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Bad Boys of Summer (2007)
Another fantastic film about baseball and life from the makers of Change Up!
I saw Bad Boys of Summer at the 2007 Slamdance Festival in Park City last week. As filmmaker, Tiller Russell, mentioned in a Q&A, this documentary brought them and also brings us, as viewers, to a place few of us will (hopefully) get to experience, San Quentin Prison. Notorious for its riots, electric chair and Charles Manson, Russell and Mendell show us the human side of prison life.
In the opening scenes, we feel we've entered the prison, as a threatening looking convict turns directly to the camera and says, "What part No Cameras don't you understand?" Not at all exploitative, Russell and Mendell give us a complicated picture of life in prison as it is divided along racial and religious lines, with a set of complex rules regarding conduct that cannot be broken without dire consequences. The filmmakers gave cameras to the prisoners so that they could capture moments unavailable to outsiders. The prisoners, unsurprisingly, are amazingly aware of how their lives differ from those outside. For these men, the only link is baseball. There, the rules are the same, the measurements of a man very clear and historically committed.
Mendell's camera-work is edifying under what I imagine were less than perfect conditions of institutional fluorescent lighting, taking us from expressionist views of long lines of cells into the claustrophobic atmosphere of the single man's cell. We can feel the walls close in, especially when we are taken into Stretch's cell. A 6'8" pitcher, Stretch played for St. John's in the college world series. He practically has to fold himself into his bed where he shares with us his feelings about growing old in jail. One day he says, he noticed in the tiny mirror that he was grey. He doesn't know when it happened, if it happened overnight or if he just hadn't noticed. His family visits: his brother, ironically, a police chief and his mother fragile and in her 80's, seeing her son in jail for what could be the last time. Her comments provide the most heartbreaking moments of the film as she wonders aloud why the prisoners aren't given juice, as if he is still her little boy at summer camp, and yet he is in prison for murder and can never come home.
Teams come from the outside to play baseball against the San Quentin Giants. They are warned on entering that there is a no bargaining policy for hostages so that although they will try to keep them safe, their life will not be exchanged for a prisoner's freedom. And with that, they are told to have fun and play baseball. As they parade past the jeering prisoners lined up to watch the game, the dreadlocked prison bugler informs the visiting team, "There is no advantage in OUR house." As the golden hour sets in for the final scene, we realize this is not a film about redemption, these players are here for life or at least longer than any of us can imagine bearing, as Stretch says we don't know what life will bring so play every game as if it is your last.
Die große Stille (2005)
The moving postcard
This is the second moving postcard film I have accidentally dragged my husband to in the past few months. He's about ready to issue a fatwa. His big joke is to go to the bathroom and come back and whisper, "What'd I miss?" Because in these films nothing happens. The other movie like this we went to was Our Daily Bread at the New York Film Festival. In both films we see unmoving camera shots with real sound. Just whatever happens to occur in front of the camera during that time. Then a new shot . . . then a new shot. Maddening really. The real error was the producer at the Hamptons Film Fetsival who introduced the film by saying it was a three hour film about a silent monastery. Not exactly motivational. So from that point, my husband was seething so it was hard to enjoy for the hour that we stayed. I guess these occur as a response to both the shaky handy-cam cinema-verite style and the massive use of cgi and digital compositing. These films stylistically guarantee that what you see is exactly what was in front of the camera, unmanipulated by the filmmaker. For surely no one could create anything quite so boring. It must have really happened. Bonified verite. Yet, I really did, despite my husband, enjoy both for the time we stayed. They'd be great to have playing in the background during a cocktail party or a meditation session. Beautiful.
The Great New Wonderful (2005)
Beautiful - Subtle - Stunning
If hysteria was the symptom of the nineteenth century and schizophrenia that of the twentieth, The Great New Wonderful, confronts the question of what symptoms will characterize the twenty-first and what better place to look than Post 9/11 New York City? Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub) nails it when he says that he senses in patient Sandie (Jim Gaffigan) "anger" and "disappointment". These symptoms characterize the five stories that weave through the film.
In Emme's story we see a fancy cake maker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is trying to nab the top spot from competitor Safarah Polsky (Edie Falco). David (Thomas McCarthy) and Allison (Judy Greer) are struggling to raise a troubled, overweight, possibly violent child. Judy Hillerman (Olympia Dukakis) finds herself going through the motions in her Coney Island prison of a middle class life and in Avi's story, he (Naseeruddin Shah) and his partner face changed expectations of other people. In each anger and disappointment hold sway. The film has very subtle references to its post-9/11 setting. Avi looks up when he hears a plane pass overhead. Allison turns on the nature noises machine on the bedside table in an unsuccessful attempt to drown out the noise of sirens that fills the bedroom. And Safari Polsky, bowing under the weight of her own ambition, sighs when she says that after all that has happened nothing has changed. The tension builds throughout the film and the comedy becomes blacker as we understand the characters better and come to empathize with their symptoms.
Danny Liener, Sam Catlin and Matt Tauber do a great job weaving the stories together into a coherent whole, despite the ambiguities left in each story. The film does not attempt to answer the questions it poses, simply extracting them from what seems like a smooth exterior. Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian does an incredible job with limited time and resources creating a fantastic looking film.
Like Salman Rushdie's book, Fury, GNW illustrates the underlying anger characterizing contemporary cosmopolitan life and the fine line that separates civilization from the bubbling up of this fury and chaos. Add the post-traumatic stress of 9/11 and you get an amazing story of society and humanity. As Rushdie writes, "But our nature is our nature and uncertainty is at the heart of what we are, uncertainty per se, in and of itself, the sense that nothing is written in stone, everything crumbles. As Marx was probably still saying out there in the junkyard of ideas, . . . all that is solid melts into air. In a public climate of such daily-trumpeted assurance, where did our fears go to hide? On what did they feed? On ourselves, perhaps . . . "
Fightclub with roosters.
Cockfight is a feisty film full of unexpected angles and ideas. Filmmakers Tiller Russell and Loren Mendell obviously have an affinity for their characters and so are able to bring them out in a way that normal documentaries seem to avoid. Obviously, their subjects sensed this and were very open with them even when participating in illegal activities. Cockfight is not judgmental or preachy; instead it takes a real look at why people participate in this sport and why it is so important in certain cultures (both in the U.S. and Mexico and the growing blurry line between). They are also not afraid to question conventional p.c. ideas about cockfighting. In the film one of the interviewees points out that the life of a fighting cock is infinitely better on a quality of life scale than that of a Purdue chicken. The filmmakers have a real finesse with the camera, and so one gets the sense not so much of a staid documentary, but of a funky Godard film and the score by Graham Tracey is the perfect compliment capturing the beauty and passion of the scenes and the environments. This doc would play really well on an HBO or to an art film crowd in a theatrical release. Definitely as good Spellbound and with more filmic pizazz.
Change Up (2002)
A Moving Documentary
I had the opportunity to see CHANGE UP at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. The film is a documentary about two young Dominican baseball players who have quit school to try out for Major League scouts and get signed to the Big Leagues. The two boys are best friends and pitchers: one a 17-yr-old lefty and one a 16-yr-old righty. You can't help feeling for the boys who live in situations that in the United States would be considered severe poverty. The contrast between the precariousness of their lives in the Dominican and what you see of professional baseball in the U.S. is drastic. Their families are relying on them to "make it" and bring the whole family out of poverty. The film also demonstrates the free-for-all of Major League scouting in the Dominican Republic, where there is no organized draft and where kids' best chance of being signed is before their 18th birthday. Besides the story, the images of the Dominican Republic are beautifully shot. The movie would interest people who are not necessarily interested in baseball because it is primarily a human interest story about two charming young men struggling to use their talents to help their families out of poverty.