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Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.
Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.
Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.
Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.
The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.
Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.
The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.
Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.
Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.
The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.
Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.
Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.
Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.
It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.
Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lara Izagirre
32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Back in 2013, I sat down with Ben Sachs, former film critic of the Chicago Reader to talk about French filmmaker Claire Denis on the occasion of a retrospective of her work at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As the kickoff guest in this month-long series Ben put together with other female critics and artists in Chicago, I had first crack at giving my opinion about whether women directors have a unique perspective on storytelling that inflects their films. Ben said of Denis’ 2009 film White Material, “The movie, like many by Denis, asks you to intuit the characters’ relationships from impressions of environment and physical behavior.” I added, “There’s a sense of just wanting things to unfold. In my experience, women can be more patient. They’re not as quick to try to figure things out.”
I thought about that conversation yesterday as Spanish director Lara Izagirre’s first feature film, An Autumn without Berlin, did indeed unfold like a complicated origami creation before my eyes. As with Denis, Izagirre is in no hurry to fill in the blanks as she winds her way through her story, and like Denis, her story is very personal. A woman we learn very late in the film is named June (Irene Escolar) returns to her hometown after an unknown period of time away. She gets off a train, walks what seems quite a distance to a squat apartment building and rings the bell. Silence from the intercom is greeting with silence from June until, finally, she say “It’s me. I’ve come back.” Nothing. She ends up at a house where she opens an unlocked patio door and watches a young man (Mariano Estudillo) who is moving his arms to some music none of us can hear. He sees her, welcomes her into the house with a big hug, and then informs her that her bedroom has been dismantled. Ah, must be her brother. Oh, and their father (Ramón Barea), a physician who is out seeing a patient, will be angry when he sees her.
Slowly we watch June reconnect with the touchpoints of her life before she left. She pushes back a cloth covering an upright piano in the house, and we get a good look at a photo of a woman on a table next to the keyboard who looks like June, probably her mother, though that is never confirmed. When her father refuses to speak with her, she returns with her luggage to the apartment building and uses a key to gain entrance. She looks around the darkened apartment she must have lived in at some point because she has the key, running her hand over objects, looking at some writing on a desk, peering into dark and empty rooms. Eventually, the man who refused to let her in the first time, Diego (Tamar Novas), emerges from behind a bedroom door. He is sullen, suspicious, and asks her why she’s there. “To stay with you,” she answers.
The ambiguity Izagirre packs into her scenario extends to her dialogue. Diego and June were married, but why they separated is not clear. “To stay with you,” at first blush, sounds like an appeal for somewhere to sleep now that she knows she’s not welcome in her father’s house, but the larger implication—that she wants to get back together with Diego—hangs in the air like an intoxicating perfume that eventually envelopes the pair and brings them closer and closer together.
Slowly, we are drawn into the rhythms of Izagirre’s film and accept the pace of discoveries in the way we would with a good novel. Indeed, Diego turns out to be a fiction writer with notebooks full of short stories, a clear inspiration for Izagirre’s approach to her narrative. She pays admirable attention to the supporting characters who flesh out the film’s central romance—June’s very pregnant best friend Ane (Nairara Carmona), Diego’s estranged mother Pili (Paula Soldevila), and Nico (Lier Quesada), a precocious boy June has been hired to tutor in French so that he can get into the local French school. Her relationship with Nico, intelligently played by Quesada, a truly great child actor, is an absolute joy to watch as he convinces her to skip out on the lessons and roams the town with her, winning a giant panda at a carnival, fishing with Ane at a nearby stream, and getting drenched in a sudden downpour. He doesn’t want to get into the French school because he thinks it took first his friend’s hair and then his friend. This fear teases out the reason for June’s departure—she was so burdened with grief over the death of her mother that she could not endure the added sorrow of her father and brother.
In the end, the central piece of the puzzle is the very sad impasse between June and Diego. As observant and kind as she is, as loving as the couple becomes over the course of the film, June fails to recognize that Diego suffers from a mental illness. The restless wanderer, June longs to go to Berlin with Diego, who wrote an award-winning story about this dream. Diego, an agoraphobic, struggles to meet June in her world. The pair, beautifully embodied by Escolar and Novas, couple and uncouple like a silk scarf quietly slipping its knot. Izagirre’s delicate film builds an emotional power that is uniquely, proudly female.
An Autumn without Berlin screens Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 20 at 9 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. Film composer Joseba Brit will present the film.
Burden of Peace: This searing documentary follows Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general, as she tries to dismantle the country’s corrupt, ineffective criminal justice system and prosecute its former military dictators for crimes against humanity. (Guatemala)
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
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Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.
David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?
Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.
What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.
Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.
Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.
Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.
Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Science nerds of the world, celebrate! A tiny film from France set largely in Big Sky Country has put a 10-year-old science prodigy at its center and schooled the United States on the need for more energy efficiency and fewer guns—or something like that. Other reviews I’ve read of this charming family film seem to lean heavily on the subtextual critique of American society The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet apparently packs. Personally, as one of the few Americans who has had a chance to see this film, which was virtually buried by its American distributor, the Weinstein Company (more on that later), I don’t see much to object to from a political or sociological point of view. Jeunet’s adaptation of American Reif Larsen’s first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, showcases the whimsy and sometimes genuine oddity of its director, so well embraced by the hordes of people worldwide who made Amélie (2001) the fourth most successful French film ever.
Larsen’s book is loaded with illustrations and side notes, which must have appealed to Jeunet’s detailed, eccentric visual sense, and the uniquely constructed, but emotionally distant family at the center of the story must have spoken to the dark playfulness Jeunet favors in his scenarios. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is classic Jeunet, a visually stunning film, though somewhat hampered by a lead actor not quite up to the task of carrying the picture and a too-short running time that made for some awkward transitions between the three acts of the film. (I shudder to think what it would have been like if the Weinstein Company had gotten its way and the film were shortened even more!)
Ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) lives on a Montana ranch near the Continental Divide with his father (Callum Keith Rennie), a 19th-century-style cowboy, his entomologist mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), his teenage sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), and until his untimely death, his fraternal twin brother Layton (Jakob Davies). T.S. is as much a budding scientist as Layton was a budding cowboy, leading T.S. to wonder how his equally opposite-minded parents had ever fallen in love and gotten married. In an attempt to do something together with his brother, T.S. set up a sound experiment that required Layton to shoot his Winchester rifle in their barn. The rifle misfired, killing Layton, and the family retreated into silence and disconnection, leaving T.S. feeling lonely and guilty.
T.S. sits in on a physics lecture in which the dreamy, old instructor (Mairtin O’Carrigan) sets forth a challenge to those attending to invent a perpetual motion machine and enter it in the annual Baird award competition held by the Smithsonian. While one smarmy leader of tomorrow (Kyle Gatehouse) scoffs at the old man’s belief in creativity, T.S. approaches him and says simply, “I accept the challenge.” No one should be surprised to learn that T.S. wins the competition and is invited to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. The rest of the film details his journey east and his experiences once he gets there.
The film is divided in thirds—The West, The Journey, and The East—with a pop-up book of characters introducing each segment in the cinematic version of a bedtime story. Short, but perfect vignettes introduce us to Gracie, roaring about her freakish family, Dr. Clair and her distracted, obsessive muttering about her insects, and Mr. Spivet, revealed in the living room he has commandeered for his frightening collection of taxidermy and cowboy memorabilia. The living room, Dr. Clair’s work room, Gracie’s neo-hippie room, and even Layton’s messy, frozen-in-time bedroom are teeming to bursting with markers of each character’s exuberant personality.
T.S., whose point of view is privileged as our narrator, gives Jeunet the chance to provide lyrical images for his words, many of which are lifted directly from the novel. For example, as T.S. wonders about the mismatch of his parents, he recalls how they sometimes pass in the hall and touch hands; Jeunet films this gesture in slow motion at about T.S.’s eye level to put us in the moment. In another vignette, he breaks our heart when he shows Tapioca, the family dog, chewing on a metal bucket as T.S. informs us that this is the dog’s reaction to the loss of his master. We learn a lot about T.S from what he chooses to pack for his trip to D.C.—plenty of underwear, different-colored notebooks for different types of writing, his teddy bear, and his bird skeleton, the latter of which would have seemed less quirky if he had also told us that the first curator of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, was an ornithologist.
T.S.’s ingenuity in hopping a freight train and evading the railroad bulls is exciting, hair-raising, and pretty funny in parts. The serious-minded boy, with nothing but a box of raisins for the trip, spies a hot dog stand and disembarks the train at night to grab a snack. When he is stopped by a hobo (Dominique Pinon) who is getting some hot tar to fuel his campfire, my heart nearly stopped as well. This nighttime scene amps the potential danger to a boy on his own, even one as clever as T.S., but in the end, the boy’s rationality in refusing to join the hobo in enjoying a campfire tale renders the scene fairly depressing.
The film went a bit slack for me once T.S. reaches Chicago. He hides his overstuffed suitcase and sets out with a backpack of essentials to thumb a ride. His misfortune is to be seen by a railroad security guard (Harry Standjofski), who chases him to a lock on the Chicago River, forcing T.S. to jump across the opening gates. He is injured in the process, but the guard, fearful for the boy’s life until he reaches the other side safely, begins shaking his fist and yelling again. The film dispenses with the rest of the trip when a trucker (Julian Richings) takes him all the way from Chicago to the front door of the Smithsonian, foreshortening the adventure aspects of the film. It falls completely into caricature from this point forward, as civilization in the form of Smithsonian Deputy Director G. H. Jibsen (Judy Davis), all of the guests at the award ceremony, and a TV talk show host (Rick Mercer, real host of the satirical Canadian program Rick Mercer Report), all behave like cartoon villains of marketing and neoliberal sentiment, sniffling as T.S. stands at the award podium and tells the story of his brother’s death.
The cinematography by Thomas Hardmeier is breathtaking, making Montana look like a wide-open Garden of Eden and offering some truly interesting views of the freight train and train yards where T.S. passes the night. The 3D effects accompanying T.S.’s scientific musings and animations must have added a great deal of visual interest (I saw the 2D version), though the effect is starting to become a bit overdone in TV and film. Daydreams by both Gracie and T.S. are very amusing and a bit sad, particularly when T.S. imagines his family greeting his phone call from the road with relief and outpourings of affection.
Unfortunately, newcomer Catlett, though appealing with his nose full of freckles, isn’t a very good actor. He can deadpan pretty well, but his every attempt to cry and feel sad is forced. In the last of these attempts, it’s pretty clear from the way the film was cut that he either was induced to produce a tear after many attempts or went the fake tears route. However, his narration takes us through the film quite well, and he is very believably intelligent. I have to think Bonham Carter was cast based on her fantasy characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series; she used to be a pretty good actress who did interesting things, and I wish she’d move away from these quirky parts if she can. Wilson is delicious as a typical teen lost among the Addams Family. Rennie not only doesn’t get much to do, but he doesn’t even get a first name. I do want to offer kudos to Jakob Davies, who manages to be a presence of some consequence even as a ghost. He says what we only think when T.S. is subjected to tests by the incredulous adults who literally want to pick his young, bright brain: “So you let them wire you up like a lab rat!”
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet isn’t a perfect film, and it doesn’t really burrow into the grieving process the way another thoroughly humane family film, Tiger Eyes (2013), does, but it is a visually stunning, entertaining film loaded with sight gags and some genuine adventure. When the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights to the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the highest-profile deals inked at Cannes.” Rumor has it that Jeunet was punished for not agreeing to the cuts the company wanted with a very limited release—I saw it at the only screen in Chicago showing it—and no publicity that I’m aware of. In addition, perhaps Americans just won’t buy a gentle film without swearing, sex, or exploding anything to entertain the kiddies jacked up on sugar from the theatre concession stands. But the shabby treatment this film received makes its certain failure at the box office a self-fulfilling prophesy.
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2010, we had Eat Pray Love. In 2013, we had Tracks. Now, this year, it’s Wild. I haven’t seen so many people on walkabout since, well, Walkabout (1971), and they all happen to be women. What’s going on?
Unlike adventuring men in the movies, who conquer nations and open new frontiers both physical and intellectual, adventuring women escape their societies and take on physical challenges to heal and find some direction for their directionless lives. In the case of Wild, our heroine is quite literally tamed. That many women have found the memoir upon which Wild is based so inspirational leaves me feeling a little let down.
Wild tells the true story of writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995 at the age of 26 to recover from the loss of her beloved mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and the breakdown of her first marriage. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who it appears took that last name in memory of her infidelity to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), takes on the PCT on impulse. She’s not like all the men on the trail, who hike regularly just for the pleasure and challenge of it. She’s never done a hike like this, has packed so much stuff that she spends several minutes just trying to stand up with the pack on her back, and reads instructions for her camp stove when she’s out on the trail, only to find out she’s got the wrong kind of fuel. In an obscure way, her voyage of self-discovery seems like a death wish, except that there are other people on the trail who keep up with her by the epigraphs she puts in the guest books that dot the trail, making her a minor celebrity; she gets care packages mailed to her at regular intervals by her friendly ex-husband; and she leaves the trail several times to eat, drink, and be merry. Tenzing Norgay she ain’t.
Despite an opening that would seem to predict otherwise, the actual trek is the least important part of Wild. We begin by seeing Strayed remove a boot and a bloody sock to reveal her big toenail hanging on by a thread of skin. She braces herself against her pack and tears the toenail off, only to go reeling in agony, bumping the loose boot down a cliffside. In fury, she removes the other shoe and flings it after the first one with a frustrated scream. But this is a mere set-up for the copious flashbacks that overwhelm the scenic beauty and demands of the trail to show all the bad breaks and bad choices that have brought Strayed to this point.
The film toggles between her progress on the trail and her past life. It is through these lengthy flashbacks that we learn Strayed’s story—her abusive father and impoverished life with a single, uneducated mother. Dern’s hippie-spirited Bobbi is a complete joy and a person who shows the beauty of the present moment that I wish more of the film had given us on the PCT. Seeing Bobbi attend the same high school as her daughter speaks volumes about her backstory—married too young, dropped out to raise her unplanned-for child—and her spirit. When we learn she is fatally ill with cancer at the tragic age of 45, the loss is ours as well as Strayed’s. The other significant people in Strayed’s life—her brother and ex-husband—are sketchy, though both Sadoski and Keith McRae make the very most of their supporting parts.
Indeed, the entire film is filled with perfect cameos of the people Strayed meets along the trail. The farther she goes, the more real those people become—a generous farmer (W. Earl Brown) and his wife (Ann Hoag) who invite her to have dinner and take a shower in their home, a friendly and helpful hiker (Will Cuddy), even a one-night stand when she goes into Portland to avoid a snowed-in part of the trail. Her memories become snippets of roughness—her father (Jason Newell) pushing a fist near her face, her boyfriend shooting heroin into a vein in her ankle, a forceful sexual encounter in a hotel room.
Of course, Wild is a showcase for Witherspoon, a controlled, conventional actor who is a good fit for this material. Strayed is too smart to be anything but honest—in fact, she’s a terrible liar in a scene in which she initially fears for her safety from the farmer—and not given to open displays of emotion. At the same time, Witherspoon can convey just enough vulnerability to put across Strayed’s love for her mother, sorrowful regret for her failures, and bald-faced terror when she encounters a real threat on the trail. She proved with Walk the Line (2005) that she is fully matured from the child actor she was. In Wild, she’s unafraid to show sexual desire, and her acting is largely unself-consciousness.
Writer Nick Hornby produced an understated script that could perhaps have used a bit more of his trademark humor. I found Strayed’s struggle with her backpack in a tacky motel room one of the most memorable parts of the film. That, unfortunately, is a problem. The film feels flat, with staged moments like Strayed’s encounter with a rattlesnake that seemed like a fugitive from a TV western. The cinematography should have been a slam-dunk, but the unimaginative set-ups and pedestrian lensing captured little of the trail’s beauty. Dropping a red fox in at certain moments as a spirit guide was hokey, but it was nice to see a wild animal that hadn’t been wrangled within an inch of its life in the movie.
Perhaps the hardest part of the film for me was how little I liked or cared about Strayed. The last letter she writes to Paul is a kiss-off, telling him that she’s gotten him out of her system and has no further use for continued communication. Nice way to use a guy you’ve abused to keep you alive in the wilderness and then kick him in the ass once more just for good measure. Strayed reaches the Bridge of the Gods between Oregon and Washington, and we learn, in her own words, that she’ll meet her current husband and have two kids. So finding herself with a mold-breaking trek meant learning from her journey and her self-destructive behavior how to be a good conformist. Ultimately, despite the many good things it has going for it, Wild left me sadly uninspired.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Bernard Attal
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Life is a casting off,” Arthur Miller wrote for the character of Linda Loman in his towering play Death of a Salesman. In context, Linda is consoling her despondent husband Willie about the fact that his favorite son Biff will not inherit their house when they die to raise his own family because he has done nothing to establish a life for himself. Linda reminds him that we gradually lose everything, and in the end, have no real say about what future generations do with what we have left behind. “It’s always that way,” she says. But is there no way for something to endure? The Invisible Collection suggests that the one thing that remains after all else has fallen away is memory, and that remembering that which we love has particular power.
Beto (Vladimir Brichta) is a young Brazilian who is enjoying life in Salvador with his circle of 20-something friends. They smoke pot, joke with each other, drink, and dance like young people everywhere. After playing a game of telling what they’d like to be reincarnated as, they go clubbing. When they are ready to move on to another hot spot, Beto is called out of his car by some guys to whom he owes money for hauling his sound equipment around. His friends decide to drive off without him. The next time he sees them, they are lying under white sheets, all dead following a horrific car crash. Overcome with feelings of grief and survivor guilt, Beto is given an opportunity to get out of Salvador and earn some money for his financially struggling mother Iolande (Conceição Senna) by coaxing a former customer of his dead father’s antique store to part with some valuable prints for a German exhibitor.
He travels to the town of Itajuípe in a region filled with cocoa plantations, where the rich collector lives. When he gets there, he finds that a fungus the locals call “the witch plague” has decimated the cocoa fields. His wealthy plantation owner/collector, Mr. Samir (Walmor Chagas), is now blind and financially strapped, and his daughter Clara (Clarisse Abujamra) is keeping what’s left of the plantation going with a skeleton crew. With Clara and her mother Saada (Ludmila Rosa) openly hostile to Beto’s attempts to meet with Samir, the young man seems unlikely to fulfill his mission. Eventually, his stalking of the plantation house bears fruit, as he spies Samir on the veranda and approaches him. Evoking his father’s friendship with Samir, Beto gets an invitation from the old man to come back the following day to view his prized collection of prints. What awaits him will help assuage his grief and motivate him to return to his life in Salvador.
Memory is a slippery thing. I’ve discovered more than once that I remember an incident from my childhood that my brother has forgotten entirely, or that we remember an incident differently. It’s hard to know why memories fog and change, but without them, life doesn’t seem worth living—just ask people who are slowly going blank from Alzheimer’s disease. Many people try to achieve immortality through their works and monuments—novels written, wings of hospitals funded and named, appearances in movies made. Yet it is the personal relationships that we forge over a lifetime that carry on our legacy in a hundred large and small ways. My voice sounds like my mother’s. My neighbor inherits and carries on the family business with the same customer service she learned from her parents. A friendship forged years ago fuels the hubby’s interest in poetry. An A+ grade a teacher gave me on my unconventional approach to a writing assignment gave me the confidence to write in my own way. Conversely, a comment I made on a high school student’s blog has stayed with him and informed his outlook as he goes on to become a filmmaker. When we speak with our authentic voices and feel with our authentic feelings, the threads we send out anchor us to the world far better than a weathered statue with a name that, in time, only historians will recognize.
Beto experiences the churning of memory during his stay in Itajuípa. He awakens groggy and disoriented from a dream of his friends dancing in the nightclub on the day of their death. He reminisces with a cab driver who hauls him to the plantation day after day about coming to the region with his father. Later, Beto dreams of one of those trips, an incident in which Clara angrily soils his shirt with fermented cocoa turned into messy snacking in the back seat of his father’s car. Director Attal understands the meaning of certain dream appearances that soothe us with fond memories of things past and connect us with our present.
Not all things past are soothing, of course. As Beto wanders through the empty workers’ quarters on the plantation, with a living reminder of the minority workers who must have slaved for the white plantation owners embodied in the person of Wesley (Wesley Macedo), a poor, black kid who tags along with Beto, the harshness of history edges into the picture—an invisible collection of a different kind. This movie is not, however, terribly interested in making any strong political statements; it is more of a piece with such films as Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), an elegy for a formerly grand lifestyle in which art means more to Samir than his plantation. When we reach the climactic scene in which Samir examines his collection in his mind’s eye with the joy of one who has memorized every line, color, and figure in every matchless piece of art, we can’t help but be moved by the love that brightens his world of blindness. Clara and Saada see that by trying to shield him from sharing his collection with Beto or anyone else, they have been robbing him of the memories that express his humanity at its best.
I was profoundly moved by the genial performance of Chagas, and enjoyed watching Brichta unwrap his character both from his carelessness before the accident and his distance after it. I thought the women in this film were treated with less understanding and logic. Iolande is characterized mainly as an unstable, selfish woman, Saada as a rude and unreasonable caretaker, and Clara, a mass of anger and hardness. It takes Beto to set them all to right, though Iolande seems a lost cause, and that tinge of sexism mars the film for me—but not enough to turn a blind eye to the film’s poignant pleasures. The Invisible Collection has left me with a fond memory of my own.
The Invisible Collection screens Thursday, October 17, 8:40 p.m., Friday, October 18, 6:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 22, 3:30 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Director Bernard Attal is scheduled to attend the Thursday and Friday screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Lawrence Blume
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Continuing the general contempt for family films with thoughtful characters and situations, exhibitors have all but ignored Tiger Eyes, the first film adaptation of a novel by the reigning monarch of books for young adults, Judy Blume. The independently produced Tiger Eyes opened this week in Chicago on exactly one screen in a small, divided movie theatre in the suburbs that caters more often than not to a Jewish audience. The two elderly women who were with us at the beginning of the movie were gone soon after it started after realizing that they were not watching the documentary they came to see, Hava Nagila (The Movie).
Had they stuck around, they would have seen that there was some Jewish content in Tiger Eyes, which centers on the grieving process of the Jewish Wexler family. Adam Wexler (Michael Sheets), the owner of a sandwich shop on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been gunned down in a robbery, leaving his wife Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), young son Jason (Lucien Dale), and our main protagonist, daughter Davey (Willa Holland), near destitute both emotionally and financially. Gwen’s sister and brother-in-law, Bitsy and Walter Kronick (Cynthia Stevenson and Forrest Frye), take the Wexlers into their luxurious home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, until Gwen can get over her paralyzing grief. Bitsy, disappointed over not having a family of her own, hopes to keep the Wexlers around permanently, enrolling Jason and Davey in the local schools and doting on a malleable Jason. Davey, seeing what is happening, tries to rouse her mother out of her dependent stupor and separates herself from her surroundings as much as possible, lost in her memories of her father and the horrible day he died. The family dynamics at work between the Kronicks and the Wexlers form the backdrop against which Davey’s slow and painful progress toward healing takes place.
Tiger Eyes is a film well aimed at young adults grappling with their own growing pains and dark histories. The screenplay by Lawrence Blume and his mother Judy Blume is small, avoiding the kind of complexity for which an adult film might have reached, keeping the focus mainly on Davey and the few people with whom she interacts. Her English teacher (Josh Berry) pairs her on her first day in her new school with Jane Albertson (Elise Eberle), a bright, haughty, very troubled teen with a drinking problem. Despite an offer to join the clique of creative anachronists who live out a medieval kind of existence, Davey stays loyal to Jane; after all, she’s not planning on settling down in Los Alamos and doesn’t really care where she fits. Thus, the cast of characters remains simple, and the complex of problems stratified in an understandable way without completely ignoring other elements in Davey’s environment.
The most healing aspect of Davey’s life in Los Alamos is Wolf (Tatanka Means), a Mexican-Native American who finds her in the desert after she has accidentally slid down a bluff she was exploring. After worrying that he might do her harm, she drops her guard, but tells him her name is Tiger. They continue to meet over the months, and when she attends a “relation” ceremony among his tribe on the pueblo, she understands that his ties with his home were strained as well and that his tribal family held the ceremony to strengthen his connection to them and support him. Wolf, real name Martin Ortiz, is attending Cal Tech to become a physicist like the many scientists at Los Alamos, and has taken a year off to attend to his dying father (Russell Means). As real-life son and his real-life father dying of cancer, Tatanka and Russell Means had an easy way into these characters and convey the private nature of their real and imagined relationship that matches perfectly with Davey and her memories of her father.
In this, his second feature film, Blume shows he has more to learn. He’s quite good at using landscape and setting to add mood (of course, that’s not too hard with New Mexico as a setting), but seems rather at sea with his characters. Cynthia Stevenson, who is the go-to gal for conventional, somewhat ridiculous women, gets little help from Blume and chooses to define herself more by her situation than her character’s inner fear. As a tour guide in the Bradbury Science Museum, she cheerfully shows off replicas of the atomic bombs that killed 220,000 people, and later, happily throws a Christmas party while Davey retreats to her room and lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah in memory of her father. When Stevenson is called on to have a true emotional moment, she just doesn’t have the chops or the director to make it come alive.
Similarly, despite some kissing, the quasi-romance between Martin and Davey causes no discomfort, and therefore, Tiger Eyes is completely safe as a family film. But without a little chemistry, it’s hard to buy the connection between the two at more than a situational level. While the film gives life to the Native-American experience in sharp contrast to the war-fueled prosperity and success ethos of the white Americans in Los Alamos, it still trafficks in stereotype. Martin and his father, whom Davey becomes close to at the hospital where she volunteers, step into the spirit guide roles white Americans have assigned to Native Americans since the crying Indian commercial for the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the 1970s.
Where the film succeeds beautifully is in the relationship, too little seen, between Davey and her brother. When Bitsy tries to indoctrinate Jason in the Los Alamos definition of success, Davey dreams a life of selling cookies on the boardwalk in Atlantic City for him. In another scene, they play Monopoly one night when the Kronicks double-date with Gwen and a fix-up, and spar joyfully and believably when Davey discovers Jason has been taking money from the bank. The scene, however, turns dark rather abruptly, with Davey accusing Jason of forgetting their father; nonetheless, their argument felt very real and offered the kind of emotional depth I would have liked to have seen throughout the film.
Blume slowly builds a picture of the day Davey’s father died in intermittent flashbacks, finally revealing Davey cradling her father on her lap as the life drains out of him. These scenes are beautifully shot, suggesting through lighting and lensing an unreal nightmare Davey is forced to relive a bit at a time until she can face the final moments of her father’s life. The progression suggests how grieving works, in a circular manner that spirals us a bit at a time back into our lives. While we don’t see it as directly with Gwen as we do with Davey, it is clear from small actions Gwen takes that she is having a parallel experience.
Willa Holland has a lot to carry on what the elder Ortiz says are her strong shoulders, and she is mostly up to the task. She has a magnetic screen presence that makes us want to spend time with her, and does indeed have the bright smile and sad eyes that Wolf remarks on when he first meets her. She can project her anger, grief, and struggle to face the rest of her life without her beloved father all at once and provides a relatable role model for girls and boys who are growing toward adulthood. I could see a child who has lost a family to divorce relate to this just as easily as one who has lost a parent to death, and children who have not faced such losses gaining an empathetic understanding toward those who have. In a marketplace bereft of substantial family films, Tiger Eyes is a welcome addition.
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Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Mark Jackson
2011 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I watched the opening moments of Without—an extreme close-up of lead actress Joslyn Jensen staring expressionless for rather a long time—I had that familiar sinking feeling. Oh no, I thought, not another contemplative indie movie full of arthouse pretensions and repressions. Preparing for the worst, I was absolutely shocked to find myself utterly engrossed in a film that slyly moves from commonplace to harrowing to heartbreaking through a tour de force near-solo performance by Jensen, some well-framed handheld camerawork by Diego García and Jessica Dimmock, who also coproduced the film, and tension-building editing by director Jackson.
Jensen plays 19-year-old Joslyn, who has been hired to look after a severely brain-damaged man while his family takes a vacation. Joslyn gets a ride to their cabin in the woods on Whidbey Island in Washington State by kitchen remodeler Darren (Darren Lenz), whose hints that he would like to get to know Joslyn better are firmly deflected. Joslyn has him drop her at a crossroads, starts down the road to the right, waits until he drives away, and then reverses course and goes to the left. She knocks on the door of the cabin and is ushered in by the owners (Bob Sentinella and Piper Weiss) to meet Frank (Ron Carrier), her charge for the next week or so.
The cabin is isolated, with unreliable cellphone service and no internet connection. Despite having access to 600 TV channels, Joslyn is instructed to leave the TV on the fishing channel, the only one Frank likes to watch, and not to increase the sound above 34. She is also told she can drink some Kahlua, but none of the whiskey (“It’s Bob’s. Believe me, he’ll notice.”), and that she must not put the knives in the dishwasher. She is given a booklet of instructions the couple, in all seriousness, calls “the bible.” The family says their good-byes and heads out. Joslyn says hello to Frank properly and settles in for what will be a long and lonely ride.
At first, Joslyn is seen being a caregiver, picking up Frank’s meds from the drugstore, feeding him stewed pears and carefully scraping whatever he burbles out between his lips with a spoon, changing his diaper while trying to avert her eyes to respect his modesty—or maybe just because she’s grossed out by the chore. Joslyn doesn’t appear to be a professional caregiver, nor a particularly nurturing, self-sacrificing person. Refreshingly, she’s a modern young woman who gets bored and restless. When she is not caring for Frank, Joslyn works out in the family’s home gym, listens to music on her iPod, looks at pictures and videos of her girlfriend on her iPhone, even sits in front of the oven and watches cookies bake.
Hints that there may be more to Joslyn’s temporary job than meets the eye come when she asks a barista about whether a certain woman is still in town. So, she knows this place! Yes, says the girl who serves her a chai latte every day at the drive-thru, and wasn’t it terrible about her daughter. Joslyn, fed up with the lack of an internet connection, rummages around in a spare room for a computer and camera, sets them up, and tries to get dial-up internet service. Despite the repeated connection failures signaled on the computer monitor, she seems to be communicating with someone through the camera. Her phone seems to move from room to room, doors that should be open are locked, and Joslyn believes Frank is messing with her. Her behavior around the old man becomes alarmingly sexual and abusive. Then, one night, as we rather expected, Darren lets himself into the house.
It’s hard to explain how it can be so fascinating to watch Joslyn behave like we all suspect those we hire to look after our homes might. But then, Joslyn’s behavior has a strange edge to it, a desperation, particularly when she seems to be communicating with her girlfriend. In one scene, Joslyn sits perfectly still at a window as she watches a deer outside. The deer is vigilant, then slowly approaches the window. That’s kind of how it is to watch this film—fight-or-flight alertness, curiosity, a pull toward something wounded and in need. As played by Jensen, Joslyn’s ordinary life is more extraordinary in its literal and emotional nakedness than most you’ll see in any film. I’ve read comparisons with Catherine Deneuve’s performance in Repulsion (1965), but the truly apt comparison is with Bruno Lawrence’s last man on earth in The Quiet Earth (1985). Indeed so riveting is she in her self-contained longing that camera focus problems and jostling barely register. Instead, we hungrily look for those amazing expressions that say so much in a film relatively free of dialog.
We all have secrets—even Frank, as Joslyn discovers to her disgust—and honestly, if I had never found out what Joslyn’s was, I wouldn’t have minded. It is revealed economically and with feeling, but the effect was worth a million causes. Here’s an indie film that can compete with the majors. Don’t miss it!
Without will screen Saturday, October 8, 3:45 p.m., Sunday, October 9, 1:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 12, 3:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
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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.
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Director: John Cameron Mitchell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I just read a news report about how the parents of a Rutgers University student who killed himself after his roommate allegedly used a spycam to record him having sex with a man and then posted the video on the Internet intend to get even. They plan to sue the university. Their suit states that “it appears Rutgers University failed to act, failed to put in place and/or failed to implement and enforce policies and practices that would have prevented or deterred such acts, and that Rutgers failed to act timely and appropriately.” In legalese, their action is known as a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of lawsuit can serve justice when gross negligence is uncovered—for example, medical malpractice or police brutality—forcing not only reparations, but also reforms to be put in place. It is also a device that allows angry, grieving people to take their rage out on anyone in the vicinity of their pain.
Here in the United States, people are exceedingly fond of using the courts to intimidate and beat each other up. Life is no longer left to chance when we can always find someone to blame for our misfortunes and can turn to an exceedingly obliging cadre of plaintiff’s attorneys who are happy to take our money or a percentage of the damages awarded to soothe our wounds by wrecking holy hell on the scalawags who dared to rain on our parade. It takes a lot of bravery for people to recognize that playing the blame game, either in the hard form of a lawsuit or even physical violence, or in lesser forms like grudge-holding and verbal abuse, serves little or no purpose other than vengeance and a deflection of guilt. For people do indeed feel a great deal of guilt for the harm they cause others, even if they had absolutely no control over the bad things that happened. And that guilt can be downright unbearable.
Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, is a film that represents an advance in the way we think of tragedies, the vast majority of which are accidental. It posits that we’ll feel angry, sad, disconnected, and more than a little crazy, but that we don’t have to find someone to blame in order to deal with our loss and get on with our lives. Unlike a very similar film from three decades ago, Ordinary People (1980), Rabbit Hole shows the anger and loss two parents feel when their 4-year-old son is run down by a car, but it avoids the blame game that subtly inflected that film and that screamed out against the mother in the book by Judith Guest on which Robert Redford’s film was based.
Rabbit Hole opens with close-ups and overhead shots of Becca (Nicole Kidman) emptying bags of topsoil onto her garden beds, working it into the earth below with her hands, and planting flowers along the edge of the bed. Her next-door neighbor Peg (Patricia Kalember) comes over to invite Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) over that evening for a barbecue. Becca makes an excuse and then abruptly stares down at her neighbor’s feet; Peg has inadvertently trampled one of the newly planted flowers. Apologizing and excusing herself awkwardly, she leaves, and Becca bends down to inspect the damage; the flower is irretrievably broken. Not a very subtle way to open a movie about the loss of a child, but from there on out, nothing about this film trafficks in cliché.
Becca and Howie go through each week the way others in their situation might. Becca, who used to work at Sotheby’s in New York, quit her job—whether after her son Danny’s birth or death is never revealed—and stays at home cooking, baking, working out, and tending to the house. Howie goes to work, plays squash with a colleague, and tries to reach out to a closed-off Becca. Both of them attend a support group for parents who have lost children, though Becca resists the help the other parents try to offer and openly criticizes a couple who says their daughter died because God needed another angel. “Why didn’t He just make one?” she says. “He’s God after all!” Not surprisingly, this is Becca’s last group session. Howie, more open in his grieving, watches a video of Danny on his cellphone each evening and continues to go to group without Becca.
The outside world confronts the damaged parents with challenges. Becca’s ne’er-do-well sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) reveals that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito, in a welcome performance from a rarely seen favorite of mine), answering Becca’s question about why she told their mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) first, “Why do you think?” Becca’s best friend Debbie (Julie Lauren) has avoided Becca since the funeral. One day, Becca drives alongside a school bus and spies Jason (a brilliant Miles Teller), the teenager who drove the car that killed Danny, dangerously running a red light herself to keep up with the bus so that she can see where he lives. When the senior member of the support group, Gaby (Sandra Oh), reveals to Howie that her husband has left her, he is tempted to retreat into physical comfort with her.
What Rabbit Hole does so well is individualize each character while covering the spectrum of possibilities that face parents who lose children. The film not only dignifies the plight of those who lose young children, but it also offers sympathy for those whose children are grown. It even shows how someone most of us would say “good riddance” about was once someone’s bright-faced boy or girl, innocent and full of promise. Nat incurs Becca’s wrath when she compares the loss of her son, a 30-year-old junkie who OD’d, to Danny. “He was still my son!” Nat shoots back painfully. Later, Becca will seek her mother’s advice, wondering if the pain ever goes away. “No, but it changes,” Nat answers, “it becomes a brick you carry around in your pocket. And you’re glad it’s there.” This reassures Becca, who was unsettled by Howie’s accusation that she is trying to erase Danny by giving his clothes away, taking his art projects off the refrigerator, wanting to sell the house, and deleting the video from his cellphone—another accident that, tellingly, Howie thinks was deliberate.
Howie doesn’t understand, however, why Becca has been meeting with Jason. The young man is grief-stricken himself about the accident. He tries to express his guilt, saying in an almost comically serious tone that he thinks he might have been driving too fast, “I may have been going 31 or 32, and the speed limit is 30.” The truth is that he swerved to avoid hitting Danny’s beloved dog, and didn’t see Danny running after the dog until it was too late. This kind of second-guessing is familiar to Becca, and to Howie, who wonder if everything would have been all right if they had just done one thing different that awful day. As they see it, they failed in their job as parents to protect their child, but no one can be insulated from every possible danger, though the demand for such certainty seems to be more shrill than ever these days.
I was extremely impressed with all of the performances in this film and the very real family all the principals created. Kidman uses her somewhat self-contained style to great effect here, melting ever so slightly a bit at a time as the film moves into its late stages. Her work with Blanchard creates a very believable dynamic of two sisters, one the golden girl and the other the butt of criticism, who fall easily into judgment and defensiveness. The root of their personalities, and by inference, their druggie brother, is their alcoholic mom. Wiest has never been better, suggesting a crazy coarseness that mingles love and understanding with narcissistic self-pity. Eckhart is convincing as a man who is sensitive, but also can be very stubborn about his wife’s “incorrect” behavior. He doesn’t see his own contradictions very clearly, screaming self-righteously at Jason when he comes into their home during a real estate open house, and then telling Becca after Jason has left to be sure he knows they don’t blame him.
Eventually, Howie and Becca begin to accept their differing ways of grieving, and take some tentative steps toward continuing the lives they had mainly put on hold. Becca calls Debbie and invites her to a small cookout in the backyard. Maybe Howie and Becca will eventually split up just like Gaby and her husband did 8 years after they lost their child. In this life, there are no guarantees. But really, it’s nobody’s fault.
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Director: Robert Redford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most cinephiles believe the voters of the 53rd Academy Awards made a horrible mistake by honoring Ordinary People instead of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull with the Best Picture Oscar. Of course, the long-standing snub of Scorsese wouldn’t be corrected for nearly 30 years, and the idea of honoring Robert Redford, an actor making his directorial debut, with the Best Director Oscar instead of Scorsese is more than a little hard to take. Because of this controversy, Ordinary People has lived in ignominy in the minds of many film enthusiasts. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve this ill treatment. While I would agree that from a cinematic standpoint, Raging Bull’s audacious black-and-white intensity trumps the meat-and-potatoes cinematography conjured in Ordinary People, Redford’s background as an actor gave him the skill to pull some of the finest performances on film from a less-than-elite cast. If I have a complaint about the Academy Awards that year, it’s that Sissy Spacek got the Best Actress Oscar that rightfully belonged to Mary Tyler Moore.
The film opens with a montage showing the natural beauty and material riches of Chicago’s well-heeled North Shore as the ubiquitous theme song of the 80s, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, underscores the refinement of the setting. The camera finally rests on the façade of a prep school and shows us the young men and women who are rehearsing the choral version of the Canon, finally lighting on a young man bellowing a bold “Hallelujah” with the rest of the group. The young man, eyes dark and sunken, is Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton). As he walks distractedly out of practice, a pretty young woman who stands in front of him in the choir, Janine Pratt (Elizabeth McGovern), compliments his singing.
In another scene, Conrad’s parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Moore), are attending a community theatre play. The amateur acting and Neil Simonish script have put Cal into a semicoma, but Beth is alert and enjoying herself. Afterwards, they commiserate with another couple, asking the collective question, “Did we like?” and gossiping about the weight the lead actor has gained. When Beth and Cal return home, Conrad is still awake. His father checks in on him, asking if he’s having trouble sleeping. Conrad lies, “No.” Cal goes to bed and tugs on his wife’s shoulder, her cue to embrace him for sex.
The wealth of this family would seem to set them apart from the people most people would consider ordinary. But we soon learn that though more insulated than most from life’s travails, the Jarretts have suffered a tragedy that shows they are as ordinarily vulnerable as the rest of us. Bucky (Scott Doebler), the oldest of the two Jarrett boys, drowned in a storm that dismasted and capsized the sailboat he and Conrad were piloting on Lake Michigan. Conrad, depressed, grieving, and overcome with guilt, slashed his wrists, and has only recently returned home after several months in a mental hospital. While Cal worries over Conrad, keeping a watchful eye over him and urging him to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) recommended by the hospital, Beth wants to put the whole mess behind her. Beth and Cal clash, first when he rejects their tradition of going out of town for Christmas in favor of Conrad continuing his psychotherapy uninterrupted and then when Cal spills the “secret” that Conrad is in therapy to a friend at a Christmas party. Conrad, for his part, complains that he and his mother don’t connect; he seeks solace with Dr. Berger and Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend he made at the hospital, and cautiously approaches a relationship with Janine. As the Jarretts deal with what happened to them, they discover some home and personal truths and learn what it is they are made of and what that will mean to the rest of their lives.
Timothy Hutton, in his screen debut, exemplifies his character’s containment and emotional bravery at the same time. Watching Conrad try to reach out to those he cares about—the troubled Karen who doesn’t feel the nostalgia he does for the honesty of the hospital, to her grave regret, the sometimes infuriating Berger, the pretty and endearing Janine—is like watching a baby chick peck its way out of its egg. Dinah Manoff is an actress I really love, and she is so much the Jewish Skokie girl she’s supposed to be in this film that I felt a real kinship with her. Judd Hirsch plays the no-nonsense professional who understands what Conrad needs, and despite professional ethics, is willing to declare himself Conrad’s friend. McGovern, another actress I quite like, is a little giddy and precious in this her film debut, but she handles asking Conrad about what it was like to cut his wrists in the kind of honest way that adults tend to shy from. Hutton’s inward-looking answer is a scary and powerful moment. He also has his wry moments, such as when he tells his swimming coach (M. Emmett Walsh, in a wonderfully entertaining performance) that he doesn’t think he’ll ruin his life by quitting the swim team.
Hutton’s moments with Moore, all clumsy and defensive, are searing and memorable. For example, during a Christmas gathering at Beth’s parents’ home, we witness a family picture-taking session that shows up the invisible fence between mother and son. The usual jostling and laughter is interrupted when Cal tries to get a picture of Conrad and Beth. He has a little trouble adjusting the camera settings, building anxiety in Beth. She urges him to take the picture and finally and repeatedly, to give her the camera. The volume of their exchange rises, aided by Redford’s quick cutting back and forth, until Conrad shouts, “Give her the damn camera!” He stalks into a corner as Beth takes the camera from the startled Cal and with an awkward cheeriness, clicks the shutter at her stunned husband. Near the end of the film, after Conrad has made a significant breakthrough in therapy, he welcomes his parents home from a golf trip to Houston, bending down to give Beth a full, prolonged hug. The agonized look on Moore’s face and her collapse of almost physical relief when Conrad lets go and leaves the room are almost too painful to watch.
So what kind of a woman are we dealing with here? I read the Judith Guest novel on which this film is based and saw a caricature of an emotionally frigid woman, unlikeable in every way. But that’s not the woman Moore and Redford give us. Beth is from a family that prides itself on taking care of itself. But clearly, Beth grew up with all the advantages and breeding of her upper-middle-class milieu and didn’t have the occasion to learn how to really take care of herself at a basic level. She was charming and beautiful, married well easily, and effortlessly internalized the few social rules she’d need to sail through a conventional life. She is not so different from the near-aristocratic women in The House of Mirth, but being more provincial, would be loathe to indulge in affairs of the heart. Indeed, she’s frightened of strong emotion, but she is not empty of feeling, not in the least.
This is most evident when Beth and Cal are in Houston. They are having a great time golfing until she suggests they have a strictly golfing vacation, and Cal says Conrad might like that. She blows her top at the mention of her son, saying she is who she is and should not be reproached if she doesn’t go around hugging everyone all the time. The truth is that the only person who has reproached her at that moment is herself, for not wanting Conrad even mentioned. When Cal alludes to the fact that Conrad feels she hates him, she righteously responds, “Mothers don’t hate their sons. Is that what he’s been telling you?” She’s right, of course. She doesn’t hate him. She may be angry that he couldn’t save her beloved older son, but the truth is that he’s a constant reminder of the deep pain with which she has been coping very poorly, and she’s afraid to love him. After all, he did nearly succeed in killing himself. His death would have destroyed her. But not being a truly modern woman of the 80s, she does not respond to the “how do you feel” culture about to blossom like Audrey 2 to gulp down all the stoic throwbacks like Beth.
Calvin is an interesting piece of work that Sutherland mines with that mild Canadian demeanor of his that conceals and reveals so much. On the surface, Cal’s a sensitive man, the proto-metrosexual. It’s hard to discern through all of his caring and inner examination his passive-aggressive attacks on Beth. No longer able to bellow like the man of the house always used to do, he instead constantly brings up Conrad, to Beth’s perceptive comment, “Do you do that deliberately?” He confronts her with the fact that she had him change his shirt on the morning of Bucky’s funeral as evidence that she cared more about his appearance than his feelings. If he really were sensitive, he’d understand that this instruction was a pathetic attempt by Beth to control her own overflowing grief. But he’s no more schooled in handling the hard knocks of life than she is; he’s just a little more up-to-date in realizing they’ve entered the Therapeutic Generation. When he finally assesses her as someone he doesn’t think he can love anymore, he breaks into sobs that, to me, seem as triumphant as they are sad. He can imagine what we see—Beth shaking to pieces at the inner earthquake he’s touched off, a wrenching moment of truth Moore commits to completely.
It doesn’t take much of a man to destroy a woman who has kept her son’s empty room like a chapel into which she can retreat with her feelings of loss. It takes more of a man to join her and try to reach her, as Conrad does one afternoon when he finds her sitting on Bucky’s bed. Ordinary People is far from ordinary or undeserving of honor. It gives us complex, affecting performances from a fine cast. If it has a structural flaw, it’s that we never get an accurate window on Bucky as a person and feel the loss his family and friends do. But we get an absorbing picture of the aftermath and of the changing cultural landscape that makes survival that much more difficult for people like Beth, and that’s quite a lot.
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Director/Screenwriter: Anthony Minghella
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Like the rest of the world, I got the news today that Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella had died at the age of 54 of a cerebral hemorrhage. This highly honored director had a relatively small, but significant, body of work behind him. I remember a film buff I knew saying that his The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) was the most perfect film he had ever seen. Arguable, of course, but that film not only was superbly wrought, but also marked Matt Damon with his defining screen persona.
Mr. Minghella had a big impression on me as well. I was in London the year his first feature directing effort appeared in theatres. I read the reviews of Truly Madly Deeply and tried to persuade my then-husband to come see it with me. Feigning illness, he passed. Fearing the London streets at night—a fatal stabbing had just occurred at a festival in Notting Hill, not far from our hotel—I reluctantly skipped the show. Several years later, I saw a television listing for the film. I couldn’t wait to watch it, and taped it for future re-viewings. I’ve seen it more than once, but not recently. Still, so many of the features of that film are so indelibly marked in my brain that I feel pretty confident about reviewing it mainly from distant memory.
Nina (Juliet Stephenson) works in social services, helping mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants transition to life in England. She is the recent owner of a house that has a rat infestation. She plays the piano at a fairly high level. And she is grieving very, very deeply the loss of the love of her life—Jamie (Alan Rickman), a cellist who died suddenly of a massive internal infection that they both thought was just a simple sore throat. Nina isn’t coping very well. She looks shattered most of the time, and her coworkers are worried about her. She reassures them that she is fine while spurning their offers of help. When Jamie’s sister comes by to claim his cello for her child’s use, Nina wails aggressively, “It’s all I have left of him.” She collapses to the floor, hugging the instrument close.
Home alone one night, she plays the piano, remembering the duets she and Jamie used to enjoy. She senses Jamie—her longing, it must be. When she looks around, Jamie is there in the room. Disoriented, feeling joyful and psychotic at the same time, Nina challenges him. She pushes him in the chest. She does it again. Yes, it’s true, Jamie is back! He talks about the night they first made love. “I was trembling,” says Nina, conveying just how intense their connection had been.
The pair reminisce in the shorthand all couples have and recreate a familiar word contest they used to play:
Nina: I love you.
Jamie: I love you.
Nina: I really love you.
Jamie: I really, truly love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, deeply love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately, remarkably love you.
Nina: I really, truly, madly, deeply, passionately, remarkably, umm… deliciously love you.
Jamie: I really, truly, madly, passionately, remarkably, deliciously… juicily love you.
Nina: Deeply! Deeply! You passed on deeply, which was your word, which means you couldn’t have meant it! So you’re a fraud, that’s it!
Of course, Jamie isn’t exactly back, even though he is a solid entity. He is indeed a spirit. He’s cold all the time. When he climbs into bed with Nina, she must pile blankets on top to keep him warm. But she’s overjoyed that he’s around, though she can tell no one about why her mood has suddenly improved. As an added bonus, the rats vacate her property, scared off by the ghost.
Gradually, however, Jamie’s presence becomes problematic. He starts inviting his friends from the afterlife to move into Nina’s house. To make more room for them, he starts moving her furniture and rolling up her carpets. The spirits like to watch movies all day and night and commandeer her VCR. They spend most of their time arguing about movies (including Fitzcarraldo!), and Nina starts to feel put upon and left out. When Jamie questions whether she wants them there, she clings to him and insists she wants him with her always.
A man named Mark (Michael Maloney) has spied Nina in a coffee shop they both frequent. One day, he gets up the nerve to approach her. She puts him off initially, but he is persistent. She tries to brush him off on a Thames-side walkway, but he hops on one leg next to her telling her as many essentials about himself as he can. He forces her to do the same. Yes, he’s got her attention. She moves toward him and away from him so many times, however, that he finally concludes that she must be living with someone. At this moment, Nina finally seems to reach out. She says, “I loved someone very much. Very much. But he died.” She breaks down but continues to reach out.
Back at home, Nina has to break the news to Jamie. He realizes that he and his friends have to go. We are reminded of something he said to her when he first came back: “Thank you … for missing me.” In the morning, Nina finds a rat. She calls Jamie’s sister and gives her the cello. Later, she also agrees to go home with Mark. They are speeding toward his flat when she yells, “Stop the car!” She jumps out, with an impatient to bursting Mark fuming in the driver’s seat, waiting for her. After a few moments, she gets back in, holds her hand up, and says “Toothbrush.” Their mutual smiles are the crown on the movie.
This film introduced me to the powerful talent of Juliet Stephenson and the alluring sexiness of Alan Rickman. Stephenson commits so completely to this role that it is actually painful to watch her. The supporting cast is just as human as she is, projecting concern, exasperation, and the “come on, snap out of it” impatience that surround many grieving people. We can understand how losing one’s soul mate in the prime of life would be more devastating than other losses and how hard it would be to even get up in the morning and shower. With the clever ghost story, we also learn that letting grief take over can make you a stranger in your own life.
The strong script by Minghella was helped mightily by his strong direction. I’m sad we’ll never get another film from this talented writer/director, but I will truly, madly, deeply love this film forever.
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Director: Atom Egoyan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Everybody knows that you’re in trouble/
Everybody knows what you’ve been through/
From the bloody cross on top of calvary/
To the beach of Malibu/
Everybody knows it’s coming apart/
Take one last look at this sacred heart/
Before it blows/
And everybody knows.
—”Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen
Grief is an emotion that many people find unbearable—unbearable to feel and unbearable to observe. Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director of Armenian ancestry, has an ethnic heritage of grief over the slaughter of 1 million of his Armenian brethren by their Turkish conquerors that seems to have informed his film explorations. The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat deal indirectly and directly with tragedy and its attendant guilt. Similarly, Exotica explores the amorphous boundaries of grief, weaving a web of connections and disconnections that brings its main characters face to face with their own illusions.
The film opens on an illusion—a two-way mirror through which customs guards observe passengers at Toronto’s airport and the guards who go through their bags. One passenger, Thomas (Don McKellar), moves directly to the mirror, seeming to examine himself, but perhaps aware that he is being examined. A customs officer being coached in how to observe (Calvin Green) moves forward, coming nearly nose to nose with Thomas, prevented from touching him only by the trick pane of glass. This motif of illusion, concealment, and barriers will play itself out not only in Thomas’ story, but also in the film’s central story.
That story’s crucible is Exotica—a gentleman’s club that trafficks in fantasy. Exotic dancers perform various types of fantasies for the audience, and for just $5 more, they will bring those fantasies to the privacy of a client’s table. Christina (Mia Kirshner), a dark-haired young woman who dances in schoolgirl clothes to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is the particular favorite of Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who comes to the club every other night and pays to have her dance at his table or just talk. The two are watched jealously by Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s DJ/MC and Christina’s ex-lover. Artificial caverns run behind the client booths with two-way mirrors that Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s owner, uses to watch for inappropriate behavior, specifically clients who touch the dancers. Eric frequently sits behind Francis’ table when Christina is there, watching and seething at their special relationship.
Through the use of flashback, we learn that Francis has suffered a tragic loss. His beloved daughter was murdered, and his wife died in a car crash a few weeks later, a possible suicide. Francis was implicated in the murder, but never charged. He keeps his grief in check by carrying on an illusion of normalcy. On the nights he goes to Exotica, he brings Tracey (Sarah Polley), his daughter’s babysitter, to his house where she practices on his piano, then brings her home and pays her. Tracey, disturbed by this arrangement, asks her father (Victor Garber), an old friend of Francis’, if she can stop going. “There’s no baby to sit.”
Christina, Eric, and Francis have a creepy connection as well. Eric and Christina met while on the massive search for Francis’ daughter. Christina, too, babysat for his daughter and gained consolation from him for the lack of warmth shown her by her own family. There can be no doubt that Eric finds this eroticized father-daughter type of relationship unhealthy, possibly dangerous, and this feeling and his own jealousy cause him to drive a wedge between the pair.
Thomas enters this web when Francis comes to audit the records of his pet shop and blackmails him into trying to mend the rift with Christina and the Exotica management. Thomas, it seems, has been smuggling the eggs of exotic species of birds into the country. A method he stumbled upon to pick up men snags him, unwittingly, the customs guard who observed him so closely at the airport. After a night of sex, Thomas awakens to find the eggs have vanished.
Exotica weaves coincidence into meaning, reality into illusion and back to reality again. We become aware of the hurts each character in this film has suffered, but we also learn that we can’t trust anyone too far. Eric loves Christina, but he destroys a relationship that was special to her and then seems to take her place as Francis’ consoler. Thomas rejects one man who might have been good for him, but invites the wrong one home. And then there is Francis himself. He doesn’t seem as though he could harm his daughter, but his wife’s suspicious death and his visits to the Exotica cause us to wonder more than we should. Egoyan not only has dealt with dead children before, but also incest.
Exotica is an elliptical, but nonetheless, schematic film that some may not find satisfying. I like the atmosphere it creates; the suggestion that we can find what we need, at least for a time; and its linking of sex with death. These potentially dark elements of human experience carry a charge that many filmmakers have explored, but I can think of few who have done so with such sympathy, lack of judgment, and intrigue. l