If you’ve never watched Nelson Mandela dance, then you should know that he does a modified Locomotion, pumping his elbows like pistons to the immense, loving amusement of his people. They see his dancing is a little stiff, and they enjoy it all the more for knowing the reasons: advanced age, aristocratic bearing and many years of residence in a place that was bad for the joints. These factors may constrain Mandela’s style, but they can’t hamper his pleasure in the dance, or his supporters’ joy at seeing him go–a joy that’s crucial to Lee Hirsch’s rousing documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.
Of course, misery also plays its role in the story. Amandla! recounts half a century of struggle against apartheid, as experienced and enacted through music. Pop songs, anthems, folk tunes, jazz compositions, cabaret numbers, street chants: As Hirsch shows, these were more than expressions of resistance. They were often its means as well, from the time of the first imposition of apartheid (a policy best understood as “good neighborliness,” according to newsreel footage of Hendrik Verwoerd) up through the founding of a democratic South Africa. Cries of exultation were sometimes heard in this story–as when Mandela danced–but so, too, were cries, plain and simple.
Hirsch opens this subject with the opening of a grave. His film begins with footage shot in the 1990s in a paupers’ cemetery, where family and friends took advantage of their newly won freedom by digging up the remains of Vuyisile Mini. The man whose skull you see being solemnly lifted from the dirt was hanged for his activism in the 1950s. Now his middle-aged children, who had never really known their father, are going to provide the decent burial that Verwoerd’s regime denied him.
But who was Mini, to have earned a hanging? He was, among other accomplishments, a singer-songwriter, famous for his bass voice and a cheerful, bouncy tune called “Look Out, Verwoerd! The Black Man Is Coming!” The English translation, though approximate, tells you more of the song’s substance than was understood by the average white South African. As Hirsch cuts among period footage, contemporary talking-head interviews and scenes of various people performing the song, you hear one witness remark on how white people loved those pretty sounds.
Let’s say that Mini’s tune is the first motif the film calls up from the grave of apartheid. Let’s also say that this music expands as it rises, adding voices and tone colors and harmonic complications, shifting its rhythm with the unfolding of events: forced relocations, passbook laws, the Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto uprising. Although Hirsch presents this history using television methods–Amandla! was produced, in part, by HBO/Cinemax–his touch is so lively, his feeling for the subject so deep, that the sounds surge right past the documentary conventions. Witnesses such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim testify to periods of despair and years in exile; and yet you feel this movement (both political and musical) couldn’t possibly have been contained. “The music comes out of the struggle,” a young, present-day activist says at one point. His companions, protesting, seem to speak for the filmmaker and history alike when they tell him he’s got it exactly wrong.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony had its premiere a year ago at the Sundance festival and is now opening for limited theatrical runs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It is humane and invigorating beyond anything else playing now. It is (forgive the convention) triumphant.
The first thing you will want to know about David Cronenberg’s Spider is how it holds up against The Fly. Is it funny-creepy? Does it make you afraid, very afraid? Will you need to inventory your body parts before you can go to bed? No–nor are you likely to feel that the grim, unsettling goings-on in this movie could ever happen to you. Whereas Jeff Goldblum in The Fly started out like you or me, only more elongated, Ralph Fiennes in Spider is always a creature apart.
From the moment he steps into the picture, Fiennes is that grimy, shuffling, muttering bum you avoid on the street corner, perhaps wondering (as you pass by) how a mother’s son ends up that way. By the end of the movie, you know the answer; and yet the character continues to be an object for contemplation, not a possibility in your flesh. This is very strange–because Spider is one of those Cronenberg films (like Naked Lunch and eXistenZ) that put you right into the main character’s head, narrating from within a delusion.
Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, Spider is the story of Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) and his brief stay at a halfway house in London. It’s a place from which psychiatric patients may make forays into the normal world–so normal, in this case, that Cleg’s window looks out onto a brick wall and the tank of a gasworks. Cleg wanders along an oily canal or kills time in a severely underfurnished cafe and then retreats to his room, to work on a manuscript so important that he keeps the notebook hidden under the rug. Sometimes the camera shows what he’s writing: cuneiform, you’d think, running across the page in four directions. More often, though, the camera translates for you, showing the story that Cleg is trying to piece together in his patterned pencil strokes.
It’s the story of a weak, drunken father (Gabriel Byrne), a loving mother (Miranda Richardson) and a cackling, bosomy blond witch. Somehow, the witch supplanted the mother. Somehow, a body got kicked into the grave and everything blew apart, and now in the halfway house Cleg’s room is filling with string, which he stretches from surface to surface in a suffocating web. “Only connect,” Forster wrote in Howards End. But in Spider, Cleg has too many connections to make. They fracture his space into a jigsaw puzzle.
This movie about obsession, directed in Cronenberg’s most obsessive style, might be unbearable to watch if it weren’t for two of the actors. The first, of course, is Fiennes, who seems to have taken great pleasure in tormenting himself. Wearing four layers of clothing and an inch worth of nicotine stain, his hair stuck up like Samuel Beckett’s, his speech cut down to grunts and an incomprehensible undertone, Fiennes seems far more at ease than when he’s made into the romantic lead. For most actors, affliction is an opportunity to show off; for him, it’s a refuge. Maybe that’s why
Cleg is such a comfortable presence in the movie, even though he’s always working at figuring things out, always sharpening his nerves.
The other redeeming actor is Miranda Richardson. It’s hard to write about her without violating Spider; but maybe I can say that the movie amounts to a conspiracy between her and Cronenberg, in which the two plot to astonish the audience. She gets to be muted, flamboyant, thoughtful, filthy, threatening, threatened, lovely, grotesque–and then, when you think she’s done, another set of adjectives comes piling on. Within the achingly plain London of the movie, Richardson is the one uncontrollable, uncanny wonder, who alone is worth obsessing about.
Is Spider first-rate Cronenberg? Maybe not. There’s something anecdotal about the movie–and unlike The Fly (which also was second tier, but was at least driven by pop outrageousness), Spider casts a spell of literary artfulness. Only Richardson can break it, and then only for so long.
It’s odd to see decorum reasserted in a Cronenberg film, as it is at the end of Spider. But then, what isn’t odd about this coldly deranged movie? Be strange, it seems to say. Be very strange.
Short Takes: Im Kwon-taek, the senior Korean filmmaker whose ninety-seventh picture, Chunhyang, was such a robust musical delight, is now back with his ninety-eighth. Titled Chi-Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire, it’s a biopic about the nineteenth-century Korean artist Jang Seung-up, also known as Oh-won.
Comparisons with Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women are inevitable, and unfortunate, too, since the point of Chi-Hwa-Seon seems to be to make something rougher and earthier than the Japanese classic–in other words, something Korean. The film presents Oh-won’s life in flashback, as it’s recalled when the painter, now old and distinguished, receives a visit from a Japanese diplomat. How is it possible, the diplomat wants to know, that an uneducated man, a commoner, could become a great artist? The boozing, womanizing, rule-breaking Oh-won gives a snort, then thinks back over the whole story in brisk, elliptical fashion. I like the dense, inky washes that Oh-won brushes across his paper; I like the tall, black hats of the noble painters who cluster around him, and the scolding, greedy energy of Oh-won’s lover, and the face of the lead actor, Choi Min-sik, who sometimes looks as weary and dreamy-eyed as Forest Whitaker.
Chantal Akerman’s most recent video documentary, From the Other Side, is having a run through February 26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City, where it will in effect transform the screen into a border. What you see in the picture, most often, is a wall–the barrier erected by the Immigration and Naturalization Service between Agua Prieta, Sonora, and Douglas, Arizona. Akerman traveled to Agua Prieta, interviewed a number of would-be emigrants (and the family members of emigrants who died crossing over) and took her characteristically stunning landscape shots of the border and its surroundings. Then, on the American side, she interviewed (among others) a middle-aged couple on a ranch, who explain the need for vigilante action against Mexicans sneaking into the United States. After September 11, you don’t know what these people might do; and you certainly don’t know if they’re carrying diseases.
As reportage, From the Other Side perhaps suffers from too subtle a montage. (If you don’t already know about the INS policy of driving illegal immigrants into the desert, and about the citizens’ arrests and worse that these people have suffered, then you’ll have a hard time piecing together the information from the film.) As human testimony, though, From the Other Side is unforgettably forceful. Its strongest features? The silences into which the witnesses fall, the volumes of empty space that haunt Akerman’s frames, the deathly voids into which too many immigrants have disappeared.
Screening Schedule: If you’re in the vicinity of the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, please take note of a film series beginning February 22, selected by members of the New York Film Critics Circle. At the museum’s request, the critics have programmed movies that they think have been unusually influential. Drop by on March 2, and you can see Biograph shorts directed by D.W. Griffith, introduced by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, followed by some of Chaplin’s shorts from his Mutual period, introduced by me.