Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Denver Film Festival - Viktoria

It's been a long time since I've seen such a visually exquisite film. Every frame is a breathtaking still. If you're after a narrative - beginning, middle, end, with a nicely-tied-up conclusion - Viktoria, the debut film by Bulgarian Maya Vitkova, is not for you. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez, who brings her expression to life, is one to watch - what arresting imagery!

Three generations of women are featured: Boryana, daughter of a silent (eventually we learn: mute) mother, lives with her husband in the mother's apartment. In 1979 the film opens with Boryana longing to leave Iron Curtain Bulgaria - but she is pregnant, and the connection who arranges escapes will not risk her passage. Though her husband is thrilled, Boryana  tries to miscarry. Still, Viktoria is born - with no navel. The baby is hailed as a Socialist hero, and her parents are given a car and a new apartment. You might think Boryana would be happy to live away from her mother, whom she despises, but she asks the Party chief if she can have the money instead. No deal, but Viktoria is the Party chief's godchild, lavished with gifts and privileges, spoiled and nasty because the other children don't dare touch her. As Viktoria gets older, she loses her hauteur - when the regime fails and the Party chief cannot protect her, she learns to live a more normal life, finding love with her grandmother, who communicates through embraces and notes.

A sampling of images:
A poster of Venice becomes the city: night falls, and lights wink on in the buildings.
Milk emptied from a packet onto the ground puddles, slowly soaking in, a close-range image showing the bubbles, earth receiving, grass stubble emerging as the milk absorbs.
Viktoria bicycles at night down a forested path, each streetlight catching her features, then her forward motion returning her to darkness.
Boryana, driving the red car on the day she and her lover attempt to emigrate, comes to a roadblock, a camera shot from above of a circular-patterned dark stone plaza with red car in the center, white cars converging from three directions.
Another time, the husband drives with a neighbor woman (his refuge after Boryana's rejection), the windshield reflecting trees and sky, giving us glimpses of their contented faces.
After the grandmother's death, Boryana, her husband, and Viktoria struggle up a long snowy slope and stand at the top, the landscape black-and-white except one sunset-rosy cloud.

Symbols: blood, milk: red, white. Boryana, 6 months pregnant, lies in the bath, and blood begins to seep from her and spread through the water. She has nosebleeds, as does Viktoria. Viktoria lies dreaming, and a snaking line of blood curls from where her navel should be, up to her red phone (her personal hotline to the Party chief). Viktoria wears a red coat and carries a red satchel to school. The car Viktoria's parents are awarded is red.

When Boryana is far along in her pregnancy, she abruptly craves milk (before this, we see her consume only cigarettes and Coke), and when she has drunk all the milk in the house, accuses her husband of using too much in his coffee, thereby depriving her. But Boryana's breasts are barren - in one sequence she dreams of a fountain of milk exploding from one nipple - her husband is the one who nurses the baby, with a bottle.

Viktoria regularly visits her grandmother, and the old woman gives her packets of milk to take home. But Boryana has demanded no milk be brought into the apartment, so after leaving her grandmother, Viktoria pours the milk onto the ground. After the old woman's death, Boryana comes to her apartment and cuts the night-dress off her, then gives her exposed body a loving sponge-bath, much as the grandmother bathed Viktoria earlier. As Boryana washes the belly, she finds a scar running from her mother's navel to her right side. Is this why Viktoria had no navel? Is this scar the reason mother could not love daughter, for three generations?

Near the end, after the grandmother's death, Boryana stands in a rain of milk, high contrast to her black hair and dark clothes. Thwarted in expressing it, nevertheless these women do finally love each other - at the end Viktoria sends a postcard to Boryana from Venice, telling her it is only 1243 km away - which brings us full circle to Boryana's musing at the beginning - though the poster she treasures is of the Statue of Liberty, her first longing was to escape to Venice.

If you get a chance, see this film. Leave your expectations at home, come with your eyes and ears open, your heart receptive. Let the images wash over you, and be glad for film festivals - likely your only chance to view such beauty on the big screen where it belongs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

A beautifully restored version of Alain Resnais' 1959 black-and-white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is making the rounds, and you should see it. In a time of noisy, violent, in-your-face cinema, step into a story with a jarring reality - stones that burned in the 10,000 degree A-Bomb blast, iron that melted, people whose hair fell out and skin sloughed off, deformed babies and disfigured burn victims - presented calmly. The horror is not in gore, but in realization that humans did these things to each other.

Intercut with these images is the lovemaking, in a Hiroshima hotel room, of a French woman and a Japanese man. Gradually their story unfolds: she is an actress, finishing an international film about peace; only last night did she invite him to her room, and tomorrow she returns to Paris. They are in love, and yet she intends to leave. She describes herself as a woman of dubious morals, then jokes she is dubious of morals. Both say they are happily married.

As he questions, she talks about her youth in Nevers, a French city on the Loire. During the war, she and a German soldier fell in love, and met wherever they could. On the day France was liberated someone shot him, and as she lay with the dying man she was found out, her hair hacked off, humiliated and scorned, and descended into madness. Two years later, restored to sanity, she made her way to Paris and never went back, and blocked out the experience.

Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for the script, asks us to think about memory, about how forgetting is both healing - allowing us to continue with life - and ravaging - we lose what matters most when we can no longer bring its details to mind. The touch of a lover's hand, his warmth, their full hearts - when these fade, we lose something precious. Not to remember is not to have lived.

The French woman makes a gift of her secret loss to this stranger/lover, this Japanese man she will never see again, and in the process he allows her to re-experience that first momentous love. When she tells him she has never shared this story with her husband, the Japanese man is thrilled and elated - only he holds this potent memory, feels its power over her. Through her last night in Hiroshima they sit in a tea-house where he plies her with beer while she confesses, then we think maybe she will stay with him - we know it's impossible and they both agree it's impossible but so is love: surely there is a way to sustain this experience They want it, we want it for them, we know it can't happen.

Many masterfully-composed images benefit from the restoration - the patterns made by overlapping palm fronds against the sky while the lovers fill the foreground; long dolly-shots through a series of high-roofed market buildings; a vertical bar of light reflected off the river behind her as they sit in the tea-house; the peeping of frogs, that same soundtrack in her Nevers memories. Hiroshima Mon Amour touches heart and mind profoundly - see it on a big screen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

Lives don't often provide the satisfying arc we appreciate in fiction - Unbroken does. The first third is an adventure, the middle half is sheer torment, and the end is redemptive.

In 1936 Louie Zamperini was an Olympic distance-runner, drafted before he could fulfill his dream of winning the 1500 meters in 1940. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater in WWII, escaped the wreckage when his plane crashed in the ocean, and spent over 40 days in a raft, living by ingenuity and luck amid sharks, on what meager food and water they could capture from sea and sky, only to land emaciated on a Japanese-occupied island where he and his surviving crew member were taken prisoner. He spent the next two horrific years interned first in a secret interrogation camp then in two notorious POW camps where he endured unimaginable torments at the hands of cruel men.  

The rebuilding of Japan into an ally against the communist countries of Asia required the US to turn a blind eye to Japanese wartime abuses, so it is a revelation for anyone younger than the generation who fought them, to read about the deliberate starvation, ghastly medical experiments and calculated barbarities that claimed the lives of many POWs and twisted the post-war existence of the rest. From our comfortable distance of hindsight we decry the use of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this story bolsters the contention of members of the war generation, that use of this shocking new weapon was the only thing that prevented a full-scale invasion of Japan, to end that war.

During the castaway section, when one of the ever-present circling sharks leaps from the water attempting to grip "Zamp" in its maw, we feel a thrill - what an adventure, what a feat of survival. But when after many days in their small raft, starving, the men are spotted by a plane (rescue! at last!) then that plane strafes them, passes, and returns to strafe again, the reader feels jolted by the world's injustice. And that's only the beginning, the first step into their long hell.

Incarceration is a terrible ordeal, gripping and appalling, and Hillenbrand tells it vividly - the men's starvation, illness and thirst, the small measures of defiance that bring on added punishments but keep their wills alive, the whole twisted world of prison camp commanders and staff in which the POWs' rations are sold off on the black market while the dregs of the military wield absolute control. These men's experience is more Holocaust than The Great Escape.

But we, like Zamperini, do finally achieve peace. Barbarity wasn't invented in the wars being fought now - it is as old as human altercation. This book is as powerful an argument in favor of diplomacy and peace, as you could find. War is not a heroic enterprise, War is Hell. We do well to remember that when we clamor for vengeance, for matching destruction by "our enemies" with our own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's new movie The Zero Theorem returns again to the cosmic questions that must plague his sleep, and to a vision of a not-far-enough-distant future where a dazzling mix of bright busy noisy public spaces contrasts with the cavernous decaying church where our hero Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) sleeps upstairs amid the organ pipes. He works as a programmer for Mancom, the organization which watches everything and controls everyone. But he is really waiting for a phone call, a voice on the line that will tell him why he exists. Which is why he exists: to wait for the call. Samuel Beckett would love this movie.

Qohen's supervisor makes him attend a party where, stepping into a quiet room, he meets the Master (Matt Damon); he also meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a call girl whose enticements he rebuffs: "I don't like touch." These encounters change the pattern of his days: The Master recruits him to work on the Zero Theorem in a perfectly-Gilliam space with old mosaic floors and iron circles and the hoses and tubes so familiar from Brazil, all surrounding and feeding some gigantic machine, the nerve center of this highly-controlled-in-chaos society. Here Qohen meets Bob (well, the Master's 15-year-old son, played by Lucas Hedges, who calls everyone Bob because he can't spare brain power to remember names), who explains that everyone is a tool.

Qohen is given permission to work at home (where he wants to be, in case his phone call comes). His computer screen looks like a giant smart-phone, and using a video-game controller he manipulates equation-cubes in a vast structure where sometimes they fit perfectly and he achieves Upload, but other times cause avalanches or explosions of already-constructed areas. Bob visits to explain the Zero Theorem - that we are nothing and to nothing we return, so nothing matters. Bainsley shows up. Bob tells Qohen she's a tool, but Qohen thinks maybe she really does like him, as she claims. She gives him a Virtual Reality suit he can wear when he visits her Bainsley.sex website, and they have virtual interludes in a tropical paradise, just the two of them - and Qohen's isolation begins to crack.

Surveillance is constant, which we're reminded of by black-and-white camera-eye sequences. Gilliam's vision is a chaos of speeding, flashing, blasting - as if the world were a combination Times Square and game arcade. The mash-up seems futuristic, but the elements already exist: targeted ads, cameras everywhere, blind constant pursuit of money, sex, drugs and drink. No contemplation, no silence. Are we there yet, Terry?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

...And Ladies of the Club

..And Ladies of the Club is a journey through time. Much is being made of Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood whose characters, filmed over a decade, grow up in real time. This novel uses the full lifespans of its characters to tell not only their stories, but to illuminate the times as they lived them.

This tome came out in 1984 as a supermarket best-seller (hundreds of thousands of copies), the first published work by Helen Hooven Santmyer, age 88 when it went paperback and hit the big time. I read it then, and recently a book group member chose it. We allowed ourselves 2 months to read it (1433 pages!) but even so, I fear I am the only one who made it to the end.

The book is well worth reading. Santmyer follows a group of women in a small Ohio town from their college (we would think of it as high school) graduation in 1868, to the ends of their lives in the early 1930's. In that span we get history as people lived it (depressions, issues of race and class, politics, the powerful impact of war on the lives of veterans) as well as changes in transportation, communication and expectations. She is a fine writer, expressive and clear, using well-crafted sentences to tell her saga.

The primary character is Anne Alexander Gordon, whose father is a doctor, and who marries a (Civil War veteran) doctor, then their son becomes one, and against the odds of his upbringing, her grandson does as well. Anne believes most deeply in a life of joy, and through her struggles she is always able to find it in unexpected places and people.

The other principal is her best friend, Sally Cochran Rausch, whose husband, an ambitious Civil War vet, becomes the town's leading citizen. He buys a decrepit rope-mill and builds the business through economic surges and crashes. Union organizers can get nowhere with his loyal workers - he demonstrates during crises that he considers it his duty to look after them. Sally is a sensualist, taking pleasure in being a gracious hostess, filling her house with music, family and friends, and holding grand parties. She is a snob, but loyal and strong.

The Club of the title is the Women's Club, formed when Anne and Sally graduate, as a way of advancing literary life in their community. At first, only high-status ladies, teachers and ministers' wives are invited to be members, but over time the group's cliquish tendency gives way to recognizing the intelligence and scholarship of lower class women, even avowed Socialists.

Characters are finely-drawn: we see generational continuity, and the foibles and mistakes of the heart that cloud futures. But we also see the enduring comfort of long friendships, the sparks of sudden love, mischievous children, adults who make the best of second-best. 

Well done!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beach Read: The Truth, by Michael Palin

It's August - time to read something light. At my favorite Venice, California bookstore, Small World Books, I picked up Michael Palin's 2012 novel The Truth.

In brief, it's the story of Keith Mabbut, middle-aged British pen-for-hire and frustrated novelist. He is offered a shocking amount of money to write a biography of Hamish Melville, an elusive environmental crusader who pops up in the world's hot spots to mobilize indigenous peoples to resist the destruction of their homelands by resource-greedy corporations. Mabbut has to find Melville, gain his trust, and glean his story on a short deadline.

But why is Urgent Books offering him so much money, and why is its CEO such a creep? Meanwhile, Mabbut's wife, separated from him for a year or two, wants to marry her new lover, his twenty-something daughter is in love with an Iranian refugee, and his slightly-younger son won't speak to him. And his historical-recreation "not science fiction" novel languishes while he tracks Melville to India. In the process of pursuing this story, he's surprised by his own environmental activism reawakening after decades of slumber.

The book is more serious than I'd expected of a Python, but it's a decently written page-turner. And it's aptly named: variants of Truth shimmer in every chapter: what people live and die for, what they will corrupt those around them for, the mundane truths of how to treat people, and that humans are not really trustworthy. Mabbut ultimately has to decide what his truth is, and to speak it - just as everyone he encounters must voice their own version.

One can do worse for beach reading - go find a copy!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lord of the Flies

Fred and I worked with a Boy Scout troop for close to 15 years, and he used to pull out his copy of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies by way of explaining to the dads of the 11-year-olds what they could expect from a pack of teenage boys.

Standout theater director Peter Brooks filmed the book in 1963 - in black and white, with a group of English schoolboys. Updated from the original shipwreck, the boys are marooned by a plane crash. Nevertheless, the story is the same: how easily the veneer of civilization rubs away to reveal the savage.

At the start, Ralph and the boy we'll only know as Piggy promote rules and fairness, but already we recognize a boy, Jack, who itches to be in control and soon finds ways to attract a following. Ralph, with his insistence on allowing anyone to speak while holding the conch shell, and emphasizing the importance of using a fire to signal rescuers, represents civilization itself. Piggy, nearsighted, asthmatic and chubby, represents physical weakness - but his limitations make him kind to the younger boys - he looks after them, tells them stories, comforts them. Jack represents savage remorselessness, favoring those boys who accept his authority and using fear to control the rest.

There is also a Beast. When the camera finally gives us a clear look at a dead paratrooper, we understand it doesn't matter that this apparition is human and dead - the boys are afraid of an external threat. Guarding against the Beast gives them purpose and community, but it also drives them to extremity. And they forget what Ralph tries again and again to remind them: their first duty is to signal for help - that is, to remember the civilization they have left, to maintain loyalty to it, to keep themselves in a state such that they can return to it.

Fire, killing the pigs, blood, discarding their clothes in favor of body paint and masks - these elements mark the group's descent. Ralph's signal fire is a cry for help, but the bonfires that incite the others to bloodlust are its opposite. To someone who worked with boys for many years, this was all so familiar: pyromania, struggles for dominance, scapegoating, the animal just beneath the surface - but always there were boys willing to help the younger and weaker in their midst, to tolerate difference, to uphold (at least some of) the aims of civilization. The savage cannot be removed from within us - the best we can do is to give that wildness forms of expression that allow our humanity to flourish.