4th 12 - 2016 | no comment »

Christine (2016)

Director: Antonio Campos

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a reporter at a small TV station in Sarasota, Fla., became a national news story when she shot herself on camera. I was in college at the time and must have heard about her suicide, yet I have no memory of it, and despite its purported influence on Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Chubbuck’s story has all but faded away. Strange then, that in 2016, we have not one, but two movies about her. Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about Kate Lyn Shiel preparing to play Chubbuck in an unspecified production, continues its writer/director Robert Greene’s fascination with people who play roles (e.g., Actress [2014], about a housewife planning to return to acting, and Fake It So Real [2011], about pro wrestling). Christine, the film under consideration here, is a fictionalized version of the last couple of weeks of her life.

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Christine was an attractive, intelligent, ambitious woman with a seriousness of purpose about her profession and a history of chronic, sometimes acute, depression. She died just before her 30th birthday, still a virgin whose chances of having much-wanted children of her own were dimmed by the loss of a cystic ovary and her seeming inability to get a date, let alone form a lasting relationship with a man. Thwarted in love, dismayed by the trend toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism, her live-broadcasted suicide was, as she said when she “signed off,” “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.”

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Christine, like its subject, seems oddly subdued and awkward, a slice of a life that has no real drama to it until Christine’s final act. Straight-laced Christine argues with her live-in mother, Peg (J. Smith Cameron), whom she scornfully calls a hippie for smoking dope, mooching off her, and bringing home men. Christine argues with her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her public affairs pieces and favoring sensationalism and her pretty coworker, Andrea (Kim Shaw), for on-camera assignments. Christine turns down offers to hang out from her best friend at the station, Jean (Maria Dizzia), and Steve (Timothy Simons), the weatherman. Christine interviews a strawberry grower and hosts a chicken breeder on her show, “Suncoast Digest.”

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True to Christine’s dedication to serious news, the film eschews sensationalism in favor of helping us get under the skin of a troubled woman through the accumulation of detail in a way that doesn’t condescend to her or turn her into a caricature. The immersive performance of Rebecca Hall, whose Christine is physically gawky and emotionally guileless, withdrawn, and argumentative all at once, is, of course, key to the success of the film. Her Christine monitors her movements on camera for ways to improve. She buys a police scanner so she can get the sensational stories Michael wants, but when she gets a hot lead, films the owner of a home destroyed by fire instead of capturing the blaze itself. She just doesn’t seem to understand her visual medium, nor the cues she gets from others that could help her achieve her personal and professional goals. In sweet, but sad scenes, Christine writes and presents puppet shows at a children’s hospital that teach children life lessons that she herself seems to be discovering along with them. If not magnetic and compelling, at least she is painfully real.

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Hall gets extraordinary support from the rest of the cast. Tracy Letts does nothing to hide Michael’s contempt for Christine, making her repeated confrontations and attempts to sell him on her ideas wince-inducing acts of courage. Her crush on George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman, seems to be rewarded one night when he suggests they go out for dinner, that is, until he maneuvers her into a group transactional analysis (TA) meeting. Even small parts that would be throwaways in other films, like Peg’s boyfriend, Mitch (Jayson Warner Smith), add substance to how Christine is perceived.

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The period costuming by Emma Potter and set design by Jess Royal couldn’t be better, recreating a context for the action without seeming to gawk at its otherness; if these women don’t each garner an Oscar nomination for their work on this film, they will have been seriously robbed. The script, contrary to director Campos’ assertion in an interview that it is very accurate, gets everything about TA wrong—screenwriter Craig Shilowich seems to have confused it with EST or deliberately misrepresented games theory to create some deadpan comedy as Christine is encouraged to, rather than discouraged from, playing “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” I also think it would have helped if the real Christine’s interviews with the police about suicide were dramatized rather than have her investigate a somewhat seedy dealer of guns, a slightly political angle that I felt was misleading.

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What motivated director Antonio Campos (Afterschool [2008], Simon Killer [2012]) to make the film, he says, is that he liked the script Shilowich wrote and thought Christine as a character was interesting. Campos has been quoted as saying, “I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.” Now I can’t say for sure that Campos thought of Christine as a monster, but I certainly don’t. Her sad life is not really a byproduct of existential angst, but rather the result of an illness that left her overwhelmingly vulnerable to the hard knocks life metes out to us all.

I’ve grappled with why Chubbuck’s story is resonating at the moment, and I really don’t have an answer. Christine was a woman who, like many of us, couldn’t have it all, but was told by commercials and media that she could, and should. The film ends with Jean sitting at home doing what she told Christine she always does when she’s down—eating ice cream and singing along to whatever song is on the TV or radio. The song?


6th 11 - 2013 | 11 comments »

The Past (Le Passé, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

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By Roderick Heath

Asghar Farhadi, since his critical breakthrough with About Elly (2009) and the international success of A Separation (2011), seems to embody several arresting contradictions. He’s an Iranian filmmaker, and like many of the captivating talents that country has produced in the past few decades, the restrictions placed on what artists can depict only seem to have liberated a deeper fount of creativity. He’s a more convincingly sophisticated artist of the interpersonal drama than just about any western filmmaker to emerge in recent years, acute to the rhythms and quirks of contemporary life and morals. But his methods avoid the deadweight reflexes of too much modern pseud drama and cinema. His work has some similarities to that now-common brand of realist filmmaking best exemplified by the likes of the Dardennes brothers, but really seems to harken back more to the theatrical traditions of major 19th century playwrights like Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov and the dense, morally and psychologically interrogative efforts of European film greats like Ingmar Bergman’s early, more domestically focused works and aspects of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson’s oeuvres. Whilst not as cinematically vivid as Bergman or as stringent as Bresson, Farhadi creates, like them, vivid, exactingly wrought tales of interpersonal crisis and conflict with a discreet sense of social context. Farhadi’s filmmaking is sleek and functional, but not in an impersonal fashion: there’s a tautness and concision to his framings and camerawork, a sense of space and the largesse of the screen, which feels organic, even epic.

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The Past, his latest film, shifts ground insofar as it’s a French film, set in Paris, though it does deal with Iranian émigrés, with a subtle undertow in the dramatic flow stemming from the dissonance of displacement and estrangement. The search for exact truth in A Separation and The Past is both the aim of the characters and an impossibility because the viewpoints keep shifting. Motivations that make perfect sense to one might be incomprehensible to another. Experience and truth spread out in interlapping but distinct ripples from the actions of each character.

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Farhadi kicks off with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at a Paris airport where he’s met by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo): she spies him through a pane of glass separating the incoming passengers and they communicate amusedly via signs and mouthed words. This proves to be the easiest, most relaxed act of communication in the film, because once the glass is gone, discomforting familiarity begins to creep in. The two make a mad dash through the rain in almost romantic fashion, but then they’re locked in a small, breathless, steamy car together. It becomes clear that Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to give Marie a divorce after several years of separation. Marie stops by a high school en route to pick up eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), but she’s already fled, as has been her recent habit. Entering the yard of Marie’s sizeable old townhouse, Ahmad is recognised by one of the children playing in the yard, Léa (Jeanne Jestin), but not the other, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the son of Marie’s current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad arrives apparently oblivious to Marie’s current situation and is bewildered because she’s neglected to book him a hotel room. She says she held off with the booking because the last time he planned to come, he failed to show.

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Marie tries to billet him in a bunk bed with Fouad, but Fouad throws a tantrum and tries to flee the house for his and his father’s apartment. An infuriated Marie drags him back and locks him in a parlour. The camera takes Ahmad’s place as accidental eavesdropper as Marie’s struggle with Fouad, staged and shot from a high window as a half-comic, half-alarming Coyote and Road Runner chase about the back yard. Soon, the tension underlying the strained attempts at civility and modern cool about the odd family situation proves to have deeper sources, and the sense that some explosion is inevitable builds as Ahmad comes to realise what’s going on. One of Farhadi’s most fundamental observational and dramatic elements here is also one of the more problematic aspects of his film: the family under study here is complicated, with about one layer too many for use. Neither Lucie nor Léa are Ahmad’s children, but the product of yet another of Marie’s ill-fated unions: their father lives in Brussels. But this difficulty is part of Farhadi’s point, that today, many families are indeed such fluid, ad hoc, but perversely binding creations, easy to leave but impossible to escape.

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Farhadi’s observational streak is in marvellous form in these scenes: Ahmad and Marie trying to dry themselves with tissues in the car; the blob of spilt paint that drives Marie into a rage with Fouad, and Fouad’s hostile, but curious first handshake with Ahmad; Ahmad dutifully taking a blow dryer to Marie’s hair after they arrive home; Ahmad’s quizzicality and Fouad’s fury as they try to make up the bunk-bed they share, each aware to a degree that they’re extraneous males in the house and somehow, intentionally or not, they’ve been put together for that reason; Fouad viciously stabbing at corncobs in reactive irritation when helping Ahmad prepare dinner until he cuts himself; the few seconds it takes Léa to recognise her stepfather, whom she then calls by his first name but with genuine affection, revealing much about his parental status. Lucie, when she does finally show up, takes refuge in her bedroom, but Ahmad is able to communicate with her, especially when he takes her to visit his friend, Shahryar (Babak Karimi), another expat who runs a café, providing memories of happier times. Meanwhile, Samir sits in the paternal position at the table, but with distinct unease: Lucie won’t speak to him, and he distractedly tries to observe how Marie acts with Ahmad, peering out at them as he tries to paint a room.

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Samir runs an inner-city dry cleaners, and, it emerges, he still has a wife, albeit one who’s in a coma she will probably never come out of. Her state is the result of depression-fueled suicide attempt in front of Samir’s assistant, Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), an illegal immigrant. That malady and suicidal thoughts have also dogged Ahmad, as his inability to adjust to life in France destroyed his marriage to Marie, but he generally seems pleasant and intelligent. Soon, however, he is placed under strange pressures that rub his patience raw, as Marie asks him to speak to Lucie and find out why she’s been difficult recently. Ahmad solicitously interviews Lucie and is satisfied at first with Lucie’s explanation that she doesn’t want her mother to get married again, especially to a man Lucie dislikes.

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A delicate equilibrium forms in Marie’s house as Ahmad plays house-husband, cooking meals and trying to fix a faulty sink, a task which Samir takes over after Ahmad seems to have effortlessly stitched himself into the fabric of the place, even proving skilled at drawing Fouad out of his funk. Samir’s stern approach to fathering contrasts Ahmad’s ability to create a rapport with the kids: after Fouad and Léa pinch one of Ahmad’s gifts for the family from his suitcase, Samir puts Fouad through an interrogation where he forces the lad to meet his eyes and doesn’t want to let the kids get away with apologising because that would teach them all they have to do is say they’re sorry to be absolved. This seemingly throwaway moment proves to be the film’s main thesis, as Farhadi examines the way people try to mollify others with civilities, but nonetheless take actions that incur genuine consequences.

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The younger characters contrast the older ones. Marie, in particular, tries to discard the past before it strangles her chances for happiness, whereas the children try to cling to their pasts, the things they know. Fouad deals with alienation and changes with bratty aggression, whilst Lucie plays adult games and is shocked at the real, awful consequences that occur. Farhadi’s fascination for watching ambiguities in a situation proliferate until all viewpoints seem to cancel each other out recalls Otto Preminger’s, and, indeed, aspects of the story resemble Bonjour Tristesse (1958), particularly in the theme of a teen girl trying to thwart a parent’s love affair, and standing back in shock at the results. Lucie’s angst, it emerges, stems from her distaste for Marie and Samir’s relationship, a distaste that proves much deeper and more significant than mere adolescent resentment. Lucie almost desperately explains to Ahmad that Marie’s remarriage would mean she would lose her old home, the one they shared with Ahmad, forever, and later furiously informs Ahmad, “You know why she went to that filthy man? Because he reminded her of you.” Lucie’s observation here seems coldly accurate on at least one level, as Samir certainly suggests Ahmad Mark II, less interesting and talented as a family man, but more reassuringly mundane and workaday.

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Marie works as a chemist around the corner from Samir’s laundry, and they seem nicely in synch as sleek, fit, moderately successful worker bees. One of Farhadi’s most succinct shots offers a trio of fancy lampshades for redecorating the house, signifying their hope for the future and also their status as bourgeois clichés in their fetishism of faux-antique security. They move like people who know the score and carry a faint aura of both longing and old hurt in their manners. Marie and Samir’s desire to get on with life together and cast off old baggage has a wilful quality with a vaguely psychopathic note, which they themselves have noticed and which haunts their every motion. This note turns out to have predated the tragedy of Samir’s wife: they started an affair before the suicide attempt, when Marie was lonely and Samir stopped by the chemist’s for his wife’s antidepressants. Ahmad and Samir’s wife (like Marie, she’s “French”) share maladies, as both are depressives who are written off as deadweight by their functional spouses, wrong choices who don’t fit with the program.

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Farhadi’s major conceit in telling this story lies in how he moves distinctly between four characters as focal point, from Ahmad to Lucie to Marie to Samir, with Samir scarcely making an impression in the first half-hour as the perspective belongs to Ahmad; by the end, Ahmad has more or less vanished, written out of the drama as he becomes irrelevant to the new marital quandary. The kitchen of Marie’s house becomes shifting territory in domestic war. The film’s middle act is, in its dramatic structure, a little like one of those slapstick comedy gags where characters dart in and out of a long corridor, disappearing and reappearing in increasingly tangled and improbable places and patterns, as Lucie vanishes, forcing the others to hunt for her. Tempers boil, old wounds open, resentments arise, tiny physical and emotional cues spark heated reactions, and in trying to deal with the problem they chase their own tails.

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Eventually, the real root of the drama is revealed as Lucie confesses that she believes Marie and Samir’s affair caused the attempted suicide of Samir’s wife. Ahmad tries to assuage her fears by having her talk to Naïma, whose account of the day puts the tragic turn down to altercations with a client. But, both Lucie and Naïma have secrets involving that day. Lucie confesses hers first: she logged on to Marie’s computer and forwarded to Samir’s wife the emails Marie and Samir had been writing to each other. The notion of verboten love letters resting at the heart of a familial melodrama is given a cunning modern makeover by this device, as the email medium’s rapidity has removed the safeguards of time from the heat of immediate strong feeling, which I’m sure we’re familiar with now—the “I shouldn’t have done that” moment where technology has allowed emotion to outpace good sense. Indeed, the ambiguity of such communication has already been touched on, as Marie and Ahmad bicker about whether she really sent him messages that would have forestalled the accommodation problems he’s faced with on his arrival. Ahmad’s attempt to mediate Marie’s discovery of Lucie’s awful, guilty act and make sure the rupture is stemmed results only in an ugly explosion of rage and grief, as Marie assaults her daughter in the kitchen, screaming with telling outrage, “How could you do this to me?” The film has obviously been building up to such an eruption, though Farhadi delays it cleverly. The hot flare of Marie’s anger doesn’t last long, and she calls her forlorn daughter back from the railway station as she prepares to take her leave, perhaps the film’s finest recognition of the way powerful emotions alternate and feed each other in family conflicts, the rapid successions of egocentric rage and abject forgiveness.

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Lucie’s confession seems to offer a cut-and-dried confirmation of the anxiety behind Marie and Samir’s relationship, the one that constantly threatens to cleave them apart in guilt and shame, already apparent in the simple act of trying to hold hands, but it soon proves even more complex. Naïma proves to have played a part, too, as she provided another link in the chain that might have brought the adulterous messages to the wife’s attention as a petty revenge for suspicions that she and Samir were having the affair. When the investigations to nail down the truth lead Samir to his employee, he angrily ejects her from his life and her job. But the onus of causative guilt can’t be shifted so easily onto Naïma’s act of hapless spite, for, as she retorts to Samir, she still can’t understand why Samir’s wife staged her act in front of her instead of him or Marie. Naïma, like Sareh Bayat’s Razieh in A Separation, becomes a figure the other characters try to turn into a villain for her genuine act of wrongdoing, but with obnoxious readiness on their part to offload their own guilt whilst disregarding the anxiety and difficult position that caused the wrong in the first place. The point is plain, but thankfully not forced down our throats: as much as the characters want one, there is no easy moral out for anyone. Farhadi is obviously staging a merciless gag at the expense of the modern faith in “closure,” the idea that a ritualised conclusion for something will sever past from future and remake you. “I didn’t want you to be in torment for the rest of your life!” Ahmad explains to Lucie, a sobbing, fleeing mess after being ejected by Marie. “I’m not now?” a beggared Marie retorts.

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The Past, from its title inward, notes that human character is the sum of its accumulated experiences rather than a free-floating entity, and by definition, therefore, the past cannot be left behind. On the most literal and humdrum level here, this is apparent in the complex mesh of affection and enmity, hope and disappointment that exists between Ahmad and Marie and the children, with Samir as ambiguous new spoke on the wheel and the body of Samir’s wife, paralysed, probably brain-dead, voiceless and powerless, but doggedly clinging to life with tormenting ambiguity. Farhadi, who’s already taken aim at the byzantine, unforgiving qualities of his homeland’s mix of theocracy and bureaucracy in civil life, explores this new realm on the microcosmic level, wringing out each character’s attitude to their own lives past and future, but with overtones that could also be cultural and political. Just as western bourgeois family life is predicated today around an unstable binary ideal of personal liberty that can, on the basic levels of society, both bind and damage individuals and those close to them, so, too, are western bourgeois politics based on a sharklike need for forward movement, a carefully fostered rejection of the past.

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Indeed, the family under study here quickly comes to resemble modern geopolitics. There are proliferating ghosts of past wrongs with accompanying guilt complexes, accumulating dependents, self-righteous busy bodies, emotional and physical emigrants, and bewildered holders of dual citizenship: Ahmad’s status as a man not at home in France, but solitary in Iran correlates to Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty about three different, equal variations of her “family.” There are makeshift states, acts of terrorism, invasions, and even moments of peace and amity. Farhadi is not a political filmmaker, at least not in the didactic sense, or even a maker of parables, but his observations of human behaviour on a small scale are relevant to the larger. The theatrical sensibility Farhadi brings to his material is more noticeable here than with A Separation. If it seems to be a slightly lesser achievement, it might well stem from the lack of the overarching tension the earlier film sustained about the contentious relationship of the individual to the state. Farhadi was able to string out elaborate narrative pressures and concurrent emotional volatility in his characters from very simple acts because of that contention, whereas in transferring his methodology to a French setting, he needs to up the stakes to shake up his characters to the same degree: instead of an irritable shove now, the story linchpin is an attempted suicide. The more melodramatic quality is apparent.

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Yet Farhadi’s fondness for devices that put his characters under pressures greater than usual is one of his strongest traits as an artist and puts him most directly in contact with the great realists and naturalists of European literature: Dostoevsky, of course, meditated on psychological and metaphysical matters, but usually got to them through the stuff of pulp, like money and murder. There’s a sharpness and urgency to the drama, a sense of danger to the characters beyond a haze of mere middle-class moping, a precise sense of the forces that push ordinary people into zones of behaviour and consequence beyond what they can handle, but without needing to introduce spies or serial killers. But Farhadi’s method actually feels to close to Alfred Hitchcock’s, as odd as that sounds, particularly works like Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1949), which have strikingly similar story elements and emotional resonances, only contextualised differently. And whilst The Past has some elements in common with the mainstream Hollywood drama The Descendants (2011), what distinguishes Farhadi’s work is the rigour of his writing in achieving an attitude that too many would-be serious filmmakers fail to achieve, which is to be both dramatically involving and successfully ambivalent at the same time. Farhadi’s casting and handling of the actors is superlative. Bejo couldn’t have asked for a more vivid contrast to her role in The Artist (2011) as a follow-up. But Farhadi also gets great performances out of young Aguis, as well as Burlet, who embodies Lucie with a refreshing lack of the kind of pouty insouciance with which such teenage girls are usually portrayed.

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Finally, Farhadi suggests, life probably demands a capacity to simply push forward regardless, a capacity that is usually regarded as a heroic trait, and yet here is interrogated ruthlessly. Marie certainly believes so, for as Ahmad makes a last attempt to explain his leaving, she cuts him off: “It’s not important…I don’t want to go back into the past.” This moment bespeaks a certain amount of exhaustion after too many confessions and dredged-up pains have tortured Marie, who, carrying Samir’s child, is feeling the baby quite literally feeding off her body—she aches in her bones from leached calcium—and must, at some point, focus entirely on this next act of her life. But it also suggests nobody’s really learnt anything, except that perhaps moving on is an act of will. The final sequence show the inevitable limitations, as Samir visits the hospital where doctors have been trying the last of many tests—response to familiar perfumes—to determine if his wife is brain dead. This leaves us with the simultaneously poignant and pathetic last images of Samir bend over her prone form, using the scents of the past to try to prompt some sign of life in a moment of manifold needs, not least of which is the need to relieve the burden of uncertainty that hangs over him, but also to heal, to gain forgiveness, to restore, ironically, to bring back the past in order to remake the future, clasping a motionless hand in hope of a sign.


9th 03 - 2010 | 14 comments »

Ordinary People (1980)

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.

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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.


7th 02 - 2009 | 17 comments »

The Bridge (2006)

Producer/Director: Eric Steel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I read the synopsis of The Bridge in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival program guide, I experienced an instant revulsion. “More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world,” it said. There would be actual footage of people jumping into the swift, deep waters below. The hubby went to see it. I did not. Yet, yesterday, when it showed up on IFC, I found myself sampling it, then really watching it—all the way to the bitter end.

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My reluctance had to do with wanting to respect the privacy I think a person’s last moments deserve, as well as a sensitivity because I have had a suicide in my family that was very traumatic for me. I am also aware of feeling a certain distaste for the ghoulish aspects of capturing an actual suicide on film, while at the same time finding such footage riveting. It’s like slowing down on the road to look at a crashed car; something in us wants to have an encounter with death. Maybe we really do have a death instinct, as Freud suggested. There is no doubt that as surely as we are given life, that life will end, and we have the dubious advantage of knowing this inevitable fact. Most of us contemplate death, try to understand it and come to terms with our own mortality. Some of us have suicidal thoughts in times of desperation. Most of us want to live, fight to live when death is near. How is it that people—many of them in the prime of life—choose, finally, to give up that fight? And why do so many of them choose to do it in broad daylight on a very populated bridge?

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Producer/director Eric Steel was inspired to make this film after reading Tad Friend’s The New Yorker article, “Jumpers.” He lied to the Bridge District authorities about the purpose of his project—supposedly to capture stock footage of one of the great wonders of the world—and spent all of 2004 filming the bridge. He set up fixed cameras on either side of the bridge for panoramic views and used DV handheld cameras with telephoto lenses to film activity on the bridge. Film crews were equipped with cellphones that had the Bridge Patrol number entered into speed dial. Whenever they observed the warning signs described in Friend’s article that someone might be ready to jump, they hit that speed dial. Some people were saved this way, but some people moved too swiftly or defied their powers of detection. A total of 24 people made the jump: 23 were captured on film.

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The Golden Gate Bridge is a mesmerizing sight at any time, its seemingly delicate lines contrasted with strong vertical towers, and set in a breathtaking natural landscape. When the frequent fogs that visit San Francisco roll in, the bridge seems to float like a heavenly structure in Mount Olympus. There is a romance to the bridge; indeed, San Francisco is considered one of the most romantic destinations in the United States and is a favorite among honeymooners. Thousands of tourists and residents alike walk the bridge each year, admiring its marvelous form and gazing out to the surrounding vistas of water and hillsides. It is not farfetched to believe that jumpers choose the bridge because of the physical beauty that will be their last sight, the desire to make their deaths somewhat poetic, and, of course, the knowledge that their suicide attempt will almost certainly succeed.

The idea of the romance of the bridge fills a friend of a jumper nicknamed Ruby with rage. Photographed in an identity-protecting shadow, she speaks through tears of her attempts to help her severely depressed friend cope. She speaks of giving him some antidepressants she couldn’t finish taking because they kept her awake. Expressing a thought she finds shameful and that she clearly has obsessed about in the months following Ruby’s death, she says she didn’t want anyone to find her name on the prescription bottle if they came snooping around his apartment—already she feels his death may be inevitable—and she therefore put the pills in a plain, white envelope. She speaks of her last night with Ruby, an outing to a movie during which he sobbed uncontrollably; a conversation about suicide and his various options, which she tried logically to dismiss as “being unfair to the landlord” and other subterfuges; and finally, a refusal to let him come home with her to talk in order to respect his space and his free will as an adult. This “respect” will haunt her the rest of her life, and she vows she will never do it again if a similar situation should face her.

An extremely poignant interview, held in full view for the cameras, is of a couple talking about the suicide of their son. They are plain-spoken about his difficulties and the events on the day of his death. Their words and voices are calm, but they look stunned, like deer caught in headlights. The mother wonders what she did to make him so unhappy, repeating the wrong and misogynistic notion that mothers are to blame for their children’s unhappiness. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her.

Various survivors express anger, exasperation at the “cry wolf” aspects of their friends’ frequent and lifelong threats, and helplessness. One woman, aware of the enormous pain her loved one was in, admonished him to promise to say good-bye and to put her name and phone number in a plastic bag and carry it on his person so that she would at least know what had happened. Others, remembering how their friend was always upbeat and the life of the party, mused that if it could happen to him, it could happen to just about anyone.

One miracle man who survived his jump talked about his mental instability and about his attempt. He said he stood on the bridge for some time, crying uncontrollably. Some people stopped to see if he was all right, but most walked by without a word, which he might have perceived as uncaring but probably stemmed more from embarrassment and a desire not to intrude. The last straw for him was a woman with an accent, “German, I think,” asking him to take her picture. He did, and thinking about how she hadn’t even noticed his tears, thought “nobody cares” and jumped. This is the kind of impulsiveness that often causes an ill person to attempt suicide even when he or she may still feel uncertain. “As soon as I let go, I knew I didn’t want to die.” He talked about what he thought might save him—going in feet first. In the four seconds it took for him to hit the water, he turned and landed in a half-sitting position. He shattered two lower vertebrae, but the bone fragments missed his heart. He now has to stick to a rigid routine of meds, meals, and sleep. “It’s a hard life for a 24 year old,” his father says.

This survivor provides a valuable window into what “happened” to these sad people—mental illness. Seriously suicidal people are physically ill—very ill. They can’t just snap out of it. They frequently become marginal individuals, unable to sustain loving relationships, hold down a job, or perform day-to-day tasks. As one jumper wrote (and we see the actual scribblings), “I was voted ‘most likely to success.’ What the fuck happened?” and “I’m a fuck-up. I’m a loser.” I used to see people like him on my bus ride home from work loitering outside of nursing homes and halfway houses, a somewhat scary-looking lot who actually didn’t do much of anything, let alone harm anyone. They are the people who well-meaning, but misguided liberals concerned about individual rights had released from these community institutions to mainstream into society during the 1970s. They’re the people the insurance companies had refused for decades to insure and that mentally well individuals scorn, apparently not viewing one’s brain as a part of one’s body. Lacking the funds for proper treatment, many self-medicate with alcohol or cheap drugs like crack cocaine.

The pain of the surviving families is difficult to watch. But it is the actual, filmed suicides that are so hypnotic and haunting. We see one man in a gray sweatsuit and white running shoes pace energetically, talking animatedly on his cellphone. Before you know it, he has climbed up and sat down on the wide rail, crossed himself, and let go. Another man bolts quickly over the rail and runs off the side, as though he didn’t want to think about it in case he might change his mind. One woman climbs down onto a platform. A man with a camera starts photographing her, aware that she’s probably going to jump but distanced from her by the camera. He compares his actions to what war photographers go through, witnessing horror but somehow unable to intervene. Fortunately he “woke up.” Steel’s cameras capture him reaching over the rail, grabbing the slightly built woman by her hoody, and dragging her back to safety and the waiting Bridge Patrol vehicle.

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Cut in throughout the film is a man with beautiful, waist-length, black hair blowing in the wind as he walks up and back across the span. He stops frequently, gazes out, lays his hands on the rail. The crew said he looked like someone just appreciating the beauty of the bridge and the scenery. He got off the bridge at one point and sat in a park at one end. The film crew was completely fooled. We, however, watch this man, fairly certain that he will jump because he’s in the film. I found myself both waiting expectantly for it to happen and dreading it. When he finally does it, the image is as beautiful and haunting as the bridge itself, a perfect symbol for the lost souls who fly to their doom.

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The deadly seduction of the bridge affects not only the jumpers but, apparently, the Bridge District as well. For years they have fought putting up a suicide barrier, though they have set up barriers to prevent head-on collisions and pedestrian traffic accidents. These, according to Steel, were almost nonexistent problems before the barriers were erected. By contrast, an average of 20 people a year jump to their deaths from the easily breachable bridge. Why is the Bridge District so recalcitrant about suicide barriers? Cost was mentioned, but the other barriers cost as much to erect. I think it has to do with not wanting to mar the aesthetics of the bridge. Announcement that The Bridge was going to screen in several cities finally forced the Bridge District to get serious about doing a feasibility study, but it may still be years before barriers go up.

The Bridge takes a brutally unblinking look at suicide and the plight of the mentally ill that our society must grapple with. The beautiful shooting by San Francisco DP Peter McCandless and the sensitive direction of Steel make this the perfect vehicle for beginning this conversation.

The official website for The Bridge contains much useful information. I recommend a visit.


15th 10 - 2007 | no comment »

Wolfsbergen (2007)

Director: Nanouk Leopold

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I really want to be fair to Wolfsbergen. I saw it late last night after viewing the superb 1983 Charles Burnett feature My Brother’s Wedding (more on that in another review). I’ve been fighting a cold, and my throat was sore. The film started about 15 minutes late. It was Sunday night, and I had work the next day. These are circumstances that don’t lend themselves too well to slow, nearly wordless expositions on the meaning of life, which is sort of what Wolfsbergen seems to want to be. OK, so now you know my backstory, so to speak. I still don’t like this movie.

Wolfsbergen focuses on a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family with an unusual problem—the patriarch of the family, Konraad (Piet Kamerman), in the throes of grief over the death of his wife Lara, intends to commit suicide at the end of the summer. He announces his decision in letters sent to his immediate family: his middle-aged daughter Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) and her husband Ernst (Jan Decleir); granddaughter Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) who is married to Onno (Fedja van Huêt), has two daughters, Haas (Merel van Houts) and Zilver (Carmen Lith), and is having an affair with Micha (Oscar van Wounsel); and his other granddaughter Eva (Karina Smulders), whose letter he actually never posts.

Wolfsbergen%201.jpgMaria reads her letter on a plane she is taking to a European Union conference in a French-speaking country, maybe Belgium. She reacts to the news by going to a doctor and having her thighs liposuctioned and then refusing to let her husband see her body when she comes back home. Sabine won’t talk to Onno about it; she prefers to visit Micha. Eva cries a lot, just on general principle it seems, since she doesn’t know about her grandfather’s plan. Rejected by Sabine, Onno becomes close to Eva, who is extremely life-challenged and needs him. They fall in love. Sabine is furious, even though she’s been carrying on with Micha for years (he’s her ex-lover), because Onno takes up with her sister. Haas breaks things and eventually ends up chewing the lip off a water glass. Ernst goes to Konraad’s house and tends to him as he carries out his plan by refusing fluids. Eventually, the whole family shows up and says their good-byes.

This film has some very lyrical shots in it. I particularly loved the opening shot, a lingering look at a pine forest with birds chirping in its limbs. The interior shots are very revealing of the characters who inhabit them: the upscale homes of Maria and Ernst, of Konraad, of Onno and Sabine, for example, contrasted with the provisional bachelor pad of Micha and the barely livable loft of the ego-depleted Eva. We understand from these settings why, for example, Sabine married Onno—for material comforts she always knew with her dentist father and government official mother. When Onno asks her if their whole life—I assume including their two children—has been a lie, it’s hard not to think it has. But then Sabine doesn’t like to face unpleasant truths. None of Konraad’s blood relatives—including Konraad—like to do that.

Wolfsbergen.jpgBut so what? I felt nothing for these over-privileged, self-indulgent ciphers. Their pain, while certainly worthy of consideration as human beings, was presented in such an arthouse cliché that I thought they should have all hired shrinks and stopped wasting my time. Why “serious” directors seem positively averse to giving audiences some dialogue and action to keep them engaged, why we are constantly challenged to look below the surface to characters who are internalizing everything is a mystery. The actors are supposed to be using The Method, not the audience.

I’m not a lazy viewer, nor do I need constant movement. One of my favorite films, A Brighter Summer Day, is four hours long and unspools its story in the natural rhythms of life—which sometimes has a little speed to it. If the intent is to numb the audience to match the emotional numbness of these repressed characters, then Leopold has succeeded admirably. A good-looking, artfully composed film, which anyone with some film school training can achieve these days, and lots of empty spaces “pregnant” with meaning are classic rookie conceits. This film is a pretentious bore.

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