OK, let’s say that life goes on. That’s what the authors of Ecclesiastes and Murphy thought: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” And Aki Kaurismäki seems to think so, too, in The Man Without a Past, a gentle, wistful comedy about being bludgeoned to death, then building a satisfying new existence for yourself in an abandoned shipping container.
Shot in both sound and color–elements that should not be taken for granted when Kaurismäki is behind the camera–The Man Without a Past reveals how rich the world can be, even when the screen-jolting red pours from your skull, even when the soundtrack’s orchestral harmonies swell from a boom box that was wrested from you in the park, then turned up to cover the thuds of your mugging. If you’re like the title character (Markku Peltola), you die soon after the attack. Or else you don’t: You jerk upright in a hospital bed, stagger to the mirror (where you see yourself bandaged like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man) and then wander blindly to Helsinki’s waterfront, where squatters rescue your paperless, penniless, amnesiac body.
For moviegoers who know Kaurismäki’s work, what follows will fall into the category of the nothing new. So much the better. Each motif is as welcome as sunshine: the Finnish “rhythm music” (performed here by a Salvation Army band); the dust-mop dog (played by the suggestively named Tähti); the principal set, which resembles a 1950s cocktail lounge assembled from a junkyard; and the deadpan sarcasm against capitalists and cops, who at one point arrest our hero for the crime of having witnessed a holdup at a defunct bank. Most familiar of all in the Kaurismäkian scheme, and most welcome, is the romance between the hero and Irma, a Salvation Army foot soldier. Played with endlessly touching minimalism by Kati Outinen (The Match Factory Girl), Irma conducts her love affair by means of pauses, silences, blinks, stares, the mute proffering of various hand-held objects and a millimeter’s worth of a smile.
Although the movie incorporates a resurrection and the Salvation Army, God does not make an appearance. The film’s nearest approximation to a redeemer is a lawyer in a cheap suit, who talks as if his mouth were full of mashed potatoes but still gets the hero out of jail. Brains and persistence can pay off, sometimes, among people who are damaged. So can a sense of community, which our hero helps foster in this landscape that ought to look bleak, with its leftover metal and industrious water, but instead shines like a pastel postcard. And forgiveness pays off, too, up to a point. Our hero likes to pull silently on his cigarette and gaze into the middle distance, like most Kaurismäki protagonists, as his way of letting sinners pass. Even so, he’s willing to see justice done to the men who beat in his head. He’s not a wimp; Markku Peltola looks like a cross between Sami Frey and Frankenstein’s monster.
How little this man needs to be happy! A worker in Basra might get by with no more. And how he aches–how Irma aches, too–when what little he’s got might be taken away!
A timeless subject, yet one that somehow seems of the moment.
I’ve been reading a new book about Abbas Kiarostami, written by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and admiring in particular the latter’s thoughts about the politics of image-gathering. As Rosenbaum notes, all of Kiarostami’s mature films present us with encounters between a relatively affluent, sophisticated character and people who have significantly less money, education and power. The privileged one pumps the others for information about themselves, while offering little or nothing personal in return. Often this collector of lives is a filmmaker. Sometimes, in a gesture of explicit self-questioning, the figure is Kiarostami himself.
These reflections, too, seem of the moment, since Steve James’s new documentary, Stevie, deals with them in depth.
You may recall that James’s best-known film to date, Hoop Dreams (made with Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert), was made in fly-on-the-wall style. Except for the stunning moment when a subject rounded on the camera and demanded, “Do you ever wonder how I live?” the filmmakers in Hoop Dreams were an invisible, unacknowledged presence. This mode of documentary contrasts with other familiar approaches, from the voice-of-God method (so easily parodied, yet so enduring) to the performance-art techniques of Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Judith Helfand, who play semi-comic characters within their films. In Stevie, it’s James’s turn to become an on-screen presence, though one without any playful qualities. He’s here, with full awareness of his class privileges, to intervene in the life of the poor man he’s filming.
That man is Stephen Dale Fielding, who grew up in the rolling hills and quasi-Southern atmosphere of downstate Illinois. Long ago, when James attended graduate school in that area, he signed up to be a Big Brother to Stevie, who was then 11 years old and already out of control. As James admits on the soundtrack, he felt relieved when the time came to pack up for Chicago and he could leave Stevie behind. But James also felt guilty to feel so relieved. In 1997, after an absence of a dozen years, he came back to make a film about Stevie, a film that was somehow supposed to set their lives straight.
Stevie is as much a mirror of James–the classic guilt-ridden left-liberal, dwelling in the lower reaches of the upper middle class–as it is a portrait of Fielding, the classic trailer-park ne’er-do-well with the chaotic family, fondness for booze and dope, and aversion to steady work. The strength of Stevie is that, in its deliberately artless and earnest way, it confronts these stereotypes on their own firm ground. The film takes a hard look at the ineffectualness of the many fine people, James included, who did what they could for Stevie and then moved on. At the same time, the film stares unflinchingly at Stevie himself, a bespectacled, ungainly goof with loose wet lips and lanky blond hair, who at the start of the main production was once more in jail, this time on charges of having sexually molested his 8-year-old cousin.
Was the charge valid? Evidently. And Stevie fit the profile. Behind that half-dumb, half-angry smile lay his own childhood history of abandonment, beating, institutionalization and rape.
What you see, then, is the true story of how James interceded with Stevie’s family, his girlfriend, his lawyers–even with the local head of the Aryan Brotherhood, who claimed he would put in a phone call to Stevie’s fellow inmates, to dissuade them from killing him. You also see how Stevie slowly pissed away his last chance to get help and live outside. The filming (or should I call it the rescue operation?) went on for something like two years, and nothing good came of it, for anyone.
Does anything good come of it for you, the viewer? I’d say that Stevie has two things to offer. The first is a test case in documentary methods–an exercise, you might say, in creating the anti-Fred Wiseman film, in which the filmmaker stands in plain sight and the helping professions all fail. The second thing Stevie offers is a reality check, delivered with all appropriate bluntness.
This, unfortunately, is the life that goes on.
Short Takes: Mr. Bush announced that diplomacy had failed (without its actually being tried) on the same day that I saw Dreamcatcher. Dazed and sickened at the prospect of imminent war, I had found myself with nothing to watch but a lousy movie by Lawrence Kasdan and William Goldman. But then, I repeat myself. Contemptuous of their audience yet willing to pander to it, contemptuous of old movie conventions yet unable to think outside their terms, Kasdan and Goldman have patched together an alien-invasion, childhood-buddies, lost-in-the-woods, women-are-dirt picture, which will stick in my mind only because of its scene of a bombing mission. Army helicopters, led by Morgan Freeman, race toward the site in Maine where bellicose, viruslike aliens have landed. By means of mental telepathy, the aliens send children’s voices into the heads of the Army pilots: “Please don’t hurt us. We’re helpless. There is no infection. Don’t hurt us.” But Freeman knows it’s a trick, just like those pictures of suffering Iraqi children that credulous journalists circulate. He fires the missiles, and the Maine woods go up like Baghdad.
Later in the movie, of course, it turns out that Freeman is as loony as General Jack D. Ripper. Like the second thoughts of a servile news establishment, this is too little, too late.
The first bombs struck Baghdad on the night I saw The Guys, Jim Simpson’s film version of the post-9/11 play by Anne Nelson. Out in the real world the United States was attempting to assassinate Saddam Hussein by means of a cruise missile–evidence, I would say, that Mr. Bush had been dwelling in a fantasy of omnipotence, from which he was about to be torn. Onscreen were the more-or-less true stories of some New York City firefighters, mixed with images of their still-grieving, real-life colleagues–evidence of the vulnerability of these Americans, and of the fantasy that their lives might somehow be mended.
The fantasy: A fire captain in Brooklyn (Anthony LaPaglia) must deliver eulogies for eight men lost at the World Trade Center. He turns for advice to a Manhattan journalist (Sigourney Weaver), who is deeply moved to learn that she can help. She is worthy. She, too, is allowed to grieve (although she lost no one in the attack) and deserves the professional respect of a quiet, strong man.
Which is the problem with The Guys. As writing, it’s a literary analgesic, administered to the character who suffers from nothing worse than a headache. And this misdirected solicitude carries over to the filmmaking. LaPaglia, who is always good, is rock-solid as the fire captain; but the primary focus is given to Weaver, who usually is good but this time keeps pulling back her lips, the better to look stricken, and speaks her lines with the stilted clarity of a stage actress addressing Row Z.
With all respect to Anne Nelson–an honorable person, who based this play on a real experience–I think she needs to watch Stevie.
A Personal Note: Readers who may have enjoyed this column over the years should know that they have owed much of their pleasure to its editor, Art Winslow. His quiet, sometimes amused support has sustained not only me but also a great many other writers from all over the country. With regret, I note that this is my last piece for Art, who is leaving The Nation. May he depart for revels yet unimagined.