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A popular place to die in America is sitting in a diner. I only know
this because of countless movies where people go into a diner,
ostensibly for a cup of coffee, but basically so they can get shot. You
think I'm kidding. They don't really go into diners to get shot. They
go into diners so they can be immortalised in movies when they get
shot. Remembered by millions. Either way, they get shot, and hopefully
something else happens to make it interesting.
Fragments follows the lives of various people after one such incident in a diner. One woman becomes obsessively promiscuous. One man is convinced he has a miraculous power of luck at the casino tables. One teenager becomes obsessed with born-again Christianity. Another stops speaking. 24/7. The life of the waitress in the diner. The man who held the door open on the way out and let the killer in. Everyone is affected in different ways. Beneath the placid exteriors there is deep sorrow needing to come out.
At least that's the story. It is, unfortunately, only mildly interesting. Both the youngsters are played by charismatic individuals. Forest Whitaker works overtime to imbue his lamentable character with something worth watching. Kate Beckinsale is easy on the eye, even playing neurotically bedraggled. The list of names goes on, and includes many actors worthy of better material than this.
We tend in the UK to give bereavement short shrift. An hour or so over cheese and ham sandwiches at the funeral then like any trauma that goes with it it's supposed to be over. But although the American tradition is better at giving death its due, it is also more fond of the psychoanalyst's couch. And endlessly obsessing over one's worries. And endlessly expecting us to care. 'Get over it,' is not something a sensitive person would ever think, much less say to a friend. That each of these people eventually find an exit from their vicious cycle of senseless sorrow is more down to the determination to spin it out to feature length and then cut before we wonder what would happen if they had any real problems.
I would like to be more sympathetic to such navel gazing as eulogised in Fragments. But if the characters are in any way believable, it is very, very sad that they are so. This is an ensemble performance in the psychopathology of feeling over-dramatically sorry for oneself. Of being at the mercy of circumstances. In a frankly tedious, self-indulgent, predictably downward spiral of a film.
The movie is nicely bookended, starting with scenes of an abandoned kitchen montaged with respectable surburbania. It is meant to convey a suggestion that these horrors happen to 'nice' people too. The treatment of the two iconic US derangements guns and religion is refreshingly non-judgemental and manages a balancing act that neither supports nor opposes. The production values are generally good and it has the advantage of being a mainstream weepie that is neither sugary nor patronising towards the audience. The drama is well-paced, and if you can tolerate the storyline there is no reason why you shouldn't effortlessly while away some time in front of it (if my hard-hearted reservations haven't put you off).
From the viewpoint of dedicated cinema-goers, violence in diners has good and bad points. On the plus side, we get a lot of great movies. Like History of Violence. Or Natural Born Killers. And more gangster films than holes in Al Capone's raincoat. But of course there's sadness too. Subjecting your loved ones to Fragments would be a prime example.
The closest I've got to the rain forest was earlier this year. I fell
into the Amazon climbing a tree to get a photo. My guide had just
scaled it with ease, whereas I was unfamiliar with the slippery bark.
It is an alien and challenging environment, mostly cut off from the
rest of Brasil and the civilised world.
Director Marco Bechis penetrates further. Much further. Further than tourist-explorers who trek far into the depths. Further than the Bafta-winning TV series of Bruce Parry which charted people deep along the Amazon. Further than Martin Strel of Big River Man, who swam across Brasil to become one with the denizens of the rivers. And arguably much further than filmmakers such as the excellent Elite Squad director José Padhila, who finds commercially viable subject matter in the favelas of Rio or the starving thousands of his native Brasil.
Compared to the Indians of Mato Grosso, who play the leading parts in the gripping drama Birdwatchers, the rest of the world is just that. Looking at birds from the outside in. A pretty species here. A rare tribe in warpaint there. A fascinating social problem to look at. We see it from the point of view of our own world. But here is a story that evokes Brasil from the inside out. The people connected with its land from the start. We see the world through their struggle for existence. Their loves. Their lives. Their suicides.
Says Bechis, "All Guarani share a religion that attributes supreme importance to the earth, the origin and source of life. The Guarani experience the invasion of their land not only as theft, but also as a serious assault on their very identity." Set within the creeping genocide and loss of the rainforest that sustains them, Nadio leads a rebellion to try and reclaim a small part of their homeland. The place where their forefathers are buried. It happens to be a farm. They set up a makeshift camp, and the farmers try to interact constructively. Up to a point. They try to offer them work. Or sleep with the women. Or arrange for them to perform 'authentic' displays for visitors in this deep interior. Ultimately, they terrorise them.
Osvaldo is learning to be a shamen. Following a strict lifestyle that includes not eating beef even when the tribe is starving, the handsome youth forms a liaison with a farmer's daughter as they swim in the same lake together. Their sexual and emotional awakening coincides with the increasing irritation of the farmers with Osvaldo's tribe. The lyrical beauty of the rain forest's deep south is paired with a story of increasing violence and hopelessness.
In the last 20 years, over 517 of the few remaining Guarani-Kaiowá Indians have committed suicide. Many were young people. The youngest was nine years old. Brasil prides itself on being an indivisible mixture of three races Europeans, Africans and Indians. But the mix is not as equitable as we are led to believe. Deforestation ironically driven in part by demand for 'green' ethanol fuel has reduced the Guarani Indians to an endangered 'species' that do not even have the right to own land. Eliane Juca da Silva, a Guarani who stars in the film (playing Mami, who sleeps with a farm hand to steal his gun) was taken to its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. She broke down in tears after journalists applauded. "We just want a chance to survive," she said.
Bechis had first to introduce them to the concept of cinema, over a period of months, before interviewing would-be actors. With Osvaldo, he hit gold. As a trainee shamen, his ritualistic life is already one of performance, and he understands instinctively what it means to act. Bechis used a theatre trainer to develop acting technique in the selected players based on their existing cultural mannerisms, movement and way of talking. He worked with the charity Survival International to check facts are accurately portrayed in the story. But the whites are not thrown into any cultural cliché either. In a confrontation where Nadio rages about the theft of the earth they walk on, the farmer angrily retorts that three generations of his people have worked the land, successfully producing food for many people. His jet-setting modern friends, and the iPod-groovy teenage daughter who takes up with Osvaldo, are also representative of an established part of Brazilian life and accurately depicted.
It is a situation where there are no ethical absolutes. We have the privilege of trying to understand. Even help. But the charity whose website address flashes on the screen all too briefly among end credits and the parting facts and figures how many will contact it? How many will go and see the film? For most of the western world, Brasil, a country the size of the USA, is barely on the map of consciousness. Sadly, 'coloniser-friendly' films, like City of God or Motorcycle Diaries, are the only ones likely to get much airtime.
Remarkably, Birdwatchers is no bleeding-heart polemic: these lost people's way of handling things will make you laugh as well as staying glued to see how their impossible but real life situation unfolds.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Can you go back in your memory and find a key day that was the start of
your life as you know it now? Who were the people around you then? What
was your favourite song? Was there maybe a special piece of clothing
that brings memories flooding back with a smile? What about the food
you loved those days? Iconic details. Where are they burned in your
brain like a hit song, a movie masterpiece, an unstoppable feeling.
When did your life first explode? Somewhere those images are a picture
of who you are.
Maybe it was getting married. Your first child. Leaving home. Passing your driving test. Getting your Amex Gold. Or falling in love. Moving house. Losing your virginity. Starting university. Finding religion. Getting stoned. Discovering you were someone else all along. Take five people. Take five days. Define the tingles at either end of their spines. Who they are to themselves. To each other. The family in which they are all, somehow, related.
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life might not be Magnolia or even American Beauty, but it's damn good fun. This is thumpingly enjoyable entertainment, even with (dare I mention them?) 'subtitles.' In less than two hours, you will feel that you've known Mum and Dad, eldest son Albert, grungy sister Fleur, romantic bro' Raphael all your life. Cos now you know theirs.
Blood ties and facts are only one of the ways we relate. Usually the really important bits are a single moment, incident or word. Bits that affect everything else. Bits that define people to you in ways words can't. Intimacies or misunderstandings. Hard decisions taken when you disagree with those you love.
Powered by a wonderfully cross-Channel soundtrack, The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is fast and funny. And never flippant. A film for intelligent teenagers who still like to get wasted. For parents struggling to bond. For those in relationships and those struggling to connect. It's not often I feel I can recommend a film to nearly everyone I know (barring subtitles allegies). But I'll stick my neck out and say this is one.
It's a symphonic comedy. Of finding yourself alone in the midst of those who love you. Taking pride in yourself even if no-one remembers. Of finally getting through to someone. It could almost be the thinking feelgood film of the year if it wasn't in French (maybe they'll dub it for America??) To get such a complex mix right is masterpiece of modern editing. But the filmmakers have also been astutely conscious of the need to define key experiences in terms audiences can relate to rather than just the way they are experienced by the characters. A love of grunge and praying at Jim Morrison's grave, for instance, does not translate into inflicting Nirvana and the Doors on us. Rather, music is used in classic style to communicate feelings.
Or Bowie: Time - He's waiting in the wings . . .
His script is you and me, boy There are plenty of senseless things in the First Day of the Rest of Your Life. Believe me air guitar has never looked so cool. But there are enough really cool, heart-warming moments to make it more than worth your ticket price. It doesn't hit the intellectual self-awareness heights about dysfunctional families that it is capable of life, death, trust and infidelity, burying your dog, nicotine patches, feng shui, confiscated joints, premature ejaculation and facelifts none of this matters and yet it does. And as polished all-round entertainment, this film is fairly hard to beat. If you disagree, maybe be you're taking life too seriously and not seriously enough. Sometimes it's hard (as every film critic knows). To just stop analysing long enough to smell the grass. In literary terms, it amounts to Mrs Dalloway buying the flowers herself.
"All my films have started with an image," says director Andrea Arnold.
"It's usually quite a strong image and it seems to come from nowhere. I
don't understand the image at first or what it means, but I want to
know more about it so I start exploring it, try and understand it and
what it means. This is how I always start writing." What does the image
of a fish tank conjure up for you? On the inside longing to look out,
is fifteen-year-old Mia. Trapped in a housing estate. Trapped in a
single parent family. Trapped by people around her she can't respect.
Trapped in herself. For being fifteen. She has her own inner world,
fighting to manifest itself . Fortified by cigarettes and alcohol she
can kick in the door of the empty nearby flat. A bare floor. Her CD
player. Practice her moves. A better dancer than those kids on the
block she just nutted.
Mia is quite content to carve out her own double life, f*ck you very much! Never mind she gets caught and nearly comes to grief trying to steal a horse. And social workers don't scare her. But mom's new boyfriend that could be a pain! A real spanner in the works. Especially when he's so annoyingly nice.
Under Andrea Arnold's hand, life on this inner city concrete backwater is suddenly very alive. Banalities become beautiful. Like sunlight through cracked glass. Vibrant, gritty and riveting, but in a way that entertains powerfully. As pulsating and funny as Trainspotting but without the yuck factor. Its momentum is overpowering. We never know what is going to come out of Mia's mouth or where events will lead. Each jaw-dropping new scene surprises yet seems the result of inexorable momentum. As if that wasn't enough, the story mercifully avoids kitchen-sink drama, excessive violence, drugs, getting pregnant, grand larceny, car crashes and all the other cliché-ridden devices to which cinema-goers are usually subjected. Tightly controlled, Fish Tank attacks with a potent and thought-provoking arsenal of story-telling.
Andrea Arnold proved she could do hard-hitting realism with her award-winning debut, Red Road. Here she excels her earlier efforts but still imbibes many of the verité approaches and senses of discipline that have filtered down from the Dogme and Advance Party movements. Her 'strong initial image,' or lack of subservience to more traditional methodology, maybe reminds of the devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema taken by artists-turned-filmmakers such as Steve McQueen (Hunger) or theme-over-story technicians such as Duane Hopkins (Better Things). Michael Fassbender, who took reality to new heights as Bobby Sands in Hunger, here plays the mystifying and warmly charismatic Connor (Mum's boyfriend).
Arnold didn't allow actors to read the script beforehand. They were given their scenes only a few days before filming. For the part of Mia, she chooses a complete unknown with zero experience. Arnold spotted Katie Jarvis at a train station after drawing a blank with casting agencies. "She was on one platform arguing with her boyfriend on another platform, giving him grief." However the performance is achieved, Jarvis is electrifying. If Arnold wanted a 'real' person for the role, this seventeen-year-old takes over the screen with raw adolescent power. Says Arnold, "I wanted a girl who would not have to act, could just be herself." Fish Tank will lift you out of your seat and on an unstoppable flight, ricocheting against confines of circumstance and imploding a dysfunctional family with its head of hormonal steam. Laugh, cry, hold on tight. You will need to. I could almost taste the vodka, as Mia goes through her Mum's dressing table drawers, bottle in hand. I wish all British films were this good.
Art shouldn't just be for highbrow types. A painting can have special
meaning. Even for an ordinary blue-collar Joe. At least that's the
message from director Pete Hewitt. This is knockabout comedy that might
make Woody Allen fans affectionately recall Small Time Crooks, even
though this film is very different to Allen's caper and wears its point
on its sleeve. "Great art is not solely the domain of the connoisseur,"
says Hewitt. "Anyone can be emotionally transported by a few paint
smudges on a canvas." Hewitt (Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey,
Thunderpants) has here come up with a grand robbery that is for love
rather than money. Three misfit security guards at the museum embark on
a dangerous journey to save the things they hold dear.
Decorated with a galaxy of stars, the Maiden Heist has been avidly awaited by fans worrying if it will see the light of day. In December 2008, the distribution arm of the Yari Film Group responsible filed for bankruptcy. Yari's Emily Lambert e-mailed the Globe saying, "I don't anticipate any screenings of The Maiden Heist in the near future," and producer Rob Paris went scrambling to find a new distributor. With a comparatively modest budget of $20 million, Paris feels he has got great value. "Our movie needed the scope the size of the Worcester Art Museum," he says. "It gave the film a look, a richness, that we otherwise wouldn't have gotten." The WAM is used to establish the interior of the fictional Boston Art Museum (BAM) in which our story takes place.
Scriptwriter Michael LeSieur had a top comedy actor in his previous hit (You, Me & Dupree) in the form of Owen Wilson. In The Maiden Heist, the chameleon-like talents of William H Macy first spring to mind as being suited to comedy, due to his Fargo fame, when he played the police story with subtle humour. Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman are better known for their serious roles, but we should remember that Walken has also starred in comedy (Wedding Crashers, Hairspray), even if it is to play the straight man against the likes of Owen Wilson. Freeman has had brushes with his funny side in Bruce Almighty. Heading up the supporting cast is Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Oscar playing an artist (Lee Krasner) in the art biopic, Pollock. But it is probably fair to say that all these great stars are known primarily for their power to bring great depth to serious dramatic roles. There were moments in The Maiden Heist where I felt they were bumbling through the comedy rather than playing bumbling heisters. I found this a bit worrying as I have deep respect for their work. But maybe other viewers could find the apparent mismatch of seemingly inappropriate casting oddly rewarding.
The big star of The Maiden Heist though is of course the central painting. Roger (Christopher Walken) stares at 'The Lonely Maiden' for years. First as a way to pass time, but now as a way to address or replace what is lacking in his life. The painting has become his passion. His obsession. Supplanting the passion he once felt for his wife. This particular artwork in the film was especially created by painter Jeremy Lipking. "When I first met with the director he opened up the Gabriel Weisberg book Beyond Impressionism: the Naturalist Impulse, (which is probably the most worn out book on my shelf) and said, 'We need something like this.' A painting in the manner of Naturalist painters George Clausen, Emile Friant and Jules Bastien Lepage. I had to finish the painting in 7 days. It normally would have taken me a month or longer to do something this size. I got artist model Toni Czechorosky help me out with the period costume." Macy's character, on the other hand, is obsessed with a statue. Creating it involved photographing a naked Macy from a three-hundred and sixty degree perspective. (The photographs went to a sculptor in Los Angeles, who brought in another model and photographed him in the same fashion before creating a mould for the statue.)
The Maiden Heist quickly sold out at its opening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It's a light-hearted caper that makes for undemanding viewing. I don't see audiences flocking to galleries as a result, but who knows? While Roger might find his wife has been his lonely maiden all along, many viewers may more identify with the bit where he flits to Florida with the missis. Missing out on the art appreciation stuff seems a convenient bypass. If this is the case, the film is somewhat hypocritical in its claim about art and the general masses. It uses the notion to entertain without encouraging us to seriously engage. LeSieur, who wrote the script as a film school thesis project, may well be an art enthusiast. But the idea that ordinary people don't love art is a bit worrying to those of us that do. Shortly after I visited (during extensive bar-hopping) the beautiful Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it was victimised by amateur thieves who posed as security guards. If you see me exit the Tate Modern with a naked William H Macy under my arm, please shoot me. Or take him back he is a high-value asset of the acting profession and should not be high-jacked. "But it was a maiden heist, officer. . ."
"Take your passion, make it happen," might be a suitable refrain for
Jennifer Beals supported by three stunt doubles in Flashdance. But
aspiring ballet dancers in the real world need more than heartfelt
In the West, we take 'art' very much for granted. A luxury to enjoy with a certain level of disposable income. Hardly a matter of life and death.
Even for penniless performers and artistic martyrs, it is rarely the case that social services will not ensure your survival if audiences are welded to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. And won't go to anything live unless it involves a rich grandfather's funeral. Billy Elliot, good luck to him. Hardly a starving Ethiopian, is he? For the kids on the bad block of Rio de Janeiro, life is slightly different. In the sprawling favelas, principal career openings for 17-yr olds like Irlan tend to involve white stuff you stick up your nose. "It's a short life," says his dad. "Either jail or the coffin." In breakout mode, Only When I Dance follows two young (real life) prodigies from bullet-ridden backstreets to international competitions with the rich and powerful.
Sharing some of Irlan's journey is Isabela, another talented young hopeful. And dance teacher Mariza. Mariza is from the 'luckier side of the tracks.' She lives in a sprawling suburb-the-size-of-a-city on the edge of Rio. Wealth is the norm and crime is quite rare. Barra da Tijuca and the Complexo do Alemão favelas couldn't be more different. But during the day they meet at a city centre dance school where Mariza hopes she can offer something to youngsters who have nothing. As well as acclimatizing them to the hurdles they will face.
Ballet is expensive, and the school can only sponsor so much. And there's the financial and emotional debt into which the youngsters' families descend. The stress on the teenagers and the burdens of likely failure versus the slim hope of success. Destruction of any form of social life beyond the all-consuming world of ballet. These are documented well rather than commented on. Although no-one stops to question ballet as an institution. To ask whether there might be something innately dodgy about twisting your bones into unnatural shapes for the rest of your life. People pay good pennies to see you pirouette on deformed feet, after all.
One of the failings of many films that try to appeal to ballet lovers is the strain of tailoring a story that fits in enough good dancing. Or finding dramatic hooks to excuse sufficient dance and justify the effort. Only When I Dance sidesteps both problems neatly. As well-constructed documentary it contains emotion but avoids cheesiness. Secondly, the main dances are competition ones that only last two minutes each. This yields a further joy when a traditional ballet piece is contrasted with an extremely modern rendition (dramatising the turbulent life of Nijinsky). This second piece will introduce many non-aficionados to a type of ballet they may not have previously witnessed. And without the fearfully long set pieces that dog otherwise excellent offerings such as Center Stage.
What I like about Only When I Dance is the way it shows how an artistic calling can be imbued with life-and-death determination. Young people from the slums of Rio de Janeiro frequently exhibit this desire for knowledge and betterment that shames the schoolchildren of richer parents. Quite simply, it is their only hope. A chance not 'to live the dream' but to survive where others will not.
Following the military regime days when education was stunted, many young Brasilians today exhibit a genuine passion for learning and the arts. You can queue for two hours in Rio for the midnight premiere of a difficult art film. Retrospectives from Maya Deren to Marlon Brando sell out quickly and box office prices are not an unaffordable luxury. Cinema bookshops boast works by Derrida next to those of Godard. So for anyone feeling sentimental about late 60's Paris fervour and taking to the streets for art, Rio can be unexpectedly refreshing. What I like less about Only When I Dance is that, in common with nearly all export-driven movies, it portrays Brazilian society as only two compartments. A downtrodden lowlife that is the mainstay of films like City of God and Elite Squad and then a nebulous rich that either cheat and lie on the beach or do good deeds. The vibrant mainstream middle-classes, portrayed in under-recognised films like A Casa de Alice, continue to be surplus to box-office requirements.
"Prejudice is my world," says Isabela's mother, commenting on class and skin colour barriers that officially don't exist. They are realities Isabela has to deal with. The gun battles outside their window and alluded to in the film were front page news in Rio at the time. We are left to assume the locals routinely shoot each other. What the film conveniently omits to mention is that these gunfights were front page because police were executing innocent people along with drug dealers.
The language of Palestine and Israel (and the latter is always part of
the definition of the former) is locked in words. Not just different
languages, but labels that classify each world in terms of the other's
views, experiences, history, culture. The result is pain. And the very
act of screening a Palestinian (or Israeli) film becomes a political
Escaping the tyranny of words, of narrow definitions, is one of the freedoms of dance. Especially dance not restricted to national forms. ("In every pomegranate there is one seed that comes from heaven." - old Arab proverb.) Says director Najwa Najjar, "I wanted a Palestinian story. A story different to what the world was used to seeing simply a story of Palestinians trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances, which has been (and continues to be) overlooked."
Zaid (an olive farmer) and Kamar (a dancer) have just got married. We witness the colourful celebrations. Two beautiful, intelligent people. The dialogue (or subtitling) is occasionally a bit clumpy, but on the whole it is a delight to witness the sophisticated festivities of a society with such captivatingly different customs to our own. Not that you or I can holiday there very easily. This is Ramallah. What follows next is largely anticipated Palestinian cinema tends to focus on dispossession in the face of the Israelis and is of interest for the degree to which it accomplishes this well and for the variations or new ideas the film additionally introduces. Zaid is soon taken into 'administrative detention' and attempts are made to confiscate their land. Kamar is torn between her duties as a wife and her love of the dance. This latter is complicated by the arrival of Kais, a choreographer returning to Palestine after a lifelong absence when his family were exiled to Lebanon in 1948. Kais has plenty to offer in the way of new steps and is seen by the amateur, traditional choreographer who heads the dance group as a threat to his status.
Pomegranates and Myrrh is the title of the dance performance for which the troupe rehearses. Although not explained, it is maybe interesting to note that pomegranates were eaten by souls in the underworld to bring about rebirth. Hellenic mythographers said both Kore and Eurydice were detained in the underworld because they ate pomegranate seeds there. Myrrh was traditionally an aphrodisiac.
There is a beautiful image of Kamar dancing at night. Her bare feet receive cuts from the hard ground. Ground which could so easily be taken from her.
For those uninterested in Middle East politics but just wanting a backdrop within which to enjoy the film on its own merits, Palestine has been an occupied territory since 1947. The Jews believe it is their promised land and that they have a right to live there, but so do Palestinian Arabs. In 1947, the then Palestine was divided into a Jewish state (which officially became Israel in 1948), and an Arab state that was shared between Egypt (the Gaza strip) and Jordan (the West Bank). Both the Arab territories were reclaimed by Israel in the Seven-day War of 1967 and since then the territories have been continually contested. The weight of history tends to be with the victors. But for anyone unfamiliar with the dynamics it is instructive enough and gives some substance to dry news reports of expansion of Jewish settlements.
Both Palestine and Israel are home to a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs. Many Israelis condemn the expansion of the territories (which is in breach of international law but generally ignored by the West). Many others champion the rights of Jews to live there. Some Palestinians are militarily opposed to infractions, some to the 1967 or 1947 occupations. Some just want a quiet life. Many, like Zaid and Kamar, don't think about it too much until it affects them. Why do we need to mention such things? Partly because the film doesn't manage to avoid or explain them, it merely documents. But since political questions will arise in the mind of the viewer, it is helpful to have a non-judgemental framework so you can squirrel them away and not let such thoughts dominate your enjoyment. The escape from such a politically dominated framework also formed part of Najwa Najjar's quest in making the film.
"The idea for the film started with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. Witnessing the daily violence, humiliation, grinding poverty, curfews, movement controls, assassination attempts and the tit for tat suicide bombings . . . I needed to find a way to survive, to find hope in what seemed to be a hopeless situation . . . Yet in this search I was also confronted with barriers in a Palestinian society those, which can hinder individual development, dreams and aspirations but none as challenging as those which force people to turn to lose themselves when despair, uncertainty and loss prevails."
Watching Palestinian films can be enervating. A fist beating on the wall of hopeless tears. So we have to find the song, the dance of the human spirit within. But there is also the danger that sorrow can burst into even less helpful avenues. "Pomegranates and Myrrh is in some ways a prediction of how a worsening political climate and the consequent lack of hope, can directly affect the Palestinian daily life pushing the society to further isolate itself and the individual to regress into conservative traditionalism and religion if there isn't hope, determination . . . a continuation for life." Najjar hopes to transcend the barriers of culture and language: "It is my hope that this story - told through the story of a woman, a love story, a story of dance and music, incorporating the events both internally and externally will evoke similar emotions and feelings in anyone confronting barriers blocking the achievement of his or her ambitions and dreams."
Sexual surrogate therapy is an interesting area for a filmmaker. Why
should a film from Israel about a seemingly non-political subject raise
such a furore? (Protests and a threatened picket surrounded questions
of funds when it premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival
something that is almost becoming an annual occurrence.) We can say
that politics shouldn't come into cinema, although this in itself is a
questionable proposition. Many reputable filmmakers Godard, for
instance have championed cinema as a political voice. But, if we do
hold the view that it should be above political disputes, we should at
least be able to identify politics within a film.
Without analysing the tit-for-tat arguments about accepting funding, or protests about illegal actions by Israel that have nothing to do with film, what is the political undercurrent of films like Surrogate? I'll deal with this first and then consider the movie on its other merits. Surrogate is about a woman therapist who acts as a sexual surrogate for a timid young man unable to form relationships. Professor Ella Shohat, for instance, author of Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, and Susan Hayward, author of Cinema Studies, Key Concepts, both identify two main themes that predominate in Israeli films. The first is 'Palestinian Wave' cinema. These movies, made by Israeli filmmakers, show the Palestinians as victims and seek to transcend the conflict through a love affair of cultures or characters. They present positive images of Israel but are ignored by Palestine which views them with suspicion. The second group is about the portrayal of women, the egalitarian place they supposedly hold in Israeli society (the truth being rather more complex). This highlights the difference and supposed superiority over Arab Palestinian women who, even in Palestinian films, are frequently acknowledged to be victims of gender discrimination. Surrogate falls into this category and so, if one accept the theory, is part of the media war against Palestinian culture. The corresponding 'media war' of Palestinian films is usually to show the privations suffered by expansion of Israeli settlers into Palestinian territory (films such as The Lemon Tree, or Pomegranates and Myrrh are recent examples). It is beyond the scope of this review to analyse the rights and wrongs, if any, of such trends in the respective cinemas, although readers might productively examine whether it pushes the cinema of each country to greater heights of artistic achievement.
Eli is seeing a (very expensive) sexual surrogate as part of his psychotherapy sessions. She is a 31-year old surrogate who discusses his case with the doctor before and after each surrogacy session. Her technique seems both believable and acceptable, along the lines of such sexual gurus as Masters and Johnson, who pioneered gradual, sensitive touching for couples experiencing sexual dysfunction. Each of Eli's sessions follows strict rules which he must follow. For instance, at one session, she gently but firmly says, "No breasts, this time," presumably to ensure he is not going ahead too quickly. She also has to handle his emotional responses as he tries (unsuccessfully) to form a personal emotional relationship with her. (She is quite firm that she has never dated a patient.) The degree of control she exercises is fascinating. A controversial reading might compare it to the calculated self-control of the high-class escort in Soderbergh's Girlfriend Experience and the very specific differences between sexual surrogacy and prostitution, while recognising (or questioning) the apparent degree of control the woman has in both situations.
Occasionally Eli's anger gets the better of him. He will try to force himself on her. Or shout that for the money he's paying for each session he could have lots of good looking women. The angry scenes carry a certain conviction. But the milder ones are more one-sided. The surrogate character is very believably acted. But I found it more difficult to believe in Eli, a handsome young man who, for the most part, seemed honestly at ease. In fact I had to talk myself into believing he had sexual problems in order to appreciate her outstanding performance. His nervousness seemed to me to be over-acted. Perhaps it is a situation that is more difficult for men to portray convincingly? One might recall the similarly documentary-styled story by Catherine Breillat, Sex is Comedy. Breillat's film showed a director (based on her own character in an earlier film, The Fat Girl) where it is necessary to coax a young actor to play a sex scene without a sexual ego that would spoil the story. Breillat's advantage is that she is extremely comfortable and experienced in directing intimate scenes and almost tricking actors if need be so that the right performance is achieved.
Similarly lacking was any sort of character building before launching into his agonised expressions of sexual inadequacy. Apart from the progressive nature of the sessions and a revelation about his childhood there is very little narrative development. With a running time of under an hour, some gentle massaging to expand it beyond the remit of a lengthy short would have been in order. As it is, we receive a taster but the end comes if you'll excuse the pun all too soon.
The French have a wonderful pedigree when it comes to detached
presentation of sexuality and intimacy. In the arts. In literature. In
cinema. There is a sincerity that trumps emotional expressiveness. Cool
analysis. Sophistication to make the most base acts highbrow narrative.
Philosophy and aesthetics trump detailed, full-blooded passion that is
embraced to the limit.
Laurence Rebouillon's West Point is an intellectually challenging, visually arresting work. It starts with an unexplained death. More than one in fact. Alexandre was thirteen years old when mother was murdered. His sister Jeanne, five. Alexandre, busy filming things on a video camera, was the only person found at the scene of the crime. will "Loved ones don't die to us immediately, they remain bathed in a sort of aura." His mother's body is found naked on a bale of hay. A stark image in the middle of a wheat field. As they recall events, the fragments of what happened, we piece together with them all the intervening mystery. Colour conversations and home video. Scratchy black and white. And that stark corpse, again and again. The golden field. Voice-over: details in graphic precision of autopsy. Memories. What happened. And where did our life go?
The years between. Alexandre has become a police detective. Jeanne has her own troupe of dancers. She is in a deeply passionate affair with another woman, Louise, who is a colourist. This film film is like a poem. Like a dance. Like a collage. Just the way memory can be. Haunting. Or sweeping us up in its strange and rapturous mystery. West Point is the place where you have to let go. It is the westernmost outcrop in Portugal. In Europe. Histories of European migrations, revolutions, are woven into a tapestry of human detail. The massive, brutal, 1982 wave of emigration. 12,000 Portuguese come to France. So many clues that pull at the heartstring, without giving answers. Our film might echo some of the work of Northern Ireland installation film artist, Willie Doherty (Ghost Story). He also excavated memory. The duty to remember. The duty to forget. How do we deal with loss? Or Godard. When he speaks of Israeli and Palestinian trauma (Notre Musique). But, although finding a common thread, Godard spoke directly to the intellect. Rebouillon, to bring us intuitively to that place of understanding. Her vehicle is the gentleness of the woman's mind. The sensitivity of touch. And our protagonist Jeanne, having navigated debates and arguments with her lover. Over the basics of feminism. Of politics. It is she who will eventually nudge her brother towards an impossible truth. She realised it is not the memories but what you do with them. "Memories ruin us with melancholy when her stunningly beautiful face forgets to age."
And their mother was not the only victim. "We found another body . . ." It keeps repeating. It keeps cropping up. Ultimately doesn't everyone die anyway? Ghosts of the flesh still haunt us.
Sometimes all West Point's poetic dialogue is very suggestive at least it can be once you work out the noir-ish ending. But beautiful, still, on the ear until you do. "We must borrow from the sun before the distant funeral." Sometimes it verges on pretentiousness. The sort that lovers use to a fault. Jeanne and Louise pledge themselves. "I'll belong to your every movement, your words of truth." But it can get over the top. As Jeanne beckons, "Kiss me with kisses from your mouth. Your love is sweeter than wine. The smell of your scent is exquisite, and your name spreads everywhere like oil." To which Louise replies: "Jeanne, your flowery prose is getting on my nerves!" But they kiss anyway. Louise can be just as florid when the mood takes her.
Deep expressions of love mirror the fact that the dead are living on in memory and won't let go easily. "If you go down there, by Mom's beach, tell her that from my tired heart the blood flows through my fingers." And will it be overdoing it to say, "Your breath is now filled with light, your lips draped in mist,"?
For lovers of this style of difficult and very French cinema, West Point is a work of rare vigour. A testament to the sort of culture Sontag might enshrine. A permanent treasure. As opposed to, say, a straightforward detective story for passive viewers (which the French also do quite well). For others, West Point will just be incomprehensible waffle accompanied by arty lesbian lust.
Does your other half have a hobby? Something that keeps them out of
mischief perhaps. Out of your hair for a while. Or maybe something you
find you can both share? Gentle-natured Daniel Bauer has a hobby that
takes him pleasantly to another level. It gives his work environment a
whole new purpose. He lives in a world where his boss makes fun of him.
He feels disempowered at his job (as a gardener in the Botanics). He
doesn't have many friends. So at first it's a worry whether his (rather
conservative and rather gorgeous) new girlfriend will find out. She's a
pretty clever cookie. But devoted to Daniel. Then again, this hobby
thing can be a bit more unusual than sorting a stamp collection dressed
in someone else's suspenders.
Daniel's hobby is killing people. Calmly. Unfussily. With the same detachment as someone putting the washing out.
He starts off just dropping rocks off a motorway bridge. Nice satisfying crash. (He walks on nonchalantly.) Then Daniel sees a bloodthirsty hunt. A poor little fox is killed. He steals a gun from the unlocked boot. At work a bit earlier the next day. Catch a morning jogger. Right between the eyes.
This goes on for a while. It's an itch he likes to scratch. Nothing personal.
Daniel's new girlfriend, a blonde co-worker named Jana, sees everything she wants in this shy young man. He at first rejects her, unable to handle the first date scenario. But eventually he gives in. It's a nice one up on the boss when the two of them are seen together. Daniel keeps the hobby secret. And he's discreet. Bumping off a botanics visitor here, tending the flower beds there. As if nothing unusual is happening. Daniel and Jana go on a short romantic break. Nice pastoral stuff, a romp that helps the pacing of the movie and also cramps his style. Just like the police patrolling the gardens now. Daniel soon feels poorly with the pressure. Jana takes time off work to care for him. And moves in with him. What devotion! I did enjoy Distanz. The casually conducted murders have a certain shock value. And Ken Duken, who plays Daniel, is almost a young Kevin Bacon. His character perfectly fits the psychological profile delineated in Copycat, where Dr Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) links the apparent 'normality' of serial killers with the invisibility afforded by white masculinity. The gory tabloid idea of a deranged serial killer is very distant from this. Distant from such cold-blooded reality.
Daniel, although sexually active, is a very repressed man. The character still epitomises to a large extent the non-phallic sexuality of serial killers going back to films like Peeping Tom and Psycho. A feminist reading might wish to ponder parallels between Daniel's desire to defile his victims (by killing them) and his attitude towards Jana. Both are convincing expressions of how he needs to define himself by replacing his sense of emptiness with a sense of superiority. And power over others. The film draws us into identifying with him, to enjoying a scopophilic pleasure as he goes where we wouldn't. We are like voyeurs as the camera takes us behind the bushes where he, unseen by anyone else, aims the rifle. The victim is in our sights. The audience wills him to 'get away with it.' A weak point for me is when Jana decides to stay with him after discovering his gruesome leisure pursuit. "You have to stop doing this!" she says. Which doesn't quite seem a strong enough statement from someone who's just discovered her bloke is murderously mad. Especially as she is not a Bonny & Clyde girl and certainly no Natural Born white trash Killer. Just a nice, intelligent, respectable girl who works at the office. This heart (or loins) ruling the head doesn't quite convince in this case. Even if she is devoted enough to not turn him in, surely she wouldn't stay between his blood-tainted sheets? As a plot device, it could be forgiven in a less-than-believable box-office action thriller. But in such an otherwise stylish film it strikes a weak note. You might feel differently, of course. Be swept along. And, like Jana, forgive such apparent contrivance. Her attitude would make ideal wish-fulfilment in Daniel's warped world. But I didn't find enough evidence to suggest that I was watching a dream-projection of his fantasies. The naturalistic, verité style of Distanz seems to preclude such excuse.
I find Distanz an interesting movie overall. I like the way it avoids overstatement and intrusive background music. And it displays some of the finer stylistic points of modern German cinema. But the genre is a limited one, and it is difficult for serial killer films to really stand out. Some of the best have been the freakishly unusual (Monster), the stylistically overpowering (Natural Born Killers), those heavy with double meaning (American Psycho), or ones focussing on the psychological battle between killer and detective (Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct). Distanz is a rather classier offering than, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But it struggles to define itself in an increasingly overcrowded genre.
The competent directorial hand (this is a promising debut feature), the careful evocation of mood, and the well-honed lead performance hold attention throughout. Even if the movie doesn't quite hit the 'totally riveting' highspot.
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