Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Place, a film by Paolo Genovese

Not since My Dinner with Andre can I recall a film set in a single location - now we have Paolo Genovese's 2017 Italian film The Place, a cafe by that name in which a distinguished-looking fiftyish man holds court at a back table. Supplicants come to him with the problems that most deeply disturb them, and he flips through his thick handwritten notebook to one of the red ribbons - the kind you’d see in a Bible to mark a verse - and tells them what act will bring about what they want.

These acts have nothing to do with their problems - a woman who wants to be prettier is told to steal a very specific amount; a blind man is told that raping a woman will give him sight. But once he pronounces an oracular “deal” he has no alternate solution. They are free not to accept it, or to follow through, but each of them wants their outcome strongly enough to make their pact - at least to begin with.

They stop by to report on their progress, which he records in his notebook. The tasks he assigns often overlap, either by his design or by some hand of providence, and some people get what they ask for, some change their minds and drop the whole thing, and some try to convince him they did as he said - but he tells them they didn’t. “How do you know?” A man of few words, he doesn’t answer, but we know they didn’t. If they had, something about them would be different.

He is an enigma - we learn the names of some characters, but even in the credits he is Uomo (the Man). He’s at The Place when they’re setting up in the morning, he’s there when the waitress is mopping up at night. As she probes, he admits he doesn’t sleep much. We don’t see him arrive, we don’t see him leave. Sometimes The Place is crowded, other times he’s the only customer, and the chairs are upside down on every table except his. Why doesn’t he get kicked out? What’s his source of funds? He eats and drinks all day, but we never see him pay.

For a man intent on details, he offers few of his own. His supplicants ask him questions, including “Who are you?” which he deflects, returning to why they have come. One character accuses him of being Satan, which he neither confirms nor denies. He displays a lordly indifference to what they think of him - his only concern, once he’s assigned their task, is what steps they’re taking to complete it.

Is his purpose to awaken conscience, or to demonstrate to people that their desires blot out their morality? Or is he an evil being with the power to grant people’s wishes - as long as he gets in trade their compromised integrity? Or is he simply a mirror of a self-absorbed culture in which our happiness is so important we’re willing to destroy someone else’s to get it?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

An Elephant Sitting Still - a film by Hu Bo

An Elephant Sitting Still, a 2018 Chinese film by Hu Bo, just under 4 hours long, enters the lives of four people and those who impact them. First we have a high school student, Wei Bu. His parents constantly berate him, telling him he should go live with his grandma - he would, but her apartment has no heat. His friend has crossed the school bully, so Wei Bu backs him up, believing he didn't steal the bigger boy's cellphone. They meet in a stairwell to have it out, and the bully attacks Wei Bu for interfering. In a shoving match, the bully falls down the cement stairs, badly injured.

The next character, Yu Cheng, older brother of the bully, listens to his best friend's story about an elephant at the circus in Manjhouli: the elephant just sits there, even if people stab it with forks. Then Yu Cheng is caught sleeping with the friend's wife, but his friend rather than attacking him leaps from the high apartment window to his death. It's not Yu Cheng's fault - but if he hadn't been in his friend's girl's bedroom, it wouldn't have happened.

Wei Bu likes a girl, Huang Ling, but she rebuffs him - she's having a soon-to-be-revealed affair with the married Vice Dean at their high school. This man tells Wei Bu that their school, the worst in the city, is closing. "What will we do?" Wei Bu asks. "You'll be street vendors," says the Vice Dean, who then goes on to talk about the larger office he's looking forward to in the school he'll be transferred to. Huang Ling lives with her single mother, who drinks, complains, and lies around while the toilet overflows. Their hatred is mutual.

And last, we have Wang Jin, living with his daughter, her husband, and their young daughter. They want to move to another district for its better school, but apartments there are smaller and more expensive, so they'd like Grandpa to move to the nursing home. He tells them the place won't allow dogs, and besides, they're all living in his apartment. But he can see what's coming.

Everyone in this film is angry - with each other, with their lives - and most of them blame someone else for their unhappiness. Love and affection are in very short supply in this industrial city where we only catch rare glimpses of anything not man-made - a river valley one can look down on from a high overpass, a clump of weeds. And the built world is unattractive - rubble outside buildings, an abundance of concrete and rusty iron.

Misfortune caroms like a billiard ball, striking one person who strikes another who strikes a third - the only ones able to rise above the attack-and-blame cycle are those who have their thoughts on other things - Wei Bu escapes murder by telling Yu Cheng, who feels duty-bound to avenge his "piece of garbage" brother's death, about wanting to go to Manjhouli to see the elephant sitting still. That's really what Yu Cheng wants too - he despises his own thug life, but sees no alternative.

As we spend hours with these characters, their families, their enemies, we get to know each as an individual - whatever they do, harmless or evil, they are aware of it, and aware too of a sense of being trapped. And in the end, there is an epiphany, or an elephant. If you're one of those rare filmgoers who looks forward to spending four hours with a story, this one's for you! It won Best Feature Award at the Berlin Film Festival, so you might get a chance - at a film festival. Keep your eye out for it.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hal - a documentary about Hal Ashby

Hal, directed by Amy Scott, is a small film with a mighty heart. Its subject, Hal Ashby, helmed some of the great films of the 1970s, a difficult period in American history with war, racism, corporate greed, and the counterculture in head-on collision. Ashby's genius was to tell stories with one-to-one human connections that cut through those battle lines, improbable match-ups entertaining us while tickling our sensibilities: see? see? we can be decent to each other. There is someone in every face, in every encounter - it is our loss not to look for that, not to notice.

He made The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There in the decade, most of which were dismissed by critics as too this, too that, but each of which attracted its own cult following, particularly Harold and Maude. The documentary gives us a marvelous look at the studio's struggle with Ashby over the promotional materials. They could not accept a love affair between a twenty-year-old youth and an eighty-year old woman, so they didn't want both of them on the poster. But given the title, it made no sense: Harold without Maude? or maybe no pictures, only text? Each effort was more absurd. The studio didn't know what to do with this hippie director, who believed strongly enough in peace and love to make movies that pushed audiences to favor those ideals.

Ashby slams out missives on his typewriter: to his friend and mentor Norman Jewison, who recognized his eye and passion and helped him transition from editor to director; to the studio heads who tried to control him: they liked success but not if that meant trusting a creative team. He stood up for what he did, what his characters said and the words they used, along the way working alongside some of filmdom's great talents: screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, editor Robert Jones. His casts were a Hollywood who's-who: Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Beau Bridges, Louis Gossett, Jr., Peter Sellers, Jon Voigt, Bruce Dern, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, David Carradine, Lee Grant, and from them he elicited heartfelt performances. He understood that the way to woo us was to tell individual stories, to show us the moments in which humans disregard our differences, propelling us to try that ourselves.

Ashby got his start in film as an editor, and that sense of piecing together scenes to create a fluid story is evident in how he directed. And so it is with Hal, in which the filmmakers found themselves with a wealth of footage - film clips, interviews, memorabilia - and realized the only way to manage this overabundance was to find a focus, use that material in service to a tale. Whether they intended to emulate their subject we don't know, but we're fortunate they did - Amy Scott and her team have given us a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, from obscurity, through fame, to a decline fueled by studio meddling and greed. Ashby's death at 59 from pancreatic cancer seems less a health collapse than a manifestation of the toll their demands and impatience took on his creative spirit.

Hearing how those who worked with him felt, and seeing snippets of his films, wakes a desire to watch - for the first time, or again with fresh eyes - these compelling movies. While the hot-button subjects he tackled are as raw now as they were 40 years ago, the movie industry's consolidation has made the challenge of funding for person-to-person stories harder than ever. When box office is all, studios rely on sequels, remakes, and special effects to separate us from our cash. You have to ply the indie circuit to find storytellers with more on their minds than a couple hours' entertainment. Hal is one such film - go see it!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, by John Edgar Wideman

This riveting book explores the death of Emmett Till (the black teenager murdered in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for purportedly whistling at a white woman) through the execution of his father, Louis Till, by the US Army during World War II.

Following the rapid acquittal of Emmett Till's murderers, international outcry pressured the Mississippi court system to at least pursue the lesser charge of kidnapping against them. The grand jury was poised to do so, when the spectre of Louis Till, Emmett's father, was introduced. While stationed in Italy serving in the Army's Transportation Command, where most black enlistees were posted, he was tried and convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. The damning testimony was given in exchange for clemency by one of his comrades, and Louis and another man were court-martialed then executed by hanging - lynched - in Italy, in July, 1945. The story of Louis Till's court-martial was released to the public (the papers) in October of 1955.

Why then, a decade after his execution? Wideman has no doubt the disclosure was timed to turn public opinion against young Emmett and his mother Mamie by drawing a like-father-like-son parallel between Louis Till, unable to speak in his own defense, and Emmett, likewise silenced. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Wideman obtains a copy of Louis Till's file from the US Archives. Reading about this unrepentant man, the author cannot help seeing his own life: his distant stone-faced father, not unlike "I'll be back when I'm back" Louis Till. Wideman sees that coldness as the armor a black man was/is forced to wear in a society that constantly degrades him, insults him, robs him of manhood, and may very well murder him simply for existing. When he slams the front door in departing his house, whether on the way to his daily job or for a night spent elsewhere, it's never a given that he will return.

During his court-martial, "Till remained adamantly silent... a stubborn silence that must have puzzled and frustrated his army interrogators since all the other accused colored soldiers were busy accusing one another. Breaking his silence once..., Louis Till allegedly said to Rousseau, "There's no use in me telling you one lie and then getting up in court and telling another one," a remark that clearly conveys to me and should have conveyed to Rousseau Till's Igbo sophistication, his resignation, his Old World, ironic sense of humor about truth's status in a universe where all truths are equal until power chooses one truth to serve its needs."

So why is Wideman writing this book "to save a life," as he puts it? "I work for an incarcerated son and brother. They are locked inside me, I am imprisoned with them during every moment that I struggle with the Till file. No choice. Trying to find words to help them. To help myself. Help carry the weight of hard years spent behind bars. If I return to Till's grave, I will confess to him first thing that the Louis Till project is about saving a son and a brother, about saving myself."

This is fine writing, and a different way of considering a single terrible deed: connecting it to a larger world of injustice dissolves some of the immediacy of Emmett Till's murder, but draws back far enough to make that grotesque act a single chip in a mosaic. Narrow your eyes and it comes into focus: a black man in a noose. It's long past time to cut him down, cut it out. Think about it, and read this book.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Three Identical Strangers, a film by Tim Wardle

The documentary Three Identical Strangers chronicles the surprise meeting at age nineteen of identical triplets separated at birth. All were adopted, and none knew they had brothers until their own eyes insisted it was true. They became a sensation in 1980, appearing on talk shows and written about in newspapers - a novelty. And if that’s all you knew about them, you would have a warm feeling that they had found each other, and that their reunion was a psychic homecoming.

But that’s just the opener. Questions are raised: why were none of their parents told that their baby son was a triplet? The adoption agency clearly knew, and kept it secret. And as more secrets unfold, the young men’s story takes on a darker tone. While the film certainly considers the nature vs nurture debate - which wields greater influence over developing children - it also delves into ethical issues far more important.

What follows may be more than you want to know, before you see this movie.

And on a note that reverberates through our modern society, it challenges us to look at what we do to each other in the name of pursuit of knowledge. Whether we’re talking about the Tuskegee study in which poor black convicts were deliberately infected with syphilis then observed (but not treated), or the psychology experiments at Harvard in the 60s in which Ted Kaczynski (later known as the Unabomber) was a subject/victim, surely it’s time to be asking some hard questions about ethics, and whether the harm done to these guinea pigs is mere collateral damage in the discovery of great truths, or if that harm says more about the researchers, and taints their findings with the heartlessness or even sadism of their methods.

I’m inclined to the latter conclusion. The Hippocratic Oath states, “First, do no harm.” Once we lose sight of that, we abandon our humanity. Subatomic physics tells us that we cannot observe even particles without altering their behavior - how much greater the interference then, when those under observation are sentient beings? What did the researchers learn, versus the extent to which their experiment damaged the lives of their subjects? And since the study has never been released, there’s no understanding or discovery to balance against the harm done by isolating babies from their siblings, with whom they shared a womb and a few scant months before being separated.

This film’s not just entertainment - go see it and consider the questions it raises.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

If you hung out in Boulder, Colorado, between 1970 and 1976, you had opportunities to enjoy Magic Music. They played on the CU campus on Friday afternoons, they played around the area, at one point they opened for The Youngbloods, and they were on Cat Stevens' tour for a single performance, when, thrilled by the audience's standing ovation, they played three encores and were promptly fired.

They lived in schoolbuses in Eldorado Canyon a few miles south of Boulder, and later in the nearby mountain town of Allenspark in a rustic art gallery lent them by an acquaintance. They were hippies, and their music showcased acoustic excellence, gentle lyrics, and rhapsodic harmonies. They could have been big, but they never broke through. This movie, made by Lee Aronsohn, a fan from those 70s performances who wondered what ever happened to them, is not just a history and an homage, it is also an act of healing.

During their brushes with potential success, their differing visions created acrimony strong enough to drive them apart for decades. But when Aronsohn, wanting to reunite the band, contacted Chris Daniels, the most successful musician post-Magic Music, he was able to connect with the members one at a time, including their third manager.

The filmmaker's goal is to recreate an iconic photo of the best-known iteration of the group, so he must persist in his efforts to track down not just most, but all of the musicians represented there. And in the course of locating and communicating with them, and putting them in touch with each other, he achieves something remarkable - 40 years on, the negativity of their squabbles shrinks against the memory of the music they made together. As men in their 60s, they realize that life is too short for grudges, and when they take the stage once more, the moment is richer than mere performance.

Even if you weren't around in the 70s and don't care about hippies, you could take instruction from the ways this group of musicians thwarted opportunity, maintaining a level of integrity that turned out to be incompatible with stardom. And it might prompt you to reconnect with those you cut out of your life.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Area X - the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

This trilogy would qualify, I suppose, as Science Fiction, since it features aliens, or as Horror, since some deadly entities are bent on harm. But there's far more to it - this is almost a treatise on the natural world, and how the decay of human habitation opens the way for vegetation and wildlife to reassert themselves in territory formerly their haven.

Book I - Annihilation concerns the Twelfth Expedition into Area X, a place formerly a coastal human community: a lighthouse and a couple of villages. But Something has instigated change - humans are gone, and the rate of decay and fecundity of nature have accelerated.  Previous expeditions have ended badly - the venturers do not return, or die of aggressive cancers soon after emerging, or go insane - in many cases, they kill each other.

A few characters stand out: the Biologist, whose name we do not learn, a tough resourceful woman whose husband accompanied a previous expedition but returned so changed she wants to go, possibly for vengeance, or at least to understand what happened to him; and the Director, billing herself as the Psychologist, who uses hypnosis and drugs to control the rest of the crew - except the Biologist, who has made herself immune.

What they find in their explorations is a teeming beautiful wilderness run rampant, as they come up against the limits of their capabilities.

Book II - Authority brings into focus Southern Reach, headquarters of the organization dedicated to understanding and containing Area X. Here our third main character shows up: Control, son of high-up functionaries at Central (think CIA), recruited by his cutthroat mother in her last push to make a success of him. He's assigned to support the Director, and also to figure out why this group isn't accomplishing its goals. The employees are, variously: mad, prone to peculiar habits, hyper-aggressive, reclusive, obsessed, or in zombie-like states of confused stasis. Even the building has an "off" personality. It should - it stands near the Border, on the other side of which Area X flourishes despite their efforts. In this book we delve further into the Biologist, who having returned in an altered state from the Twelfth Expedition, is imprisoned at Southern Reach while administrators, including Control and the Director/Psychologist, attempt to probe her mind.

But chaos descends: leaks over from Area X. Eventually the organization cannot function. Control and the Biologist flee up the coast.

Book III - Acceptance takes us back into Area X, providing history of the place pre-invasion as well as insight into other, more secret, attempts to contact and direct the alien presence. And we learn more about the forces that continue to transform land, air and water.

These books are evocatively written:
"The wind picked up, and it began to rain. I saw each drop fall as a perfect, faceted liquid diamond, refracting light even in the gloom, and I could smell the sea and picture the roiling waves. The wind was like something alive; it entered every pore of me and it, too, had a smell, carrying with it the earthiness of the marsh reeds." 
"Control  still couldn't tell from his examination of the records... if the iterations of [the actually 38 expeditions numbered up to Eleven] had started out as a clerical error and become codified as process (unlikely) or been initiated as a conscious decision by the director, sneakily enacted... as if always there. A need to somehow act as if they weren't as far along without concrete results or answers. Or the need to describe a story arc for each set of expeditions that didn't give away how futile it was fast becoming." 

In this time of humans trampling the natural world as if intent on destroying what is actually our only home, this horror story/ science fiction/what-have-you gives a voice to Earth, gives it a means to push us back and renew its dominion.