Friday, December 21, 2018

Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuaron

If you know anything about this much-lauded film, you’re already aware that Roma is a slice-of-life based on Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood, seen primarily through the experiences of the family housekeeper. Shot in lustrous black-and-white, with the camera mostly in the middle distance - the frame of a nearby observer - the story immerses us in personal and national travails of the early 1970s in Mexico, primarily in Mexico City.

The parents are upper-middle-class intellectuals, and their home in the eponymous Roma neighborhood is rich with the trappings of that life - books and lovely furnishings, spacious areas for dining, TV-watching, and family activities. Each of the four children has his/her own room, but they all share Cleo, who wakes them, helps them dress, with her comadre Adela makes them breakfast, and gets them all off to school. While they’re out she’s changing sheets, collecting laundry to scrub on the roof and hang to dry, cleaning, running errands. At the end of the day the cycle is reversed - again the family is fed, tea is fetched for the husband, Cleo tucks in the children one at a time, singing each to sleep. At the end of that long day, she’s in the kitchen washing and putting away dishes for tomorrow. The two young servants live in a small room off the garage, and the daily rhythm of their lives will look familiar to any homemaker - cooking, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing, and tending to the endless needs of others.

The family’s lives are disrupted, and the way they cope highlights the central role Cleo plays in their world. She may be a paid lower-class addition to the household, but when it comes down to it, she is a member of their family, bossed but also cherished and, yes, loved.

Cuaron’s passion for detail is clear in all the camera takes in - a busy clinic, a hacienda where they go for holiday, Cleo and Adela’s day off, the street vendors, bands, and protest marches that crowd their neighborhood, the 1960s and 70s cars, ubiquitous dogs, jets overhead reminding us they live in a large city. The credits are extensive - he invested much of himself in this homage to his family and particularly to Libo (his Cleo stand-in), to whom it’s dedicated.

The density of images brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful late-career film Fanny and Alexander, which celebrates the textures and visual richness of a warm and open life, in high contrast to the stark asceticism of his usual priests and patriarchs. Though Bergman’s film was in saturated color, the detail, the wondrous individuality of each object picked out by the camera, is the same. It reminds us that children often remember in vivid specifics what adults consign to categories: dogs, or windows, or cars. We are richer for Cuaron’s exquisitely-shared memories.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Barely over a year into their marriage, Celestial and Roy, a rising Atlanta couple, visit his parents in rural Louisiana. Knowing his mother’s discomfort with his choice of a city girl, independent and artistic and ambitious, he opts to lodge with Celestial at a motel not the house. Which proves fateful: he is accused of raping another guest, and we watch the well-greased skids as an African American man is in quick succession accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated, with little concern for due process, legal subtleties, or opportunity to assert his innocence.

This novel is told in first person, in the voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend and confidante, who introduced her and Roy.

Through an exchange of letters we watch the couple’s relationship devolve. Celestial’s prosperous family gladly foots the bill for appeals, but her visits dwindle as her business, hand-sewing fabric doll-babies, takes off. Roy supported her dream before his own was derailed, but the incongruity between her life and his becomes an intolerable burden. Celestial writes:
“At your mother’s funeral, your father showed what the connection is between husband and wife. If he could have, he would have gone into the grave instead of her. But they lived under one roof for more than thirty years. In some ways they grew together and grew up together, and had she not died, they would have grown old together. That’s what a marriage is. What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.
I blame it on time, not on you or me. If we put a penny in a jar for each day we have been married, and we took a penny away every day we’ve been apart, the jar would have been depleted a long time ago... The last three times I have visited, we said almost nothing to each other. You can’t bear to hear about my days and I can’t bear to hear about yours.”

Her friend Andre claims more ground based on their lifelong kinship, and Celestial finally stops waiting for the end of her husband’s twelve-year sentence. These young men are careful in how they treat each other - both want Celestial, but both respect her career, her choices, her needs. And they respect each other, which doesn’t make it any easier when they finally face off as rivals.

These characters remind us of what “civilized” means: having a highly-developed society and culture; polite, urbane, refined. In our current climate of polarization and intolerance, such characters might seem quaint - yet it is their conviction that civility is essential that makes their dilemma so striking. It would be easy to put a gun in the hand of Roy, maybe Andre as well, but Jones has greater range than to settle for the predictable solution. She dives deep into her characters’ love and anger and loneliness, and doesn’t let anyone off the hook as their desires collide.

She offers us different versions of marriage: Roy’s mother, pregnant at 16 and abandoned by the baby’s father, meets Roy Hamilton who not only marries her and adopts the boy but loves him as a son, honoring him with his own name, fathering no other children who might displace his love for the boy. Celestial’s mother divorced, and her second match was for love. Andre’s father left his mother, marrying another woman and raising children with her - at which point Celestial’s father positioned himself as a father to Andre.

These families disapprove of the affection they observe blooming between Celestial and Andre - “Aren’t you still married?” - but in Roy’s absence, she discovers in her oldest friend a deep understanding she cannot push away. Jones doesn’t take sides - she gives as much weight to Roy Sr. and Celestial’s parents as to Celestial and Andre. All their convictions are heartfelt, and utterly at odds. Someone has to lose.
Here’s a sample of how she puts it:
Gloria [Celestial’s mother] said, “I raised her to know her own mind.”
My father [said], “What is all this stuff about love and her own mind?... What did Roy do to deserve any of this? He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Though this is a story about marriage, it is also inescapably a story about what it is to be black in America. Roy’s college degree and rosy future mean nothing in prison - he is reduced to a man without agency. And it’s clear that if this can happen to him, it can happen to any man of color. When white people complain about the term ‘white privilege’, it is without experience comparable to a black man’s that demonstrates what that really means: the ground of assumption that one is dangerous, even criminal, regardless of one’s circumstances. ‘White privilege’ means one is not automatically at risk of suspicion or arrest or death for wearing a hoodie, browsing in a store, driving a car, renting an AirBnB ... anything you might do in the course of your life. I recently watched a YouTube video called “Birdwatching While Black,” a droll but not funny guide about how to avoid getting arrested or shot while in the field identifying birds, if you happen to be black.

Thank you, Tayari Jones, for making a world real, for plumbing the hearts of people who mean each other no harm, but who in the end lack the choice.

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.