Your movie reviewer has been reading Colin MacCabe’s excellent book on Jean-Luc Godard and pondering its discussion of France after World War II. As MacCabe describes it, this was a time when a loose, intergenerational group of writers, teachers, artists and bohos could decide that political change lay down the road of cultural criticism–in particular, criticism of the popular art of film.
The contemporary American mind recoils in disbelief. In a society that is now thoroughly dominated by political niche-marketing and teledigitized mendacity, we strain to hope, like the old Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, that film might still be made to seize the world and change it. Granted, Godard carries on, despite everything. His later films and videos are both a meditation on the ultimate failure of the Cahiers project and an audacious continuation of the struggle. Yet the idiosyncrasy of his work, which once made it a model for younger artists and critics, today serves only to mark how far we’ve been pushed from the goal.
I lay these thoughts before you not to call down gloom but to introduce three current films that do try to change the world, or at least incite the kind of discussion that promises change. One is a pretty good example of the liberal exposé à la mode. (Why not a left-wing exposé? We’ll get to that.) The second is a version of the now ubiquitous my-personal-journey video, though distinguished by a superior level of intelligence, honesty and political sophistication. The third is an ostentatiously whacked-out, button-pushing fiction, which some viewers will see as a counsel of despair. To me, it represents one possible way forward.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room provides the useful service of walking you through the biggest business-political scandal of a very young century. Although the film will probably make few converts–again, that problem of niche-marketing–it will at least invigorate an existing constituency against the next depredation, while allowing them the small victory of mocking the perpetrators of the last.
Writer-director Alex Gibney cracks all the standard jokes of the modern activist documentarian–tossing in an ironic snatch of pop music here, a patch of funky old horror movie there–to liven up his mix of talking-head interviews and C-SPAN footage. As he perhaps realizes, his gags are not half as boffo as those of the acknowledged trendsetter, Michael Moore. (I note that Gibney wisely refrains from attempting any of Moore’s performance art.) That said, Enron does exhibit some of Moore’s flair for digging up astounding footage–such as an in-house promotional video in which Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling both spoofed and celebrated his dubious accounting practices. (“We call it HFV,” he chortled. “Hypothetical Future Value trading!”) Gibney also deserves credit for tracing a clear line through Enron’s tangled history, a task in which he is greatly helped by his reliance on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean.
But he is also hurt by these two Fortune magazine writers, whose on-camera comments frame the discussion in personal terms. At the beginning of the film, McLean says the Enron story is “really a human tragedy.” At the end, she claims it was about strayed idealists: “people who thought they were changing the world” by agitating for completely unregulated markets. In between, Enron worries over the question of whether Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling truly meant to perpetrate an enormous fraud or were drawn by slow degrees into criminality through the dark forces of peer pressure and intellectual pride. You might as well ask whether Al Capone expected to harm anyone when he set out to rule the bootleggers. As an organizing theme for political inquiry, the film’s key question is meaningless (and is sometimes exposed as such by material that Gibney himself dredges up). As a subject for fleshing out, the question sets Gibney up for failure. He never gets within a mile of Lay’s or Skilling’s personality.
So, looking for a different model for changing the world through film, I turn to Another Road Home, which is all personality. Written and directed by Danae Elon, it is an account of the filmmaker’s efforts to forge new ties, and question the existing ones, between two families, both intimate to her and both expatriated, though in different ways.
The first of the families is Israeli. Elon is the daughter of the noted author Amos Elon and his wife, Beth, who brought her up in Jerusalem. The second family is Palestinian. At its head is a man the Elons knew as Musa Abdullah: a resident of Battir, in the West Bank, who came by the Elon house in 1967 looking for work and was hired as the caregiver of 1-year-old Danae. He had eleven children of his own but seems to have loved her as well as any of them, and spent more time with her, too.
Over the years, the Elons lost touch with Musa. But after September 11, 2001, Danae (now a New Yorker) began to wonder about the fortunes of his grown children in the United States, some of whom lived nearby in Paterson, New Jersey. So she looked them up, which turned out to be a little harder than she’d expected. Their name, she learned, is not Abdullah but Obeidallah. Their patriarch, the surrogate father to whom she was so close, is actually Mahmoud. “‘Musa’ is easier for Israelis to say,” his son Naser explained with a shrug. “They would have mispronounced ‘Mahmoud.'”
This is only the beginning of the revelations–or should I say the cordial challenges?–that make Another Road Home so bracing. It is one thing to acknowledge in writing, as Amos Elon has done, the unjust imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis. It is something else to sit on the floor with a man who is your shadow brother, as Danae sits with Naser in his new pharmacy in Paterson, and own up to an imbalance of concern. “I would come to your house with my father and see you had a guitar. And I would wonder, Why does she have a guitar? Why does she have all these books? Because I didn’t have these things. And I was curious about your life. What I want to know is, Were you curious about us?”
“No,” she says, as slowly as one syllable can be produced.
Just as she opens herself to the Obeidallahs’ questioning, so does Danae in turn question her parents, who to their great credit cooperate wholeheartedly in being unsettled. Danae springs on her mother Mahmoud’s phone number in Battir, then captures Beth’s nervous gestures at once more hearing his voice. Later, when Mahmoud comes with great difficulty to visit in the United States, Danae captures her father’s pained and abortive efforts to make conversation over lunch. There can be no normal social intercourse between Israelis and Palestinians, Amos has told her, because the political division is so terrible, so overwhelming. To which Danae replies, with a quiet forcefulness possible only in the closest of families, that she is now concerned with addressing this social division. She will not let politics delay her.
Another Road Home is as modest in demeanor as its filmmaker but also as steadfast. It confronts hard facts willingly, but it does so with warmth and respect for each of its characters. There is something deeply nourishing about this picture–and not just because the Obeidallah and Elon families are either preparing or consuming food in practically every scene. Another Road Home satisfies because it goes beyond advocating change; it is itself the record of change.
Still, a question lingers. We have all bumped up against people (close relatives, maybe) whose beliefs do not yield to respectful prodding but only become more rocklike. We have all, at one time or another, turned stony ourselves. This, too, is a hard fact that needs confronting, which Todd Solondz sets out to do in Palindromes.
Like Solondz’s other features (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling), Palindromes is an uncanny balancing act, poised at all times between grotesquerie and realism, humor and agony, scorn and sympathy. It rarely allows you a single response. It often holds you back from responding at all, so cool is its manner and so outrageous its subject matter, which in this case exceeds Solondz’s past repertory of adolescent misery, sexual anxiety and suburban social aggression. This time, venturing out of his usual New Jersey settings, he risks emotional engagement with the Christian right, as experienced by a runaway Jewish girl who sympathizes with its antiabortion agenda even at its most violent.
The girl, Aviva, is played by a succession of performers. There’s nothing inherently odd about this; filmmakers often cast different actors to portray a character at different ages. But Solondz does more. His multiplying Avivas include a boy (Will Denton), a much older woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and, in a key sequence, an abundantly fleshy young black woman (Sharon Wilkins). This latter choice is particularly nervy, since Wilkins has the look of the stereotypical gospel shouter, and Aviva at this stage has been taken in by rural evangelists, who tour their variously damaged foster children as a song-and-dance act for Jesus.
By putting Wilkins into this sequence, Solondz tacitly overcomes the incongruity between Aviva and her new family; he gets you closer to these people than you might have gone otherwise. At the same time, the casting serves as a distancing device. I thought of Hitchcock’s explanation for having shot Psycho in black and white: Had it been in color, nobody could have stomached the blood. Had one actress embodied Aviva in Palindromes, maybe nobody could have stomached the intensity of her suffering.
There is also a third reason for Solondz’s trick: It tests the disillusionment of a character, Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), who serves almost as a mouthpiece for the filmmaker. People don’t change, Mark says toward the end of Palindromes. They like to think they do, but they don’t. This certainly would be true of Aviva, who from earliest childhood has been single-mindedly bent on having children. And yet, having heard Mark out, she walks off and morphs from Jennifer Jason Leigh into Shayna Levine.
Written in a style of scrupulous meanness and directed so as to confound every automatic reaction, Palindromes is as far as you can get from activism. But it is, even so, a remarkable act of political filmmaking, one that acknowledges the stubborn impenetrability of ourselves and our society and yet manages to wedge open in them a little space for thought.
Maybe we’re long past the stage of film culture that Cahiers fostered, but we can at least look back and think that Cahiers might have recognized Palindromes as one of its own. Maybe we can’t go forward as the Cahiers writers did, but Solondz, for one, suggests that our future has not been foreclosed.