, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. It is now having a two-week run downtown at Film Forum.
The title of Fabián Bielinsky's briskly intriguing Nine Queens would seem to refer to a sheet of rare stamps--or, rather, to a forgery of the stamps, which two Buenos Aires con artists hope to sell to a rich businessman. But then, the businessman is himself a crook, the con artists don't actually know one another and the sale just might involve real stamps. You begin to see how complicated things can be in this movie; and I haven't yet mentioned the sister.
The action, which stretches across one long day, begins in the convenience store of a gas station, where fresh-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls) draws the attention of Marcos (Ricardo Darín), an older, more aggressive swindler. Teamed up impromptu, just for the day, the two stumble into the con of a lifetime when Marcos's beautiful, prim, angry sister (Leticia Brédice) summons them to the luxury hotel where she works. She just happens to need Marcos to cart away one of his ailing buddies; and the buddy just happens to know of a guest who might buy some stamps.
No, nothing is as it seems. But Bielinsky's storytelling is so adept, his pace so fleet, his actors so much in love with every nuance of their dishonesty that you will probably laugh with delight, even as you're being dealt a losing hand of three-card monte.
And if you want social relevance, Nine Queens will give you that, too. As if Juan (or was it Marcos?) had scripted the whole country, this release swept the critics' awards for 2001 just in time for Argentina's economy to crash. Enjoy!
I hadn't intended to review this last film; but since it's become a critical success, here goes:
The Piano Teacher is a pan-European remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with French stars Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot playing the sacred-monster roles and Austrian director Michael Haneke fastidiously avoiding the camp humor that alone could have saved the movie. Set in Vienna and cast (except for the leads) with German-speaking actors, whose lips flop like dying fish around their dubbed French syllables, The Piano Teacher is a combination of immaculately composed shots and solemnly absurd dialogue, much of it about the music of Franz Schubert. "That note is the sound of conscience, hammering at the complacency of the bourgeoisie." Sure it is. Add a sequence in which Huppert humps Girardot (her own mother!) in the bed they share, throw in an extended sex scene where the characters grandly ignore any risk of interruption (though they're grappling in a public toilet), and you've got a movie that ought to have made classical music dirty again.
But to judge from critics' reactions, Schubert remains the touchstone of respectability, and The Piano Teacher is somehow to be taken seriously.
The aura of high-mindedness that cloaks the action (at least for some viewers) emanates mostly from Huppert. No matter what her character stoops to--doggie posture, for the most part--Huppert seems never to lower herself. She maintains her dignity because she is being brave. She is acting. She is allowing herself to be shown as sexually abject before an athletic younger man, Benoît Magimel, who has a cleft chin and peekaboo blond hair. Huppert has been similarly abject in recent years, in Benoît Jacquot's The School of Flesh, for example. I wonder what hope other women may nurture for themselves after 40, when this wealthy, celebrated, greatly accomplished and famously beautiful woman has no better prospects. I know we're expected to give prizes to Huppert for such ostentatious self-abnegation. (Last year, at Cannes, she collected a big award.) But what pleasure are we supposed to get from seeing the character humiliated?
A dishonest pleasure, I'd say; the same kind that's proposed in The Piano Teacher's now-notorious scene of genital mutilation. The meaning of the scene, for those who are pleased to give it one, is of course transgressive, subversive and otherwise big word-like. See how (women) (the Viennese) (the middle class) (fill in the blank) are repressed, how they turn against themselves, how they make themselves and everyone around them suffer. Then again, if you subtract all that guff about the complacent bourgeoisie, maybe the scene means nothing more than "Ew, gross!"
I have admired Haneke's films in the past, beginning with the antiseptically grim The Seventh Continent and going on to the tough, much-maligned Benny's Video. When Haneke has proposed that clean, affluent, educated people may do horrible things, I have agreed, as of course I must, accepting what would have been a mere platitude for the sake of the films' clear vision and genuine sense of dread. But as I watched Huppert's preposterous impersonation of a music teacher, I began to wonder if Haneke knows that characters can be something other than horrid.
The dynamics of Schubert's music represent emotional "anarchy," says Huppert at one point, in a pronouncement that would get a pedagogue sacked from any self-respecting conservatory. Listen to Rudolf Serkin play the great B-flat piano sonata, varying his touch with every breath, and you will hear not anarchy but imagination. It's the quality most lacking in The Piano Teacher--followed closely by warmth, humor, realism and purpose.
Fun at Home: Nation readers will want to know that Zeitgeist Video has just brought out a DVD of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's fine documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. All the original fun is there, plus added features such as Chomsky's own commentary on the picture. The film is now ten years old. You will probably find it's more to the point than ever.
If you're in the mood to see great acting, I recommend that you watch Aurélien Recoing get caught in a lie in Laurent Cantet's Time Out. As Vincent, a French management consultant who is secretly unemployed--playing hooky from life, let's say--Recoing is forever being asked why he's hanging around in office
towers, motel lobbies or parking lots. The truth is, he's dawdling: killing his own time, or spying on the way other people use theirs. But since dawdling in the modern world is a category of malfeasance, midway in seriousness between a theft and a threat--theft of an organization's private airspace, the threat to use that space without management approval--Vincent must continually justify his mere presence. Each time he fails to do so, Recoing brilliantly shows you how Vincent is a little slow with the first words of his excuse, a little too quick with the rest. You can see the lie form behind his pale, high forehead.
That expanse of flesh seems transparent not only to you but also to the security guards who challenge Vincent. They see how a flush tints his otherwise bloodless, round-cheeked face; they read the effect as shame (which it is, in part). But Recoing's ability to alight cleanly on each emotion, as a dancer hits the mark, is only the beginning of the marvels he performs in this role. What's really impressive is the talent he displays for playing simultaneously to his fellow actors and to the audience, revealing aspects of Vincent's makeup to you even as he conceals them from the people onscreen. The security guards often fail to guess what you do, that the flush comes from anger as much as shame; they seldom hear the note of outrage that wavers beneath Vincent's thin-lipped patter.
Of course, this two-faced performance owes a lot to Cantet, the writer-director of Time Out. He's the one who plotted out the successive views of Vincent, so the man's emotional truth would accumulate even as his lies pile up. But it's Recoing who is so good at making Vincent lie badly. One moment, you'd think his eyes opened onto the rear wall of his skull; a second later, and the pupils are glittering near the surface, in slits like two flesh wounds. All the while, as his mind visibly shoots forward and retreats, Vincent keeps pouring out the words, hopelessly, uselessly, as if he wanted and deserved to be caught.
Maybe he talks so volubly because words are all he has: the words of a corporate functionary, backed up by a cell phone, a car and a carefully tended dark suit. Time Out begins with Vincent using most of the above assets in one of those rare and ingenious opening shots that instantly define a movie. You see a field of nocturnal mist, which gradually proves to be a fogged-up windshield. Vincent has been sleeping behind the wheel. As the shot continues and dawn breaks, a bare landscape takes shape beyond the membrane of the car. Inside the automotive bubble, Vincent picks up the cell phone. Yes, he tells his wife smoothly, the meeting went well--so well that now he has to stay over. He probably won't be back tonight. Miss you, too.
The windshield has cleared. Outside, the world's activities have begun. Inside, Vincent is insulated (though none too well) from the first of the film's challenges. He isn't supposed to be parked where kids get off the school bus? Then he'll drive elsewhere. As you eventually learn, Vincent likes to drive.
We'll get to that revelation. But for now, since I've told you some of the plot, it's probably more important to acknowledge the true story that underlies Time Out. You may remember the newspaper account: For years, a man in France said goodbye to his family each morning and drove off to a nonexistent job. He spent his time sitting around in parking lots and coffee shops; he got his money by floating loans, which he never repaid. When the debts grew so pressing that exposure was at hand, the man took a gun and ended the imposture; he killed his family but, though he tried, not himself.
Cantet has transformed this violent reality by draining it of almost all physical menace. Granted, in one memorable scene Vincent seems on the verge of killing his wife (Karin Viard), but his method is the relatively passive one of abandonment in the snow. Also, at the climax of Time Out, Vincent raises his voice and storms clumsily through the house; but despite that, Cantet doesn't go in for explosive denouements. He's far more interested in the normal texture of this abnormal story. Cantet wants to explore the corridors of a glass office tower, to sink into the squared-off armchairs in a motel lobby, to follow a strip of road wherever it leads. As much as Vincent's anger and anxiety keep mounting throughout the film, the shots and rhythms remain coolly composed.
When filmmaking is this precise and intelligent, critics habitually tack on a third adjective: dull. It's a judgment I was tempted to make whenever Vincent got together with his family. Those scenes felt obligatory, with Vincent trapped among the overbearing father, the surly son, the increasingly frustrated wife. If I had to live with this bunch of stock characters, I too might sleep in my car. But Cantet's vision of domestic life, though uninspired, makes up only a minor part of Time Out, whose patient and meticulous technique pulled me in whenever the film turned to a more congenial subject: criminality.
Vincent's most important relationship in Time Out is not with his wife but with a lean, wolf-faced smuggler named Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who strikes up an acquaintance after catching him sleeping in that motel lobby. There's something wickedly avuncular about Jean-Michel, with his low, low voice and ironic smile. You could take him home to dinner (and wind up feeling like a guest in your own home). Jean-Michel leads Vincent into a world of darkened rooms full of cardboard boxes and darkened roads that slip across borders--a world that temporarily appeals to him.
It's during this time with Jean-Michel that Vincent makes the revelation I mentioned earlier, explaining how a love of driving cost him his job. When on the road to a business meeting, Vincent used to ignore the turnoff and simply keep going; he would drive on for one more exit, then for two, until he eventually stopped showing up at all and was fired. Jean-Michel gives Vincent the courtesy of accepting this story as a confession of good sense. And from what Time Out shows us of the business world, Jean-Michel is right.
What do people talk about in all those meetings? At one point, Cantet has Vincent spy on a conference-table gathering, so we can hear the presentation for ourselves: public-private strategic infrastructure business-model development. Nothing that you could smell or taste or pick up in your hand. Who wouldn't prefer the hum of wheels, the sound of the radio, to these endless polysyllables? And when you consider the cloudiness of this language of global trade, why shouldn't Vincent's old school chums believe him when he says he can take their cash into Switzerland and invest it in, ah, something or other? Some of these buddies all but force their money onto him. After all, he speaks so well.
Cantet's previous film, Human Resources, was similarly skeptical about the modern arts of management. That picture told the story of a young man from a working-class family who comes home from school to work in his father's factory. The father labors on the shop floor; the son, with his college education, hunches over a computer. I admired the way Cantet dramatized the homecoming, with congratulations quickly giving way to suspicion and resentment. (Wear a tie to work, and your favorite old bar might no longer be so comfortable.) But once the film's story kicked in, with the workers threatening to go on strike and the son being maneuvered to lie to them, Human Resources turned into more of a diagram than a movie. You could have taken a piece of graph paper and plotted the characters' relationships. In fact, that's what Cantet seemed to have done.
But there's nothing schematic about Time Out. However neat or decorous the storytelling, the movie respects the oddness of Vincent's refusal; which is to say, it reveals something of the oddness of the normal world by letting Vincent haunt it from a slight remove. And in Aurélien Recoing, the movie has a perfectly bland-looking Vincent whose every breath is charged with mystery. Recoing is your boring neighbor from down the hall, suddenly glimpsed doing the perp walk on the 10 o'clock news. He's Bartleby for the age of the euro; he's what you see in the mirror on Monday morning, before your eyelids mercifully ungum.
Recoing is an actor playing a character who is himself onstage full-time. He's in every frame of Time Out; and to every frame, he contributes something of genius.
Let's start with the Morlocks. In the new film version of The Time Machine, the subterranean carnivores are not merely apelike, as in the H.G. Wells novel. They're Planet of the Apes-like, with mighty deltoids and flowing locks; and that's only the beginning of their nightmarish iconography. These Morlocks cancerous lizards. With their tucked-up, skeletal noses and dead-white complexions, they also bear a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. I have seldom seen such redundant hideousness designed into movie monsters. If kitchen sinks made you squeamish, the Morlocks would have them installed.
The above-ground, vegetarian Eloi also carry a surplus of associations onto the screen, as many as DreamWorks pictures can drape over their tattooed frames. When time traveler Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) wakes up among the Eloi more than 800,000 years in the future, he finds them to be a bronze-skinned, cowrie-decorated tribe, not unlike the islanders in the Murnau-Flaherty Tabu. Their choral music seems to have been passed down through the millennia from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their dwellings, made of wooden ribs and built high above a river gorge, look like a South Seas cultural project by Renzo Piano. Apparently, these noble savages read Architectural Record; and to prove it, they have exquisite taste in home furnishings. H.G. Wells described the Eloi as squatting in temples that were falling into ruin, as if they were the degenerate inheritors of a Greco-Roman golden age; but our current Eloi live amid the homespun textiles and décor of a pricey Caribbean resort. I almost expected them to lay out for Hartdegen little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from The Body Shop, bearing labels that say "Trade, Not Aid."
By now, it should be plain that a certain clarity of conception--a dialectical rigor, you might say--has been deemed useless by the makers of this new Time Machine. Writer John Logan and director Simon Wells have not even maintained the separation of nocturnal and diurnal habits; though the Morlocks are said to be creatures of the night, they in fact carry out a raid in full daylight. This disrespect for the source novel doesn't make The Time Machine a bad movie--I'll get to those failings in a minute--but it does point up how attitudes have changed between 1895 and today.
As is well-known to anyone with a decent respect for Fabianism, H.G. Wells used The Time Machine to project into the future his ideas about nineteenth-century class struggle. His Eloi were the feeble descendants of aristocrats, lovely to look at but frivolous and idle. The Morlocks were the offspring of workers, condemned to dwell and labor brutishly underground. The twist in Wells's story was that the workers, by virtue of their know-how, had come to dominate the aristocrats. The twist in Wells's psychology was that this socialist, born into the very-lower middle class and self-educated out of penury, gave his sympathy to the Eloi and wrote of the Morlocks as subhuman.
Of course, this was just the beginning of The Time Machine's meanings. As the story spread from H.G. Wells to the movies, the 1927 Metropolis gave us not only the struggle between aristocrats-in-the-clouds and proles-in-the-mines but also two other head-on collisions: between modern science and Gothic magic, between the sluttish New Woman and the peasant-village Madonna. The movie resolved these many contradictions through a final handshake between Capital and Labor--a gesture so unsatisfactory that it hinted at stronger convictions left unexpressed. They would emerge soon enough. When screenwriter Thea von Harbou got around to defining her politics, she proved that H.G. Wells's fable could also appeal to a National Socialist.
Speeding back toward the present, we discover more and more uses for Wells's invention. Passing quickly over its appearance in the 1960 movie by George Pal--in retrospect, a notably faithful adaptation of The Time Machine--we find the device turning into a tool of manhood. In the 1967 Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," written by Harlan Ellison, time travel provided an occasion for the heroic renunciation of love, as tragically enacted by the last fictional character capable of this choice: Capt. James T. Kirk. In Nicholas Meyers's 1979 Time After Time the machine became the vehicle for a slasher picture--a rather charming, romantic one--in which a timid H.G. Wells bested the manly Jack the Ripper.
Then came the juvenile time travelers. Terry Gilliam gave us a schoolboy's vision of universal corruption in Time Bandits (1981). Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale encouraged their adult audience to revert to school-days nostalgia (and Oedipal longings) in the 1985 Back to the Future. And after that, as if to confirm Nietzsche's worst fears about the shape of time, we began to get the recapitulations. Just recently, we saw another Metropolis (this one splendidly animated, by Taro Rin) and another kind of unhinged-in-time slasher movie, Christopher Nolan's Memento, which by a strange coincidence starred Guy Pearce, the pilot of the latest Time Machine.
As I think of Pearce, the wooziness of the current film is plain to see in his performance. When he first appears, he behaves like the funny professor in a Disney preteen movie, wiping the blackboard with his jacket sleeve, blinking over the top of his little eyeglasses and letting his marvelously sculpted jaw hang slack. But then, very quickly, the filmmakers turn him into a tragic, obsessed figure, who clenches that jaw and can't be bothered to shave. The reason: His fiancée dies right before his eyes (and ours), not once but twice.
Again, I note the redundancy, which is particularly important here because it is the filmmakers' own invention, and their reason for sending Hartdegen into the future. H.G. Wells saw no such need to explain his protagonist's interest in time travel; curiosity was motive enough. But he assumed his readers would want to know how time travel might be possible, and so he devoted his whole first chapter to speculation about the fourth dimension. In 2002, Simon Wells and John Logan see no need to explain time travel (and certainly wouldn't frontload their movie with math). But they assume their audience will want to know why anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a machine, and so they kill off a character. To make sure that we get it, they even kill her again.
They treat us as if we were H.G. Wells's Eloi: mild, incurious and stupid.
And here's where the new Time Machine has its own dialectical twist. In the Logan-Wells version, the Morlocks are both bestial and dangerously cerebral. (I know that doesn't make sense, but trust me. There's a very smart über-Morlock who looks just like the old rock star Edgar Winter.) That's the Aryan side of things. The viewers, meanwhile, are expected to sympathize with the Eloi, who are nice and multicultural but passive. "This is the world," they explain helplessly, and a bit self-righteously, when Hartdegen learns they're lunch for the Morlocks. "How can you do nothing?" he demands, even more self-righteously. They need someone with a bit of über-Morlock in him to revive the notion of free will. Hartdegen, the Last White Man, will teach the tourist-resort staff to resist. He will blow things up.
And now, having defined Fabianism for the year 2002, I will mention the good bits in The Time Machine. The device itself looks wonderful when it's whirring at full speed, encased in a globe of light. Sometimes, sunk within a quickly changing landscape, it even resembles a glowing eyeball. Production designer Oliver Scholl has been equally clever with the Eloi's housing--especially at night, when the cliffside shells turn into lanterns. There are also a few bright spots in the storytelling. For a minor example, I can cite a shop window that's across the street from Hartdegen's time machine. As fashions change over the years, the mannequins do a funny stop-motion dance. For a major example, I offer Orlando Jones's performance as a holographic, computerized librarian.
You may have seen Jones's long-faced drollery in such less-than-terrific movies as Evolution and The Replacements. Here, he's made to represent nothing less than the sum of all knowledge--and instead of bowing under the weight, he rises with it, giving a performance that seems to come entirely from the balls of his feet. Despite having to play a machine, he's the only human character in the movie. So long as Jones was on the screen, I felt there was a good reason for H.G. Wells to have brought out his invention in 1895--and for the Lumière brothers to have bothered, in that same year, to project their own ghosts of time past onto a cafe wall.
Screening Schedule: A time machine of another sort is now at work around the country, in a retrospective of the films of Joris Ivens. From a starting point in the European and political avant-garde of the 1920s, Ivens's cinema moved on to document (evoke, eulogize, sing) many of the most profound social and political moments of the twentieth century--and then concluded in 1988 with the astonishing A Tale of the Wind, which turned his own life story into a poem, a landscape, a philosophy. All this is now available to you in the present, March 20-28, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and in the near future at cinematheques and museums in Washington, Boston, Ithaca, Cleveland, Chicago, Berkeley, Toronto and Vancouver. Watch for it: The Films of Joris Ivens: Cinema Without Borders.
Why, asked my friends and my baffled wife. Why, piped my son. Even the movie critics sitting next to me wanted to know: What perversity drove me to see Hart's War and Rollerball? Did I need to make February seem any longer?
Rollerball I can explain. The costumes looked nifty on the subway poster, LL Cool J makes me smile and Chris Klein, in Election, was an endearing goof. In other words, I'm a movie sucker. Besides, the original Norman Jewison film had represented capitalism (to use a big word) as a corrupt blood sport--and in the early weeks of the Enron scandal I felt like hearing a rant.
Would that I had listened to my colleagues, friends, soul mate and 3-year-old. Cinematically, the John McTiernan remake is a hodgepodge of jittery traveling shots that convey the excitement of blood sport by capturing whatever random objects passed before the lens. Since there were more floodlights on the set than anything else, the main thrill of Rollerball comes from learning how a police interrogation would feel if it were conducted on skateboard. The politics? Let me note that the action has been transferred to Central Asia, which offers three alien hordes for the price of one location. Mongols, Arabs and ex-Soviet miners threaten to engulf our beamish Klein, who dresses for the occasion in a red Statue of Liberty T-shirt.
As for Hart's War: When I signed up to watch Bruce Willis win World War II, I didn't know the movie's real lead would be some other actor, whom I wouldn't recognize again if he came to my place for Friday dinner and stayed the weekend. This young stick of furniture represents an untested lieutenant, who lands in a German POW camp. Willis, meanwhile, is the camp's ranking American officer, a role that he interprets as a test of endurance. He tries to get through the whole picture without once moving his face.
Mysteries lie within Hart's War. How did this setup give rise to a courtroom drama? Who decided this particular case was a good way to put American racism on trial? Why is the movie's most sensitive, complex figure a Nazi commandant? And if Bruce Willis shaves at the end of every third day, how come we never see his mug on days one or two? There must be answers to these questions, but they remain elusive, like my reasons for seeing the picture.
Actually, my reasons were all too simple. I wanted to watch something--and when I got to Monsoon Wedding, the new movie directed by Mira Nair, I at last found something good. I don't call it that just because I'd been worn down by Hart's War and Rollerball, or because (full disclosure) I'm acquainted with the co-producer. Shot in Delhi in what seems to have been a single great rush of energy, Monsoon Wedding is good because it spills over with color, music, dance, sex, rainwater, flowers, cell phones and popsicles. The actors' faces are all indelible; the characters' family dynamics, both impossible and too damned normal.
Written by Sabrina Dhawan, Monsoon Wedding is the story of four days in the family life of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), a dyspeptic Delhi businessman whose nerves and bank account are being stretched thinner than usual by the impending marriage of his daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). She is about to wed Hemant (Parvin Dabas), a young engineer now living in Houston, who proves to be handsome, muscular and pleasant when he drives up the lane to the Verma house. "Hi," he says. "How are you?" Not the greeting a bride wants at her engagement party--but then, she and Hemant scarcely know each other. Amid clusters of video cameras, the arranged couple exchange rings and sweets. To answer the question: She isn't doing too well.
It seems she's in love with another man: a TV talk-show host, who's sleek and exceedingly married. But this, as it turns out, is the least of the film's concerns. Sweet-faced Aditi and easygoing Hemant function almost as the ingénues of Monsoon Wedding, occupying the middle distance with bland pleasantness while the rest of the frame fills up with the real characters.
There's a funny and touching couple, first of all: the Verma family's wistfully beautiful servant, Alice (Tilotama Shome), and the man in whom she dares to take a romantic interest, the comically energetic wedding planner P.K. Dubey. Played by Vijay Raaz, Dubey is the movie's most vivid figure, and a character who deserves a share of screen immortality. All ears, Adam's apple and polka-dot scarf--the sign of a fragile vanity--he starts out spouting double talk into his cell phone, proceeds in nervous animation to devour the wedding's decorative marigolds and never once slows his pace till Alice brings him down, bump, on his knees.
Next there's a steamy couple: cousin Ayesha (Neha Dubey), a teenage bump-and-grind expert in a tight blue dress, and Rahul (Randeep Hooda), a college student from Sydney, Australia. Called "bloody number-one most stupid duffer" by his own father, Rahul has shown up at the wedding with his broken hand in a cast, out of which sticks a painfully erect thumb. And yet, despite this obvious protrusion, Rahul waits almost till the last second to make his move on a more-than-willing Ayesha.
Finally, there's a tragic couple: Aditi's unmarried cousin Ria (Shefali Shetty), who wants to become a writer, and silver-haired Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor), the de facto head of the family. Although the bitter history between these two must go undisclosed in this review, the audience will have no trouble guessing their secret. The important question is, What will Lalit do about this matter, once it's revealed to him?
Though dramatic in itself, Lalit's dilemma is all the more striking as the turning point of a movie about people we might lazily term Westernized. This big Punjabi family speaks English half the time and drives the same cars you might see in Connecticut. Aditi's lover, the TV host, appeals rhetorically to "our ancient culture," even while he's trashing it; Dubey's mother interrupts a twilight, touristic view of Delhi to chatter about the day's stock prices. But these characters are modern, not homogenized. Lalit's problem takes a specifically Indian form when he's forced to choose between two responsibilities: to Ria, who is wounded, and to his family, which must not suffer a rift. The young not-quite-lovers, Aditi and Hemant, confront a similar choice when they have to decide not just whether to go ahead with the wedding but also who should make the decision.
But enough of problems. Monsoon Wedding is more interested in unions: wet ones, and lots of them. From an opening scene played before a wilting, semicollapsed piece of lawn architecture, the movie bounces toward a conclusion in a tent, which holds up surprisingly well and has room for more revelers than expected. I think there's space for you, too.
Much admired by French critics and now opening in the United States, Esther Kahn is one of those movies you decode more than watch. Outwardly, it's a costume drama, set in London during the gaslight era, about a fiercely odd Jewish girl from the East End. Though her home is warm and convivial, Esther (Summer Phoenix) feels so estranged that her family sometimes looks transparent to her. A hard-core rejectionist from birth, she won't read, won't court properly with boys, won't earn her living normally. Her manner is blank, except for the occasional outburst of violence.
So she becomes an actress--which leads us to the inner story.
Destined for the theater but completely untutored, Esther comes under the protection of an older Jewish performer, Nathan (Ian Holm), who volunteers to teach her to act. In the most absorbing section of the film, we watch the wily Holm instruct Summer Phoenix in how to build a rapport with the audience by acknowledging their presence, feeding off the emotions that run across the footlights. This is, of course, exactly what a film actress cannot do.
It's a familiar game, this ploy of dramatizing the actress as she dramatizes the character; but Esther Kahn plays it to the limit, erecting the barrier of a movie screen between the two figures. Esther, a young woman who doesn't feel a part of life, becomes an allegory of Summer Phoenix, who really isn't in the room with us, though she soaks up our desires anyway.
The distinction comes up early: When Esther goes to a medical clinic for a checkup, a voiceover narrator recites a description of the character, while the camera provides us with our first series of close-ups of the actress who stands in for her.
Later, as if to extend the allegory, the movie has Esther apprentice herself in sex to a drama critic--a necessary step, according to the plot, since sex will supposedly fill her with the emotion she lacks. The instruction doesn't seem to work. Although Esther moves upward in her career, ultimately taking the lead in Hedda Gabler, Summer Phoenix goes on behaving like a blank, as befits a projected image.
Forgive me for foisting off so much interpretation. I do it only because Esther's success in the theater would be inexplicable at face value; from what we can see, she's as expressive in her roles as a pair of socks. (In fact, the movie refuses to let us see Esther act. Whenever she steps on stage, the sound drops out and the action goes into slow motion.) Nor is there any good reason why Esther could attract and hold the attention of the drama critic--except that he's played by Fabrice Desplechin and therefore serves as a stand-in for the director and co-writer of Esther Kahn, Arnaud Desplechin. The intangible shadow-woman on the screen is Desplechin's creation. He loves her, guides her and will ultimately abandon her. Or perhaps he'll be the one to be abandoned.
Maybe this sounds dry. It's not. Arnaud Desplechin finds startling beauty wherever he turns his camera: in the boarded-up windows of the East End (as closed to the world as Esther), in a framed view of a tree (an alien apparition in Esther's life), in the waves of the Thames as they carry Esther toward her future. The re-creation of the period is almost hypnotically vivid, and the large supporting cast (notably the actors who play the family) build up a wonderful sense of community, which Esther can't enter. Everything here is precise, intelligent and slightly maddening. You want to take Summer Phoenix by the shoulders and shake her, to make her act in this world.
But then, doing the job for you, she begins to strike her own face. It takes a long time before the allegory, and the actress, turn on themselves--but when it happens, Esther Kahn delivers an unforgettable, visceral blow.
Frederick Wiseman has spent a lifetime piecing together sounds and images captured from the daily flow.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.