Tim Appelo reviews the film With a Friend Like Harry.
B. Ruby Rich reviews the films Amores Perros and Spy Kids.
Pauline Kael (that scamp) once called the Italian neorealist classic The Earth Trembles "the best boring movie ever made." Today the earth is inundated with Iranian neo-neorealism, a wave of arguably boring good movies with cheapo production values, aleatoric docu-dramaturgy, dewy but not innocent
amateur actors and a piercing concern for the downtrodden.
Not that Iran is in a retro film renaissance. The scene's three heavy directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi) and their progeny bring fresh goodies to the neorealist party: a passion for puzzles with half-matching pieces, an eye for color and design, a love of the found object and the hidden theme. Their what-is-reality narrative games resemble our old-time Modernist religion without actually growing out of it. Iranian film is proof, in fact, that similar evolutionary leaps occur in isolated populations.
It's also fruitfully incestuous. The patriarch Kiarostami put Iran on the map with movies like Close Up (1990). It could be titled Becoming Mohsen Makhmalbaf--it's a hall-of-mirrors movie using the people from the real-life case of a guy who was tried for impersonating the country's second-most-respected director. The hoaxer's victim told the impersonated director, "Mr. Makhmalbaf, the other Mr. Makhmalbaf was more Makhmalbaf than you are." Makhmalbaf went on to mess with his own identity in A Moment of Innocence (1996), starring himself and a cop that he actually stabbed as a young revolutionary in 1974. Puckishly, they re-enact the stabbing, coaching teens to play their younger selves. This brilliant film makes the political intimately personal.
But Iran's biggest hit came from the number-three director, Kiarostami's ambitious assistant, Panahi. His 1995 The White Balloon avoids bizarro-world storytelling, though it's written by Kiarostami. Simply, it follows 7-year-old Razieh (the formidably whiny Aida Mohammadkhani), who stalks the streets of Teheran (actually a picturesquely preserved traditional exurb) seeking a fat goldfish for New Year's Day. She confronts a cross section of society--snake charmers, a tailor, a solicitous soldier. The scenes have an offhand beauty, and the composition is careful: Razieh loses her goldfish money down a sewer grate with vertical bars neatly framed by the horizontal bands of a metal shutter and a patterned brick wall. Panahi is an artful dodger of censorship: If you were a credulous government censor, you might not notice that the snake show is like forbidden cinema ("I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch," says Razieh), or that her sitcom dad, shouting in the shower that his kid got him soap instead of shampoo, is a tyrant. That soldier who comforts the kid is kind--if that's how you think of authorities--or unsettlingly intrusive if not.
Panahi blew it with his follow-up, the slapdash slab-of-life drama The Mirror (1997). In it, a girl (Mina Mohammadkhani) wanders a poorly photographed town after her mom forgets to pick her up from school, getting rides in buses and cars and listening to garrulous grownups gab, mostly about social issues. Kiarostami is a virtuoso of the car-ride philosophizing scene; Panahi is unconvincing in impersonating his style. The girl throws a tiff, doffs her costume, shouts at the suddenly visible camera crew, "I'm not acting anymore!" and goes home. The film mumbles itself to sleep. Kiarostami speaks of a spontaneous, "half-created" cinema, but this is half-assed. Maybe Panahi should leave the Pirandello stuff to the other guys.
But then, he should make more movies like his latest, the first big Iranian/Italian neo-neorealist movie, The Circle. (The Italians put up much of the dough; it's Panahi's show.) Even if you want to strangle all the critics who sold you on sitting through the more excruciatingly non-goal-oriented Iranian flicks, you may love The Circle as much as I do. Granted, we've all cut Teheran's Tinseltown way too much slack because it's so noble, the ultimate indie insurgency untainted by the Great Infotainment Satan, issuing urgent bulletins from a cultural battlefront that makes the Bush Administration look like Weimar. But The Circle is great in purely formal terms, quite apart from its searing social/political critique. Panahi is not quite in Satyajit Ray's league, but now he's in the same ballpark.
The Circle opens the way The White Balloon did: with credits on a black screen and the scene set by sound--jangly, upbeat street sounds in The White Balloon, foreboding shrieks of childbirth here. A square window in a stark white door slides open, framing a nurse in a white room wearing a white nunlike getup. A woman symmetrically clad in black anxiously asks about her daughter, the new mother. "It's a girl!" exults the grinning nurse. Disaster! "The in-laws will be furious. They'll insist on a divorce," says the new grandma. "They want a boy." The camera tracks the mourning grandma making her circuitous way past the inquiring in-laws and out of the hospital. It feels like a slow-motion prison breakout.
She passes two actual prison escapees anxiously huddling in the street, Nargess (radiant 18-year-old movie newcomer Nargess Mamizadeh) and the slightly older Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), both draped in black. The camera (wielded by Bahram Badakhshani with more fluid grace than cinematographer Farzad Jadat displayed in The White Balloon) lets grandma make her stately way offscreen and focuses on the young women, picking up their jittery energy. A man in the street sexually taunts them. In the background, cops round up another female; the convicts whip on chadors and hunker down behind a car. They mean to light out for the territory, Nargess's paradisaical hometown, but they need bus fare. Arezou leads Nargess to a sinister-looking building and has her wait at the foot of a circular stairway; Arezou ascends, goes off with men and returns with cash.
Arezou proceeds to tell Nargess she must make her freedom ride: "I couldn't handle seeing that your paradise might not exist," says the despairing Arezou, whose name means "hope." Nargess ("flower"), boards the bus bound for the central terminal, braving the big city on a solo mission, like the kids in The White Balloon and The Mirror. The implicit feminist revolt in those films is here right out in the open; the soldier comforting the girl in The White Balloon has become the prowling Javerts of the police state. When Nargess impulsively buys a shirt for her hometown beau, the shopkeeper asks a soldier to model it for size; girlish amusement at his discomfiture but also terror of his power play across her face. As she's about to board the final bus home, she sees police and flees instead.
The focus shifts to the story of an older, sadder, wiser escaped convict, Pari (veteran actor Fereshteh Sadr-Orafai, who also appeared in The White Balloon). For some reason not explained (Iranian directors like to keep you guessing about plot points), Nargess tracks Pari to her father's house. "Tramp!" yells Pari's père. "Consider Pari dead!" Abruptly, Pari's brothers roar up the tiny tunnel-like alley on a motorbike to the dad's door. The beefy duo, a Tweedledum and Tweedledee of evil, strong-arm their way inside and (if I catch their drift) demand to redeem their sister's disgrace by beating her bloody. Shouts and scuffles are heard inside; the door bumps open and shut as if in a cyclone. It's the film's creepiest scene, with a claustrophobia worthy of Kafka.
Panahi makes a virtue of his limitations, and I'm not sure they're strictly budgetary or governmental. (The censors never got their mitts on this one.) We should be careful about imposing a Western (or Upper Wide Side) Freud trip on him, as the clever critic Georgia Brown did in teasing out sexual symbols in The White Balloon. Remember what Linus said in Peanuts when someone suggested that because he'd drawn a figure with its hands behind its back, it revealed he had deep psychological demons? "I did that because I myself can't draw hands." I think Panahi put the fight behind that door because he couldn't stage a fight scene to save his life. But he manages to convey conflict in sneakier ways. And compared with the subtle, orchestrated tension of The Circle, joining the fight club would be boring.
Pari flees and looks up her jail pal Elham (Elham Saboktakin), a nurse at a hospital with gates like bars. Pari, it turns out, is pregnant. She can't get the OK for an abortion from her dad, and her lover was executed, so he can't sign. But Elham won't help: She lives in terror enough to begin with, that her doctor husband will find out about her past--she can't even visit his hometown in Pakistan because they'd check her at the border. The husband appears behind the women's locker-room door, voicing suspicions. Pari should get lost, fast...
Which she does, and meets Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), who is cowering behind a car watching her blubbering daughter being comforted by strangers--Nayereh hopes they'll adopt her and save the child from some unnamed calamity. (The unemphatic unspecificity of the disasters in The Circle rescues them from sentimental issue-of-the-weekism.) The little-girl-lost scenes in The White Balloon and The Mirror are retrospectively cast in a stark new light, as well.
Stunned, a zombie, Nayereh abandons her child and walks along a dark street followed by the implacable camera. Her stricken face is a constant; only the background changes. It's a wonderfully evocative long take in a movie full of long takes, a little like the alley-of-corruption scene at the end of Catch-22, only not pretentious. Nayereh trusts the kindness of a stranger in a passing car. "How about a lift?" Don't do it, Nayereh, he's a rapist! But he's a vice cop instead. She's booked on suspicion of prostitution.
Gradually, since the first scene, the chase-movie cinematography has yielded to the statelier pace of despair. In the earlier chase scenes, the young women's chadors billowed in the breeze like Supergirl's cape; but Nayereh in flight seems as immobile as the statue at Clover Adams's tomb. A hard darkness slowly grips the film. The cinematic style of The Circle closes in in a way that reminds me of the increasing formal rigidity of each stanza in Auden's elegy for Yeats. By the end, it's full of spectral resignation.
The last scene is a dark visual echo of the first. The camera pans across a black circular cell, past the three escapees we've met, up to a square window in an institutional door. A man inside asks whether Solmaz Gholami is in there--no, it seems she's been transferred to another cell. Solmaz is the unseen mother in the first scene (it's also Panahi's daughter's name). In Persian, the name means "eternal."
Which Booker Prize-winner could give Hollywood the boot in the arse it needs and secretly craves? Roddy Doyle, that's who. His Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) is somewhat more consistent than the Godfather Trilogy and less dependent on film tradition. His flicks don't exactly blow Coppola's away, but they're at least as good at sparking a family to rampageous life. It's not images that render Doyle's Dublin Rabbitte clan--it's the talk. Doyle's characters are comets of conversation, a bit like Preston Sturges heroes, daredevilishly suspended in thin plots by sheer velocity and nerve.
Doyle was a Dublin schoolteacher who poured his students' joie de vivre into a novel, The Commitments (1991), about scrappy Irish dole kids who become a soul band. When publishers returned it unopened, Doyle published it himself; then Alan Parker's posse buffed it into one of the best music movies ever, realer-seeming than the current exquisite memory film Almost Famous. It succeeds because it celebrates failure with integrity. As they say about soul music in the film, "It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite."
The Commitments is the best Doyle film because it has Hollywood polish and story shape, but what makes it great is Doyle's untutored talent for dialogue in a medium dominated by words overprocessed and extruded by studios in terror of an original syllable. The Snapper (1993), made for BBC peanuts by Stephen Frears, a London genius who flops whenever he tries to go Hollywood, is a haphazard tale of unwed Dublin motherhood. Lost from the novel it's based on is the inside tour of the mother's thoughts, but still, it's a pure jolt of Doyle dialogue, uncut by movie pros.
What a rush! Who cares if the story has no sense of direction when you've got an intense sense of place and a vital ensemble engaged in the verbal equivalent of a food fight? Even the girl's loathsome impregnator Georgie Burgess (sag-eyed Pat Laffan) is so real, so rooted, you could kiss his puff-pastry face. Doyle captures the fractious loyalty and contained chaos that inspired the comic Martin Mull to say that having a family is "like having a bowling alley installed in your brain." While the eloquently exasperated expectant grandpa (Colm Meaney) tries to pry Burgess's identity out of his "up the pole" daughter, his younger girl high-steps past wearing baton-twirler's duds and a shaving-foam beard; a soused son vomits in the kitchen sink; grandpa-to-be says, "You'll do those dishes!" and gets back to interrogating without missing a beat.
The film The Van (1996), about the Dublin dad's fish-and-chip truck venture, was a bigger comedown from Doyle's Booker-shortlisted book--not enough family feeling. Even so, his cult flicks got him a crack at writing a screenplay not derived from a novel; unhappily, it is derived from all too many movies. The trouble starts with the title: When Brendan Met Trudy. If you're going to quote a famous movie title, why pick one whose title is the worst thing about it?
While there's nothing wrong with stealing, Doyle and director Kieron Walsh are thieving magpies who can't weave bits into a nest for new life. The worst thing about When Brendan Met Trudy is its incessant, inconsequential movie references, no substitute for sturdy characters and witty chaff. In their opening-scene reprise of Sunset Boulevard, virginal 28-year-old schoolteacher Brendan (Peter McDonald) lies face-down on a rain-swept Dublin street as his voiceover suggests that we back up a few weeks to find out how he got there.
The original fulfills that promise with a clockwork plot. This scene is just a one-shot gag: We later find that Brendan tripped in the street, fell and took comfort in mumbling lines from an old movie. He's not dead, just dull, there for no reason besides the filmmaker's wish to quote Sunset Boulevard. Random events happen to Brendan. He sings Panis Angelicus with his church choir (a no-soul band). He absently teaches students whose names he can't keep straight (how can Doyle get nothing from this milieu?). He gets picked up in a pub by Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a determinedly spunky Ellen DeGeneres lookalike; takes her to "an important Polish movie" by "Tomaszewski"; has cute sex with her; suspects her of being the castrator who's (cutely) terrorizing Dublin; and helps her bungle a cutesy burglary of his school. The whimsy is wheezy.
We see clips from Once Upon a Time in the West, The Producers and The African Queen, and Brendan and Trudy re-enact scenes from movies. Brendan gets limp in flagrante in a hayloft. Trudy observes, "What's wrong? You were big a minute ago." He replies, "I am big; it's the pictures that got small." Putting Jean Seberg's New York Herald Tribune T-shirt on Trudy fails to make her Seberg in Breathless. When Belmondo apes Bogey in Breathless, he's his own man. Aping Belmondo, Brendan isn't anybody, just a dead cliché walking. He's very good at mimicking John Wayne's walk at the end of The Searchers--but he ain't goin' nowhere, pilgrim. This movie could be called Airless. Or Something Mild.
Doyle's talent glimmers here and there in the hokey-jokey dialogue; you may find bits charming and me grumpy. Maybe I wouldn't be so disappointed if it didn't come off like a tone-deaf imitation of a real Roddy Doyle movie--one with bighearted characters firmly planted in a real place, whipping up a world out of irreverently poetical words, making me feel like family, banishing the real world by sweeping me up in theirs. Doyle's excruciatingly self-conscious and lumbering farce is not quite shite, it's just the usual, when what we expect from him is a kick in the arse.
Looking Back: First-time director/writer Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me won Best Screenplay and Best Actress from the National Society of Film Critics instead of the Oscars it also deserved, but how can you expect a bunch of Hollywood types to grasp fully an articulately understated, utterly honest work of art? In Lonergan's tale of an orphaned brother and sister's troubled love, every stammer, rant, skittish glance and awkward silence is precisely in character and scored like music.
Anyone could film an opening scene of a car crash that claims a young couple, but look how sensitively Lonergan handles the next: A cop's face materializes in the obscured glass of a front door. Sheriff Darryl (Adam LeFevre) tells the babysitter of the dead couple's kids, "Would you step outside and close the door?" Darryl's cop-speak must work on drunk drivers, but words fail him now and he's struck dumb with grief. The mute moment is searing, it evokes the closeness of their upstate New York town and it introduces two symbols of disconnection Lonergan loves: the door and the glass.
We flash forward to the orphaned girl Sammy (hummingbird-alert Laura Linney) in middle age, still living in her parents' manse with a wraparound porch like a comforting arm, baking plate-sized cookies for the return of her slouching jailbird hobo brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo, a real find). On the bus home, Terry smokes joints as if they were his sole source of oxygen--the same way wild-child-turned-churchgoer Sammy smokes cigarettes when her 9-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin, very like his brother Macaulay), is safely tucked in bed.
The town still cramps Terry. Sheriff Darryl is still in his face, confiningly benign. Terry literally can't breathe around the guy, because he'll exhale THC. And when Terry and Sammy meet, Lonergan economically conveys how they've coped with orphanhood in opposite ways. Terry became a Five Easy Pieces-style wandering wastrel. Single-mom Sammy stayed put, raising Rudy and working at a bank run by Brian (artfully blank-eyed Matthew Broderick). Brian is a preposterous martinet, ineptly tyrannical (he asks people to use "a more quote unquote normal range of colors" on their PCs), yet with a nonmean streak. So Sammy feels sorry for him and impulsively takes him to bed. She's always trying to save people.
The story's surface simplicity is deceptive. The relationships between Terry, Rudy, Sammy and her lovers grow together slowly, like frost tendrils in a windowpane. Subtext runs deep, and though he's not the world's most bravura visual director, Lonergan composes a tight symbolic structure connecting apparently desultory events. The climactic punchout scene is not contrived; it closes the circle of the lost-parent theme, and squares with Terry's belief in facing bad facts, not fleeing to faith and tradition. Watching him, you'd never know the 1960s myth of self-actualization was all self-deluded jive. (It sure beats the smug, pothead-bashing moralizing of the otherwise superb Wonder Boys.) Listening to him and Sammy and Rudy and a doleful minister (played well by Lonergan) talk about life, you'd think cinema was an art open to ideas. Plus, it's funny.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
When I taught at Ted Bundy's alma mater, one student wrote this report: "He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games."
That's the kind of creepy mental peekaboo that made Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (whose saga is partly inspired by Bundy, who was convicted by teeth marks) immortal. But Ridley Scott's movie of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is not scary. It's just a game.
Twice, Hannibal's tale has risen to pulp tragedy on camera, in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986, reissued on a director's-cut DVD) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Demme made Hannibal a permanent pop phenom: dark father, demon lover, mind-reading puppetmaster, ruthless icon of will, intellect and appetite--he's a man for our time. Scott's Hannibal repeats pop-culture history as stylish farce. Not that the creator of Alien and Blade Runner has lost his voluptuous touch. There is much to admire in Hannibal, including the penultimate scene that reportedly made Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Jodie Foster (who played Hannibal's nemesis, FBI sleuth Clarice Starling, in The Silence of the Lambs) flee shrieking from the sequel project. (Spoiler alert: I'll describe this scene below.) Yet Scott's Hannibal is a diminished thing.
You can get at the heart of these films by comparing their snuff scenes. Manhunter boasts the most haunting opening scene: a killer's-eye view as he (the superb Tom Noonan, star of Buried Child on Broadway) ascends a stairway to a bedroom and shines a camcorder light on a woman's face until she awakens and sees her fate. Later, we see her as the madman himself does--with eerie lights in place of her eyes and mouth, as if she's lit from within by lust and magnesium. That's it--no gore, only horror. Horror is what you think, not what you see.
Demme's immensely humane, deeply moral, emotionally acute The Silence of the Lambs employs a like discretion. When Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) cuffs and clubs his cop captor, we don't see the biting and bludgeoning directly; we see the cop's face as he grasps what's about to happen, and we see Hannibal's face, spattered with blood and then blissed out on exquisite music. Later, we see a tableau of the crucified cop with angelic wings made from red, white and blue bunting (Demme associates violence with extremist Americanism). It's the idea that's horrific, not really the tastefully distanced atrocity itself.
Both scenes abduct the viewer--carry us into the psycho's world. Hannibal, however, occurs on familiar movie turf. In the spiffy opening sequence, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Foster, acts like every plucky action heroine you ever saw) leads a stakeout at a drug drop in a fish market. The chief druggie pulls a gun from under the baby strapped to her chest and puts a bullet in Starling's leg; Starling puts one in the druggie's skull and rinses the HIV-infected blood off the otherwise unharmed baby on the fish market's cutting board. In the novel, the spray forms "a mocking rainbow of God's promise." Scott, who doesn't give a rip about that baby, focuses instead on the fascinating abstract pattern of the blood in the fish market ice cubes. He has aesthetics in place of the author's bitter religious ethics.
Starling gets blamed for the raid gone wrong, though it was really the sexist cop's fault for drawing his gun too soon. Starling's übersexist boss Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a churl she's spurned, exploits her disgrace. But Starling's downfall is a dramatic dead end--empty calories. (There's an almost identical hackneyed Starling-disgrace scene Demme shot and wisely deleted--it's instructive to watch it on The Silence of the Lambs Criterion DVD.) Scott conveys the FBI gal's resistance to sexism with dialogue Hannibal would term "ham-handed"; Demme did it in deft images--Foster entering an elevator of oglers--and smart dialogue that respected each character. Krendler, like lots of Scott villains, has obviousness problems. (If I'd been poor Joaquin Phoenix, forced to utter those lines while everybody else got the good bits in Scott's Gladiator, I'd have fed myself to the lions.) When Hannibal insults Starling in Demme's film, his skill is chilling: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube.... You're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?" It gets under her skin and yours. When Liotta's Krendler insults Starling, it's like watching Peter Boyle tapdance in Young Frankenstein. "Corn pone country pussy," Liotta mutters. "I wouldn't mind having a go at you right now." "In the gym, anytime," Moore tritely replies. "No pads." No more!
Things perk up when we hook up with Hannibal in Florence, where he's living la dolce in an authentic fifteenth-century palazzo, with the view he craved in his Silence of the Lambs dungeon. Boy, does Scott feast his eyes on Florence! Squares alive with wheeling birds, arcades that reach prayerfully to heaven, sunlight on water like molten precious metal, arias afloat in the open air. The quick-cut, jagged black-and-white scenes are still more glorious. He makes us share Hannibal's epicurean idyll, and his glee in killing people he deems "rude." It's not as good as making us sweat with Starling in Hannibal's hellish cell, feel the clamp of his mind-forged manacles, fear the rot of all that is good in us by his infectious nihilism, but it's something. Lecter at large is lesser than Lecter yearning in a cage for the same reason that the only good thing Tim Leary ever wrote was his jailbreak account: Escape gives pressure and structure to a narrative, while endless freedom leads to aimless partying.
There's a $3 million reward on Hannibal's head, which attracts an Italian cop, Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Scott adroitly stages Pazzi's Hannibal hunt, which is, of course, Hannibal's Pazzi hunt. The cop looks glum, as well he might, since he's descended from the historical Pazzi who got defenestrated and eviscerated in a way certain to appeal to Hannibal Lecter. When Pazzi goes splat outside the palazzo, it's gross but barely disturbing.
More disturbing is the mistake Scott makes in dramatizing the character who has offered that $3 million reward, the meatpacking billionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). The best duo in the novel is not Starling and Hannibal, it's Verger and his militant sister (AWOL from the movie). Verger is like a Goofus to Hannibal's Gallant--instead of using his wealth to savor the best in life and kill the rude, Verger uses it to gobble drugs indiscriminately and rape children. In a flashback, a younger Verger invites his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, home for sex, so he can blackmail him into concealing Verger's addictions. Lecter lets Verger tie himself up and offers a popper. Actually, it's speed, LSD and PCP, enabling Lecter to hypnotize Verger. When the good doctor advises Verger to slice his own face off with a mirror shard, Verger obeys; Lecter feeds Verger's face to his pooch.
Paralyzed yet all-powerful, a ghoul mouthing born-again cant, Verger should be a great monster, a fit antagonist for Hannibal. And he is on the novelistic page, with his hand that moves like a crab, his brutal moray eel and his videocamera trained on captive children whose tears he decants and drinks. On screen, he's just Gary Oldman, in scarface makeup resembling the hero of Sondra Locke's film Ratboy, and sounding like the unholy offspring of Andy Warhol and Jimmy Stewart with his teeth out. Oldman does a good acting job, but it's an impossible job, given the reduction of the role.
And it gets worse! Verger's plan is to nab Hannibal, drag him to his vast estate, Muskrat Farm, and feed him to big killer pigs. The problem: Pigs are adorable onscreen. They have these cute little snoots, and when they eat somebody, it may be formally gory but these creatures are about as scary as the carnivorous rabbits hippety-hopping to devour humanity in Night of the Lepus. The buildup to the showdown is very much akin to Dr. Evil's "unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism" in Austin Powers.
Did you forget about Starling? While all the above is going on, she is trying to stop Pazzi from hunting Hannibal, and then hunts Hannibal herself. Scott is a fine choreographer of actors; one extended sequence of Starling and Hannibal chatting on cell phones while he leads her a merry chase on a merry-go-round is bravura filmmaking. Their twosome, alas, is not toothsome. When at last they meet after unnecessarily slow exposition, the good doctor purrs, "Good evening, Clarice. Just like old times!" It most certainly is not. In Silence of the Lambs, Foster's and Hopkins's faces interacted elementally, like wind and waves, or like fencers' foils crossed, bent, quivering, threatening to snap. Moore and Hopkins get no such quality face time. The script forces them to phone most of it in.
Moore is the genuine article, ambitious, gifted, artistic promise personified. Nobody sounds deeper, darker notes than she has in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts and (heroically, riskily) in Safe. What's wrong with her Starling, then, besides the words? The girl is all class--she lacks trash. "Trailer-camp, tornado-bait white trash," Hannibal calls Starling. But Julianne Moore is nothing of the sort. She's patrician, elusive and otherworldly. Jodie Foster, for all her Francophone Phi Beta ways, convinces the camera she's down-home, earthy, vulnerable, earnest, as pure as the kid in the Coppertone ad grown up uncorrupted.
And Anthony Hopkins? He's still got those odd, hooded bedroom eyes, all twinkly yet somehow immobile as the dead. His vocal instrument still croons, but he's changed Lecter's key this time. Before, comedy was a palate cleanser; this time, it's the main course. Really, his latest Lecter, free to roam, is a lot like Anthony Hopkins is in person: witty, drifty, dreamy, delightful to talk with and remote as a hologram.
The climactic scene in Hannibal is a dream--don't listen to all those prissy critics who dissed it. Starling is stoned on opiates, and Lecter invites her through her wooze to have a friend for dinner. Or rather, an enemy: Krendler. Liotta, at a total loss for the rest of the movie, comes through in this moment of crisis (abetted by a $70,000 Ray Liotta robot doll indistinguishable from the real actor). He wears his baseball cap backwards, lending him an amusingly juvenile aspect. His speech, like HAL's in the last bit of 2001, reverts to childishness, peeling back his character, revealing his inner self, simple as it is. In a shocking shot I sincerely doubt you haven't heard about, Hannibal removes the top of his skull. There are many memorable effects in Ridley Scott's Hannibal: the miasmal mist over Verger's Muskrat Farm, the grain of wood inside Lecter's grandfather clock set against the ribbed pattern of the metal pendulum, the velvety sky enriching the lustrous blues of cop-car cherries crossing a bridge in funereal procession, the final image of the film, an iris shot of Lecter's red eye. But out of all the virtuoso moments, it's that dinner scene that sticks with you. Why? It's the one that plays for keeps.
With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.
The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.
Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.
Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.
From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.
Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.
Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.
In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?
But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.
For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.
It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?
Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)
Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...
A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.
The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.
A survey of films from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Commenting on the German film Run Lola Run two years ago, The Nation's redoubtable film critic, Stuart Klawans, quoted a character speaking nominally of soccer: "The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes." He went on to write, "That's a good answer, if your head's filled with the same stuff as the ball.... Just don't forget which part of you is getting booted." Vintage Klawans, who gibed his fellow critics as well for decrying "the demise of movie culture--laments that have been sighed, paradoxically, over the living bodies of any number of vital but less fashionable films." Holiday moviegoers have doubtless missed Stuart's insight, grace and humor in recent weeks; we here report that after a dozen years spent in the dark so that the rest of us might see some light, he has decided to take a sabbatical. We'll miss his presence. In the interim, we hope you'll find the occasional film commentary by others in these pages to be very much in his spirit.