15th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Scaffolding (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Matan Yair

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The most telling moment of Matan Yair’s feature film debut comes about a third of the way through the movie, when the central protagonist, 18-year-old Asher Lax (Asher Lax), overhears his literature teacher, Rami (Ami Smolartchik), read from Karl Haendel’s Questions for My Father and ask his class to write their own questions as a homework assignment. Lax is in Rami’s remedial literature class, where the students joke that they can barely read, but this assignment for one of Rami’s other classes fires his imagination. He writes his questions and presents them to Rami with the impulsive urgency that typifies his outward personality. Lax is headed for a life as a blue-collar worker taking over the construction company his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) founded, but there is something in him that connects with Rami and the softer concern he shows for his students.

Scaffolding extends Yair’s interest in what makes a man. The history and literature teacher, author, and documentarian whose It Is Written in Your I.D. that I Am Your Father (2008) explored Yair’s relationship with his father, wrote Scaffolding with one of his students, Asher Lax, in mind. Although Yair has described Lax as a violent individual, he was drawn to the boy’s special energy when he moved and talked. First-time actor Lax, who is in nearly every frame of the film, mesmerizes with his kinetic performance that hints at layers beneath his rough-and-ready surface.

Asher is feted on his 18th birthday on the construction site where he works by his father and his coworkers. His father gives him an Izod shirt as a gift, which he dons immediately and shows off to his friends later on. Nearby, an overweight classmate of theirs is also wearing an Izod shirt. Asher nearly rips it off his body when the boy says a shop in town was having a sale on knockoff designer shirts. Asher confronts his father about the real cost of the shirt, and earns a hard slap for his trouble.

Rami has troubles of his own getting through to Asher and his apathetic classmates as they study Euripides’ Antigone. Rami often has to read the material to them to get them to participate. Nonetheless, his patient attitude touches Asher, and the boy initiates something of a personal relationship with him. His question to the married Rami about his childlessness (“Don’t you want to meet the people you’ll love the most?”) sets off an unintended earthquake in his teacher.

High school graduation is coming up, but Milo is due to have surgery on the day of one of Asher’s matriculation exams. He insists Asher work in his place, but having found an encouraging voice in Rami, Asher continues to study. An unexpected turn of events, however, throws Asher into a monomaniacal search for answers.

Yair has crafted a very literate film that goes beyond the personal. In an increasingly authoritarian, superstitious world, he seems to be making a plea for humanity and the importance of knowledge as the scaffolding on which fully human beings and society are built. His choice to have Rami and his class study Antigone has us thinking about the power of the state as well—one that refuses to bury what is dead, but gladly walls its subjects into a living death. His unusual choice to include the language from Questions for My Father, an experimental film by a visual artist, broadens our idea of what literature might be and feeds into the Jewish tradition of questioning to arrive at greater truths. In Yair’s scenario, Asher went through a very religious phase, and Rami’s assignment awakens some of his spiritual yearning. Once inspired, Asher uses the questions he wrote to try to understand his father.

The film is fairly hard on its women, showing them as rule-bound, naïve, or entirely absent. Nonetheless, it is important that men change their macho culture from within. Yair’s intimately shot film is a thoughtful, surprisingly touching look at boys and men that all can appreciate.

Scaffolding screens Saturday, October 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, October 22 at 8 p.m., and Tuesday, October 24 at 1 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


7th 11 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Moonlight (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.

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Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” when he was an undergraduate theatre student. He was trying to work through some issues in his life, most particularly, coming to terms with his relationship with his late mother, a drug addict. The elliptical, unproduced play was semiautobiographical, set in his home neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with its main character, Chiron, existing simultaneously on stage at ages 10, 16, and 25. McCraney created this structure to comment on how all versions of ourselves reside within us throughout our lives. He considered the play unproducible and more a personal exercise than anything else.

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The miracle that birthed the movie began when Barry Jenkins got his hands on the play. Providentially, he had grown up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mother at almost the same time as McCraney, though the two didn’t know each other; McCraney’s house stood across the street from Jenkins’ high school. Jenkins wrote the script, preserving some of the language and all of the spirit of the play, and fusing his own experiences with McCraney’s to create a piece that sings with emotional truth.

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Jenkins jettisoned the play’s structure and created a linear screenplay in three acts: Little, Chiron, and Black. He cast Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron (“Little”), Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”). These actors don’t physically resemble each other, but they and Jenkins somehow find the immutable essence of Chiron; the many close-ups Jenkins employs allow us to capture all of the nuances of performance that connect each of these Chirons to each other, convincing us that we are looking at the same person over time.

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Chiron’s world sounds like a ghetto cliché—absent father, beaten-down mother dragged under by a crack addiction, surrounded by bullies and burglar bars, destined for prison. Yet like a dandelion that somehow lifts itself up through the concrete sidewalk, Chiron finds grace and connection in singular, almost blindingly beautiful moments. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood drug dealer, a do-ragged brother from Cuba who wears a gold front over his bottom teeth and sucks his tongue reflexively. Jenkins spins this unpromising character into an almost mythic figure when we first meet him by directing his camera in a swirling, background-obscuring, 360-degree turn around him as though conjuring a genie from a bottle.

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Juan may be all things bad to the outside world, but he and his kindly girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provide what little is good for Chiron. Cinematographer James Laxton puts us right in the water when Juan introduces Chiron to the wonders of the ocean, teaching him to swim and applauding with pride when the boy dog-paddles through the gentle swells. Jenkins offers moments of dark psychological violence when Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, dressed and lit in shades of red, screams something at him that we are not allowed to hear. Only later do we understand what everyone but Chiron himself seems to know: “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan and Teresa. “Am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer is a model of decency and love. Sadly, the fragile relationship between them is lost when Juan again answers truthfully when Chiron asks, “Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?”

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The second important male in Chiron’s life is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stands by him even when the other boys are bullying and excluding him. In a poignant scene, the boys in Chiron’s grade school are playing ball, with Chiron hanging on the fringes trying to get into the game. It’s heartbreaking, but then comes one of those breath-catching grace notes: Kevin comes over to him and the two walk off talking as friends do. In act two, a lanky, reticent Chiron is wound like a top, dodging the bullying that has taken a more savage turn and negotiating homelife with a ghostly Paula who only comes to life to demand money from him. Once again, Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, validates Chiron with an act of sexual love, this time on a moonlit beach they learn one aimless, restless night that they both like to visit. And as with Juan, Chiron’s connection with Kevin is shattered when Terrel (Patrick Decile), the toughest of the bullies, forces him to give Chiron a beatdown. In a sad overhead shot, we see Chiron bury his face in a sink full of ice and emerge with a bloodied, emotionally frozen face.

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Act three shows that Chiron is still in thrall to these two men. Buffed out and living in Atlanta, where his mother lives and works in a rehab facility, Chiron has become a drug dealer just like Juan, emulating his style, driving his car, and bringing young men along in the business, but with a bit more teasing cruelty than Juan ever displayed. He calls himself Black, a nickname Kevin gave him when they were boys, a name he still does not understand. Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland) calls him—a song on the jukebox in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook reminded him of his long-ago friend. Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see him. Their nighttime reunion recalls their night on the beach, and though Kevin surprises Chiron with the picture of his child by a woman he no longer sees, this final act is filled with romantic possibility.

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In act one, Juan says to Chiron, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Moonlight actually gives us the time, space, and scope to watch someone decide what it will take to become his authentic self. As a boy, Chiron is buffeted by forces he’s too young and uneducated to comprehend, but he understands the connections between his pain and the people around him. His mother, whom he says he hates, is still his “only,” as Paula puts it; Paula puts a lot of stock in being “blood,” so it’s hard to imagine Chiron hasn’t internalized that lesson, too. He still visits her, if infrequently, as a grown man. His anger at being bullied, but moreso at having his connection to Kevin ruined by Terrel, brings him to violence and a stretch in prison, so he is sufficiently self-aware to know what is in his heart of hearts. But his persona, mimicking Juan, reveals a stuckness that all too many people never defeat. Kevin’s phone call is as providential as our first meeting with Juan, a message from the universe that Chiron’s time has come. The final image of the film has a somewhat mystical quality to it, not so much love’s fulfillment as life’s promise for Chiron now that he knows what Kevin asked: “Where’s you, Chiron?”

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Jenkins and Laxton have created a visual tone poem awash in the dreamy colors and the natural beauty of Miami. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a poor, black neighborhood not punt to the regulation burned-out wasteland that many filmmakers, particularly slumming white ones, imagine. The cast is beyond good, making themselves vulnerable in ways that I find absolutely stunning. Ali has a strong, etched face that nonetheless is soft; when Paula moves Chiron away from him as though he had the plague, the surprised hurt on his face is heartbreaking. Young Alex Hibbert, in his first screen role, lays the strong foundation on which Sanders and Rhodes build an indelible portrait of a confused, painfully shy manchild, and Jerome and Holland are especially good at depicting an endearing, astute observer whose love for his friend breaks down all of Chiron’s near-implacable barriers. Harris plays a woman almost completely unlike herself and somehow manages to show incredible need—for crack, for her son—without making Paula a monster.

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The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion. Moonlight is a prayer for humanity; let’s hope we can all find it in our hearts to listen.


15th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Nothing in Return (A Cambio de Nada, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Guzmán

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you liked The 400 Blows (1959), then I have a feeling you’re really going to want to catch Nothing in Return. Just as The 400 Blows was François Truffaut’s first feature film, so, too, does Spanish actor Daniel Guzmán make his feature directorial debut with Nothing in Return. Both films have an energetic boy from a troubled home who likes to steal at their center, and both end on an indeterminate, but hopeful note. Most important, both are incredible looks at growing up.

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The central character in Nothing in Return is Darío (Miguel Herrán), a 13-year-old boy who, with his best friend, Luis Miguel, nicknamed Luismi (Miguel Herrán), enjoys speeding around Madrid on a motorcycle, shoplifting, peeping at their neighbor Alicia (Patricia Santos) as she showers, and watching TV while Luismi’s tiny dog tries to hump Darío’s larger dog. Darío’s parents (María Miguel and Luis Tosar) are separated and preparing to divorce, and both are pressuring their son to testify at their divorce trial. Darío is failing all of his classes at school, though as a very skilled and incessant liar, he has convinced his parents he’s acing everything. Instead of school, his preference is to “work” at a motorcycle chop shop for its shady, but entertaining proprietor, Justo (Felipe García Vélez), who fails to pay him and everyone else for the parts they supply him.

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Darío is a dervish of energy whose open, easy way with people endears him to Justo and Antonia (Antonia Guzmán, the director’s grandmother), an elderly woman he meets one night collecting junk off the streets in her ancient pick-up truck to sell at a flea market. When his parents visit the school at the request of the principal (Miguel Rellán) and learn how badly Darío is doing, they start arguing bitterly about who is to blame. Darío runs off and asks Justo to take him in. When Justo fills his head with notions that he can make some real money coming into Justo’s business, Darío drops out of school. Unfortunately, Justo is arrested, and Darío moves in with Antonia until he can come up with the money to pay a lawyer to represent Justo. The rest of the film centers on Darío’s plan to finance Justo’s defense.

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Guzmán has written a teeming, confident script that he directs with vitality. He is blessed with a uniformly terrific cast who know exactly who their characters are and are able to project their personalities indelibly, even if they have very little screen time. Herrán, whom Guzmán frequently shoots in close-up, is a delightful, but vulnerable boy, almost excessively open to any positive emotions. Watch him as he listens with an ever-widening grin to a pitch-perfect García Vélez spin his tough-guy tales and make himself a hero and fount of wisdom in the boy’s eyes. One scene where this plays particularly well is when Justo confronts a man with a motorcycle. He pretends to the boys he is going to clean the guy’s clock, but asks him after they are out of sight whether he’d be interested in a nice set of saddlebags for the bike. The next time we see the man, he is laying in the street, fulfilling his end of the bargain, as Justo drives past with the boys.

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Antonia is another piece of work—an old lady whose surprising toughness mixes with a tenderness for Darío, who helps ease her loneliness. She is amazed when Darío turns up some new furniture during a junking expedition, not realizing he is stealing it from the lobby of a plush apartment building. When she is stopped by a cop for having a couch extending past the bed of her truck, we learn she’s been driving for five years without a license. That seems a fairly common practice in Madrid, as Darío has been doing the same without incident.

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The most affecting relationship is between Darío and Luismi. They comprise a young, Spanish Laurel and Hardy, with Luismi’s girth a frequent target of Darío’s insults, though there isn’t a single hurt feeling between them. They share their mutual horniness and belief in their sexual prowess as they try to hire a hooker and accept that “later” will never come for Luismi to drive the motorcycle instead of Darío. During the first shoplifting expedition we see, Darío steals exactly the same red sweatshirt and sunglasses for each of them, forming a wonderful image of solidarity between them. Neither boy ever lets the other down, and Darío’s screams of “Luismi, Luismi, Luismi!” when he’s about to be arrested but is worried only about his friend testifies to the depth of their relationship.

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The film’s title, Nothing in Return, could refer to any number of things, but for me, it signifies the truly selfless nature of Darío’s behavior, even though his actions cross the legal line. When, at last, he tells the truth of his life in a courtroom in a quickly spoken, short declaration, it provides an object lesson to everyone who thinks their children are “just fine” during divorce proceedings.

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I’m a bit in awe of how much action and clever, revealing dialogue Guzmán packs into a 93-minute running time, reminiscent of the great screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood. There are numerous set-pieces in the film, but they build naturally from conversations and happenstance and don’t draw attention to themselves as moments of directorial conceit. Nothing in Return is a very funny and warm film that delivers its lessons with a light, but resolute touch. It’s an excellent example of the great new films coming out of Spain.

Nothing in Return screens Thursday, March 17 at 8 p.m. and Friday, March 18 at 8p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Daniel Guzmán will attend both screenings.

Previous coverage

Free Entry: A tale of friendship and coming of age set at a rock festival in Budapest boasts natural, fresh performances from its two female leads, not to mention some great music. (Hungary)

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


11th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

Free Entry (aka One Day of Betty, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Yvonne Kerékgyártó

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One type of film I’ve charted through my own experience is the coming of age of a teenage girl. Having been a teenage girl myself, I remember the films that attracted me during those exciting years—the quite appalling Where the Boys Are (1960) and the touching The Trouble with Angels (1966). A vestige of personal interest in these films remained when I was in my 20s and made a minor religion out of visiting and revisiting Valley Girl (1983) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Since then, my need for such films has abated as my interest in them as a film critic has grown up along with the subgenre. I’ve been pleased to see such films tackle a more diverse array of stories that cross into other genres—horror (Heathers [1988], Ginger Snaps [2000]), mystery (The Virgin Suicides [1999]), and biopic (The Runaways [2010]). Despite the quality and relative success of these films, Hollywood seems to have abandoned the teenage girl. The best such films I’ve seen lately have come from Europe, including the exuberant “buddy” film We Are the Best! (2013, Sweden), the tough gang drama Girlhood (2014, France), and the film under consideration here, Free Entry, from Hungary.

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Free Entry, the feature film debut of Yvonne Kerékgyártó, is something of a breakthrough for Hungarian filmmakers as a whole. The movie’s life began in 2011 with a no-budget shoot that eventually yielded five 5-minute web episodes that formed the series FreeEntry (2012). The series won awards, including a monetary prize that allowed Kerékgyártó to expand the concept into a feature film. In the process, she became the first Hungarian filmmaker to receive federal funds for postproduction and DCP creation. With a high-quality DCP to submit to film festivals, Kerékgyártó’s small movie about two friends who start breaking the bonds of childhood after they sneak off to a music festival has found its way to audiences all over the world.

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Doughy-faced 16-year-old Betty (Luca Pusztai) is introduced sulking alongside her single dad (Róbert Kardos) as he drives her to meet her friend V (Ágnes Barta) at a Budapest train station and urges her to comb her punk-style hair. The girls have a cover story about going to the country together to visit a relative of V’s. Instead, they stash their luggage at the station and head to the annual Sziget Festival held on a North Budapest island in the Danube River. They make a stop at the apartment of Wolf, (Péter Sándor), a friend of Betty’s brother, who gives them some marijuana to sell.

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V looks more mature and thinks every man is hot for her, though her aggressive advances and Lolita sunglasses pretty much force a response. Betty is more businesslike and responsible, disliking V’s flirtations and the guys she picks up. Eventually, she gets tired of V’s antics and tries to do her job selling Wolf’s weed. Two security guards become suspicious, examine her entry bracelet, find it is a forgery, and evict Betty from the premises. With this separation, V and Betty make their own discoveries that turn their reunion the next day into something of a triumph for them both.

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Kerékgyártó shot Free Entry at the real Sziget Festival, and though her cast held to a tight, well-rehearsed script, Kerékgyártó’s roaming camera picks up every nuance of a music festival, from the overflowing trash cans to the spontaneous dancing and singing that add to the authenticity and joy of the presentation. When Betty finds a cellphone in a port-a-let and realizes it belongs to someone she knows—someone who is with one of the girls’ favorite bands (and one friendly to the film’s director)—Kerékgyártó is able to film backstage and capture Betty and V’s excitement at receiving such special treatment. At other moments, the girls join the rest of the crowd jumping up and down, waving and shouting, as such groups as Hungarian alt-rock band Quimby and South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord entertain the festival goers.

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The easy rapport between Pusztai and Barta makes the friendship of their characters completely believable. It is very true that opposites often become friends, balancing each other’s tendencies and teaching each other lessons in behaving responsibly or running loose. I was quite reminded of the dynamic between Angela (Claire Danes) and Rayanne (A. J. Langer), from the late-lamented TV series My So-Called Life (1994-95)—the former dreamy and intense, the latter flamboyant, reckless, and a budding alcoholic. Indeed, Betty and V do an awful lot of drinking in this film, which scared me just a bit while reminding me how much excessive drinking is a time-honored rite of passage that I, too, indulged.

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Another time-honored tradition of youth is acting before thinking. Although they plan to be at the festival all week, neither girl has thought to bring a tent or extra clothing for the cold nights ahead. The only food they have is a melon that Betty has to bash on a rock to open. After the girls get separated, V wanders through the tent city of festival goers looking for a place to sleep. Her anxieties surface in an effectively confusing, nightmarish scene as she comprehends how vulnerable she really is in a sea of strangers and an altered state of mind—the girls took a hallucinogen with two boys they met. Betty, on the other hand, starts for home, but eventually ends up at Wolf’s. Perhaps because of his name, she grabs his guitar and very competently sings Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’s “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” in one of the most original scenes of its type I’ve ever seen.

There’s nothing terribly revelatory or ground-breaking about Free Entry, but it gets my full endorsement because it so brilliantly and realistically captures a crucial moment in time that escapes us all too quickly.

Free Entry screens Sunday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

One Floor Below: Another tale of personal disharmony inflected by the past from Romanian New Wave director Radu Muntean, this film brilliantly explores the conflicts experienced by an ordinary man who withholds information in a murder investigation. (Romania)

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


1st 07 - 2015 | 2 comments »

It Follows (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell

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By Roderick Heath

David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) was a little gem of a film that revealed its creator as half in love with the classic canon of teenage rites-of-passage cinema and half sceptical, shambling, observational poet. Rejecting most of the usual overtones of such films, ranging from moral panic to slick fantasy, Mitchell instead adopted a dreamy, protean perspective that captured his young heroes on that most delicate of edges, between childhood and adulthood, and created a tone that was at once intimately realistic and like watching life unfold deep under water. It Follows, his second film, has gained plaudits and attention far wider than his debut, and like Mitchell’s first work, it represents dichotomous impulses, referencing with an amused smirk a swathe of bygone genre films of exactly the sort its young characters enjoy watching, and blending with his own, very specific cinematic sensibility. It Follows clearly belongs to a recent strand of lo-fi, stripped-down, spacy horror from Ti West and some other recent art house/genre crossbreeds; it also expands a growing body of work by up-and-coming filmmakers that patently reference and revere the genre cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially John Carpenter’s early oeuvre, whose throbbing, propulsive electronic scores and restrained, fluid camera style Mitchell quotes. Yet, It Follows feels unique, a contemporary horror film that feels even more connected with a type of haunting tale from the pages of musty Victoriana and the echoes of classical mythology, with a storyline that strongly recalls M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” which provided the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night of the Demon (1957).

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One challenge Mitchell took on with It Follows and parlayed with elegance was to create as intense and unsettling experience as he could on a small budget and with limited technical means. The very opening is a single, extended shot that unfolds without camera move more sophisticated than simply pivoting on the spot: a young woman, Annie (Bailey Spry), emerges from her suburban home in Detroit in an agitated state, dashing around to the far side of the street and back, before fleeing in a car. Mitchell’s camera stands off but actually skewers his human subject like a butterfly collector’s pin, as it mimics the fixation of the strange, unseen force that pursues the desperate girl without resorting to that more familiar trick for suggesting malevolent presence—the handheld point-of-view shot. Annie drives to a remote patch of Lake Michigan shoreline and leaves a plaintive, heartfelt, frightened message in the event of her death for her parents with her cell phone. The film jumps to the next morning and a shot of her dead body torn and mangled into an obscene shape, but laid out for the camera like a diorama specimen.

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The scene shifts to another, equally nondescript corner of Detroit, with Jay (Maika Monroe) as the focal point. Jay and her small gang of friends are eddying in that period between the end high school and the beginning of college or a job. Jay and her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), go to a movie theatre to watch the portentously titled Charade (1963) and waste time before the show guessing who in the crowd each of them would trade places with. When Hugh suggests Jay has chosen a woman in a yellow dress hovering by the entrance, Jay looks for her, but can’t see her. Hugh becomes extremely agitated and demands they leave the theater, so they go to a diner instead. On a subsequent date, they have sex in Hugh’s car. As Jay reclines in postcoital distraction, Hugh sneaks up on her with a pad soaked in chloroform and cups it over her mouth until she falls unconscious. Jay awakens tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned, ruined office building, with Hugh trying to break through her panicky distraction to explain the strange and terrifying situation she’s now in. He claims that she’s going to be pursued by a demon that seems to be passed from person to person via sexual contact; it will kill its current target if it catches them and then resume pursuing whoever it followed immediately before. As an added sting, the demon constantly changes its appearance, often resembling former victims or taking on the forms of its prey’s loved ones. Clearly, Annie was Hugh’s last lover, and her death had set the demon back on his tail. Hugh keeps Jay captive long enough to see the demon and be confronted by its slow, remorseless progress, before cutting Jay loose and fleeing.

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Jay reports the assault to the police, who determine only that Hugh was living under a pseudonym in an abandoned house in a decaying precinct of the city. After the entity tracks Jay through the corridors of her college, Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) flock to her house to comfort and protect her. During the night, stricken with sleeplessness, Jay goes downstairs and sits watching old movies with Paul, who has a mad crush on her but hasn’t gotten anywhere with her since early adolescence when he gave her her first kiss, but then dumped her for another girl. The sound of breaking glass in the kitchen sends Paul checking for an intruder. He sees nothing but a broken window, but when Jay enters the kitchen, she’s confronted by a tall and cadaverous-looking man. Jay retreats in frantic anguish to an upstairs room, pursued by the entity in various guises, all invisible to her companions, before climbing out the window and running for her life.

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The notion of an otherworldly fiend that feeds on sexuality is an ancient one, speaking to a murky part of the human identity and its relationship with one of our most fundamental drives, and the horror film has long been regarded with suspicion from many quarters as a vehicle of conservative reaction, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Mitchell does seem to be encouraging his audience to approach his story as some sort of metaphor, for STDs or teen pregnancy or something else as PSA-worthy. Some sensed a similar cautioning in such AIDS-era films as the later Alien movies and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Yet, by film’s end, it seems plainer that Mitchell is baiting the viewer in this regard to make us bring our own sexual baggage to his story. In Sleepover, one of his chief achievements was to resensitise his viewers to the reality of youth and its simultaneous beauty and frailness to contrast the usual run of teen flicks where twenty-something models are cast for pornographic fantasies. Mitchell cast young actors in Sleepover who actually look young, and here, though his characters are slightly older, a similar method is at play, as Mitchell emphasises the physical and emotional awkwardness of his characters. An early scene where Jay looks at herself in a mirror in her underwear sees her beholding a new body that’s still finding definition, and its uses as vehicle of life, pleasure, and taunting appeal to others are still perplexing. A ball bounces off the bathroom window as she looks at herself, one of the film’s many moments of jarring oddness, and she goes to the window see who threw it. At first, it seems like a possible manifestation of the threat beginning to dog her, but instead it proves to have been a ploy by one of the neighbourhood boys to draw her to the window. Paul, in a manner all too familiar to many teen boys, is stranded in a state of desirous distance and perpetually unsated horniness, whilst Jay finds experience with older boys in a pretty adult world of dating and sex, one that bitten her in the darkest, most unpleasant way.

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Hugh’s actions in passing along the curse, although logical and, in a way, benevolent—he drugged and tied her to show her the demon and make sure she believed him—is also a potent and distressing act of assault and violation, albeit one that comes after sex rather than before. Mitchell works in a sly joke, one Paul would understand too well, as Hugh breathlessly tells Jay to just find someone to pass the demon on to: “You’re a girl, it’ll be easier for you!” Jay’s slacker neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins Jay and her pals as they track her down to a park where she sits in solitary pathos after abandoning her house, and together they delve into the mystery by first attempting to track down Hugh. They go to the house the police found he was living in, and Paul, idly flipping through a pile of porn mags left behind, finds a photo of him with Annie in his high school uniform. This lets them track him to through the school and learn his real name is Jeff. Confronted by Jay’s pals, who think he’s laid some heavy bullshit on her, Jeff squirms fearfully as they interrogate him in a park, and asks eventually if they see a girl who’s been approaching steadily through the conversation; the others casually and confusedly state they see her, too. Mitchell’s narrative constantly walks such a fine edge between droll diminuendo and ratcheting alarm, as any figure glimpsed in the vague distance could prove to be the demon—or just a casual passer-by. The demon recalls all those jokes about the lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy or Romero’s zombies as creations only dumb white people could possibly fall prey to. The thing’s slowness, however, proves to be a deceptive trait. Invisible to everyone but the intended victim, it can approach unnoticed and then spring with a sudden and remorseless force.

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The haunting builds to a head as the young band flee to Greg’s parents’ lake house: lounging on the shore, a playfully distracted mood overtakes the gang, only for a young woman to slouch out of the woods and approach Jay from behind. Suddenly, from the viewpoint of the others, Jay’s hair seems to levitate spontaneously, and then she’s gripped and held in mid-air by the force. Paul strikes at the entity, only to be swatted away like a shuttlecock. Jay shoots the entity with a gun belonging to Greg’s father, but even this doesn’t stop it, as it transforms into a child to slip through a hole gouged in the side of the shed the gang hide in. Finally, Jay runs off from her friends and flees in a car, only to crash off the road in a quick swerve to avoid another vehicle. She awakens in hospital with a broken arm.

*** FILM STILL DO NOT PURGE*** 3) Maika Monroe, Daniel Zovatto, and Lili Sepe in IT FOLLOWS

One of Mitchell’s most original and admirable inspirations here was to have created a supernatural agent which, though ethereal in nature, is tethered to set rules of physical manifestation. This touch is, again, in great contrast to the opportunism of many contemporary horror filmmakers who use supernatural themes as an excuse to assault the audience from any direction that suits their game. Mitchell is still able to wring such a creation for phobic potency, indeed perhaps even more so, as the figuration of the dread being that stalks with utter relentlessness does have the pungent aspect of something ripped out of a million nightmares. It can be outrun but never beaten, hindered but not halted; on it keeps coming, sleepless and unswerving when you’ve stopped running until that deadly little moment when you’re off your guard. Jeff theorises to Jay that it takes on the guise of people close to its victims to give an especially cruel piquancy to its hounding, and as the demon gets close to its prey, it often takes on the shape of a parent: one character is confronted by the demon as his mother and Jay later sees it as her father, the rotten scent of incestuous intent permeates the proceedings as it becomes clear that the demon rapes its victims whilst wringing the life out of them in a travesty of familial roles.

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In this regard, It Follows echoes back to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), which likewise contemplated adolescent sexuality via a dream-state landscape inhabited by potential lovers and oppressive relatives who keep morphing disturbingly into one another, as if contemplating the shift of roles encountered in each life stage and also the troubling way those most intimate with us mould our characters and sexuality. But Mitchell’s chilly, anxious vision couldn’t be more different to Jires’ playful disassembly of such Freudian tropes. The leafy environs of banal suburban streets instantly call to mind Halloween (1978), whilst It Follows is one of a string of recent films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014), to exploit Detroit as a surreal location, a part-ghost town where the decay and detritus of the industrial age echoes with a haunted sense of defeat, something usually associated with the old Gothic horror film’s castles and cemeteries. Mitchell’s essential conceptualism recalls that of Val Lewton’s famous series of horror films with their suggestive approach to horror, particularly the psychologised viewpoint of Cat People (1941) and even its odd sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944), which use the mood of horror cinema to strike at subtler understandings of the psyche. The problem here, however, is that Mitchell actively avoids making the demon subject to ambiguity: Annie’s ugly fate and Jeff’s introduction of Jay to the demon quickly confirm the reality of the monster—which is fair enough. Mitchell states outright that he’s making a monster movie, however artful, perhaps understandably when just about every indie genre crossbreed these days specialises in some kind of reality game. Mitchell wants his demon and the danger it brings to be undeniable on a corporeal and immediate level, his concern not the mind, but the body.

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Mitchell’s sinuous, distanced approach to shooting works in sympathy with his tale and also at a slight remove from it: whilst following his characters in the moment, he avoids the techniques of heightened immediacy so common in contemporary genre filmmaking, preferring to to read his characters and their actions from without in alien manner. Sleepover displayed the detachment of an ethnographer studying social ritual and a distracted poet noting oddball asides, and It Follows works with a similar quality. Throwaway flourishes of plot import, like noting the newspapers and comic books taped over the windows of Jeff’s abandoned house as part of an initially mysterious but soon all-too-clear purpose, merge with wistful asides like watching Jay place stripped blades of grass on her forearm or her habit of drifting in her backyard pool—idle habits of distraction that suggest Jay’s difficulty dealing with the moment and capturing that period of youth when reality isn’t quite real. After Jay’s hospitalisation, Mitchell’s camera drifts by the windows of the hospital noting individuals and pairs of people engaged in their own little worlds of cause and effect, from flirtation to dying, before settling on Jay’s room where Greg is making love to her. This proves to be both an act of selfless friendship to end her persecution that is also an artful way of Greg getting his end in, whilst Jay lolls in the confused act of sex that blends pragmatic dispassion and real attraction. I was reminded here of an epiphany found in Suzanne Collins’ original The Hunger Games novel (completely missed by the lacklustre film version) that depicted its heroes engaging in mock behaviour that shades into the real thing, with the understanding that much of teenage discovery occurs in a similar fashion, acts undertaken for their own sake under the guise of some assumed part.

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Mitchell’s camerawork evinces a sinuous respect for space and physical context and a concision of effect that’s rare in contemporary filmmaking. This approach pays off in his suspense sequences, as the drama depends entirely on understanding of where the demon is at any one time in relation to the characters, what form it’s taking, and, importantly, its invisibility to others. The battle at the beach house sees Mitchell shoot the crucial moment in a long shot, the blandest perspective available to the filmmaker, and turns it into a space in which utterly weird things occur, from Jay being gripped by the invisible entity to Paul striking at thin air only to be shunted away out of shot. Mitchell’s melding of his early art house vision and nuts-and-bolts genre suspense-mongering through It Follows is generally successful, but cumulatively, the film adds up to less than it should have. Just why is hard to identify. The climactic scene in which Jay and her friends try to lure the demon into a swimming pool to electrocute it recalls the worm-turns moments in Wes Craven’s entries, as the young folk rise to the challenge of defeating the entity. The demon, now in the guise of Jay’s father, instead of venturing into the water after Jay, hurls the various electrical objects the gang have arranged around the pool over at her. Mitchell stages this sequence well, his calm filmmaking breaking into a harum-scarum mesh of coinciding and conflicting actions as Paul accidentally wings Taya as he tries to shoot the demon, whilst Jay tries to dodge all the blunt objects thrown at her. But this battle proves ungainly and anticlimactic, and doesn’t seem to have been that well thought through by either the characters or the writer-director. The pool is, of course, too large to be electrified by such small currents, whilst the demon itself proves hardly fazed by water, which begs the question of why it goes through such an oddly clumsy exercise of trying to kill Jay from afar.

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In fact, that shot of Jay and Greg in the hospital feels like the actual climax to what concerns Mitchell, his fascination with human behaviour. The ultimate failure of It Follows, however, is wound frustratingly in with the most distinctive qualities in Mitchell’s approach to his material. Whereas the outside-looking-in approach of Sleepover suited his object there, here it leaves his protagonists lacking the ornery vividness that gives this kind of horror film peculiar kick—think back to gabby PJ Soles in Halloween or everyone in Scream (1995). Where Mitchell was so good with younger teens, these older subjects are a tad ill-defined and blowsy. It’s very hard to believe someone could actually write a film about teenagers stalked by a sex monster where the teens don’t ponder just what kind of sex draws the demon. Would it bother for a blow-job? Anal? Would it follow lesbians? If this had happened to me and my friends in our late teens we’d have all been killed by the demon whilst arguing such matters. For a film that takes on such a subject, It Follows is restrained and resists trashy impulses to a degree that’s passing excessive. Mitchell’s subject demands a crazier, messier sensibility, a sense of dark eroticism.

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Mitchell’s deconstructive assault on a much less structured genre when he took on teen flicks worked because it suited an aimless, rambling mode of experience. Here he never quite lets his characters bloom as independent beings; we don’t really know much more about Jay by the end than at the beginning. It Follows is in part a fable about evolving character in which Jay develops into a woman who won’t pass on her problems to others, a lesson she learns the hard way as she witnesses the demon going after Greg, and Paul, who, unlike Greg, believes in the demon and steps up to the plate to shoulder her troubles, too. Both, although given chances—Jay encounters a bunch of partying frat boys on a boat, whilst Paul drives by prostitutes with an assessing eye—seem to retreat from these options. Instead the film follows the couple walking hand in hand up a street with a figure in the background possibly tracking them. The demon now in Greg’s form? Talk about relationship baggage.


21st 09 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Attenberg (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Athina Rachel Tsangari

By Roderick Heath

Last year’s Dogtooth, directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, snatched a lot of fresh attention for current Greek cinema with its outré portrayal of a twisted, hermetic family life redolent of political, cultural, and psychosexual repression and perversion. Attenberg, which debuted at 2010’s Venice Film Festival but which is only just now being released internationally, is very much a companion piece to Dogtooth, written and directed as it is by that film’s producer, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and featuring Lanthimos in its cast. Less showy and grotesque than Dogtooth, Attenberg might actually strike deeper and truer in its analytical study of boredom, behaviour, and limited horizons.

Attenberg genuflects coolly on the state of contemporary Greece, now the famous swamp of the European Union’s economic ideals, but its observations and encompassed concerns are genuinely universal; in fact, I’ve seen few films that seem to nail the unsettling and shiftless mood of some corners of the current age better. Everyone knows the generational mythos of the Baby Boomers: people who chafed at ossified and neurotic parents, trying to reclaim present and future from programmatic social structures and Atomic Age anxiety. Generation X got fed up with that and offered its own now-tired mythos, that of a collective of betrayed latchkey kids. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s feature debut film, seems to be attempting to describe a common, specifically modern malady for Gen Y, Millennials, whatever you want to call them. However, in the character of its alienated, developmentally stalled heroine Marina (Ariane Labed), its often droll antistrophes of detached, clinical Euro-realism, and flourishes of play seem more akin to the movies of some of the French New Wave’s more overt dreamers, like Jacques Rivette and Jacques Demy, and the antic femininity of Vera Chitilova’s Daisies (1966).

The title is spawned by the mispronunciation of “Attenborough”, as in Sir David, the iconic wildlife documentary presenter (and brother of Richard), by Marina’s BFF Bella (Evangelia Randou). Marina watches Attenborough’s work obsessively, and she and Bella, as well as Marina’s architect father (Vangelis Mourikis), love aping the behaviour of animals. Marina and Bella have one of those symbiotic relationships a lot of young women have, to the extent that they are often glimpsed moving along together in tightly choreographed dance moves that seem to mix together the stonefaced stiltedness of the Madison in Bande à Part (1964) with the sisterly peregrinations in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1964), but robbed of all apparent joie de vivre. They wander the streets singing along to Francoise Hardy, hissing and clawing in rhythmic gyrations, or imitating urinating animals.

But strains are also showing in this symbiosis. Bella, who works in a local restaurant, has become quite sexually experienced, whereas Marina has never been interested in sex, or so she says. The film commences with an epic, increasingly funny girl-on-girl snog as Bella tries to teach Marina how to kiss, leading to several minutes of absurd tongue wrestling. Marina complains, “I’ve never had something wriggling in my mouth—it’s disgusting!” but still insists Bella “get on in there!” Bella recounts her dreams, which are filled with trees growing manifold varieties of penislike fruit. Marina later ponders her sexual identity, admitting to admiring aspects of the female form more, checking out other female bodies during a sojourn to the changing rooms of the local pool—she’d dream about tit trees—but not desiring them, and staring instead with glum curiosity at her form. She’s alarmed by the thought of a “piston” jackhammering away between her thighs, and in her conversations with her serenely unflappable, black-humoured father (Vangelis Mourikis), admits she has often liked to picture him naked but without a penis.

Things are changing for the trio who trio live in a bleak and lifeless seaside town built to house workers for a nearby mine and factory that burns and billows day and night with glowering import. Marina’s father was one of the architects of this glorified dormitory, but now detests it, describing it as a place where they seemed more interested in how it would look as ruins than as a place to actually live. It’s Greece, but you’d be hard-pressed to see anything Greek about this strange, denuded, depopulated locale. Marina and Bella’s relationship is turning distinctly icy, even as they still rely on each other to survive emotionally and imaginatively, as the disparity between their tastes in sex and life become more defined. The easy life father and daughter had becomes newly charged when Bella joins them and gives the father a massage.

The father is now undergoing treatment for a cancer that proves terminal, and thus he is weighing up his legacy, that of Greece, and perhaps indeed, the previous century’s project. Once a thorough-going idealist, he sees a country that tried to skip directly from agrarian backwardness to modern postindustrialism without going through the evolutionary stages in between, with its agonies of repression and cultural upheaval neatly squared away, leaving a sterile and alien state that can’t support itself. Father announces that he’s boycotting the twentieth century, and regrets leaving this world to Marina. He also remonstrates himself for considering Marina too much of a pal, as now, Marina finally has to take the risk of surrendering herself to erotic violation, which means no longer being able to comment on life as if she’s Attenborough watching the animal kingdom.

Tsangari returns several times to a piece from Attenborough’s breathtaking encounter with the mountain gorillas of Kenya during which he had the sensation that there was only the finest line separating the species—a point where the ability to comment, to objectivise, breaks down in the implacable so nearly human stare of the animals. The notion of such charged first contact flows amusingly into the scenes in which Marina chooses a potential mate for herself, the darkly handsome, yet fundamentally affable Spyros (Lanthimos), to whom she first tries to signal her interest by competing with him furiously at foosball. Spyros, whom Marina occasionally drives to and from work at the factory, proves to be a good choice. He understandingly, if not entirely without frustration, allows Marina to ease herself into sexual experience, feeling out his body and chattering away in her observational style, and tries out on him the same sort of the demonstrative quirks she’s used to sharing: she flexes out her shoulder blades like curtailed wings, wondering at the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of one’s own body. Later she makes friends with Spyros’ penis by lying with her face on it and adjusting her physical expectations of what it’s like. All of Marina’s efforts are nonetheless infused with the blear melancholia of a daughter waiting for her father to die, slowly detaching herself from what has been a convenient sealing off from the reality of a place and time that offers little cheer. Father, dismayed at the thought of being buried and eaten by worms, wants to be cremated, which is illegal, so he has to be shipped out of Greece for the service. He starts to receive newsletters from the action group trying to get the law changed (“Best to kept abreast of such things where I’m going.”). In one of the film’s most simultaneously heartbreaking and droll scenes, Marina meets with an agent of the company he has contracted with to cremate him; the agent preciously dissuades her from sending her father to neighbouring Bulgaria: though the cheapest option, it means being cremated alongside a lot of ex-Communist atheists. Even in death, there is no escape from petty parochialisms.

Tsangari, who actually got her masters in fine arts degree in Texas, seems well placed to make a movie about the fascinating contemporary phenomenon of widespread, virtual world citizenship. Thanks to mass culture and the internet, we are all absorbing pop culture from around the globe and able to use those things to define ourselves, and yet we are still contained by immediate surroundings that cannot be transcended, only given up to or abandoned. Marina and Bella, blithely imitating the ubiquitous fascination with lesbian kisses, watching British nature documentaries, and strolling through town singing morose French chansons as if participating in their homemade remake of a favourite ’50s teen movie, remake their sterile world out of such shreds and patches. The fragmented structure of the film, full of these weird and momentarily delightful switchbacks of tone and vision, is given sense by this attempt to say something, free of cheesy agitprop against globalisation and commercialism, whilst still engaging with the borderless world.

In such a context, Marina tries to rebuild her sense of self in a crisis of identity by asking some coldly intimate questions: “Is it a taboo?” she questions seriously her peerlessly honest father when she starts discussing his genitalia. Later she admits to being disappointed in him when he admits to having had sex since her mother died, as if their life was a serene music of the intellect and spheres. The joke that Attenberg mimics the Attenborough docos in its study of human life is most apparent in these scenes, as Marina acts as if certain elements of humanity are completely foreign to her and have to be restated and given new substance in order to survive. This is only part of the film’s texture, however, though it has been mistaken for the be-all of the film by some reviewers. Tsangari’s method is subtler, critiquing the disparity between Marina’s capacity to study and live at the same time. “You didn’t raise me that way,” she retorts to her father at one point when he says he wishes she could find a romantic partner, and he agrees.

Attenberg is actually, most fundamentally a story about grief as experienced before, rather than after, the death of a loved one. Marina’s father and his intellectual plight call to mind Ari’s father in Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), living remnant and burnt-out torchbearer for multiple forms of given faith of the progressive left, hoping that industrial development, globalisation, and modernisation could heal all wounds. It gets us out of what James Joyce called history—“the nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—only to fall foul to an alienation from the definition of the self from that an awareness of history provides. Meanwhile Marina falls prey to such totems as her father’s shirt, which she has washed and hangs on the line, only to bury her face in it and hide within its cloth. Marina begs Bella to have sex with her father, calling it a favour she’ll pay back at some time. Bella agrees, leading to a scene in which the two young women, stony and soldierly in their bearing, converge on the hospital and Bella disappears into the father’s rooms to give the dying man his last taste of carnal delight. Labed’s performance, without breaking the mould of deadpan cool, constantly deepens and achieves a cabalistic intensity as the film winds toward its inevitable climax, most especially in the finite twinges of grief that inflect her otherwise calm demeanour with the funeral service rep, and as Marina has to deal with the petty details and cold bureaucracy of the hospital staff after her father has died.

Most strange and almost hallucinatory, whilst on the midnight death watch in her father’s hospital room, Marina turns on a radio and begins a stuttering, pathetic, yet almost incantatory dance. This echoes the mad dance by Aggeliki Papoulia in Dogtooth, but with an inverted meaning: whereas that daughter’s dance was an act of self-definition patching together tropes from movies seen on TV and frantic desperation, Labed’s dance here is a kind of rite, repeating the song’s lyrics “this is a song about life” in a funerary gyration for her father, right on the edge of oblivion, and herself, on the edge of having to take command and find a way out of the town that seems so much like a living tomb. Suddenly, in her own way, Marina seems a classical Greek heroine, a modern-day Antigone trying to do right by her father and herself. Labed’s performance is, like the film, a quietly gripping and oddball coup, if, cumulatively, also an achingly sad one. The last stages of Attenberg, as Marina watches the weird process of her father’s coffin being packed for shipping, and then as she and Bella drop his ashes into the harbour, are suitably forlorn and quietly confirm the father’s expectation of leaving behind cities of industry in which the people who work in them wander in dolorous severance from whatever gave shape to their existence. Tsangari offers a cheerless industrial landscape after the girls have driven off, leaving behind rain and mud and lumbering trucks. Francoise Hardy again sings piningly and then fades into silence as we, like Marina, ponder where the new century is taking us.


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

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8th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Matchmaker (aka Once I Was, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Avi Nesher

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who reads me regularly knows of my antipathy toward most Holocaust films. Their apparent attempts at ennobling victims and resisters of the Nazis always seem like just the reverse to me: to riff on something director Melvin Van Peebles said about black characters in movies, I suspect audiences just like to see someone suffer. Rarely in my experience have I seen a Holocaust-related movie that shows suffering without exploitation (Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is a very notable exception) or, more importantly, offers some kind of life lesson beyond the eternally paranoid “never again.” I’m extremely happy to report that The Matchmaker, by popular Israeli director Avi Nesher and based on a book by Amir Gutfreund, is a wise and wonderful coming-of-age tale that comments on the misuse and misunderstanding of the Holocaust while showing us a way to live a more gentle, tolerant life.

The film is told primarily in flashback by 50ish novelist Arik Burstein (Eyal Shehter), who is in for some surprising news from an attorney (Ya’ackov Bodo) whom he drives with his elderly father Yozi (Dov Navon) through a war zone in Haifa to meet. The attorney tells Arik that he has inherited the sizeable estate of Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), a matchmaker for whom Arik worked one summer when he was 16 years old. Both Arik and Yozi are thunderstruck at hearing this name, long vanished from their lives, and Arik is even more surprised to find that Yankele kept a story Arik wrote and gave to him during what would turn out to be their last meeting.

We are taken to the summer of 1968, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) is aware of the “doctrine” of free love espoused by American youth, and perhaps only dimly aware of the onset of their determinedly delayed adolescence. Arik is interested in sex, of course, but he goes against the grain of his American counterparts by wishing he were 18 and able to start his compulsory national service in the Israeli armed forces.

One afternoon, he and his friends are approached by Bride, who asks them if they have a brother or sister looking for love. He specializes in matching people who have some problem—physical or mental—that keeps them from attracting a mate. The boys decide to have it off on Bride, and Arik tells him he has a sister with flippers, that is, webbing between her fingers, that have ruined her chances for marriage. He directs Bride to his family’s apartment, and the boys follow him into the building to listen in on what is bound to be a humorous conversation. Much to Arik’s surprise, and his friends’ disappointment, when his father answers the door, he recognizes Bride as an old classmate from Romania and invites him in. When Bride learns that Arik is Yozi’s son, he offers him a job tailing prospective matches to be sure they don’t have any dark secrets that could make his clients unhappy. Arik’s qualifications beyond his family connection are his ability to lie convincingly and his love of detective novels.

Yozi and Yankele are both Holocaust survivors. Yozi chose to put the past behind him and start with a clean slate in Israel; his wife is a native Israeli, and neither of them talks with Arik about the Holocaust. Yankele, limping and with a huge gash across his face, is marked in more ways than one by his dark experiences. He lives “off the map” near the waterfront in the low-rent district people from Arik’s neighborhood only visit when they want to buy something that “fell off the boat.” He and his neighbors feel safer flying under the radar of the government and being near a port where they can flee quickly should the need arise.

Yankele works next to a movie theatre run by dwarves and across from a bagel bakery whose front-loading, coal-fired ovens face Yankele’s glass-fronted office in painful (and obvious) reminder of what 6 million of Yankele’s fellow Jews suffered in Europe. Another painful reminder is Clara Epstein (Maya Dagan), a beautiful woman Yankele loves but can never marry because her memories have left her so deeply damaged that she cannot bear strong feelings—even love; she has left her son in the care of others on a kibbutz so that he won’t be scarred by her emotional instability. Clara works with Yankele coaching his clients in the art of courtship and running a card gambling establishment out of her apartment. Yankele makes his money on the black market, and sees his penny-ante matchmaking business as more than a front—it is a mission to bring love back into the world.

Before meeting Yankele, Arik looked up to Meir (Dror Keren), the local librarian, who guided his literary choices to help him develop as a writer. But Meir proves to be a foolish and obsessive person who believes the stereotypes about Holocaust survivors—the men must have been camp capos and the women forced to be prostitutes for Axis soldiers—and tries to wreck revenge on Yankele when he dissuades Meir from pursuing Clara, whose attentions during his coaching session have set Meir’s heart on her. Through Yankele’s example—trying to find a mate for the beautiful dwarf Sylvia (Bat-el Papura), checking to see that his clients won’t be hurt in a bad match, treating Clara and everyone he encounters with kindness and dignity—Arik learns what being a mensch is all about and comes to love the sad, goodhearted “criminal.”

The Matchmaker is a teeming and brilliantly told story with a mise-en-scène that creates a believable past while still offering a certain timelessness that befits the film’s universal theme of love. The characters wear period clothing that seems somehow contemporary, and even some aspects of Israeli society, like kids as old as Arik being in the scouts, are updated when Tamara (Neta Porat), the cousin of Arik’s best friend Benny (Tom Gal), comes for the summer. The insertion of the rebellious Tamara, brought to Israel from the United States by her Iraqi Jewish father to remove her from the 60s youth culture, seems a bit of a non sequitur, but it is through Arik’s relationship with her that we see how he is developing as a sexual and emotional man. It is also through her that Arik comes to realize that it might not always be a good thing to inform on the people Yankele is considering for matches—that they may have loves and lives of their own with which no one has the right to interfere.

The performances are superlative and believable, with the actors and director affording dignity to characters that might have come off as too tragic, clownish, or freakish. Indeed, this entire film seems to be a plea for understanding, that we try to stand in the other person’s shoes. One moment I particularly liked is when Arik tells Yankele that he knows it’s a good deed to try to help Sylvia. Yankele shoots back, “What? Do you think they are pets? They are people!” Yozi, too, complains to Arik about what the average Israeli thinks about Holocaust survivors, calling The House of Dolls, a popular book about Nazis turning Jewish women into sex slaves, distorting rubbish.

The Matchmaker taught me a lot about Israel when it was still quite young and active in dealing with the fallout from World War II. Most important, it taught me about an aspect of the Holocaust that is often hidden, but that I so hoped existed—survivors surviving and learning to live, love, and try to spread joy to fight against the hardships of life. In these rather bleak times, The Matchmaker is a bittersweet valentine to the human race that might just renew your hope for a better tomorrow.

The Matchmaker will be shown Monday, October 11, 2 p.m., Sunday, October 17, 4:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)


28th 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Director/Screenwriter: Jaromil Jirês

By Roderick Heath

Czech director Jaromil Jirês’ intoxicating 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders manages to be many almost-contradictory things at once: highly surreal and yet oddly logical, wistfully brooding and yet often pungently humorous, unsettling and yet deeply gentle, intricately perverse and beatifically innocent, richly sentimental and darkly knowing. Indeed, a major undercurrent of the film is an exploration of the unity of opposites: Valerie herself (Jaroslava Schallerová) is catalyst, as object of desire, babe in the woods, dreamer, suppliant, anarchist, victim, conqueror, and saviour. Her odyssey slips the boundaries of the rational world and melts all given codes and figures into a mysterious confection. There’s a variety of coherent narrative here, but one that follows the associative twists of a dream state, and Jirês purposefully harks back to the great folk-myth tradition from which the fairy story and horror tale both sprang and parted company when broken up into modern genres.

Jirês’ film, based on Vítezslav Nezval’s novel, fuses ecstatic fantasia and gothic fugue into a singular vision that interrogates the symbolic underpinnings of so much imagery common to folk-myth. It’s also a lethally funny satire, on repression, anxiety, family roles, and sexual awakening, as well as a celebration of the fecundity of humanity—especially its feminine variety—and the imagination for moulding the world. The initially bewildering run of visions that sets Valerie in motion reveals the heroine at the cusp of womanhood, in images of sentimentalised ripeness similar in effect and intent to Picnic at Hanging Rock’s reclining, meditating maidens. For example, Valerie delighting in a pair of earrings that she cups with delight (at one point she holds them to her chest, and they do seem to symbolise her filling adolescent breasts), and the recurring image of the girl swimming in the lily-clogged water of the fountain at the centre of the main square of her town. That fountain is the very heart of the film’s geography and of the action, and Valerie’s swim evokes the purest image of a water-nymph ready to snatch herself another Hylas.

And yet Valerie is already in danger when she becomes the prize at stake for a mysterious vampiric monster (Jirí Prýmek) who employs his handsome young thrall Orlík (Petr Kopriva) to steal her earrings while she sleeps in a greenhouse. But Orlík gives them back to her, defying his mysterious master by being entranced by Valerie himself.

Valerie lives in a staid, sizable bourgeois house with her stern, frigid-looking grandmother Elsa (Helena Anýzová), who tells her to put aside the earrings, which belonged to her disgraced, exiled mother. Elsa instead recommends she attend the service being given by a troupe of missionaries, priests, and nuns who are filing into town at the same time Valerie’s slightly older friend Hedvika (Alena Stojáková) is being wedded to a “stingy farmer,” an event that also draws actors and circus folk. Valerie, however, is intrigued by the naturally overflowing sexuality expressed by the young peasant women of the town who kiss each other and flirt with the strong young men who hang about them, waiting to copulate with glee in the woods at the edge of town. Grandmother herself has a few dark secrets tucked away, and when Valerie, watching the crowd in the square, spies the grotesque vampire himself, Elsa seems to recognise him as someone troublingly familiar.

The vampire’s insidious infestation of Valerie’s life begins to manifest as he fills every patriarchal position in the narrative. He’s the elder priest who gives the congregated village females a blessing. He’s the also the local constable by whom Orlík is ensnared. He’s the long-ago lover of Elsa, and claims also to be father to both Valerie and Orlík. “I have never loved another man since you seduced and abandoned me,” Elsa moans to the vampire. “Sorry about that,” he replies. The vampire announces his new reign by setting fire to the waters of the fountain: he is the yin to Valerie’s yang and the kindler of black passions. Elsa is smitten with one of the missionaries, Gracian (Jan Klusák), who’s just returned from Africa; the vampire leads Valerie into a hidden chamber and forces her to watch through a peephole as Elsa flagellates herself before Gracian. In order to regain her youth and beauty, Elsa is willing to sign over her house to the vampire, whom she calls Richard. He infects her, and after being restored to rapacious youth and imprisoning Valerie, she poses as Valerie’s cousin and seduces and drinks the blood of anyone she can. Orlík keeps rescuing Valerie from her predicaments and vice versa; even if they are brother and sister, they seem fated to be together.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders could be the most delicate and evocative work of the ‘60s and ‘70s renaissance of fantastic cinema in Europe, working with material certainly familiar to some more definable generic directors I’ve celebrated lately—Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco, Dario Argento, Terence Fisher—and yet freed from the cruder necessities of the commercial cinema they served. The cinema to which Valerie belongs is imbued instead with a folk-myth atmosphere essayed in terms more closely related to Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova. Indeed, some tableaux vivant shots, like the vampire standing upon a ledge against a church wall with arms spread or Hedvika arrayed in her bridal gown, or visual conjuring like the vampire hailing the birds escaping their coops in the dusklight, echo Paradjanov’s style keenly. It is, when you think about it, a rare event for a filmmaker to truly utilise the capacity of cinema to work magic, especially these days, when magic is usually the product of remarkably nonmagical CGI.

Judging by the style of clothes and settings, the film takes place in the late 19th century, but it is replete with hazy elements that suggest both a far more distant past of premodern spirituality and folk-culture, and more contemporaneous touches. Jires contrasts Elsa’s Victorian hairdo with the younger girls’ pure ’60s cuts, reflecting the generation-gap alarm at its heart, as well in the conflict of the ripe rustic images and the grinding wheels of nascent industry.

The structure is studded with paranoid surrogate figures and the intricate interplay of social and familial roles, with every characterisation threatening to blend into another, suggesting layers to identity. The merely relative nature of identity, when it comes to enacting such roles, is constantly restated: only Valerie remains firmly integral at the core, and here the anxiety is about which character seems to represent her future and desires. A constant motif of Valerie’s odyssey involves acts of spying: the vampire’s first direct act is to show her the hidden rooms, clogged with spider’s webs and dust-crusted books, and then force her to watch Elsa groveling and beating herself before Gracian’s amused gaze. Later, in another deserted part of the house, mysterious machinery cranks and whirs as Valerie spies on Elsa ensnaring a young man, and then trying to also seduce Orlík.

Such moments are perfect metaphors are Valerie’s forceful introduction to the hidden intricacies of the adult world lurking behind the settled forms and genteel pretences of Elsa’s upbringing. Incestuous lust is a constant motif, as it was in so much classical European mythology—seen in Valerie and Orlík’s sibling attraction, in the vampirised Elsa reborn as the imperiously sexy faux-cousin trying to drink Valerie’s blood, and finally in a striking consummation between Valerie and her vampire father. To save him from starvation, Valerie smears chicken’s blood upon her mouth in a telling approximation of lipstick and kisses him to reawaken his thirst, briefly restoring him to the young, beautiful hunter he once was before he reverts to the ravenous monster. When Valerie’s mother (Anýzová again) turns up, daughter, mother, and grandmother all kiss each other with strangely knowing intimacy. Valerie’s sexual innocence is constantly placed at stake, with the constant threat that she will be involved in something transgressive either according to her own drives or by violation according to someone else’s.

These perverse elements, however, finally feel less literal than acknowledgement again of the interchangeable, successive nature of adult roles—from daughter to mother, from lover to parent—and the finite way sexuality defines all such roles. But the whole landscape is rife with sensual possibility, signaled by the peasant lasses who greet all physical contact with unsullied enthusiasm. Hedvika, in marrying her aging, portly farmer, is anxious about her commitment, and yet she pledges to “grow older” for him, for he’s as nervous as she is; when they unite, Elsa takes the chance to bite Hedvika, presenting the delirious, crucial image of sexual health being sucked out of the girl from both sides in a mad ménage à trois. Later, Valerie, fount of all health, restores Hedvika by sleeping with her in moment of desexualised lesbian love redolent of natural fulsomeness and healing potential.

It’s hard to describe Valerie’s deeper, darker levels without stinting on its effervescent humour and sprightly vitality, much of which stems from a constant Buñuel-esque anti-clerical satire. For the film constantly resorts to images of the ancient wooden shrines around the village, describing such motifs as Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary, with whom Valerie is associated, which are the home to hives of bees, ripest symbol of natural bounty, and thus uniting natural and spiritual fulsomeness. But Gracian, as representative of the church, is a hypocrite who hustles his train of nuns hurriedly past a peasant couple gleefully rutting in the woods, but lets Elsa debase herself before him with an indulgent smile and tries to seduce Valerie in her bedroom, where, in the film’s most cripplingly hilarious moment, he opens his cassock to reveal an African tooth-bedecked necklace with the pride of a swinger’s gold peace-symbol chain, whilst leering like a randy bear. The totemistic power of her earrings and a pearl Orlík gives her deflects him with an astounded, and troubled exclamation of “What have you done?” Later, he accuses her of being a witch, and has her burnt at the stake, to which Valerie’s fearless reaction is to poke her tongue out at him before using her totems to vanish from within the flames.

The theme of Death and the Maiden, with roots in the Germanic folkloric scheme, is of course a vital one in the European artistic tradition, with its dialogue of effusive youth and beauty set against entropy and inevitability, translated into an innately sexual metaphor of femininity and masculinity, locked in a process of conquest and surrender. Valerie’s travails with the monster/father/lover figure certainly employs this motif, but Jirês invests it here with that specifically playful, pastoral quality that is familiarly Czech and distinct from more lugubrious German cinematic takes on the idea which Jirês references, like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), whose Max Schreck style of vampire Richard resembles. The vampire and Elsa each enact a twisted fantasy of retaining youth by becoming monsters, but also embody Valerie’s anxieties as the blooming of her womanhood also means getting older, and facing the inevitable withering of that bloom. She constantly crosses paths with a small girl who gives away flowers around the village, bestowing her gifts on everyone, the arch-innocent whom Valerie is ceasing to be.

Valerie’s fleeing Gracian’s repressed, hypocrisy-dominated overworld sees her venture instead into a labyrinthine under the town now dominated by the vampire and Elsa, with the peasant men and women in their thrall, as if suggesting the way expressions of natural sexuality was forced underground by pharisaic religion and subjected then to perverted transformations. Ironically here, when the vampire drinks a potion into which Valerie throws her pearl, he himself is toppled and reduced to a slinking ferret—Orlík has constantly called him a polecat—and scuttles away as the thralls try to stamp on him. Later, Orlík shoots the polecat and displays his fur.

Thanks to Valerie’s prayers, the week of wonder seems to come to end, or more accurately, reboots, with the household’s rhythms restored to the same normalcy as at the beginning, and Elsa returned to her grandmotherly age, to expire in shame as she explains an omen to Valerie that entails the return of her mother. Her mother, when she comes, is in the company of Valerie’s father, who is the young hunter the vampire had appeared to be. Elsa, resurrected, comes out to meet her daughter and husband, and the suddenly reunited family proceeds into the woods, where, rather than finding a newly clarified form, everyone encounters their many alter egos. All the characters frolic in a riverside glade where the peasant girls infest the branches of a tree as if in a pagan rite and eagerly embrace the vampire on a boat, whilst Gracian is confined to a birdcage. The nuns and maidens lounge in ease together, and the whole cast gather around the bed where Valerie lies down to sleep, or, more likely, awaken at last. At the cusp of the waking world, all opposites and figurations join, and the flower girl refuses to give a bloom to Valerie here—she has ceased to be a child.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is composed with such ripe artistic and technical skill it’s hard to believe it didn’t simply spring out of someone’s head, and yet, of course, it’s the result of hard work. Special kudos are owed to cinematographer Jan Curík, with his sharp, yet muted colours, and Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák for their inventive, atmospheric score. The cast, who were almost all post-dubbed by other actors, are nonetheless splendidly suited, especially the weirdly wonderful Anýzová (usually a costume designer for movies), called upon to play the many notes of the adult female, swinging from glowering, pale-haired domestic despotism to saucy, fishnet-stockinged femme fatale, giddily lapping the blood off a man’s neck or locked in a woozy waltz with her undead lover.


24th 11 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Adventureland (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Greg Mottola

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By Roderick Heath

Greg Mottola’s debut film The Daytrippers (1996) stood out from other mid 1990s factotum indie films through its novelistic intelligence and acerbic perspective on artistic aspiration. Adventureland, his semiautobiographical follow-up, got off the ground thanks to the success of Superbad (2007), his only intervening film, but it shares with The Daytrippers a carefully woven acuity about matters of class and culture, sex and cash, in modern American life. Modern is in the relative sense, for Adventureland is set in the neither distant nor immediate past of 1987. It concerns itself with the adventures of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man who plans to move to New York City to pursue a postgrad journalism course at Columbia University. James’ travails begin when, just after graduating, he’s told by his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) that because his father has been demoted at work, they can’t afford to contribute to either the trip to Europe he planned to take with his wealthier friend Eric (Michael Zegen), or his move.

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James searches for summer work and lands a job at Adventureland, a lame expanse of tawdry, often fixed games and rides of dubious safety. There’s even a subtle social divide between the hale and buxom types chosen to run the rides and the weedier rejects assigned to games. James is assured by owner-managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig) is definitely a games type. He soon makes many friends amongst his coworkers, helped in large part because of the stash of weed Eric left him, but also thanks to his decent, gentle demeanour. He declares himself to be slowly recovering from an 11-day failed romance to excuse the fact that he’s befuddled at still being a virgin. He begins a tentative romance with one of his fellow games drones, Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart), after she helps him out of a sticky situation—two heavies have scammed him for one of the “giant-ass pandas” that nobody’s supposed to be able to win.

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The most admirable quality of Adventureland is also its most deceptive—offering a virtually shapeless evocation of the characters’ daily travails, the drolly recounted frauds, frustrations, inanities, and yearnings that characterise a day’s work at the fairground, whilst quietly building towards an inevitable moment of crisis. That crisis is signaled early on when it’s revealed that although clearly attracted to James, Em is carrying on a purely sexual affair with the fair’s resident mechanic, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who’s also a musician who claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed. And he’s married, too. Em is something of a question mark even to herself, daughter to a well-off lawyer (Josh Pais) and already studying in New York, but who has buried herself for almost Dostoyevskian reasons in a crummy, low-paying job for the duration of the summer. As her romance with James blossoms, she reveals a lingering, consuming outrage at her father’s marriage to Francy (Mary Birdsong), a high-strung, obnoxious social climber with whom he had commenced an affair when her mother was dying of cancer.

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Adventureland belongs in a kind of subgenre of bildungsroman movies like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), with a playful edge of nostalgic satire and a “jeez wasn’t it sucky but somehow great” take on the difficulties of negotiating the shadowy land between youth and functioning adulthood. Mottola notes with greater honesty than many recent efforts how problems of money and sex are constantly entwined, even if the breezy suburban atmosphere tends to lessen the apparent connection. James and other characters, like his dweeby but hyper-intelligent coworker Joel (Martin Starr), are all in the same boat—smart but frustrated in a dull, mind-corroding, often threatening environment and hampered by lack of cash and confidence. Adventureland is not only about James’ education in matters of love, but also in matters of economics, as he is introduced to problems of social mobility he hadn’t had to consider before.

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Meanwhile, the appeal of the rides side of the social schism is signaled by resident hottie Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), who, impressed by James’ tentative charm and ready capacity to get her high, asks him out on a date after spurning every other guy in the park. James enjoys the notoriety this gains him, but also quickly realises that Lisa’s nowhere near Em’s level. A less pleasing example of the meeting of games and rides types plays out when Joel has drunken sex with Sue O’Malley (Paige Howard), only for her to embarrassedly repudiate him the next day with the excuse that she’s Catholic and he’s Jewish, causing Em to break off her friendship with Sue. James’ relationship with both Em and Mike obviously takes a hit when he discovers what they’ve been up to, but his real disillusionment comes when he observes the petty, judgmental mindset of people he’s liked, like Lise P., and his ultimate lack of interest in the likes of them. What threatens to be a master-pupil bond between him and Mike inverts when James realises Mike doesn’t know anything about Lou Reed or women.

It’s to Mottola’s credit that his characters are not only well-rounded, credible individuals, but also accurate and familiar types: I know many of these people. The idea of using the amusement park as a microcosm of life is a genuinely effective motif, and of course, the details, from Bobby and Paulette’s fretting over the number of giant-ass pandas they have left to debating whether to sell food that’s been left out overnight, and their highly unfair games, confirm every bad feeling you’ve ever had about such seamy entertainment venues. The owners themselves are, however, hardly Machiavellian masterminds and can be relied upon to help out in a sticky situation, such as when Bobby comes out with baseball bat swinging to save James from a rampaging redneck.

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James is, initially, a fool of fortune to the point where one of his childhood friends, Frigo (Matt Bush), can still get away with casually cock-punching him whenever they meet. Eventually, he gains some capacity to stand up for himself without becoming like the obnoxious tough guys or self-satisfied yuppies who breeze by his stall. That Adventureland is the story of his learning self-reliance and emotional maturity is self-evident, but it’s also about Em’s growth as well; Em is remarkably well detailed for an object-of-desire type. Stewart’s nascent career has been badly hampered in terms of critical attention thanks to the Twilight films, but she’s quietly fantastic as a likeable but uneasy, compromised, subtly fraying girl, particularly in the sequence in which, after receiving a series of pounding humiliations, she returns home and insouciantly pours herself a whiskey whilst taunting her mother-in-law with obviously incendiary intent. Eisenberg is decent as James, even if he’s required to be little more than a slightly snappier and manlier Michael Cera. Mottola’s touch with his cast is generally skilled, refusing to allow anyone to present naked caricatures.

The most distinct flaw here is that James’s affectations are relentlessly contemporary, in his wryly disingenuous humour and generally passive Gen Y demeanour—not very 1987 at all. Finally, Mottola’s narrative does little that’s unfamiliar, and his direction is purely efficient. But his modest concision with imagery avoids both pretentious hyper-minimalism and poppy pizzazz. There’s a lot of humour in the film, most of which stems merely from dryly observed perversities of the park and period tragedies, like the incessant playing of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” and offhand details of nightlife, like a godawful Foreigner tribute band. It’s that sort of unforced detail that makes Adventureland a diverting and bracing film. l


20th 11 - 2009 | 1 comment »

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959)

Director: Francois Truffaut

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By Roderick Heath

The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s debut film, is a work around which implicit ironies swirl. It looks as much backwards as it does forwards, to Truffaut’s youthful experiences, and the artworks and ideals he considered vital, as well as attempting to articulate a fresh sense of what the cinema could and ought to be capable of. The movie made an immediate impact, proved a vanguard for the Nouvelle Vague, and ironically, won for Truffaut a director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, from which he had been banned only a year earlier for his notorious savagery as a critic, for the film’s compassionate and lithely expressive outlook. It represented an expansion of the cinematic lexicon, presenting a rich and original achievement precisely by reconfiguring the past of both film and Truffaut’s life experience.

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The 400 Blows offered a mode for making directly personal statements on film, without the encumbrances and clichés commercial cinema had developed. And yet it is the film’s intimacy that was striking, its closeness to its subject and lack of showy technique that marked it as special and distinct from the eruptive works of Truffaut’s friend and collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, whose À bout de soufflé competed with The 400 Blows at Cannes (along with a third Nouvelle Vague figure, Alan Resnais, with his Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Truffaut utilised an approach to shooting that other Nouvelle Vague directors would employ. Working on a small budget, he dispensed with bulky and expensive sound and camera equipment, employed natural lighting, and post-dubbed most dialogue and sound effects. He encouraged improvisation in performance, reflecting and influencing the “cinema verité” documentary craft which several Nouvelle Vague directors sprang from. The art was in turning this rough-hewn brand of cinema into an aesthetic asset, but it had clear precursors, most especially in the Italian Neo-Realist works—the “real, crude, natural images” that Truffaut loved—in the works of Jean Vigo and Roberto Rossellini. The 400 Blows concluded with a freeze frame that is now a recognized icon of cinema. Truffaut references classic works of cinema to inform his own vision, especially Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), to the point of virtually recreating one scene from that film, to absorbing the actor-centered style of Jean Renoir, a debt Truffaut acknowledged as vital for the growth of the film’s concept. But it’s an interior, rather than social, perspective that animates the film.

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Such innovations might not have amounted to much if the film had been no good, but The 400 Blows was immediately lauded as a great work, rife with authenticity and powerful, novel dramatic epiphanies. Truffaut, like other early Nouvelle Vague directors Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, was a critic for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and the possibilities inherent in bringing an intellectual, culturally informed perspective to filmmaking, steeped in a detailed sense of film lore and theory, as opposed to a technically assured, regimented experience from within studios, became apparent. The film is dedicated to André Bazin, a telling touch both in a cultural sense, as Bazin inspired so much of the young critics’ work, and in a personal sense, for Bazin and his wife had practically adopted Truffaut after the calamitous severance from his parents that the film more or less catalogues.

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The 400 Blows, whilst empathising with its young, raffish antihero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), does as little as possible to manipulate or make melodrama of his story. No wise elder or beneficial authority figure, like, say, Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town (1937), is especially, personally interested or sympathetic to Antoine, nor are there reassuring changes of heart on the behalf of his self-absorbed mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) or erratic stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). Truffaut looks at the situation in humane, but unflinchingly pragmatic, analytical terms: unfolding as a process, watching Antoine move from being a scamp, hellraiser, and petty thief to a prisoner and a runaway from the law, and leaving him without his story or life in any way resolved. That Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego is generally accepted, and the subsequent series of films following Antoine into middle age confirms that he survives an adolescence that threatens to be thorny; but this film leaves him hanging at the cusp of a fraught moment of choice.

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Truffaut himself remarked that he wanted not to “depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but, on the contrary, to show it as the painful experience it is.” The 400 Blows opens itself up to the experiences of youth, attempting to capture its enthusiasm, amorality, confusion and honesty. Some hint of Antoine’s exceptional potential is given in his love of film and literature, rewriting Balzac off the top of his head in class, but this causes him only strife at this point in his life. Like many boys, his is a world of idols and fetishes, alternately intense and discursive emotions, private standards and amoral reflexes. The major characters in the film have a full-bodied, realistic, self-contained humanity to them; they are capable of actions both admirable and detestable, leaving motives hazy, needing to be teased out, like, say, the years of frustrated combat with classes full of boys that must influence the teacher’s reactions, or whatever makes Gilberte resent her son so intensely. Some motives only become explicit after some time, like the fact that Julien isn’t Antoine’s biological father.

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Either way, for all the moments of boyish or familial camaraderie that sprinkle the narrative, there’s a quality of solitude to the characters, a charged distance to which Antoine is heir and also passive mirror. His best friend is René (Patrick Auffay), who finally takes him in to his house when Antoine won’t face his parents after being expelled. Although from divergent backgrounds, Antoine and Rene seem drawn together as friends because both live with detached, inconsistent parents who often leave them to their own devices. The finest, and final flash of familial unity that Antoine and his parents experience is a jaunt to the movies where they see an unlikely choice for a family outing, Paris Belongs to Us by fellow New Waver Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s film is about conspiracies, and Antoine is always aware that this islet of amicability in his family life has been bought with a conspiracy between him and his mother to suppress the truth of her infidelity. Later, when Antoine attempts in his clumsy way to illuminate the truth by writing it in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in cutting himself off completely from his coolly vengeful mother, who summarises her affair as “my bad patch.” It’s a bitter scene, all the more so for the unredeemed hypocrisy. Through Antoine’s perspective, the barriers between adult and childish behaviours are vague, with the adults just as self-centered and buffeted by whim as he is.

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The fleeting joys of Antoine’s life are realised chiefly in movement: his ebullience in a fun fair centrifuge, his final escape from the reformatory. He attempts to be self-determining, first within the system, when he works hard to achieve something in class, and then outside it, as when he tries to steal and sell a typewriter to survive without his parents. There’s a quality of the frontiersman to Antoine in the way he treats the city as a terrain in which he must survive, snatching bottles of milk and washing himself in the frozen park. His independence is erratic and often foolish, and yet it’s a reasonable response to a home life in which he is regularly reminded of marital strife and his mother’s dislike for him. And yet his efforts often take him back to where he began. As in the centrifuge, there’s only an illusion of movement. His efforts to achieve something in school see him humiliated and expelled. His effort to be self-supporting with crime sees him try to return the typewriter, only then to be caught. From then on Antoine’s life becomes a repetitious series of closing doors, cutting him off from his past and from his options, as he is processed like a criminal, driven through the city, surveying its lights from the van now through bars, abruptly aware and weeping for a lost freedom that he had previously known only as a natural state.

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The reformatory is a break that a magistrate promises will do him good, but it simply proves a harsher, more arbitrary version of what he’s been through—a justice system the writer James Baldwin considered a manifestation of “the least sentimental people on earth.” A tiny infraction sees Antoine receive a slap in the face from a staff member when it took a significant deception to inspire such violence from Julien. The other boys are all up-and-coming criminals and rebels, aligned in militaristic ranks, a state of affairs a wayward individualist like Antoine can’t abide. Jean Constantin’s score continually counterpoints Antoine’s journey with ironic themes, his nighttime prison ride scored to a lilting waltz, the reformatory ranks moving to jaunty marches, providing a sarcastic commentary on what befalls Antoine that, without trying for maudlin identification, throws his perspective into relief. The long, innovative, improvised scene of Antoine being interviewed by a female psychiatrist in the reformatory both offers an unleavened insight into Antoine’s psyche (and that of Leaud) and possesses the qualities of documentary record. In the unblinking focus on Antoine, the sequence also reinforces the distant interest of the psychiatrist, which has largely been that of all the grown authority figures in Antoine’s life, only it’s now objectivised in the use of camera and sound. The technique is possibly also influenced by the long takes and hidden interviewer of Citizen Kane, a film Truffaut loved.

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In the concluding scenes, Truffaut shows Antoine running away in a lengthy tracking shot, moving with the boy and yet keeping him center frame, thus emphasising both movement and the exhausting effort of his flight. When he reaches the beach, he sprints out onto the sand to the edge of the sea, and then turns back, his bewildered face caught in that frozen image. The idea of ending a film without actually offering a conclusion was a radical one at the time, and about to be taken a step further by Michelangelo Antonioni just a year later with L’Avventura. And yet it is a decisive moment. Until this point, Antoine has done things as a boy—impulsively, intuitively, haphazardly. Now, having run to the farthest point possible, with his options exhausted, he has to halt and look back in apprehension and decide what the rest of his life is to be. The freeze frame that concludes the film is not merely an interesting technical flourish; it’s a shock, a needle pinning Antoine precisely at the point where, early or not, rightly or not, a boy becomes a man.

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It’s this sense of Antoine and his experiences as individual, precious even as they’re painful, that marks The 400 Blows as original and distinctive from realist, representative figures and experiences. “In speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us,” Jacques Rivette commented in his review at the time. Truffaut proposes no idealistic solutions to the situation, suggesting rather that the faults in the characters are common faults in human beings and thus unlikely to be altered by institutional changes. Adults will always resent a boy like Antoine, and boys like Antoine will always face their moment of reckoning a hair too early in life. Over and above its achievements as a new way of approaching life on screen, The 400 Blows, even if is was to prove far from the most formally or intellectually radical of the Nouvelle Vague films, proved the capacity of a new style to move and stir audiences. As such, not merely as an individual work, but as a trumpet blast for a moment of great importance in cinematic history, its continued presence in the canon of French and world cinema is readily explicable.


13th 11 - 2009 | 5 comments »

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Director: Howard Deutch

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By Roderick Heath

The death of Michael Jackson and John Hughes within a few weeks of each other had me thinking a lot about the 1980s. I never had much time for ’80s youth pics when I was an ’80s youth, and I watched most of Hughes’s later cornball films, like the intolerable Plains, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), without digging them in the least: they were broad, sticky, and slick in the wrong way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985) was funny, but also queasy in its celebration of a self-impressed jack-off passing off his gross egotism as rebellion, an accusation I feel like aiming at the whole parade of ’80s teen flicks. At least part of my distrust of such works was, to put it in the parlance of this film, the Duckie in me: they’re the richies, smooth and carefully buffed so that no matter what truths they reflect, they come back bathed in a glitzy sheen. I’d much rather one of the more recent films that have made a meal of the tired carcass of ’80s pop culture, like Zoolander (2001) or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).

But the accolades after his death for the core group of Hughes films—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Bueller, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)—that retain a tremendously loyal cult made me feel, as Iona (Annie Potts) says of her friend who never went to the prom, like I’d missed something. And in Pretty in Pink, I found something of what they were talking about. In that very narrow range of experience those films charted, most of the praise comes for their accuracy in portraying teenage self-dramatisation and for not eliding the social schisms that plague high school society. I suppose this praise is something of a slap at recent, nakedly materialist youth fiction like Gossip Girl (not withstanding the undertone of gross satire in Cecily von Ziegesar’s source novels) and the pretty dullards who bounce through contemporary teen dramas.

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But a socially cynical aspect was always present in films looking at American rites of passage in diverse works like King’s Row (1940), Rebel without a Cause (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Home from the Hill (1960), and a host of others, quite often with rather more caustic, troubling perspectives. There have always been the friends from the wrong side of the tracks, the Cinderella romance, the troubled outcasts, the skeletons in the closet, the intergenerational hang-ups. Hughes “reinvented” the genre for the ’80s, which meant, in essence, gluing synth-pop and shitty clothes all over it, and providing a set template of predictable story arcs and familiar dramatic beats that Robert McKee could build a lecture around, and probably has.

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Pretty in Pink displays the strengths and weaknesses of this little subgenre in equal measure, though Hughes didn’t direct it (and it’s interesting to note the popular auteur status Hughes gained despite mostly being a writer and producer). Far more modest and low-key than the greasy Bueller, it’s fairly amusing in places, with some deftly sketched comic types abutting moderately detailed protagonists and a sense of detail. The key moment comes early on, having noted how Molly Ringwald’s financially strapped heroine Andie Walsh constructs inventive costumes to wear, only to be instantly skewered by the rich girls for whom it is the precise lack of necessary inventiveness and industry entailed in being able to buy fashionable clothes that is significant. There’s a lot of truth in that moment, but one shouldn’t mistake it for much more than a good way of getting us on the heroine’s side. Andie, the daughter of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), a sad-sack, semi-employed divorcee, has two loyal companions: Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), her high-pressure, low-achieving admirer, and Iona (Annie Potts), her thirty-something, lovelorn, nostalgic coworker in a shopping mall record store.

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On the threshold of moving on, with a scholarship in sight, Andie catches the eye of two “richies,” as they call the yuppie larvae who stride around with their mullets and Don Johnson suits. One of them, Steff (James Spader), makes sly propositions to Andie whilst claiming to deplore her as trash, but she rejects him out of hand. The other, Steff’s friend Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy), is gentle and engages her in discursive, uneasy conversations that accurately record the way intelligent young people flirt. However, their first date is a near- calamity. Blane takes Andie to a party of Steff’s, where she’s treated with colossal contempt by the other richies, and Duckie, jealous beyond all reason, rebuffs Blane’s efforts to be friendly. But they have a great kiss, and Andie gushes excitedly to her father. The snaky Steff, however, instills enough doubt in Blane’s mind to make him back away from Andie, inspiring two furious showdowns, one in which Andie repeatedly demands Blane admit that he’s dumping her because she’s poor, and then Duckie crash-tackling and brawling with Steff before running off and tearing down the prom banner.

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It’s a strong, if corny, sequence, that captures the inevitable moment for a teenager when just how unfair life can be first shocks us. But Hughes built his films out of alternations of high comedy and melodrama, jerking from one pole to the other according to what point in the running time it is. Quick, we’re at the end of the first hour: let’s have Andie fight with her old man and bust up with Blane so we can resolve it in another half-hour. Hughes also loved constructing smart-mouthed, hyperactive characters whose lovable/annoying bluff often conceals deep insecurity. Ferris Bueller lacked the insecurity, which was passed off onto his troubled friend; later, John Candy’s characters in Planes, Trains and Uncle Buck portrayed them as grown ups. Duckie fits this template to a tee. Cutaways to Duckie in his seamy, lonely apartment are not explained or contextualised: how or why he’s living there isn’t clarified. In a Stephen King story, he’d conjure up a demon lawnmower or something to take bloody revenge. Here he settles for showing up at the prom with a pompadour and spiff suit, and saves Andie from the embarrassment of entering alone.

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Some of the film’s minutiae, like Andie fretfully pondering if going out with a rich guy reeks of “material,” or Iona stapling unsold records to the store’s ceiling in an attempt to jazz the place up, possess authentic flavor, and Hughes and Deutch have a real affection for their characters, holding their interaction up as the real prize. But it’s an interaction that is continually built around pop images, from Duckie, singing John Lennon’s “Love” during a study session with Andie, to Iona making Andie dance with her whilst Iona wears her prom dress and a beehive wig. In a superfluous, yet crucial scene, Duckie dances to “Try a Little Tenderness” in the record store, amateur, but dynamic in his moves. It’s a moment that shows what happened to the musical: it didn’t die immediately, it just went naturalistic. Pretty in Pink is a film dotted with those immortal, long-derided mainstays of ’80s pop-cinema: music-scored montages, sing-alongs, and mime-alongs. These were part of the compromise Hollywood wrung out of templates like The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973) in trying to reconcile new realism in cinema with the epic flavouring that had always been Hollywood’s specialty: as effectively as any musical, Pretty in Pink finds the self-mythologising potential in everyday lives.

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The trouble is it’s never hard to perceive the contrivance. The story wouldn’t work without placing passive characters at the mercy of broad manipulation: Blane, charming and dry in the early part, spends the latter half of the film glaring in cross-eyed fashion at people who act in grossly offensive ways. The filmmakers elide the moments of real crisis (like, say, when Blane will have to tell his apparently snobby parents about his low-rent girlfriend, or when Duckie may have to come clean about his circumstances) and provides easy out-clauses for the characters. Jack can’t get over his wife leaving him to the point where it’s corroding his ability to survive? Well at least he and Andie can have a teary get-together. Duckie’s left without the love of his life? Let’s casually toss him a blonde at the prom.

Andie, despite her independence and intelligence, finally reveals herself to be entirely at the mercy of her own social anxiety, a convenient touch that allows her to appeal to both the feminist and wannabe princess in the women watching. Duckie is more demonstrative, but equally malleable, swinging from hyped-up caricature to would-be empathy figure from scene to scene. In his first appearence, he makes a ludicrous come-on to two girls, which gets him floored by a punch, a silly moment that only makes sense in movieland. Hughes’ sociology is not to be mistaken for depth. It’s more a charting of common impulses—for the (then) over-30s to miss their fading youth; for under-30s to claim their post-counterculture right to self-expression; for everyone to feel sorry for the losers without having to yield them substantial solace.

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The film’s conclusion was infamously altered according to test screenings from Duckie landing Andie to a final clinch for Andie and Blane in the school parking lot. This was held to be a betrayal of the theme, but in truth, neither ending is terribly comfortable. The current ending feels rushed and scant, but the first one wouldn’t have worked on account of Duckie’s being barely tolerable. As it is, at least it doesn’t validate refusal to grow up: Duckie confronts the idea that he doesn’t need Andie to grow up, Andie accepts human weaknesses, and Blane overcomes his passivity. In truth, Spader slams them all into the ground in terms of charisma, moving with the feral pride of a lion through all his scenes whilst hinting at some repressed injury behind his patent asshole exterior.

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I can see why Ringwald made a mark in these films at the time and also why she never became a star of substance: a gracious and easy screen presence, but also not much of an actress, she makes Andie winsome and sensitive, but is a dud at providing the spikier, more cynical intelligence and social awkwardness the part demands. But possibly that’s the filmmakers’ fault, too, as well as the secret of their success—knowing how to provide a main character to whom labels are constantly affixed, but who is actually a blank slate.

So, yes, I’m still not on board with the Hughes thing. Still, there are worse way to spend an hour and a half.


4th 12 - 2007 | 11 comments »

The Man in the Moon (1991)

Director: Robert Mulligan

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I enjoy family films. I particularly like anything that smacks of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. There is something so warm and fuzzy about the simple, even lyrical dramas Hallmark chooses to sponsor, particularly during the holiday season; in an earlier era, I remember such homespun pleasures presented by Kraft, interrupted infrequently by recipe commercials using Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese and “Cheezoid.” Just so you know—I’m hardwired to accept sentimental, commercial dramas that promote family values.

This week it was revealed that Reese Witherspoon is now Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Although her brittle, obsessed performance in Election (1999) had some of us fooled that she might spend her time making challenging indie features, her roots and current career trajectory—now well established by her asking price—are mainstream all the way. The best evidence for that fact can be found in her film debut, The Man in the Moon. While it’s a bit risqué for early evening television, this is the kind of film parents should be happy to watch with their tweens and teens, hoping all the while that the kind of romantic/sexual awakenings on the screen represent the kinds of choices their children are up against in this toddling new 21st century. Nonetheless, I believe there is reason to hope that innocence hasn’t really gone completely out of fashion.

manmoon4.jpgThe story, set in 1957 small-town Louisiana, centers on the Trant family. Mama Abby (eternally rural Tess Harper), pregnant with her fourth child; Papa Matthew (Sam Waterston), a stalwart sort; 17-year-old Maureen (Emily Warfield); and 14-year-old Dani (Witherspoon) live in the kind of large, faux-antebellum house with a wraparound, screened porch we all imagine we’d want to grow up in. It’s summer, and the girls beat the heat by sleeping on the porch. Dani, just starting to awaken to the opposite sex, has a crush on Elvis Presley. She lounges on her cot spinning a single of his “Loving You” as Maureen undresses nearby, revealing her curves and filled-up bra. Maureen is considered a beauty and is much sought after by the boys in town. Dani, plain and still railing against wearing skirts, wonders if she will ever attract a suitor. Maureen cautions her not to hurry. Growing up is confusing, and Maureen is often in despair about ever knowing what she really wants and, worse, ever getting it.

One Sunday, Dani races out of her church clothes and runs to a waterhole on the neighboring Foster farm, now long unoccupied. She goes skinny dipping, unaware that a boy is making his way to the hole. He jumps in, startling her as she quickly covers her breast buds. Both accuse the other of trespassing until the young man, 17-year-old Court Foster (Jason London), says his family owns the property. They’ve just moved back to town.

Court is a handsome boy, and Dani develops a crush on him, signaled, of course, by being as nasty to him as possible until he tells her that he likes her spunk. Then she gets some instruction from manmoon3.jpgMaureen on how to kiss and behave around boys. She tries to get Jason to kiss her in the waterhole, but he rejects her brusquely with the suggestive line, “Well you just almost got yourself more than kissed, little girl.” Eventually, she persuades him to be the first boy to kiss her. But her further ambitions toward him are thwarted when he meets Maureen.

This film has the feel of a play to me in the way the dialogue is written and delivered. The actors seem to declaim more than emote, presenting a classic formula for sentimentality. There are some violent and disturbing moments in the film, but aside from a whipping Matt delivers to Dani, they are the stuff of melodrama. For example, a storm suddenly kicks up after Court rejects Dani at the waterhole, setting up a potential tragedy in the Trant family. When the sisters share a mutual loss and then reconcile their rift over Court, it isn’t deeply felt. A possible love triangle between Matt, Abby, and Court’s mother Marie (Gail Strickland), a widow who dated Matt first, is considered by the screenwriter and dropped. Abby got him, and that’s that. The story demands family harmony no matter what.

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And perhaps that’s the beauty of The Man in the Moon to me. Yes, it romanticizes family bonds, first love, and bygone values even as it allows fear, estrangement, and death to bite around the edges. Children need to know that they are safe while they explore some of the complexities of life yet to come, from disappointment in love to predatory adults and raging hormones. When Dani forgives her father for beating her, “I know you feel bad about taking the strap to me … You were scared, I know that,” we understand that Dani is starting to see her father as a person, not the omnipotent figurehead at the top of the family pyramid. When she runs to him after witnessing a terrible accident near the end of the film, young viewers can rest assured that Matt’s earlier show of weakness and Dani’s recognition of it will not affect his ability to continue to provide her with protection and reassurance.

The Man in the Moon has lessons to teach, but they come out of the experiences of the characters, particularly Dani, and therefore provide young viewers role models with whom they can identify. It is important to introduce children to life in ways that will neither scare them to death nor bore them to tears. Perhaps some teens will be too sophisticated for The Man in the Moon, but many of them won’t. And adults like me with a corny streak as wide as Iowa will enjoy the simple nostalgia, likeable characters, and loving families lovingly presented in this film.


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