If you’ve seen Pleasantville–the story of teenagers who are magically transported from 1990s reality into 1950s television–you know that its writer-director, Gary Ross, has a sly respect for nostalgia, especially when it’s felt for a past you didn’t live. Pleasantville‘s protagonists, the not-yet-famous Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, inhabited their vision of a pristine world and then slowly learned to distance themselves from it. The more disillusioned they became, the less rancor they felt about the present day–which may help to explain the film’s middling box-office career. Audiences today don’t have much feeling for unembittered irony.
Ross’s new film, his first since Pleasantville, draws on the same gentle mode; and yet this picture will surely bring him great rewards. The movie is Seabiscuit: a success story in the self-consciously American vein, based on a bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand about a great race horse of the 1930s and the troubled people who drew together around him. On the handsome face of it, this is a presold property, and not just because it features the now-stellar Maguire. Seabiscuit is literally and insistently about beating the odds, coming from behind, running free.
Almost inevitably, the movie begins and ends with evocations of America’s ultimate symbol of opportunity, the open road. Not so inevitably, these images are melancholy.
To start, Ross shows you period photographs of the Model T Ford–an instrument of mobility, yes, but one that helped doom America’s horse culture. To conclude, Ross gives you a winner’s-eye view of a race track, with nothing ahead but room to move. This image, too, is tricky, when you recall that the oval doesn’t lead anywhere, and that at this point the horse and jockey are finishing their careers. So, quietly, Seabiscuit demonstrates that its story plays out between two moments of loss: the withering away of rural, artisanal America, and the end of the New Deal era and its ethos of the common man. Nostalgia is surfeited; nostalgia is undone. Little wonder, in these shifty circumstances, that Seabiscuit’s owner, San Francisco auto dealer Charlie Howard, should be a great touter of America’s unlimited future, yet empty his garage of cars to make room for a horse.
As played by the innately self-confident Jeff Bridges, Howard is a born promoter–like that other auto salesman, Tucker–who nevertheless conveys a deep steadiness. Although he devotes half the movie to revving people up, Howard spends the other half calming them. This makes him something like nature’s gentleman Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the hobo cowboy who becomes Seabiscuit’s trainer, except that Smith is all hands and Howard all mouth, Smith a soother of horses and Howard of humans.
The third principal two-legged character, jockey Red Pollard, is the most damaged of these people, the one who most needs calming; and so he is the one presented through Maguire’s uneasy intelligence. No matter what line of dialogue he delivers, in whichever film, Maguire seems to hold back some other remark, which is damn well going to remain his secret. But he doesn’t need words to hint at an inner life. When he edges into a stall in this movie and sees Seabiscuit for the first time, Maguire does nothing but widen his eyes slightly, and you know that some new life has begun in him.
Two more points of comparison between Seabiscuit and Pleasantville: In both movies, Ross has his characters discover that perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and in both he makes the film mimic a genre of television. In Seabiscuit, that genre is the historical documentary–and to make sure the imitation is faithful, Ross’s pans and zooms across old photographs are accompanied by a narration by David McCullough, voice of The American Experience.
This means the nation’s moviegoers are lining up for a two-hour lesson in social history, whose moral is that Washington should lend a hand to the little guy. Bring back the New Deal! Can Gary Ross revive old-style liberalism, with the help of Tobey Maguire and a horse? Probably not–but he can work a sweetly elegiac, sadly hopeful tone into this movie, even though it predictably, and astonishingly, flies along as if on a jockey’s shoulders.
When Red Pollard takes his first exhilarating gallop on Seabiscuit, the landscape is already autumnal.
One of contemporary cinema’s great collaborators, Stephen Frears, was among the first directors to put multihued, postcolonial England on the screen, working with writer Hanif Kureishi on My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Now Frears is back with a new movie, Dirty Pretty Things, set in a London where you almost never see a white Englishman. This time his writer is the ingenious Steven Knight, to whom Frears has responded with nervous, obsessive energy.
Scarcely has the movie begun than our hero, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is being summoned into a back room, where he is pushed to his knees before his boss’s crotch. The occasion, it turns out, is a medical exam. Although Okwe is a doctor back in Nigeria, he’s a cab driver by day in London and a hotel desk clerk by night. He’s also an undocumented immigrant–like Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish-born housekeeper at the same hotel, who rents him her sofa (on which he can’t sleep) and struggles almost angrily not to flirt with him.
If these two only had papers, then maybe they’d find time for at least a one-night stand. But they’re in a city of anonymity, cops, overwork, penury, back-room encounters that really are about sex and hotel rooms that sometimes have a human heart stuffed down the toilet. In other words, Dirty Pretty Things is a work of realist cinema, made into a thriller by connecting the factual dots with a few taut narrative threads.
Tautou, temporarily freed from being winsome, is utterly convincing and effective as Senay; and Ejiofor (a native Londoner) is even better as Okwe, a man who has to work doubly hard to remain decent simply because he’s vibrating with fatigue. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent; the plot, artificial enough to give the bad guy his comeuppance but sufficiently responsible to avoid a purely happy ending.
For my money, Dirty Pretty Things is the best movie out there today.
Peter Mullan started in show business as an actor, working notably with Ken Loach, whose no-frills style seems to have carried over into Mullan’s impressive new film as a writer-director, The Magdalene Sisters. The story, I’m sorry to say, is mostly true. It follows the miserable lives of three young Irish women–Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) and Rose (Dorothy Duffy)–who were imprisoned and enslaved in a Catholic asylum for fallen women. This happened in County Dublin in the 1960s–the day before yesterday. The women’s sins? One had been raped, one had flirted with boys and one, who had borne a child out of wedlock, wanted to keep her baby.
Mullan has seen to it that his actors never give in to a single moment of self-regard–which is what you’d expect of him. The surprise is his narrative punch. He spares you nothing, omitting neither the pools of blood gathered on the eyelids of a recently punished inmate nor the long seconds required to drag a desperate woman down a hall. The most devastating detail, though, may be the silent presence of women in their 50s and 60s. Margaret, Bernadette and Rose look around the Magdalene Asylum and realize–as do you–that they may never come out again.
The anthology film September 11, organized by Alain Brigand, is a set of reflections on the World Trade Center attack, realized independently by eleven directors–a roster that’s something like a pickup football team whose players have neither a quarterback nor an opponent and so charge off in eleven directions.
Or are there only three? What’s most interesting about September 11 is the evidence it offers that filmmakers have just a few options for dealing with terrible events.
Number one: Treat the subject as something too large to show. This Unrepresentability Trope is taken up by at least four of the directors, of whom the strongest are Alejandro González Iñárittu and Samira Makhmalbaf. González Iñárritu’s deeply disturbing piece is a sound-collage of the attack, played against a screen that remains black except for flashes of actualities footage. Makhmalbaf’s contribution to the anthology is an affecting fable about an Afghan schoolteacher in rural Iran, struggling to put the event into images that her pupils can understand.
This brings us to the verge of a second approach: the Local Perspective Trope. In Amos Gitai’s nervy and hilarious film, an insanely pushy TV reporter in Tel Aviv tries to cover a suicide bombing, never understanding why no one is watching her. In a staged documentary based on a real incident, Mira Nair looks at the attack through the eyes of a grieving Muslim woman in New York. And in an outrageous drama that is one of the anthology’s best films, Shohei Imamura goes back to the craziness of 1945 Japan, the better to think clearly about 2001 America.
When such local concerns completely eclipse the World Trade Center attack, you get The Trope of the Changed Topic. Ken Loach handles this approach well, in a piece that offers a letter of condolence to the families and friends of the Twin Towers victims. The letter’s author–another kind of mourner–is the Chilean expatriate Vladimir Vega, who recalls for his New York counterparts his experiences of September 11, 1973. Loach’s editing is brilliant–he finds startling equivalents to the WTC attack in the bombing of the Moneda Palace–and his human sympathy runs deep. This is more than I can say for Youssef Chahine, who devotes his film to expressing solidarity with Palestinian suicide bombers, mourning any American soldiers who happened to be hunky and lauding his own importance.
The best contributions to September 11 get you to wonder again at the power of the event. The worst make you, too, want to change the topic.
In the Family: Director John Scagliotti, long a member of the Vermont branch of The Nation‘s clan, and producers Janet Baus and Dan Hunt have just released a far-ranging new sixty-minute video, Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. Taking as its frame story the arrest in 2001 of fifty-two men in Cairo on charges of “debauchery,” Dangerous Living explores the recent flourishing of a gay and lesbian culture in such places as Thailand, Malaysia, Honduras, Namibia and Pakistan, and the subsequent crackdown by civil and religious authorities. After a recent premiere at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the very smart and thoughtful Dangerous Living is now off on a national tour. For information: www.afterstonewall.com.