EDI (Piotr Trzaskalski, Poland, 2003). THEME: AN UNUSUAL CHARACTER WHO LIVES OUT THE ETHICAL AND MORAL PRECEPTS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS. Edi (Henryk Golebiewski) and his sidekick Jurek are part of a subculture in Warsaw that is a smidge higher on the social scale than skid road. They make a few zlotkys a day scavenging metal scrap, enough to buy booze and a little food. They share a fairly comfortable space in a deserted building. No electricity, but it is dry and they have a decent bed. The film concerns Edi's character - his personality and temperament, that is - and the relationship between the two men, who could not be more dissimilar. Jurek is severely alcoholic and sort of a dreamy fool. He thinks TV images are more real than his life. Edi couldn't disagree more, not that he's prone to argue a point. He is the supreme realist. He accepts the facts and the inevitability of his own life’s arc. A mild mannered man, he cares for himself pretty well (doesn't smoke, only binge drinks) and is a bit of a scholar: he keeps a refrigerator full of classics like Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
Bad things happen to Edi before this film is done. But he and Jurek survive, and with a certain dignity at that. There is an elusive, enchanting quality to this film. It imparts an intriguing feeling of serenity, even though it often portrays some rough stuff. This feeling is established in the very first scenes: of rain falling on the surface of a lake, of children playing on a dock there, scenes that are repeated with variations throughout the film. But I think the main source is Edi himself, who is so serene. Like Gandhi, he quietly and humbly faces adversity in a nonviolent manner that has profound effects on others. Although Edi's acceptance of his life matches the dictionary meaning of the term 'fatalist,' I hesitate to use that term because it is commonly used to imply pessimism and helplessness about one's fate. That's not Edi at all. He is able to act in a beneficent, constructive manner whenever the possibility for such conduct presents itself. He knows that at times his actions can make a difference. He works actively to identify such moments, for example, when he gives a present to a child. He is in fact a living realization of what is taught in Alcoholics Anonymous. He knows how to tell the difference between those things he can change and those he cannot, to act on the former and resign himself peaceably (not defeatedly) to the latter. At 100 minutes, this film plays shorter, though the pace is never hurried and often feels languid. A remarkable film! (In Polish) Grade: A- (02/03)
THE EEL (Unagi) (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1998). THEMES: AVOIDANT PERSONALITY; GUILT OVER BAD BEHAVIOR; REDEMPTION; UNRESOLVED GRIEF. Character study of a painfully socially reticent man, possibly sexually inhibited (as he is accused of being by a fellow ex-con near the end of the film), whose aloofness is further driven by his shame for having served time in prison, his concomitant fear of involvements that could lead him back to prison, and his unresolved grief about the death of his wife ("when I killed her, I died too," he says). Here is the storyline. A businessman viciously stabs to death his unfaithful wife, having caught her in the act of making love with another man. After serving 8 years in prison, he is paroled to a small riverside village, where he opens a barbershop, plying the trade he learned in prison. Several locals become his friends, including the priest who serves as his parole officer, the priest's wife, an eccentric man who has created an imaginative landing site for UFOs, a coffin maker full of passion for fishing, and a young stylish fellow with a hot pink convertible.
The barber rescues a young woman in coma following an overdose, and subsequently she takes up residence with the priest and his wife. She becomes the barber's devoted and loving assistant, after which the shop flourishes, until an old boyfriend comes after her with a vengeance, upsetting everything. The character study works: it rings true. The group of locals surrounding the barber are engaging. They are more modern than he, expecting and encouraging a love affair between the barber and the young woman, which only stiffens the barber's diffidence. She in turn conveys a traditional, utterly subservient attitude toward the barber (but not toward her old boyfriend, whom she counterattacks with great fury). The photography is magnificent, especially views along the river. The eel was a prison pet the barber brings along with him to live in an aquarium in the barbershop. The eel's life is sometimes precarious, and the barber finally, toward the end of the film, sets it free in the river, letting us know that his own spirit now is at least a mite freer than it was. Imamura took his third Cannes Palme d'Or for this film.(In Japanese) Grade: B+ (06/00)
THE EIGHTH DAY (Jaco van Dormael, Belgium/France, 1996). THEMES: LOVING RELATIONSHIPS; DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY (ADULT; DOWN SYNDROME); A beautiful, richly imagined film about love. Harry (Daniel Auteuil), a sales executive recently separated from his wife and two young daughters, finds a friend and role model for the importance of loving attachments in Georges (Pascal Duquenne), a young man who has Down Syndrome. Among several extraordinary scenes is one in which Georges watches from a window while the young woman he fancies practices a ballet number with another young woman (both have Down Syndrome) at the studio across the street. The film opens with an especially magical sequence based on the biblical account of the 7 days of creation (hence the film's title). Duquenne gives a performance that spares no detail of the emotional turmoil and prejudice experienced by Down adults, and it rings entirely true. The film itself does not maintain the magical feeling established at the beginning, later on resorting to a crazy, TV style episode, - when the gang from the group home steals a van, driving it through a shopping mall - to achieve a dramatic turning point in the story. But the central roles are wonderfully enacted. Auteuil and Duquenne shared the Cannes "Best Actor" award in 1996 for their work here. (In French) Grade: B+ (10/99)
ELEPHANT (Gus Van Sant, US, 2003, 81 min.). THEMES: ADOLESCENT VIOLENCE,MORALITY AND DISENGAGEMENT; EATING DISORDERS (BRIEF SCENE) . Elephant is writer-director Van Sant’s take on the 1999 killings at Columbine High School, and it is quite unlike Michael Moore’s in Bowling for Columbine. Moore used the Columbine tragedy to attack our national gun culture and make his customary self-aggrandizing display of performance art. Van Sant’s film is the polar opposite. It makes no pretense of being a documentary. It is a quiet, stylized enactment of events surrounding the shootings. There are no talking heads. In fact there is almost no dialogue at all.
Van Sant shows how easy it is to order antipersonnel weapons by mail, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it. He offers no easy explanations here. What he does is something Moore curiously overlooked: he focuses on the students. Shot locally (Van Sant’s adopted hometown is Portland), the film features non-actors in all the adolescent roles, students recruited by Van Sant from Portland high schools.
In a lyrical, surreal manner he depicts a central theme: an emotional core and a larger ambiance of ennui and indifference, loneliness and lassitude, that is apparent in everyone, kids and adults alike. This malaise, this deep disconnect, reaches out to grip the viewer, conveying the sense that nothing is quite real or matters much to these people. An elephant really could lumber through the dining room here unnoticed; or, people might even see it but not be upset or pay it more than passing attention. We are caught up in a grotesque, inchoate dream. The quietude, the long tracking shots, and non-linear plot development (several sequences are repeated, recursively, from differing perspectives) ratchet up tension.
The killing scenes themselves, when they arrive, are made enormously powerful because we are not distracted from the slaughter by any histrionics of the next victims. Just after observing a killing, a student can casually walk up to one of the shooters to ask what’s going on. Then he is shot. Witnessing the shootings in a vacuum devoid of sound or emotion strangely makes them all the more chilling, and one is left dumbfounded by the tragedy. In one brief, surprising scene after lunch at the high school, three girls enter a restroom, go to adjacent toilet stalls, and simultaneously induce vomiting, Van Sant’s tribute, apparently, to the prevalence of eating disorders among teenage girls. Elephant won for best film, and Van Sant for best director, at Cannes in 2003. Grade: B+ (01/04)
ELLING (Petter Naess, Norway, 2001). THEMES: OCPD; AGORAPHOBIA; COMMUNITY PLACEMENT AFTER INSTITUTIONAL CARE; COMEDY ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS. Two 40ish men - societal misfits who have roomed together for two years at a mental institution – are deemed fit for community living and consigned to share a state-owned apartment. Kjell is a gigantic fellow who can barely sustain a conversation. He longs for love, though he’s still a virgin. Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), a lifelong mama’s boy who’s proud of it, is a fretful elf who is terrified of leaving the apartment, and prim and prissy besides.
Kjell needs Elling’s sense of order and also his intercession to create a love life. Elling needs to hold Kjell’s hand to go to the store. Never mind the fact that Elling sheds his fears unrealistically as the film progresses. He remains a casebook example of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. From this overdrawn odd couple situation evolves a marvelously quirky, good natured, hilarious comedy about how people on the margins help each other negotiate life. This film is far superior to the 'prequel' that followed it, Mors Elling. (In Norwegian) Grade: A- (10/02)
ELVIRA MADIGAN (Bo Widerberg, Sweden, 1967). THEME: ADOLESCENT SUICIDE. Pia Degermark is luminous as a teenager enamored of a soldier. He goes AWOL to be with her, and this act tragically seals their fate. (In Swedish) Grade: A (09/98)
EMPATHY (Amie Siegel, US, 2004). THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPY; PROCESS OF PSYCHOANALYSIS AND PSYCHODYNAMIC THERAPY; BOUNDARY ISSUES IN TREATMENT. In Empathy, both documentary and fictional approaches are used to examine what director Amie Siegel terms the “tricky intimacy” that exists between psychoanalysts and their patients. Ms. Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay, is a poet and visual artist who is interested in spectatorship and how people represent themselves to others. The psychoanalytic situation is rich soil for examining these interests, since both analyst and patient typically, perhaps always, represent themselves in special ways, subject to special constraints and modes of withholding. They role play.
Classical psychoanalysts tend to adhere to Freud’s technique of minimizing disclosure of personal information, in order to facilitate the development of the transference. The down side of the classical approach is that by withholding personal reactions, the analyst may appear to be uncaring, callous, dismissive or unreal. This stance of appearing as a “blank slate” may even do harm when patients need a psychotherapist to be a real person, one who engages them with more spontaneity and candor. Contemporary psychoanalysts are often more inclined to work in an interactive, give-and-take manner. Patients, for their part, may consciously or unconsciously falsify or withhold information about themselves and their relationships for any number of reasons: fears of embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, punishment, guilt or loss of control, among others. These are the issues that Ms. Siegel takes up in Empathy.
To examine these matters, Siegel intermixes footage of four sorts: interviews with three psychoanalysts; a dramatization of psychoanalytic treatment; the process of making this film; and a segment about the relationship of psychoanalysis to modernism, focusing on architecture and the Eames lounge chair, said to be a favorite among analysts. Ms. Siegel asks the analysts questions like: Do patients lie to you? Do you ever lie to them? Is there an element of performance in your conduct as an analyst? Do patients also role play in treatment? Does voyeurism play a role in the analyst’s work? Is empathy spontaneous, or is it more calculated? The responses the analysts give to such questions are far ranging and, for the most part, convincingly candid. Interspersed with segments from these interviews is the fictional drama in which a depressed woman, Lia (played by actress Gigi Buffington), an aspiring actress, seeks help from another psychoanalyst (played by a real analyst). We are confronted by a number of issues as we watch their sessions.
The third element interspersed through the film consists of behind-the-scenes shots about the making of this movie. There are auditions, scenes shot from the perspective of the camera operator, exposed microphone booms, a cocktail party where the actors, psychoanalysts and film crew get together. A fourth element is an inquiry into the connection between psychoanalysis and modernism. Architects Philip Johnson and Dion Neutra discuss how modern design is often concerned with minimizing the boundary between interior and exterior spaces, e.g., through the use of large glass panels. This film is devoted to the examination of a central idea, that there are dual human tendencies to establish boundaries and also to dissolve or overcome them. Ms. Siegel demonstrates various ways in which boundary issues play out: the boundary between analyst and patient; between what is hidden and what is revealed; role playing versus reality; filmmaking versus film product. The final scene is telling in this regard. There is a man in Dr. Solomon’s waiting room seated next to Lia. She enters the analyst’s office and her session begins. The man in the waiting room goes up to the closed office door and puts his ear to it.
Empathy is not without flaws, but it is richly imagined, and it makes you think. It is a provocative, sometimes humorous, useful excursion into the world of therapy. It tears away some of the mystery surrounding analysis, but stops short of being disrespectful. Mental health professionals and patients will find this film absorbing, troubling, stimulating. I am less certain of its reception by general audiences. The owner of the theater where I saw the film said it bored him the first time through, but he was intrigued enough to watch it a couple more times, and on each re-viewing, he found the film becoming more and more interesting. For additional comment on this film, see my article titled "The 'tricky intimacy' of psychoanalysis." Also, check out the film's website at www.empathythemovie.com. Grade: B+ (for overall quality); A (for examining issues in psychotherapy) (03/04)
EMPTIES (Vratné lahve) (Jan Sverák, Czech Republic, 2007, 100 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: AGING; POST-RETIREMENT ADJUSTMENT; SEX AND LOVE IN LATER LIFE. Flawless, lighthearted comedy about aging, sex, love, sex and aging, made by Jan Sverák (Kolya, Dark Blue World). Zdenek Sverák, the director’s father, wrote the screenplay and stars as Josef Tkaloun, a 65 year old high school literature teacher who retires rather than face the humiliation of apologizing to an influential family for having punished their smart aleck son for back talking in class. (Zdenek Sverák also wrote the screenplay for Kolya and starred in that film as Franta, world class concert cellist and curmudgeon who is forced to match wits with a five year old boy in his grudging care.) In a word, Empties is way better than Kolya: comedies featuring too-cute kids often have trouble lifting higher than a few feet above ground.
Following his retirement, the immediately bored Tkaloun searches for the right part time job, finally ending up as the empty bottle taker at a supermarket, where he becomes the social hub for customers and staff alike. His longsuffering wife sees him as a fool who does not know his limits, his daughter’s marriage is breaking up, and his sexual fantasy life is expanding dangerously. Where will it all end? There is one side-splitting toss off line after another dotted through this film. Examples. Heard on a TV soap playing in the background of the Tkaloun apartment, She: “Which bank did you put it in?” He: “My money or my sperm?” Or, when Tkaloun and his wife are walking down a sidewalk and another man passes them, Tkaloun says, “That man said ‘Hello’ - now there’s a sign that good manners still exist.” His wife replies, “The man was talking on his mobile.” Or, when a familiar customer reappears after a hiatus, he tells Tkaloun, “I was in detox, my wife sent me, (shaking his head) there was nothing there but alcoholics!”
And on it goes. There’s the lithesome “sexual tornado” who makes tally marks on her belly: is she counting orgasms or what? There’s the old woman with a paranoid psychosis who talks about the people who break into her apartment to swap things and surveille her from a nearby rooftop. There’s the horny brunette teacher, and ‘Hunnertwasser,’ the wife’s devoted German pupil, and on and on. This film is a hoot from start to finish. Impeccable. With Daniela Kolárová as Tkaloun’s wife, supported ably by Nella Boudová, Pavel Landovský, Jiri Machácek and Tatiana Vilhelmová, among other bright lights. (In Czech). Grade: A (02/08)
THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Neil Jordan, UK, 1999). THEMES: LOVE; JEALOUSY. Graham Greene's sadly fated love story. A writer, Morris (Ralph Fiennes), falls in love with Sarah (Julianne Moore), the unhappy wife of a government minister, Henry (Stephen Rea). Their affair takes place in Blitz-wracked London in the early years of WWII and ends abruptly at Sarah's insistence after Morris is nearly killed by a bomb blast, for reasons that are not understood by Morris. Both suffer from being apart and finally they reunite after the war in a tragic denouement to their earlier passion. All three principal actors are outstanding. The story, adapted from Greene's novel by Jordan, is an interesting reflection on the themes of love and jealousy, and on a Godly force as the object of both deep belief and hateful repudiation. Grade: B+ (06/00)
EQUUS (Sidney Lumet, US, 1977). THEME: PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK. Richard Burton (the psychiatrist) and Peter Firth (the patient, a stable boy with a bizarre attachment to horses) provide a dramatically remarkable encounter in Lumet's film of Peter Shaffer's play, Equus, but Burton's psychiatrist is technically atrocious. Supposedly an expert with young patients, he makes every sort of blunder imaginable: he is asleep in his office when Firth arrives for his first appointment (having impressed upon Firth at their brief initial meeting the importance of punctuality), is emotionally volatile and unpredictable (once in anger he skips a scheduled session with the patient), lets himself be manipulated, and uses hypnosis and placebo drugs without informed consent. His conduct, in short, is almost entirely self-centered. He offers an excuse of sorts for his behavior in several powerful soliloquies. Like the maverick British psychoanalyst, Ronald Laing, whose writings were fashionable at the time Shaffer wrote the play, Burton’s psychiatrist despairs that his patients’ symptoms are desperate signs of sanity in an insane world, and that by curing them he is, like some ancient high priest, sacrificing their individuality on the alter of social conformity. Grades: (as drama): B+; (for clinical authenticity): D (09/98)
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Michel Gondry, US, 2004) THEMES: MEMORY; MEMORY LOSS; DREAMS; LOVE RELATIONSHIPS. Murray Bowen, a pioneer of couples therapy, defied convention by purposely stopping couples from talking to each other during sessions. To accomplish this he would engage one partner in long dialogues while the other was reduced to silent observation. Why? Bowen thought that this would provide an opportunity for the observer to witness their partner in a better light. Engaged in conversation with a relative stranger, he or she would assume a fresher face, in fact a manner reminiscent of the person to whom the observing partner was so attracted in the first place. Accretions of negative experience in relationships have a way of obliterating happier memories of what used to be. Or so it seems.
I thought of Bowen’s method while watching Sunshine, a romantic adventure story about the dire steps taken to end a relationship when a couple’s discouragement with each other looms large, after the infatuated gloss of perfection wears off and the warts begin to show. Dire steps indeed. As everyone in the world must know by now, the young woman, Clementine (Kate Winslet) avails herself of a new high tech brain altering treatment: the selective electronic removal of all memories of former lover Joel (Jim Carrey), at the hands of the good doctor Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his staff, which includes chief assistant Stan (Mark Ruffalo playing against type as a whiny nerd) and receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) who, we eventually discover, was also once a patient of Dr. Mierzwiak’s. Joel inadvertently discovers what Clem has done and in outrage arranges to have his memories of her erased.
The film opens after both characters have completed the procedure. They meet again while coincidentally heading for a beach where they had first met, suggesting that some nuances of their former shared experiences remain, however vague these may be. This is the first subtle hint of the genius behind this story. They don’t recognize each other, of course, but they are mutually attracted, just as they had been originally, two years earlier. We then proceed via flashbacks to review their first encounter, early love and it’s later souring. Clementine’s breezy impulsivity, Joel’s shy conservatism, features that once beckoned as delights, become sources of acrimony. When Clem’s finally had her fill of Joel’s critical suspicions about her fidelity, she goes for the memory erasure. Doesn’t sound like much more than a little sci-fi short story, does it? Well, it’s much more. Carrey, in a role nearly devoid of his patented physical comedy, is entirely convincing as the sober, almost melancholic Joel. Winslet likewise seems entirely natural as a superficially ditzy but soulful woman who only wants the basics in life: a loving man and a family. Their match of opposites is tender, humorous and believable, as is their fury in falling out.
But that’s not the half of it. The long middle segment of the film traces Joel’s experience of having his memories of Clem erased, and it is done with extraordinary imagination. (I say memories, though the nature of most of Joel's imaginings during the erasure session is much more the stuff of dreams. Critic Stanley Kauffmann calls this hour-long sequence the most convincing dream sequence on film that he knows of.) A scene glimpsed in trailers of people disappearing one by one from the lobby of Grand Central Station as Joel and Clem run through. Books disappearing from a scene in the store where Clem works. A memory merging sequence in which Joel’s easily aroused sense of humiliation is recalled in its primal form when his mother discovers him masturbating. These are only a few of many brief scenes that catch us up like a kaleidoscope. The whole context is so artfully arranged that it easily pulls us in, suspending disbelief and readily accepting the premise of memory erasure as entirely credible.
Credit Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay and director Gondry’s vision for this in part. Credit also the techie age we live in, a world where "gamma knife" electronic beams kill off brain tumor tissue and functional MRI imaging shows little parts of our brain lighting up when we’re depressed or crave cocaine. Never mind that you can’t rid the brain of old memories without destroying the capacity to make new ones. (That’s protagonist Leonard’s plight in Christopher Nolan’s highly praised film, Memento.) But what really pulls us in is the textured, believable love story. Who doesn’t know of the aggrieved lover’s wish to get the other person out of their thoughts, out of their mind. The seduction is so complete that we can feel the poignancy of Joel’s struggle in the middle of his memory erasure to stop the session, to awaken and preserve some remaining shreds of Clementine and the love they shared.
Unlike Kaufman’s narrative for his last film, Adaptation, where an inane ending betrayed a rich story, Sunshine ends very well indeed, its formidable loose ends pulled together as convincingly as can be, without tossing aside the main drift of the work. A terrific, adventuresome romantic comedy laced with rueful wisdom and with heart. Grade: A- for drama and the long dreaming sequence. (08/04)
ETERNITY AND A DAY (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece, 1999). THEME: DEATH & DYING; REMINISCENCE; REGRET. Bruno Gans is Alexandre, an aging writer dying of a painful cancer, who spends his final day reflecting upon his life and befriending an Albanian boy who is an illegal alien. There are numerous gorgeously filmed scenes, often the long and slow moving sort for which this director is known. (The visuals cannot be fully appreciated on a TV monitor.) Use of flashbacks is especially well done. We learn a lot about Alexandre's remoteness, his consequent regret over his inability to love or, ironically for a writer, even to know the language of love. And yet on this day he tenderly cares for his dog and reaches out time and again to help the little boy, who almost seems to run away from the aid offered him. (Cannes Palme d'Or Award winner in 1999) (In Greek - Gans spoke German and was dubbed...it's not a problem) Grade: B+ (03/02)
EVERY LITTLE THING ( Nicolas Philibert, France, 1997) THEME: PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL. In this play within a play, at an exclusive asylum in the Loire Valley, the patients and staff prepare for their annual outdoor summer pageant. This is a documentary reflecting present day circumstances at the hospital. (In French) Grade: B (01/98)
EXOTICA (Atom Egoyan, Canada, 1994, 103 min.). THEMES: PATHOLOGICAL BEREAVEMENT, VOYEURISTIC SEXUAL OBSESSION. SPOILER ALERT! Francis Brown (Bruce Greenwood) has been psychologically laid waste by losses: first the murder of his pre-teen daughter, then, two months later, the accidental death of his wife in an auto accident while accompanied by his brother, further confirming Francis’s awareness that his wife and brother were having an affair. Two years have passed, and Francis remains a tortured man, brooding, tense, sad. He has developed an obsessional habit of hanging out at a strip club on the outskirts of Toronto called Exotica, where he has eyes only for Christina (Mia Kirshner), a very young, demure dancer whose routine involves dressing in a school uniform and keeping her clothes more-or-less on except for flashes of flesh.
This is a major subplot, but several others are intertwined by Egoyan, who wrote the screenplay. Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife) is the proprietress of Exotica, a place her mother started years ago. She dotes on all the dancers and tries to run an upscale, tasteful operation. Her chief assistant is Eric (Elias Koteas), a moody, rough edged, long haired young man who acts as m.c. and d.j. for the club, building up the unique virtues in his introduction of each dancer, as he attempts to stir interest in the all male audience. He was once Christina’s lover and is jealous of her intense connection with Francis, even though he understands it. Then there is Thomas (Don McKellar), a quirky gay pet store owner who smuggles illegal exotic bird eggs into the country. All of these characters become connected after Francis, who is in fact a government agent, poses as an auditor to collect financial information from Thomas that will clinch the smuggling case against him. Francis makes a deal: if Thomas will go to Exotica and seek information from Christina about her connections to Eric and others at the club, he – Francis – will alter the evidence against Thomas and thus clear him.
We know all along that Christina and Francis each fulfill some intense need the other has. It is clear enough early on that she is a substitute for his lost daughter, though we don’t get the details of this loss until late, near the end. We learn then that it was Eric and Christina, helping in a massive search of fields two years ago, who discovered Francis’s daughter’s body. We learn that Francis was actually suspected of the killing for a few days before the real killer was identified. This left Francis with an indelible sense of guilt, as if he were responsible. He tells Christina over and over that he would never hurt her, that he only wants to protect her. We also discover almost at the end that years ago Christina had been a sitter for Francis’s daughter. As if this web were not complex enough, Francis also has replaced Christina the sitter with another teenager, Tracey (a young Sarah Polley), whom he pays to “sit” at his house while he goes out to Exotica, as if his daughter were still alive and in need of supervision while he’s out.
Three kinds of men frequent strip joints. There are the swaggering minor thugs, thrill seekers and hoody types; college kids; and lonely, empty men. If the complex tangle of characters and motives in this stylized film is a bit much – which it is, at least it does tell a convincing central story of the motivations and dynamics that can operate in a case of the latter type of man, one who seeks to assuage the pain of loss and loneliness through voyeuristic sexual obsession. The issues for Francis are anything but sexual in an adult sense, but have entirely to do with matters of loss, loneliness, culpability, and substitution of stand ins for the loved ones who are gone. Grade: B. (01/05)
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, US, 2000). THEMES: OUTSIZED, UNUSUAL PERSONALITY; HISTRIONIC PERSONALITY; CHAMPION OF GAYS IN FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIAN CIRCLES. A memoir of former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker's life and times. She's on screen nearly all the time in this short (80 minute) film, and we see her story from the time she met Jim Bakker in college up to the present time, when her second husband is released from federal prison, after conviction for fraud, and they are reunited after a two year hiatus. Tammy Faye, of course, is one of the reigning queens of tasteless kitsch, and she shows this to the max here, in dress, makeup, her home furnishings, frilly little dogs, and so on.
One distracting and strange aspect of the film is that each segment is introduced by two hand puppets speaking in high pitched unision some catch phrase, like "And then things got worse..." These introductions seem to mock Tammy Faye and her troubles in a rather nasty manner. Then - recalling that early in the film we learn that Tammy Faye herself loved making and performing with hand puppets, which was her first role when she and Jim launched their very first Christian TV show - it occurred to me that these puppet intro. segments in the film might very well have been her idea.
Like most written memoirs by show biz celebrities, this film certainly puts a positive spin on the Bakkers' troubles over the years. But despite the horrid glitz and the self serving slant of the movie, a Tammy Faye comes through here who is strong, resilient, impassioned and a generally good person, one who loves to sing, genuinely loves people and embraces diversity. (She was the first and possibly the only televangelist ever to openly accept gays, more recently starred on a TV talk show with a gay cohost; RuPaul Charles narrates the film.) I like Tammy Faye far more after seeing this film than I did before. Grade: B- (10/00)
EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick, UK/US, 1999) THEME: PSYCHOANALYTIC IDEAS, e.g., THE POWER OF FANTASY AND DREAMS. Kubrick's last film, awaited for 13 long years, cannot help but disappoint. Based on a trivial if gothic novella from Vienna in the 20s, updated to NYC in the 90s, this is the story of a well off young couple whose 9 year marriage has not yet been tested by straying sexual interests on either side. And then it is tested, mightily. Tom Cruise is all smiles as a charmingly naive physician who enters a vortex of curiosity, titillation, mystery, jealousy, revenge, fear, guilt and reconciliation, after his wife, Nicole Kidman, confesses her lustful adoration of a stranger she had only glimpsed while on vacation the year before. The idea of a physician to NY socialites in the 1990s being a sexual naif is hard to believe, as are the trappings of the orgy. Seems like Victorian era stuff, which indeed it almost is, as the story is based on a novella written in 1926 and set in 1912. Shades of Freud are also invoked by the more fundamental theme that dreams and fantasies can have the compelling power of reality. Well, yes, but didn't we know that already? Still, the film has an hypnotic quality, the cool precision of scenes and music that are Kubrick's trademarks. For more on this film, see my article, "Freud's Far Reach on Film." Grade: B (07/99)
FACES (John Cassavetes, US, 1968). THEMES: MARITAL FAILURE; LONELINESS; MALE HOSTILITY. Cassavetes's first indie film to break through to mainstream audiences, it won or was nominated for several awards, including several for C’s screenplay. The film features his trademark approaches: black and white cinema verité style, long takes with little (some believe too little) editing, and long closeups of the faces of his actors, most of whom are old friends from New York acting school who work for him for little or nothing, and whom he trusts to improvise much of their dialogue. The result is a fly-on-the-wall sense of witnessing real people behaving in real time. Or should I say misbehaving, for, with a two exceptions, no one behaves very well in this film. The themes are stultifying marriage, loneliness and hostility, a nastiness seen in every man except for the aging gigolo Chet (Seymour Cassel, a favorite Cassavetes actor). The other decent sort is the prostitute Jeannie (Gena Rowlands, C’s wife) to whom the disaffected husband Dicky (John Marley) turns after many rejections by his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin, like Cassel, an Oscar nominee for her supporting role here). Grade: B+ (06/00)
FAITHLESS (Liv Ullmann, Sweden, 2001). THEMES: REMINISCENCE IN OLD AGE; MARITAL CONFLICT; GRIEF; SUICIDE. Reflecting on a love triangle long ago, an aging director explores his grief and strives to find meaning in his past mistakes. From a script by Ingmar Bergman who, at 81, serves notice that he is not yet through excoriating himself or us in this new chapter of his relentless scorched earth autobiographical demon exorcism. An ingeniously constructed plot, and well acted, this work shows that Bergman is still spellbinding. (In Swedish) Grade: A- (02/01)
THE FALL OF ’55 (Seth Randal, US, 2006, 82 m.). THEMES: HOMOPHOBIA SEIZES A COMMUNITY IN STAID 1950s BOISE, IDAHO. Documentary recounting the homosexual scandal enveloping the city of Boise, Idaho, in the autumn of 1955. A local probation officer got the idea that one or more men in the town were arranging sexual contacts with several teen boys. He was brushed aside by higher ups (and eventually demoted for his troubles), but he persisted. The major newspaper in the state, The Idaho Statesman, got hold of the story and began a sensational press campaign to dramatize and exaggerate the matter. Rumors grew to suggest that the ring included many men and "hundreds" of male youths. A witch hunt of sorts unfolded over the next couple of months.
In all, 16 men were indicted, only one of whom successfully challenged the charges and was acquitted. A majority of the others, including a few prominent men in town, went to prison. Others left town, some never to return, including one of the most popular men in town, whose family ran a drive-in restaurant, and the son of a councilman, who was exposed as one of the boys who had participated. As a result, he left West Point in disgrace and killed himself the following year.
This film panders to shopworn stereotypes: homosexual men as simply predators upon the young, or such predation being the "cause" of homosexuality. There is no effort to link this story to any of the well recognized circumstances that involve anti-gay prejudices in America today. Indeed, in his recent interview for this film, Dr. Jack Butler, a psychiatrist who was brought in to advise Boise city fathers in the midst of the 1955 upheaval, states that this sort of hysteria would not occur today, implying that our culture has matured in its attitudes toward homosexuality.
Well, yes, there is some evidence to suggest that this is true. Walking around downtown Boise these days, you can see ads for an upcoming local Gay & Lesbian film festival, and a tavern not far from the state capitol states on its marquee that it is "Straight Friendly." But with all due respect for Jack Butler, who is my esteemed colleague and friend in Portland nowadays, I cannot agree with him that stigmatization of gays has eased all that much.
Nationwide, homophobic hate crimes are more common today than they were 10 or 20 years ago, even in the face of a general decline in violent crime. And anti-gay sentiment is evidenced in the widespread opposition to gay conjugal unions. Most importantly, sexual predation on teens, regardless of gender orientation, invariably, and rightly, evokes strong public outrage in any era. By not making any effort to generalize, either to the present day or to other locales, this film pigeonholes its story, isolating it in both time and place.
Beyond that, with few exceptions, this movie is poorly crafted. Monotonous, self conscious, vividly colored computer graphic images of stylized autumn leaves and fancy opening titles do little to set the stage for the somber, largely black and white, archival material that follows. Much of the film stock - scenes of the town in the 1950s – is of poor quality. Sound is also variable, occasionally not clearly audible.
The recent interviews with Dr. Butler and with Alty Travelstead, the late son of the restaurant owner who left town in 1955, are well done, really the best elements in the film. Travelstead's sense of having no home, after being uprooted as a young boy and drifting with his family from place to place, is poignantly told. By and large, though, this film is an amateurish effort. Possibly a good film could be made from this material, but it will take a more mature talent for screen writing and editing to produce a decent product. Grade: B- (Seen at the Idaho International Film Festival, 09/06)
FAR FROM HEAVEN (Todd Haynes, US, 2002). THEMES: MARITAL CRISIS BASED ON HOMOSEXUAL AND INTERRACIAL ISSUES. The kudos for this period film derive from the thoroughness of Haynes’s accomplishment in making a movie that is so amazingly well crafted to resemble a Douglas Sirk 1950s dramas (e.g, Imitation of Life, All That heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession). It has the look, the style, the story, the music and the manners of that time. Impeccably so. Stripped of these 50s Sirkian features, however, what’s left is a decent, well acted suburban psychodrama. We’ve had several of these in recent years: films like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, or Sam Mendes’s American Beauty. Those films too have been faithful to a period (1970s, 1990s).
The themes that set the principal players on edge in Far From Heaven - homosexual and interracial intimacy – would be problematic enough in contemporary white upper middle class suburban society, but 50 years ago they would have been incendiary issues or, more correctly, issues simply not brought to the screen at all. Cathy (Julianne Moore), a well off housewife, is plunged into a severe marital crisis after she witnesses her successful husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man. With her life spinning out of orbit, she responds to the kind support of her gardener, Raymond, a refined black man (Dennis Haysbert). A budding love unmistakably develops between these two. Moore, in the manner of those times, maintains a façade of composure and carries on, despite a perilous course that could result in the loss of both Frank and Raymond. Moore’s performance is faultless, while Quaid’s is a bit one-dimensional: generally speaking his Frank is a grump who drinks too much; but then, his plate is rather full. I was drawn most to the supporting work of Haysbert and the versatile Patricia Clarkson, who is Cathy’s best friend. Grade: B+ (01/03)
FEARLESS (Peter Weir, US, 1993). THEMES: POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD); SURVIVOR GUILT; BEREAVEMENT; NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES. SPOILER ALERT! Jeff Bridges stars as Max Klein, a successful architect who is among the survivors of a commercial airliner crash in a cornfield near Bakersfield. Moments before the crash, he experiences an epiphany: his life is ending, he realizes, and this produces within him not panic but a state of sudden serene acceptance. He reassures panicky passengers and leaves his seat, next to his business partner, moving up to sit with a frightened young boy who is traveling alone. His partner is killed on impact, but Bridges, who’s uninjured, stays calm and leads several other passengers to safety before explosions erupt. In subsequent interviews survivors recall him as their savior.
The experience is transformative for Max. He feels removed from his life before the crash, distant from his family. He spends a night at a motel in L.A. and doesn’t even bother to call his wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini), to tell her he is alive. FBI agents locate him and send him home. He chooses to fly, with no fear of the plane. Indeed, he now seems unfazed by stressors of any sort, sees no prospect of risk to himself in any circumstance: he feels invulnerable. He boldly crosses busy streets in mid-block. Even his life-threatening anaphylactic allergy to strawberries has disappeared: he can gobble them down with impunity.
Max disdains the maneuvers of a lawyer (Tom Hulce) to assure a sizable settlement for Max and for is dead partner’s family. He shows little interest in work and other routines. He’s short tempered with his son, emotionally isolated from Laura. Max now seems interested only in helping two of the other survivors: the young boy he had aided and a woman, Carla (Rosie Perez), whose infant was killed in the crash. He encounters Carla at a group trauma debriefing arranged by Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), a psychiatrist hired by the airline, who seems rather inept in his efforts to help these people, even though he claims expertise about PTSD.
Carla is especially hard to reach. She is mute, withdrawn, terribly depressed. Dr. Perlman arranges for Max to visit Carla. They end up walking into a church, and this marks the beginning of Carla opening up, over the course of many visits the couple share. Laura is understandably baffled and more than a little jealous about Max’s emotional estrangement from her and their son, while his preoccupation with Carla’s well being only seems to grow more intense with time.
Matters come to a head when Max exhibits more dangerous behaviors. In one incident, he drives a car into a brick wall with Carla in the rear seat holding a toolbox, to demonstrate how it was beyond her control to keep hold of her baby against the force of impact when the plane crashed. (This demonstration works: and there is a breakthrough in her survivor guilt.) After this, however, more cracks begin to appear in Max’s serene façade. Laura discovers in his den a series of disturbing paintings he has made suggesting death (each consists of a violent, chaotic abstract scape with a deep red vortex at its center). Max himself eventually seems to sense that he is on a dangerous path and asks Laura to “save” him.
The film ends when Max nonchalantly eats a strawberry and this time experiences one of his accustomed anaphylactic reactions, a bad one. In Laura’s arms and near death from asphyxia, he re-experiences moments from the time of the crash, when he is leading others from the plane. But now this memory is merged with an image of an intense white light at the end of the dark tunnel-like fuselage, and Max is walking slowly away, receding into the distance, toward the light. We know that if Max survives this attack, he will once more be himself; no longer a man living a dissociated life, denying his vulnerability; beyond the beatific state he has floated in for weeks, in the world yet apart from it. And we know that while he will regain much that is valuable and true of him, should he survive, at the same time he may also lose something of great value, a quality of the spirit, a sublime, transcendent element that had sustained him through a dark and terrible time.
I rank this as one of the best feature films about post-traumatic stress disorder, in a class with Ordinary People and The Sweet Hereafter. Rafael Yglesias, who adapted his own (then unpublished) novel for the screenplay, displays a keen understanding of clinical, psychodynamic and spiritual issues surrounding PTSD. Mr. Bridges is masterful as Max. His matter of fact portrayal is consistent with someone who has responded to overwhelming, life threatening stress through dissociation, splitting off his fears and encapsulating them in a virtually unconscious compartment, expressed only through his paintings and occasional, seemingly impulsive bouts of dangerous behavior. Otherwise he is serene, protected from his fears by denial, repression and isolation. Max’s withdrawal from his family and life routines is an all too common phenomenon in PTSD, and a cause of much family and occupational dysfunction.
Laura’s bewilderment is typical of the quandary spouses of trauma victims frequently experience. They feel shut out, and they are. The only clinical element missing is sleep disturbance: we should have seen some evidence of this in Max and Carla. Ms. Perez does a fine job of evoking survivor guilt and its associated emotions. The importance of a spiritual element also rings true. Frequently traditional interventions employed by clergy (confession, witnessing, meditation, expiatory acts) gain ground when added to counseling work with PTSD patients, where conventional psychotherapy strategies alone have failed. See also my article titled "Trauma and Transformation." Grades: drama: B+; clinical issues: A- (11/04)
FELICIA’S JOURNEY (Atom Egoyan UK/Canada, 1999). THEMES: ABUSE OF WOMEN; SADISTIC PERVERSION. A young Irish girl finds her way to Birmingham, England, in search of her lover. There she meets a most unusual fellow (Bob Hoskins) who is a gourmet chef and also has a less savory habit of initially befriending women in need before moving on to abuse them. With Arsinee Kahnjian as his famous TV Chef mother, "Gala." Grade: B (12/99)
FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher, US, 1999). THEMES: PARODY OF SELF-HELP GROUPS; ANTI-CORPORATE SENTIMENTS; (JUNGIAN) SHADOW SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE; TERRORISM; CLUSTER B PERSONALITY DISORDER. Edward Norton plays a milquetoast corporate lackey, earning all the money he can in order to buy all the latest expensive baubles of middle class life. On a flight he is attracted to a rough and tumble free spirit type, played by Brad Pitt, and seeks him out again after his condo is destroyed in an explosion. The two go on to create a clandestine men's club where the guys pair off and conduct serious fights with each other. This activity seems to be life-inspiring in a way that makes other self-help efforts pale. But club activities spread to terrorist acts against the established order, especially enterprises related to consumerism, like credit card companies. Norton's character gets seriously worried by this turn of events but can't seem to influence Pitt's character to stop. Then things get weird. Helena Bonham Carter plays the love interest.
There's a lot that is very funny in this movie, like the parody of self-help groups at the start. Carter is terrific in her most unconventional role to date as a determinedly neurotic wild woman, and Pitt is also excellent in his animal physicality. Unfortunately Norton's weak slip of a character requires him to keep his own visceral talent too much under wraps. Although the pace is fast and the sheer attention-grabbing entertainment value of this film runs high, the viewing experience ultimately falls short of full satisfaction for two reasons: first, a plot twist that, unlike that in Sixth Sense, is simply too extreme to sustain credibility, instead discrediting much of what had come earlier in the film. The second problem is preachiness: Pitt's character endlessly sermonizes on the tyranny of corporation-orchestrated consumer culture and the challenge to each individual to find the courage and the violence necessary to break free (even if this leads to one's own death). This bit of urban guerrilla philosophy is as old as it is overblown here. Grade: B+ (12/99)
FIVE TIMES TWO (5 X 2) (Francois Ozon, France, 2004, 90 min.). THEME: MARITAL FAILURE. Say what you will about French director Francois Ozon, he has a real knack for finding unconventionally beautiful, mystifying women, placing them at the center of his movies, and filming them unsparingly. His best works that I have seen are his two collaborations with Charlotte Rampling, who is more alluring and delightfully multifacted in middle age than she was when young (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool). In Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who plays Marion in 5 X 2, he has found another woman who shares in common with Ms. Rampling the capacity to convey a rich complexity of attitudes, motives and moods. These women keep us guessing.
Ms. Bruni-Tedeschi (a native of Turin, Italy, who has had a very busy film acting career in France over the past 20 years) is by conventional standards somewhat homely, even slightly equestrian in facial features, and she certainly does not have the anorexic stick figure of American pop ideals. But she commands the screen with her frequent demeanor of slight puzzlement, bemused more often than she seems to be at ease or enjoying herself, though she can express these states as well. She is hauntingly, mysteriously beautiful, and Ozon gives her the picture, just as he gave the other two to Ms. Rampling. (Ozon’s 8 Women, to which most critics were generous in giving mildly positive reviews, was a case of Ozon overdosing on his pet film formula: giving a film away not to one but eight beauties, most of whom, incidentally, proved surprisingly limited in their range of entertainment skills. Most couldn’t dance or carry a tune or do anything much except look gorgeous and talk small talk with a gravitas that only the French can muster with a straight face.)
There isn’t much else besides Ms. Bruni-Tedeschi to commend in this film. It is the story of the arc of a love relationship, crisply structured in five segments that move backward in time from the present. The segments in the order they appear in the film are about: divorce, disenchantment, the birth of the couple’s one child, marriage, and their initial romantic encounter. The husband Gilles (Stephane Freiss, who played the doofus husband in the goofy film, Le Grand Rolé) is a self centered man, incapable of extending himself in a genuinely loving manner; his limitations are most apparent when he avoids being by Marion’s side during a crisis around the complicated birth of their son. And yet Gilles seems to love his son tenderly. Marion’s stoical acceptance that their marriage cannot work out is certainly easy to sympathize with, though her own conduct is at times puzzling, especially her wedding night escapade and her willingness to go with Gilles directly from the divorce lawyer's office to bed at a hotel.
While this film is competently made, the material it churns through is all too familiar, the stuff of simple domestic pathos we have all experienced for ourselves, heard about from loved ones, or seen on the screen a hundred times before. No new ideas or perspectives emerge here. As film friend Marty Kinsella says, if you put the five segments of this film in chronological order, rather than reverse order, it would be a bore. There’s only one reason to see this film, and that is the performance of its female lead. And that is - though just barely - reason enough. (In French, English & Italian) Grade: B- (02/05)
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (Clint Eastwood, US, 2006, 132 m.). THEME: COMBAT-RELATED POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. SPOILER ALERT! Clint Eastwood’s new WW II docudrama, Flags of Our Fathers, begins grippingly in the midst of a nocturnal battle. On a denuded landscape, a solitary combatant stares blankly at us, his face transfixed with shock. We’re on Iwo Jima, and this is John "Doc" Bradley, a Navy medic assigned to a Marine infantry company. Or is this Doc Bradley’s combat flashback sometime in the future?
We move forward in time - which happens often in this film, as it interlaces combat scenes with fragments of subsequent history down to the present day - and meet Doc Bradley’s son, James. He grew up knowing that his father, a prosperous mortician, had been a corpsman during WW II and was one of the six men who planted an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, an act immortalized in an almost accidental photo by Joe Rosenthal that became one of the most famous pictures in the history of photojournalism.
The elder Bradley was celebrated as a hero, awarded the Navy Cross, and repatriated to the U.S., where he took part in a barnstorming tour of the country to promote war bond sales, along with the two other flag raisers who had survived. Thereafter, Bradley never spoke of his combat experiences, except for a single conversation with his wife of 47 years, on their first date, in 1946, and in one journalistic interview, in 1985. John Bradley died early in 1994, at the age of 70. Whereupon James - knowing there had been controversy about the flag raising, and also aware that his father had suffered from war-related nightmares and spells when he would become agitated and occasionally misidentify familiar people - resolved to discover the full story of his father’s time on Iwo Jima.
We return to the events of 1945 and get acquainted with the main characters - young Bradley and several Marines - as they kill time playing cards and joshing each other aboard a troop ship, part of a huge armada closing in on the tiny island fortress. The ensuing invasion is spectacular: hundreds of ships stretching to the horizon; the mass landing of troops and materiel. Then we move up close, to small scale battle encounters and more grueling images as Marines edge up Mount Suribachi, at immense cost (Ira Hayes, another flag raiser who accompanied Bradley on tour, later said that only 27 of 250 men in their company survived the month long invasion). Next we witness reenactments of the first flag raising and the second - the one Rosenthal photographed - on the morning the Marines won control of the mountain.
The war bond tour that follows, featuring Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Hayes (Adam Beach) and the third surviving flag raiser, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), is in itself a deeply ironic study of the exploitation of war heroes. Ultimately we witness the separate fates of these three men: only Bradley lived a relatively long and successful life. Hayes died of alcoholism at 32. Gagnon worked at menial jobs, also became alcoholic, and died at 54.
The conflation of truth, faulty recollections, bad intelligence and disinformation that makes up the "fog" of every war is laid bare here, well wrought in the central parable of this film: competing versions of the "facts" of the Iwo Jima flag raising itself. What's the truth here, anyway? Questions about heroism, sometimes addressed obliquely but never didactically, include: What makes a hero? What motivates combatants to fight with such seeming courage? What is the relationship of death and survival to heroism? Who is it that needs heroes? Or needs to pretend to be one? How fleeting is the fame of "yesterday’s" heroes? And what are the long term costs of heroism, to the individual and to society?
In Flags we are repeatedly confronted by the intense anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For Ira Hayes this mainly consists of extreme survivor guilt, depression, social dysfunction, and alcohol abuse to temporarily assuage his psychic pain. Doc Bradley has lifelong combat re-experiencing symptoms (i.e., flashbacks, nightmares, hints of dissociative fugues), guilt about not being able to save some of his buddies and for killing an enemy soldier when face to face, as well as the inability to share combat experiences with loved ones.
We see that some veterans, like Hayes, never surmount their symptoms, while even "well adjusted" former combatants, like Bradley, can experience more prominent symptoms in later life, often triggered by failing health or other losses. (Gagnon, sheltered from combat, apparently did not suffer from an acute stress disorder and developed drinking problems only later in life.)
In the case of Hayes, a Pima Indian, some viewers might mistakenly think that Native American combat survivors with PTSD are especially vulnerable to alcoholism, i.e., the stereotype of the "drunken Indian." In fact, alcoholism and drug dependence are equal opportunity afflictions, common in the aftermath of combat-related PTSD, irrespective of race or ethnicity.
The casting of relatively unknown actors in the key roles of Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon - and in most of the small roles as well - is both an asset (we are more inclined to see these men as soldiers, not actors) and a liability (so many anonymous faces makes for confusion about who’s who - it took me more than half the film to get everyone’s identities sorted out). Credit Eastwood’s direction for the fact that most of the performances are very good.
Flags evoked a deepening melancholy within me that came to a head when Doc Bradley’s dies late in the film. At the end, I wept openly, something I rarely do watching movies. I was crying for the loss of my father. For the loss of life and the psychological and physical crippling of survivors caused by wars. And for other losses of perhaps equal gravity: the corruption of innocence and of morality in the wake of war; the waste of vast resources that might have been spent on more redeeming social or environmental projects.
Flags deserves to be included in the first rank of movies that examine the psychosocial costs of war (particularly for its emphasis on long-lasting sequelae of war trauma), along with All Quiet on the Western Front and Mrs. Dalloway (the subplot about the “shell shocked” soldier, Septimus Smith) (both about WW I); The Best Years of Our Lives and Thin Red Line (WW II); Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (Vietnam); and the Danish film, Brothers (Brødre), about a NATO peacekeeper forced by his captors to kill a comrade (post 9/11 Afghan war). Grade: A- (10/06)
FLESH AND BONE (Steve Kloves, US, 1993). THEMES: AVOIDANT PERSONALITY; INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT. Here’s a nifty sleeper. Superb acting by all four principals and a stellar screenplay grace this tale of payback for evil in a tough, taut film set in the dusty hardscrabble Texas flatlands. Dennis Quaid plays a man weighed down with a burden of despair he has carried all his adult life, a joyless loner making his rounds, tending to vending machines in a score of small, forlorn towns. Along the way he meets a reckless woman (Meg Ryan) who is down on her marital luck. They also encounter a tough young psychopathic woman who steals from everyone, even the dead (Gwyneth Paltrow in her first substantial screen role). She turns out to be partnered with Quaid’s estranged father, an aging, nomadic thief and worse (James Caan). We learn in the very first scenes of the film the basis of Quaid’s later despondency. But the story unfolds some 30 years later in a series of unexpected turns. The dialogue is always crisp, fresh, real, devoid of clichés. The film is blunt and unsentimental. These are entirely believable people living out a terrible, oddly twisted, fateful drama of justice, redemption and the limits of these forces. Grade: A- (10/02)
FOLLOWING (Christopher Nolan, UK, 1999). THEME: VOYEURISM. This was the first feature film created by Nolan, who more recently wrote and directed the cult hit Memento. Nolan wrote and directed this brief (70 min) film, and also shot it, largely using a hand held camera, in a grainy black and white. The central character is "Bill," a 20-something unemployed would-be writer (Jeremy Theobald, who also co-produced with Nolan), who follows strangers around London, possibly - as he tells us - because it might supply material for writing, but more likely because of a twisted voyeuristic obsession. With two films to compare, certain patterns about Nolan's work begin to emerge. He is interested in lowlifes.
Nolan is especially intrigued with the power of film to manipulate time. Time contrivances were at the heart of Memento, in which the film opens in the present, then moves backward stepwise in overlapping flashback segments, gradually revealing the characters and the course of events that led to action in the first scenes. In Following, Nolan did the opposite: he begins at the beginning when Bill first starts to follow people, although his narration over the visuals is retrospective. We then get various flash forwards: Bill well groomed in a suit, rather than sleazy looking with a scraggly goatee; Bill, still in his suit, but with bruises and cuts on his face. Other characters weave into his experience: the slick burglar whom Bill has been following (Alex Haw); a glamorous woman whose flat the two burglarize; an older man seen interviewing Bill. Gradually the story between these flash forwards fills in, giving the flashes context.
In both films Nolan is also interested in the blurry boundary between innocence and guilt, or better put, the possibility that he who professes innocence may in fact be guilty. There is a raw quality to Following, partly attributable to low budget product and partly intended. The characters in this film are raw people. They are callous and manipulative and do bad things to one another. Bill may be the most innocent among them: certainly he is as fearful as he is titillated by his own increasingly nefarious and dangerous acts. But if, in the end, it seems that Bill himself is the person who has most been taken advantage of, still, along the way, he has learned to steal, cheat and do considerable violence to others. Quite an ingenious first film. Grade: B- (12/01)
FRANCES (Graeme Clifford, US, 1982). THEMES: COMMITMENT AND PUBLIC HOSPITAL (MIS)TREATMENT IN 1940s-50s. This is a mediocre biopic of the tragic life of actress Frances Farmer. The film does feature a career-making, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role by Jessica Lange and addresses several significant mental health issues. The biographical account here is accurate in many respects, but way off in others (the most glaring example is the entirely fictional character, Harry York, played by Sam Shepard, an admirer, an aid in various escapes, and occasionally a lover of Frances’s). Perhaps the most useful thing I can do here is to summarize an accurate account of Farmer's life and problems. She was born in Seattle in 1913, won a national essay contest at 16, studied drama at U. Washington, won a trip to Russia, and in 1935, at age 23, came under contract following a screen test at Paramount Studios. Over the next 6 years, she made 18 pictures, starring in several, and appeared in 3 Broadway plays, 30 major radio presentations and 7 summer stock theater companies. She had swiftly traversed from new starlet to major dramatic talent. She married the actor Leif Erickson in 1936.
Ms. Farmer had a maverick temperament: she resisted conforming to expectations for young contract players in Hollywood, and later felt betrayed by Clifford Odets after performing in his 1937 Broadway hit, “Golden Boy,” and sharing their brief affair. She had wished to remain a stage actress but was forced to return to Hollywood when the studio chief brought various pressures to bear. She began to use alcohol and amphetamines (benzedrine) excessively, and her behavior became more erratic and marked by disruptive angry displays. Her marriage to Erickson ended. She violated probation rules after an arrest for driving in a dim-out zone at night (it was wartime, in 1942) and raised a ruckus in court, leading to psychiatric evaluation. She was diagnosed as manic-depressive (though her mood swings could easily have been caused by substance abuse, this association was not widely appreciated in that era), and wound up in 1943 in a private mental hospital for the film industry, where she received 90 insulin coma treatments. She escaped in 1944 and returned to her family home in Washington. But in 1945, following further erratic behavior, her mother had her committed to the Western State Hospital at Steilecoom. ECT and hydrotherapy followed. She seemed better, was discharged, but was readmitted in 1945 by her mother, who had been appointed her guardian.
This time she endured a five year commitment, more ECT, repeated sexual abuse by orderlies and soldiers, who were allowed into the women’s wards for sex for a price. She was also a subject in several early antipsychotic drug trials. Whether she had a peri-orbital partial frontal lobotomy during this admission is conjectural. It is known that the leading proponent of this procedure, Dr. Walter Freeman, visited the hospital, perhaps in 1948, and had a private 1:1 session with Ms. Farmer while there. Hospital staff passed rumors that Freeman had performed a lobotomy during this unwitnessed meeting, but this has never been adequately verified. (Actually, a majority of patients subjected to the peri-orbital partial leucotomy procedure suffered sustained and obvious mental impairment and personality change, which eventually led to abandonment of the method. It is difficult for me to reconcile Ms. Farmer’s ability to host a TV show years later with the notion of her having undergone such a procedure.)
She was released from the hospital in 1950, soon remarried, spent much of the next six years aiding her aging parents (her mother died in 1955, her father the following year), and also resumed excessive alcohol use. She worked at menial jobs and was discovered by a reporter clerking in a hotel. 1958 was a pivotal year for Ms. Farmer. She divorced, remarried a third husband, and was selected to appear on Ralph Edwards’s TV show, “This is Your Life” (the only person ever to appear on the show who knew in advance she had been selected, she had in fact asked to appear in order to help rebuild her lurid reputation). On the Edwards program, she seemed emotionally neutral and serene, but perhaps less quick witted than in the past. Although some wonder if this reflected the effects of the extreme physical treatments she had sustained, it is also possilbe that her alcohol abuse affected her conduct.
She also was given a small role in a 1958 Hollywood film, her last (a dreadful thing called The Party Crashers), and that same year she landed a good job hosting a daily TV variety/talk show in Indianapolis, Indiana, “Frances Farmer Presents.” She and her new spouse soon became estranged and never reconciled. She continued to host the TV program for six years, until 1964. One account says that her drinking resulted in her being fired at that point. Accounts vary about her last years. One source said she died destitute, her spirit broken. But another said she lived her final days in “contented obscurity,” within a circle of friends in Indiana. She died of esophageal cancer at age 56 in 1970.
The screenplay strongly invites the inference that Ms. Farmer did not suffer from a serious mental disorder, at least not one that was persistent to the degree that extreme measures for treating intractable psychosis were justified. Erratic behavior, lack of punctuality, frequent disappearances, and hostile tirades were common. But these could be attributable to substance abuse or an unstable ("borderline") personality. The case is also made in the film that Frances and her mother, Lillian (ably played by Kim Stanley) were locked in a severe running conflict about ambition. Lillian is portrayed as a brilliant and forceful woman constrained from fulfilling her personal ambitions for achievement, who instead attempts to live out her personal vision vicariously through Frances. It becomes mother’s need to have Frances return to Hollywood, after Frances has (no doubt wisely) decided that such a return might put her once again amid stresses that could well lead to relapse into substance abuse and emotional instability. They battle over this, and mother interprets Frances’s belligerent refusal to consider restarting her career as a sign of relapse into mental illness. This leads to Frances's final prolonged and highly destructive period of incarceration. We do not know to what extent there is a factual basis for this part of the story.
The film illustrates the power of relatives and mental health professionals in that era to arrange long periods of commitment for patients on tenuous clinical grounds, the lack of safeguards in applying extreme physical treatments, and the horrid conditions in public facilities at that time. The film demonstrates why reform in the commitment laws was necessary as well as the need to protect patients from unnecessary application of more hazardous treatments. Today ECT is administered far less often, more safely, its use is based upon more accurate diagnosis, and in many locales independent pre-treatment review (“second opinion”) is required. Neurosurgical procedures for behavior disorders employ precise, stereotactic microsurgical methods and are now limited by and large to rare cases of uncontrollable obsessive compulsive disorder.
In terms of cinematic values, this film plods along under the severe weight of predictable melodrama. The first hour is an unremarkable Hollywood story: quirky, spirited young woman goes to Hollywood to seek fame and is beaten down by the system. Ho Hum. The second hour follows Ms. Farmer’s descent into psychiatric Hell. Something viewers had seen beginning in the late 40s with The Snake Pit, then Shock Corridor in 1963, and so on. The hospital scenes near the end in Frances are certainly among the most lurid Hollywood has produced. The purpose and place of the fictional character Harry York in the film narrative is never clear. The scenes surrounding the alleged lobotomy are fictionalized for no reason other than to exaggerate Ms. Farmer’s victimization, which is clear enough without the factually flawed lobotomy scenes. I cannot recommend this film on dramatic grounds, though it is worth watching for its grimly accurate account of the wretched problems plaguing public hospital psychiatry at mid-20th century. And Ms. Lange’s turn as Frances is outstanding. Grade: dramatic values, structure and script, C; acting: A-; psychiatric issues, B (10/04)
FUNNY BONES (Peter Chelsom, UK, 1995). Oliver Platt and English physical comedian Lee Evans are half brothers who are opposites in this extraordinary exploration of the nature of comedy. A deadly serious and outrageously funny film, one that plumbs the darker ("black") aspects of humor, with wonderful turns by Leslie Caron, Jerry Lewis and an army of very engaging vaudeville and circus style entertainers. For more, see my article, "The Anatomy of Comedy." Grade: A (06/99)
THE GAMBLER (Karel Reisz, US, 1974). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL GAMBLING. There aren’t many films about pathological gamblers, and even the best of them can be rather tedious to watch, like films about heroin addicts or hard porn. Your basic script? Gambler loses money he cannot afford, then gets into a spiral of ever increasing trouble – marked by more gambling and frantic efforts to borrow or steal money - trying to keep a step ahead of his creditors, who are sometimes pretty nasty folks. Here James Caan, as gambling-addicted college professor Alex Freed, displays several features often described for these sorts. For one thing, he has a sense of omnipotence. “I’ve got magic powers,” Alex says at one point. “I’m scorching. I’m hot as a pistol.” A bit later, when one of his rare winning streaks is challenged, he protests, saying “I’m blessed.” And so he is, for a short while. The quest for excitement is often a component described by gamblers. Alex says “I like the threat of losing. I love to win. But if all my bets were safe ones, there wouldn’t be any ‘juice.’ ” The film ends as Alex transfers his danger-seeking from the game tables into a back alley encounter with a knife wielding pimp. For more on this and other films about gamblers, see my article, "Gamblers on Screen: Just a Few Worth Betting On." Grade: B- (portrayal of pathological gambler by Caan: A-) (08/03)
GARDEN STATE (Zach Braff, US, 2004). THEME: PSYCHIATRIST'S FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS. Fresh, tender, quirky and genuine, the adjectives just want to pour forth to describe this marvelous romantic comedy/coming-of-age story. First time writer-director Braff also stars as Andrew, a 25 year old, marginally employed actor in LA who returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. He hasn’t been around his old friends or seen much of his father since he was sent off to boarding school at 16. Several disparate forces move Andrew now to rethink his life. The film concerns these developments that will reshape his future. The first, of course, is the death of Andrew’s mother. We never meet her but learn that she had been rendered paraplegic years earlier, when she fell in the kitchen, after being pushed by an angry 9 year old Andrew. Plagued by poorly controlled emotions after that (what kid wouldn’t be?), Andrew was placed on medications to blunt his moods by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm, in a minor role), and had remained emotionally numbed by meds for the past 15 years. He was dispatched to boarding school for the same reason, we also learn, to decompress the emotional angst in the family household. Amazingly, we are informed of Andrew’s past without resort to a single flashback.
Dissatisfied with the course of his career and life in LA, Andrew decides to stop taking his mood stabilizing medication upon learning of his mother’s death. Back in the suburb where he grew up, reunions with old chums now contribute to Andrew’s unfolding self reappraisal. More importantly, he meets Samantha – Sam (Natalie Portman), an inquisitive young woman who seems to care about and accept him from the getgo. In the end it is the budding romance with Sam that catalyses Andrew’s resolve to change his life. But this could not have occurred without him freeing himself of the enormous burden of guilt for causing his mother’s paralysis, a burden only made worse by his father’s misguided “treatment” of Andrew’s non-existent mood disorder and his virtual banishment from the family. He confronts his father about these matters in one of the film’s more moving scenes.
Among several reasons why this film works so well, perhaps the most important is the lack of schmaltz. There is not a single note of over-the-top melodrama or pathos here. No shouting or screaming. We are never insulted by any belaboring of the obvious psychological nuances in play. Braff writes with respect for the intelligence of his audience. Many little scenes and plot twists delight because they are unexpected gifts. The off key pop solo sung by Andrew’s aunt at Mother’s funeral. Various people living in odd circumstances. One old buddy got rich selling his invention of soundless Velcro and now trundles down the corridors of his unfurnished McMansion in a golf cart. Another buddy, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), sells jewelry he acquires in a highly unusual manner. Braff also writes simple yet refreshing dialogue, with plenty of offbeat humor, yet none of it is strained, nothing is played self-consciously for laughs.
Braff himself has a warm, easy-to-watch screen presence. He can say nothing during the lull in a conversation, while the camera remains focused on his face, and it feels right. Portman and Sarsgaard are also genuine, each wonderfully relaxed in their roles. Production design is superb: details in every scene are arranged well, and the photography, by Lawrence Sher, is - like the story and the acting – unpretentious, never distracting, tricky or cute. This film never seems to manipulate us; instead it engages us, arouses our curiosity and amusement, bids us gently to care about Andrew and Sam and even Mark, leaving us entertained in the best sense. This movie is as confident, as secure in itself, as comforting, as a well worn pair of house slippers or your favorite reading chair. A splendid film. Grade: A- (09/04)
GEORGIA (Ulu Grosbard, US, 1995). THEME: DRUG AND ALCOHOL ABUSE. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a skinny, raunchy, hyperkinetic grunge singer strung out on dope and alcohol whose failing life stands in stark contrast to her older sister’s success as a singer. For more on this film, see my article, "Good to the Last Drop." Grade: B+ (1996)
THE GIN GAME (Arvin Brown, US, 2003). THEME: OLDER ADULTS STRUGGLING TO ADAPT TO LIFE IN A NURSING HOME. Fonsia Dorsey (Mary Tyler Moore) and Weller Martin (Dick Van Dyke) are two older adults whose paths cross in a second rate nursing home for people dependent on Medicaid. Amidst a group of residents generally more dysfunctional than themselves, these two proud people get acquainted, after a fashion, over gin rummy games. Neither is demented and so each retains the capacity to reflect on their own lives and perpetrate whatever evasions, conceits, and self flattering narratives they choose. But their gin games turn more embittered when Fonsia consistently beats Weller, the self styled master player, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Weller has a vile temper and provokes Fonsia, who in turn takes off her wraps of primness and gets in a few verbal wallops in return. Their bitterness is engendered not only by past disappointments in life that they have sustained, but also by the sad circumstances of their present lot in life, waiting to grow old and feeble in the faux coziness of the nursing home. Van Dyke’s character is quite consistent throughout. He’s a curmudgeon with a pathological penchant for losing control of his anger. Moore’s character changes in ways that don’t seem as believable. Her swearing near the end seems way off the mark, not in keeping with her controlled, Presbyterian persona, however credible her longstanding resentments might be. But both of these venerable stars offer energetic, absorbing turns. Van Dyke, early on, is as funny as he ever was. D. L. Coburn adapted his stage play in this 90 minute production for PBS that premiered on May 4, 2003. VHS/DVD copies are available from PBS. Grade: B (05/03)
Add on The Gin Game: Psychoanalyst Eric Erikson said that the primary developmental task of old age was to face up to potential despair by confronting one's regrets and disappointments and finding a means to achieving peace of mind, what he termed "ego integrity," through self forgiveness and letting go of old grievances toward others. Gerontologist Robert Butler spoke of the importance of "life review" in old age - recounting the narrative of one's own life and through this review accomplishing the tasks Erikson set forth. The two protagonists in this drama have had many negative life experiences and are stuck in their negative memories and feelings about the past. A better residential care setting might offer them a professionally guided experience in life review and the working through of old hurts and regrets. All too often, in meager facilities such as the one where these people live, such professional assistance is unfortunately lacking.
GIRL, INTERRUPTED (James Mangold, US, 1999). THEMES: INPATIENT TREATMENT; ADOLESCENT PERSONALITY DISORDERS AND DEPRESSION. An authentic portrayal of life on a private adolescent psychiatric ward in the late 1960s, featuring Winona Ryder (thin, pale, depressed and self destructive) and Angelina Jolie (sexy, hypomanic, borderline personality disorder). They and the other patients try to cobble together some semblance of normal adolescent experience amidst the bizarreness of the hospital milieu. For more on this film, see my article titled "Psychiatry Sixties Style, Interrupted." Grades: (dramatic grounds): B; (clinical authenticity): A- (01/00)
GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (Patrice Leconte, France, 2000). THEMES: SUICIDE; MUTUALLY SUSTAINING LOVE RELATIONSHIP. SPOILER ALERT! Wonderful fable about love, luck, life and death. It's the latest variation on the story of the world-weary tramp who meets the gamin, a film theme made famous by Charlie Chaplin. This version is ingenious and spellbinding. Daniel Auteuil is Gabor, a down and out circus knife thrower who contemplates suicide. At the side of a bridge where he might jump, he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), a young nymph whose impulsive infatuations have led her to one heartbreak after another and who is also on the verge of jumping. Buoyed by her vitality and beauty, Gabor encourages Adele to team up with him, and suddenly their mutual fortunes turn positive. They find lucrative venues for their act, and through telepathy Gabor guides Adele to win repeatedly at roulette. Their knife throwing act becomes highly eroticized for them both, but Adele keeps straying to other men for sex, and the pair finally part ways. Slowly Adele comes to realize that she was more fulfilled with Gabor than with the others, and she begins to search for him, finding him in despair, just in time, in Istanbul. Beautifully photographed in black and white, with many wonderful camera angles. Very funny. Superb performances by Paradis, the captivating gamin, and by Auteuil, whose subtlest facial movements and eyes can suggest deep melancholy or desire or both at once (Auteuil won best actor honors at Cannes 99 for this role). (In French) Grade: A (08/00)
THE GLEANERS AND I (Agnes Varda, France, 2000). THEMES: LIFE AT MARGINS OF SOCIETY; ETHICS OF REDUCING WASTE; AGING GRACEFULLY. Ms. Varda, now in her 70s, has been making films for half a century. In this gently provocative film, a unique road movie, she leads us on a tour through Franceto document contemporary gleaning, defined technically as harvesting leftover produce that comes from sprouts, i.e., from the ground (as opposed to picking, which applies to produce that hangs from trees, bushes or vines). Varda narrates the entire film and begins by showing us Millet's famous painting (and ends the film with another, showing gleaners running from an oncoming storm). She takes us from potato fields to urban dumpsters and introduces us to people who sustain themselves with food from these sources. We learn, among other things, that potatoes above a certain size, and those that are irregular like the heart shapes that fascinate Varda, are rejected and dumped back into the fields. Unfortunately, few who desperately need such gleanings live close to the fields or even know that ton after ton of good food is to be found there. We meet a man that Varda felt was one of the most impressive characters she encountered on this unusual tour. Living in a rent controlled highrise, he has exclusively lived on dumpster food and discarded vegetables for ten years. He is a self-taught expert on nutrition. He has never been made ill from his diet of gleanings. He scavenges food not because poverty forces him, but because he deplores waste. It is an ethical proposition for him.
Varda expands the idea of gleaning to include many other forms. She takes us to a town where the local government prints maps marked with drop off points where anyone can leave furniture and other articles they wish to discard. We follow a fellow who makes his living by cruising these sites regularly for items to recycle and sell. We visit artists who create assemblages from found (gleaned) artifacts and visit an old stonemason who has created vast structures like the Watts Towers composed of stones, dolls and much else. Varda goes further, suggesting that most of us approach the acquisition of new information as gleaners. And she shows us a suitcase full of mementos from a trip she took to Japan to demonstrate that we even glean the manifestations of other cultures for our benefit by such collecting. She introduces us to lawyers and judges who explore French laws that govern gleaning and the ownership of discarded goods. And, of course, we inevitably meet representatives of farms, vineyards and corporations that forbid gleaning. One supermarket invited retaliation from street youths for spraying food discards with bleach to avert gleaning from their dumpsters (the kids were making too big a mess back there, the manager tells us).
Along the way Varda occasionally meanders into her preoccupations with aging. She proudly shows off her new, lightweight digital video camera and tells us only half jokingly that it is a boon to her narcissism. “See,” she says, “I can hold this camera with my right hand and photograph my left.” And so we are treated to shots of her combing her hair, which is thinning, and shots of her left hand as she wistfully discusses how the skin looks so different now than when she was young that it is like some “unknown animal” to her. She can be suddenly playful. Riding along a freeway, passing freight trucks, she shoots through the fingers of her left hand as they form a circle of steadily decreasing diameter. We see a truck in the hole framed by her fingers and then she closes her hand as if she has captured the truck. Near the end she gleans a discarded clock with no hands on a clear lucite support, and shoots her own smiling elfin face gliding across the frames behind the clock as she says "A clock with no hands is my kind of thing." By the end, we have seen how poverty, ethical principle and custom all can motivate the search for leftovers. Varda finds dignity in people everywhere. This lovely subtle film, never didactic, schools us aplenty but does so with grace and good humor. (In French) Grade: B+ (02/01)
THE GOOD GIRL (Miguel Arteta, US, 2002). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT, INFIDELITY; MARIJUANA DEPENDENCE. This film has been classified by some critics as a romantic comedy. Nonsense. Despite a few laughs, it’s a romantic tragedy. It’s a story of average people in a typical small American town, whose emotionally impoverished lives are managed through such brilliant strategies as denial, indifference or suppressed desperation. Under such circumstances, various deficits - perhaps acting in combination - prevent folks from making constructive life decisions; the choices they do make (in an effort to accept the status quo or change it) often aren’t very intelligent. The deficit could be a problem of limited experience - a lack of worldliness, or perhaps lack of imagination, or lack of education, even lack of sufficient I.Q. points. A better title for this film might have been ‘The Dumb Girl.’ Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is 30 and married to Phil (John C. Reilly), a dumb guy. They live a dumb life. She clerks. He paints houses and gets stoned every night. They can’t seem to have kids, though one must suspend judgment and presume that they know the requisite method. Justine is insightful enough to know they live a dumb life. Phil has no clue – he copes with life by escape into pot.
Justine unwisely permits herself to become involved with a new clerk at the store (Jake Gyllenhaal), a shy, troubled young fellow. His sense of himself is clearly signaled by the fact that he goes by the alias of ‘Holden’ after Salinger’s character, who is his hero - a red flag if there ever was one, but then you have to have read the book, and I doubt Justine had done so. He aspires to be a writer and creates morbid short stories that all concern a kid suspiciously like him. He’s an obsessive misfit whose only normal function is a keen sex drive. He is badly in need of psychiatric care and completely unqualified for an affair with an older woman. Great choice, Justine. But then pickings are slim in their town. Inevitably, things get very complicated. I won’t spoil it all by discussing the resolution of the dilemma, except to say that it is consistent with what has come before; it is believable. Grade: B (04/03)
GOOD WILL HUNTING (Gus Van Sant, US, 1997) THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPY RELATIONSHIP; THERAPIST AT WORK; ETHICAL AND BOUNDARY ISSUES IN THERAPY; ADOLESCENT PERSONALITY & CONDUCT DISORDERS. SPOILER ALERT! Trivia Quiz Time, folks. Who’s the only actor or actress to ever receive an Oscar for playing a psychotherapist? Right! It’s Robin Williams, Best Supporting Actor in 1998, for his role in this movie as Sean Maguire, a psychotherapist who teaches clinical psychology at a nondescript Boston college. As a favor to an old friend, a math professor at MIT, Maguire agrees to treat the impossibly defensive boy math genius and world class smartass, Will Hunting. But wait, I’m getting ahead of the story here.
Hunting (Matt Damon), age 20, works as a janitor in the math building at MIT. He surreptitiously solves near impossible math problems left up on blackboards to challenge students in an advanced class taught by Fields Medal winning professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Prof. Lambeau finally catches Hunting in the act one day, and tries unsuccessfully to engage the young man. Hunting has had a rough life: orphaned early, he passed through several foster homes where he was badly abused physically. In adolescence he has accumulated an impressive arrest record for multiple assaults, grand theft auto, and impersonating a police officer, among other raps. He has stayed out of jail by defending himself in court, where he displays a withering command of pertinent case law (he has a photographic memory). His janitor’s job was arranged by his probation officer.
Hunting grew up in the rough and tumble Irish area of south Boston known as “Southy.” For fun, he cruises with his buddies (who include characters played by the Affleck brothers, Ben and Casey), drinking beer, hitting on girls, picking fights. One night at a bar in Cambridge he meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), a trust fund child who attends Harvard and will soon head for medical school in California. They click. But soon, in a street brawl with his buddies, Will is once again arrested and given a 6-month jail sentence by a judge who brushes aside Hunting’s jailhouse lawyer defense. Prof. Lambeau intercedes, convincing the judge to suspend the sentence if Hunting will agree to take part in a math tutorial and psychotherapy. As the tutorial moves along, it becomes clear that Hunting is a once-in-a-generation genius of Einsteinian dimension who can solve problems better than anyone on the MIT faculty, including Lambeau. But as a therapy patient, he’s worse than a dud. Lambeau shops Will to five therapists he knows (one cameo is played by George Plimpton), but Will on every occasion presents himself as outrageous, insolent and untreatable. Finally Lambeau turns to an old chum from school days, Maguire, who agrees to see Hunting, and the real adventures in this film begin.
The adventures I refer to occur in the process of psychotherapy encounters between Maguire and Hunting. Make no mistake, Maguire is not a traditional therapist. He may understand and use psychodynamics, but he eschews the indirect methods of psychoanalysis in his work. He’s one of the newer wave of therapists who believe in more direct, active engagement with their patients, the sort of “encounter” therapy that has been in vogue for years in the treatment of people with substance abuse problems, among other settings. His conduct can cross ethical boundaries. The key instance occurs in the very first session, when Will tries to deflect attention away from his own problems by suggesting that Maguire had probably been unlucky in choosing the wrong woman to love. As it happens, Maguire is still deeply mired in unresolved grief after the death of his beloved wife from cancer several years earlier. He flares angrily at Hunting, grabs him by the throat, and tells him that if he ever again disrespects his wife, “I’ll end you.” This is transgressive, unacceptable behavior for a therapist by any standard. But dramatically it works, it helps hook Hunting’s interest and bring him back for a second session.
At the second meeting, Maguire tells Will that for all his smugness and book learning, he is just a “cocky, scared shitless kid” who has “never dared to love anyone more than yourself…I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some f—king book, unless you talk about yourself. So it’s your move.” Pretty daring confrontation, wouldn’t you agree? An impasse follows, when Hunting refuses to reveal anything about himself and Maguire waits silently for this to change. Whole sessions pass in silence. Yet Will keeps showing up for appointments (in part he knows he must, of course, to avoid jail), and finally he does begin to talk. There are scenes from several more sessions at various times over the next few months.
Maguire often didactically expresses his views of Will’s central problems and issues, especially his fears of intimacy and other direct experience of the world. He also permits Will to question him about his own life experiences, and shares personal information quite freely. There are several wonderful exchanges. Near the end, Will notices one day that Maguire has been reviewing his old social case file, including photos of wounds inflicted on Will by foster fathers. Maguire then says, over and over, to Will, “It’s not your fault…It’s not your fault…It’s not your fault…” They end in a mutual hug as Will breaks down in tears.
Interspersed with therapy scenes are others depicting the deepening of Will’s romance with Skylar (she now loves him and wants him to go to California with her; he gets scared and balks; she goes west alone), his relationship with Prof. Lambeau (who pushes Will to accept a career in math), and times spent with his buddies (Chuckie, Ben Affleck’s character, in one moving scene, also urges Will to go on in math and emancipate himself from their mutual dead end life). Maguire champions Will’s right not to pursue math if he chooses, which frustrates Prof. Lambeau. Another seeming ethical transgression here is that Maguire and Lambeau meet regularly to discuss Will’s progress in therapy. Has Will consented to this? It isn’t clear that he even knows about all these discussions.
In Will’s final meeting with Maguire (the court had ordered therapy only till Will’s 21st birthday, which has now occurred), we learn that Maguire is going to take a leave of absence and travel, do some writing, move on with his life. He tells Will that he’s “…gonna put my money back on the table and see what cards I get.” Meaning that he feels ready to open himself once more to the possibility of loving someone new again. At the end, Will also makes a choice: between Skylar and a math career, between his heart and his head.
Glen and Krin Gabbard, in the 2nd edition of their classic book, “Psychiatry and the Cinema,” call the treatment depicted here “pure Hollywood fiction.” They disparage Will’s “cure” as based too much on identification with the therapist (Maguire and Hunting do share much in common: they’re both Irish, both from Southy, and both were physically abused as kids). The Gabbards further criticize the apparent “confusion of roles,” in the therapy relationship, i.e., Maguire seems to be the patient insofar as he talks so much about himself and his marriage, and his encounters with Will clearly appear to aid his movement out of the quagmire of his own grief toward personal renewal. Nevertheless, I think the Gabbards’s stance is too harsh and overly generalized.
Granted, the egregious instance in the first session, when Maguire physically threatens Will, surely is “Hollywood fiction.” But overall, I suggest that only a direct, highly active, self-disclosing treatment approach is likely to engage a young man with Will Hunting’s history and psychopathology. It is precisely with younger individuals like Will, who have personality disorders marked by acting out, smart cockiness and the inability to trust others, that traditional therapies often fail and the newer methods may work. Most of what Maguire does in the sessions, far from being Hollywood fiction, can be seen anywhere in the country in the “tough love” therapies of addictions and prison- or parole-based treatment programs.
Maguire is not only tough, he is also warm, empathic, reliable, informal, persistent, caring: all the good things one hopes for in any therapist. As for the issue of Maguire changing along lines not unlike the changes revealed for Will, this too may be less pathological than the Gabbards imply. One might say that if a therapist is truly open to a patient, not overly fortified by his or her own defenses, then the therapeutic enterprise in theory should always hold the possibility of change for both parties. What is the working out of the therapist’s countertransference problems if not a change of this nature?
The acting is superb all around in this film, especially the turns by Williams, Damon, and Ben Affleck. The photography, music and Van Sant’s direction are excellent. The screenplay, written jointly by good friends Damon and Ben Affleck, is brilliant. Few films focus on the therapy relationship as a central drama or subtext of the story, and fewer still portray therapy with such moving, heartfelt effect as is realized here. Good Will Hunting thus joins The Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Ordinary People as among the very best such films ever made. Grade: A- (11/04)
GOTHIKA (Mathieu Kassovitz, US, 2003). THEME: ANTIPSYCHIATRY MOVIES. I saw this film only because several visitors to this website suggested it as a "psychlflick" worth my attention. Regrets all around. To be considered a “psychological” drama or comedy, whether good or bad, a film should try at least a little to represent psychiatric or psychological themes in a coherent manner. No issue or theme presented In Gothika is remotely connected to psychiatric illness or treatment, unless you count ghosts and spirit possession. Granted, the heroine is nominally a psychiatrist, and much of the film takes place inside a prison mental hospital. But saying these are grounds for calling the movie a psychological drama is like saying a film in which employees at a bank are held hostage and traumatized by robbers is a film about banking. Far from being a legitimate psychflick, Gothika is lodged squarely in the horror/thriller genre, and isn’t even good by the standards of this film category. It is hopelessly burdened by a thousand illogical, inexplicable plot twists and bursting with overwrought, melodramatic gestures at every bloody and shadowy turn.
As such, the film doesn't merit detailed discussion. Suffice it to say, Berry’s character finds herself locked up as a patient on her own ward, accused of the brutal murder of her husband, another doc who ran the place. Occult forces seem to propel her to fight for her freedom and solve this mess. (Lots of luck.) Other forces want to destroy her. Actor Robert Downey, Jr. stays out of drug rehab. long enough to appear in this movie as a colleague of Berry’s assigned to treat her. He hasn’t a clue. He can’t even get his stethoscope to drape properly around his neck like all medical students learn to do.
Because the psychiatrist (played by Halle Berry, though Heaven knows why she chose to) is pretty badly knocked around throughout the film – by real people as well as spirits, one esteemed colleague of mine called this an anti-psychiatry film. That’s not true on the face of it. You have to establish some semblance of slipshod yet credible professional (mis)conduct to set up an anti-psychiatry theme. Everything done in this film by doctors and nurses is so over-the-top, ludicrous, totally discountable, not worth a second thought. Example: what's a shrink doing incarcerated on her own ward with her own patients, being treated by a close colleague? Shheeeez. There’s an age-old, clear-cut Hollywood formula for anti-psychiatry movies when a woman is cast as the psychiatrist. It goes like this: (Female) doctor meets (male) patient; doctor screws patient; everybody gets better. End of plot.
You want more? Check out the reviews on the Movie Review Query Engine, at www.mrqe.com. There you’ll find that Roger Ebert loved the film as great, lurid trash, while James Berardinelli says, “Stupidity to a degree can sometimes be forgiven. Stupidity to this degree can not and should not.” I'm with him. Grade: D (11/04)
GRAY’S ANATOMY (Steven Soderbergh, US, 1996). THEME: HYPOCHONDRIASIS. Film of one of the late Spalding Gray’s best monologues. Gray has an eye condition that can be surgically corrected. But instead he decides to seek alternative treatments and embarks on a journey that will take him to Christian Science, Native American sweat lodges and psychic surgeons, among others. What stands out, as usual in gray’s work, is his neuroticism and self absorbtion, his obsessive entanglement in his own symptoms. Grade: B- (04/97)
GRBAVICA (Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia, 2006, 91 m.). THEME: POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (WOMEN). SPOILER ALERT! Intimate, soulful story of Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a single mother, and her 12 year old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Set in the present in the seedy Grbavica district of Sarajevo, this film explores the far reaches of trauma in the Bosnian war: how the psychic wounds inflicted in that terrible time remain open and unhealed to this day. The film opens with the camera panning a dark, rich kilim rug behind the front credits, sweeping next over the faces of women lying on the rug, finally to a special face, a sweet, sad woman’s face, her eyes staring painfully straight into our own. Thus, in an instant, before any dialogue, we are engaged with this woman, riveted by her, and she interests us deeply from this first moment.
This sense of intense engagement prevails throughout this well told, well photographed narrative. We feel impelled to care about the reclusive, hesitant Esma, Sara, her saucy, spirited daughter, and the one man in the story, Pelda (Leon Lucev) who - although he is a gun toting thug like all the others we meet in the netherworld of Grbavica - is so much more: a devoted son to his shut-in aging mother and a respectful, tender suitor to Esma. Status among the kids hinges on whether their long dead fathers were sheheens – Bosnian loyalists who fought to the death, or the unspeakable alternative, bastards produced by the systematic rape of Bosnian women captured by the enemy in the Bosnian War, the Chetnik Serbs.
We visit a women’s trauma support group, conducted by the same social worker who also passes out subsistence grants. Esma only attends on the days when grants are issued, and she remains silent even then. But we know she’s disturbed. She startles visibly watching a butcher chop off the head of a fish. Twice at the nightclub where she works she is overcome watching a sexy Ukrainian waitress in an embrace with one of the owner’s thug buddies, and she must run to the bathroom to vomit or cry. Her private, silent avoidance of the painful memories of her own captivity is in the end intruded upon by Sara’s demands to know more about her father, and why it is that Esma cannot produce the customary document certifying that he was in fact a Bosnian soldier killed in action.
This is a bittersweet story, full of love between mother and daughter and silently suffered pain, teen infatuation, life on the mean streets, and, in the end, hope for a better future. Grbavica swept the film awards at the 2006 Berlin IFF: Winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film, Best Peace Film, and Special Ecumenical Jury Award. (In Serbo-Croatian) Grade: A-
GRILL POINT (Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2002). THEME: MARITAL DYSFUNCTION & INFIDELITY. A domestic tragicomedy set in present day Frankfurt, exploring the emotional repercussions among two married couples - Uwe and Ellen, Chris and Katrin, all long time friends - when Chris and Ellen embark upon an affair. Everyone works full time and more to make ends meet; and the chill of ebbing affection is palpable in both couples. Uwe (who runs the downtown lunch eaterie of the film's title and a catering business) and Ellen (who clerks at a perfumery) are very devoted to their two children. Uwe tries to provide for Ellen's material comfort, but he is harshly critical of her, and she's about had it with his derisions. Chris and Katrin are childless, though Chris's late teen daughter from his first marriage often pops in unannounced to bed her latest date and sleep over. Katrin, who weighs loads at a huge truckstop on the edge of town, seems more accepting of Chris, a morose fellow at odds with the upbeat persona he projects as a morning pop radio DJ. Chris is your basic passive aggressive, dependent neurotic, less deserving of one’s sympathies than the others. (My opinion as a psychiatrist is that people should not act out their neurotic stuff with family and friends but instead with their therapists!)
All four roles are well played, especially given the fact that the actors improvised their roles according to character and story arcs without the aid of a script. The circumstances of stagnant marriage and breakdown, although we all know these by heart from a hundred other films, novels and talkshow scenarios, are put forward here with intelligence, clarity, respect and humor. Another strength is that these people seem real; even Chris's style is familiar to anyone. I think this would make an excellent teaching film for beginning couples counselors, and a thoughtful trigger film for couples suffering from conjugal distress. The ending is a happy one, although in a manner you might not be expecting. Dresen follows a number of the Danish “Dogme 95” rules here, including use of a hand held camera and natural lighting. (In German) Grade: B (01/03)
GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, US, 2005, 103 m). THEMES: BIPOLAR DISORDER; BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. Herzog, a masterful documentarian, has used 100 hours of video footage shot over five summers by Timothy Treadwell to craft an intriguing story of this man, whose fanatical devotion to Alaskan Grizzies led him to take risks that, in 2003, finally resulted in a lethal attack by a bear that killed him and his companion, Amie Huguenard.
Treadwell had failed in several career attempts, was for a time a card carrying alcoholic, and very likely suffered from either a bipolar disorder or severe borderline personality. He was a social misfit who discovered some peace of mind trekking in the wilderness of the Alaskan peninsula, where he encountered Grizzlies for the first time. Thrilled by them, he returned each summer for the next 12 years, usually alone, spending two to three months gradually identifying individual bears within a national wildlife preserve, naming them, approaching them ever more closely, to the point of touching (he also made friends with red foxes, who seemed quite at home with Treadwell, unlike the always diffident Grizzlies).
Treadwell’s videos began during his ninth summer and often feature him talking directly into the camera. Herzog more than once compliments Treadwell's success in shooting interesting scenes (he would do multiple takes of some in which he featured himself). Herzog’s splendidly edited product documents a pattern of Treadwell’s increasingly extreme attitudes and emotions about his relationship to the bears. He comes to regard himself as their key advocate and protector. With progressive displays of grandiosity he brags about his cultivated ability to stand up powerfully to the bears, to show no fear, and thus court their respect. In prolonged rants he castigates park officials for not protecting the Grizzlies, leaving the job solely to him.
Interviews with park officials and naturalists shown in Herzog’s film suggest strongly that there is no basis to such assertions, and that, if anything, Treadwell’s presence and conduct possibly could have placed the bears in greater jeopardy by disarming their wariness toward humans. In the end, Treadwell’s anthropomorphizing led him to take greater and greater chances: to linger into the autumn of his last visit, after a point the bears who were familiar with him had left the park area, and other, older bears came in their place, one of which attacked and devoured Treadwell and his mate.
At one level Grizzly Man is an arresting cautionary tale, one that exposes the hazards of sentimental presumptuousness and runaway zeal that can overtake the sincere, principled devotion of people to species preservation and environmental protection (at the extreme edge of which we come to ecoterrorism). The line between justifiable activism and martyrdom or antisocial destructiveness is sometimes hard to discern. It is also true that psychiatrically disturbed individuals can find solace and meaning through involvement in a social or political movement . Sometimes this works out well. But sometimes trouble arrives when a mentally ill person begins to twist the mission of the movement to serve purely personal, idiosyncratic, or “quasi-therapeutic” goals.
Another subtext concerns Herzog, who has been attracted to a variety of nearly impossible human feats and eccentric, outrageous people. There are resemblances between the erratic, dangerous, emotionally volitile behavioral paroxysms of Herzog’s favorite actor, the late Klaus Kinski, and Timothy Treadwell's behavior (Kinski’s antics are well documented in Herzog’s 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend). In two fictional films, Aguirre:The Wrath of God (1972), and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Herzog insisted on using stupendously difficult and dangerous locations in the Peruvian jungle, and it is widely believed that more than one locally recruited crew worker perished in the efforts (both films also starred Kinski as the monomaniacal central character).
Here in Grizzly Man, which Herzog narrates, he is clear in stating that Treadwell’s romantic notions about forming meaningful relationships with the bears are not at all supported by any objective evidence; such relationships, Herzog implies, existed only in Treadwell’s feverish imaginings. Herzog also states his own view, that humans have no business rubbing elbows with these animals. Yet Herzog is nonetheless fascinated by this expansive, adventuresome fellow who dares to take such enormous risks. I suspect that an element of identification, of vicarious pleasure, was a strong motive drawing Herzog to expend his creative energies to tell us Treadwell’s story. One thing’s certain: you’ll never get a closer look at a Grizzly than you get in this unusual film. Grade: B+ (08/05)
GROSSE POINTE BLANK (George Armitage, US, 1997). THEME: FARCICAL PSYCHOTHERAPY RELATIONSHIP. Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a professional assassin who comes home to the elite Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe for his 10 year high school reunion. Well, that’s not quite right. He comes to Detroit on a hit job, and his visit happens to coincide with the reunion, which he is in fact reluctant to attend. But he reconnects with high school flame Debi (Minnie Driver), now a local radio dj, and invites her to accompany him to the party, in part to make up for having stood her up 10 years earlier for their senior prom date. Their love is rekindled amidst a hail of bullets when Martin is separately ambushed by his rival hitman, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), government agents, and a nasty sort who was also in the graduating class. The identity of Martin’s intended victim is unknown to him until near film’s end, and it comes as quite a surprise. This film is a comedic delight. Driver and Cusack make a sparky couple. He’s a fine comic actor, but Driver’s ability to keep up with him is unexpected. There are numerous tiny scenes at the class reunion that have an all too realistic quality of forced conviviality and the arousal of old conflicts among various classmates. Screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz obviously has been to a reunion or two of his own.
Alan Arkin has a small but hilarious role as Dr. Oatman, Martin’s psychotherapist back in LA, who is terrified of Martin and keeps trying unsuccessfully to end the therapy relationship. Arkin’s psychiatrist is in the same predicament as Billy Crystal’s therapist was treating Mafioso Robert DeNiro in Analyse This. Cusack’s sister Joan lends an amusing hand as Martin’s secretary, ever fretful about his occupation. Grocer’s arguments with Martin about organizing a union for hitmen are also fun, especially at their breakfast encounter in Grosse Pointe. Watching Aykroyd’s dazzling delivery here makes me long for him to do more comedy again and forget the far less impressive dramatic roles he’s opted for in recent years. This film keeps right on moving: Martin’s fast paced adventures never suffer a letdown. It’s one steady hoot, even on second viewing. Grade: B+ (08/04)
GROUP (Marilyn Freeman, US, 2002). THEME: GROUP THERAPY. Up I-5 in Olympia, WA, Freeman and her collaborators have attempted to capture the nature of group therapy in this ambitious docudrama. Using 8 actors, each given license to improvise within the limits of a narrative arc of their characters and life events that transpire during the group, and a real, masters-level therapist, the group (all women) meet weekly for 21 one-hour sessions. Six cameras simultaneously recorded each session, and the footage is edited to produce a six-miniscreen montage film format. At any given time one can choose to watch either the member who is speaking, or one or more others instead.
The therapist is poised, patient and supportive. One wishes she were at times more assertive in facilitating participation by reticient members and setting limits on those who dominate the group. It would also have helped if each member had introduced herself at the start and if the therapist had discussed rules of conduct for the group. There is also what critic Jonathan Foreman refers to as “reflexive political correctness” in attitudes conveyed here about sexual gender preferences and some other matters. Especially enjoyable group members were played by Carrie Brownstein (of the Sleater-Kinney Band) as a tightly wound hypochondriac and a woman named "Lola Rock 'n' Rolla" as a sassy yet empathic biker chick from New York. I was reminded by this film of the complexity of group processes. I think overall that this film provides a fair take on group work, and it also is exciting theater. See also my article titled "Northwest Passages: Two Adventures in Personal Growth." Check out the film's website for more details at www.groupthemovie.com. Grade: B+ (06/03)
HALF NELSON (Ryan Fleck, US, 2006, 106 m). THEME: CHARACTER STUDY OF A TEACHER WHO IS A CRACK COCAINE ADDICT. A white junior high history teacher and one of his black students forge an unlikely bond in this ironic drama set in Brooklyn. The teacher, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), is covering the Civil Rights Movement as we enter into this story, approaching the subject within the framework of Hegelian dialectics. (What! An actual serious idea in an American movie! Amazing!)
Dunne doesn’t talk down to his students. The respect is a two way street. His engaging delivery, laced with old video footage of key events in the 60s, is obviously compelling for his charges: mostly black kids, who behave themselves with remarkable decorum. We get the very clear sense that this fellow is a good teacher who cares about his subject and the kids.
Dunne is also a crack-head. Cocaine and alcohol are his best friends away from school, where he is nearly non-functional, and, as the film moves along, his tenuous grip on himself gradually gives way in the classroom and on the basketball court, where he coaches the girls team. Increasingly erratic and slovenly, he gets caught one day smoking crack in the girls restroom by Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students, who thereafter gradually assumes a role, more-or-less, of companion and caretaker for Dunne. At the end, unable to continue teaching for the time being, and with his professional future presumably in doubt, Dunne nonetheless is able to share a light, perhaps redemptive moment with Drey.
How you feel about this movie probably will depend on which of two interpretations you choose in order to comprehend its vague narrative arc (these two views are not mutually exclusive). The liberal PC slant is that an idealistic Dunne, raised by ex-hippies, has become demoralized by the adverse course of events - in the nation and in his own family - since the 60s. He turns to drugs to dispel his resultant malaise. Based on this view, Dunne is a noble man brought low by the flawed ways of the world.
Much as I wanted to buy into this view, I could not escape the more powerful pull of another perspective, namely, that Dunne’s drug abuse - the roots of which, we learn, went back several years to a time when, presumably, he was still an effective person – has caused him to deteriorate, to become more and more incompetent in the classroom and in life. Dunne has become a screwed up shell of what, presumably, he once was. As with many addicts, his disillusionment is in part the depressive consequence of his drugging and also a face-saving excuse for it.
Irrespective of which view prevails for you, the splendid acting of Gosling and Shareeka Epps stands out. Gosling is able to express outrage, sheepishness, ineptitude, disappointment, fatalistic self regard and charm in a remarkably nuanced turn. He's an emotional midget whose level of maturity does not quite measure up to Drey's.
Miss Epps is captivating. She brings prodigial control to her performance, especially in what the critic Stanley Kauffmann calls “facial acting.” Time and again, when you least expect it, her sober, inscrutable poker face will suddenly ease into a subtle smile, as if to reassure whoever is in her presence that, bad as things can be, there’s always hope for something lighter, if not better. Grade: B (09/06)
HAPPINESS (Todd Solondz, US, 1998). THEME: PSYCHIATRIST’S LIFE; ANTI-PSYCHIATRY. An over-the-top psychodrama with the premise that everybody in suburban New Jersey is unhappy, restless and neurotic. There are several groupings of characters and subplots – all linked through three sisters and their parents. Most of this need not concern us. Dylan Baker plays Bill Maplewood, a stably married psychiatrist with three kids. We don’t see him working much. But we do learn that he is sexually fascinated by the male buddies of his 11 year old son, fantasizes about perpetrating mass killings in a park, and masturbates to teen magazines. One of Dr. Maplewood’s patients (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has an unrequited crush on the psychiatrist’s sister-in-law. Grade: B- (11/98)
HAPPY HOUR (Mike Bencivenga, US, 2004, 93 m). THEME: ALCOHOLISM. Listen up, it’s quiz time. My strong urge to take a shower after seeing this film was caused by: (a) going straight from yard work to the theater; (b) the wretched condition of the sweaty, dying, end-stage alcoholic fellow portrayed in this film; or (c) the overall messiness of the production. Well, all three are valid contenders, but the correct answer is (c). I have generally been impressed by the cinema of alcoholism, one of Hollywood’s few reliably realistic psychflick genres, and I attended this film with, you’ll pardon the expression, high hopes. I was wrong.
An IMDb trivia bite says this film was shot in 2½ weeks. I’m surprised that timeframe didn’t also include writing the screenplay as well, based on the product, which is not good. Ryan Tulley, Jr. (Anthony LaPaglia, a fine actor put to ill use here), has consumed enough booze in his lifetime to earn a case of advanced cirrhosis of the liver. So, how can he be up for hot sex with a woman he picks up in his favorite bar, after downing a quart or more of whisky that evening? Or up again for another bedroom romp three days after having a colectomy? Get real. For that matter, how about the colon as the site for a big bleed from cirrhosis? No way. That would be vomiting blood from esophageal varices. Whatever happened to basic research for a screenplay?
Less excusable is the dreary dialogue when Tulley and his pickup date Natalie (Caroleen Feeney) meet. It’s full of moronic banalities you might hear while eavesdropping at a small town tavern, but, hey people, these are supposed to be educated Manhattanites. Then there are the dullard writers at the ad agency where Tulley is senior copy editor. No way these idiots could hold down such jobs in the Big Apple. Only Tulley’s sidekick Levine (the ever faithful, sadly sweet Eric Stoltz) has any touch of New York City class, and you wonder how or why he bothers to hang around such a loser. And why would Tulley and Levine choose as their favorite watering hole a place with a bartender as affable as a pit bull?
Tulley was identified by critics as a writer with promise 25 years ago, after a few short stories, but then he hit a wall. At least a part of the problem is a conflict with dear old dad (Robert Vaughn, looking quite dapper). Tulley Sr. is both a celebrated writer and first rate ass, so only one of his twin virtues got passed along to junior. Not to worry. In another bruising clash with realism, the plot eventually requires that the younger Tulley - in his final few days of life, alternating between fits of alcohol intoxication and withdrawal - succeed in pulling off the major creative achievement that had eluded him for 17 years: virtual completion of his one and only novel. Sigh.
It’s interesting to see, over and over again, the connection made in Hollywood between being a writer and being a drinker. Of course there are plenty of real life legends around for inspiration: Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac and Raymond Carver, to name some of the more illustrious ones. Psychiatrist Nancy Andreason, a former English professor, once did a study in which she compared alcoholism rates among writers at the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop with a group of non-writers. The results: 30% of the writers were alcoholic, versus 7% of the others.
So it is certainly reasonable to make such a link in fictional characters. And they abound: from alcoholic writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) in the 1945 hit Lost Weekend to alcoholic writer Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) in Leaving Las Vegas, 50 years later. Bencivenga makes a joke of the affinity in this film. Is Tulley a writer with a drinking problem or a drinker with a writing problem? Tulley himself cracks the joke (he opts to label himself a drinker with…), but Bencivenga can’t resist flogging one of his few good lines, making Levine reprise it later in the movie.
Not only are medical realities and decent dialogue savaged here, but the murky, uninteresting interiors and photography betray the quickness of the shoot (even a year or more of post-production tinkering couldn’t make this a decent looking or sounding movie). So now it’s time for me to wash up and soldier on in search of the next good alcohol drenched flick. You can be sure another one will appear before long. I’ll drink to that. Grade: C (05/05)
HAPPY, TEXAS (Mark Illsley, US, 1999). THEME: THE NATURE OF COMEDY (EVOLVING OUT OF TRAGEDY, PATHOS, SUFFERING). Eureka! Here's that rare find: an outstanding, knock your socks off, laughing-all-the-way comedy. Three prisoners escape from a van somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border, and the nasty one abandons the others, Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne (Steve Zahn), to fend for themselves. They manage to steal an RV that belongs to a gay couple whose business is running small town junior beauty pageants for young girls. Masquerading as this couple, Harry and Wayne arrive in the town of Happy, where the other couple had been contracted to run this year's pageant, the Little Miss Fresh Squeezed contest. Several rapidly kindled and highly problematic love relationships ensue: Harry and Jo (Ally Walker), Wayne and "Mrs. Schafer" (Illeana Douglas), and Chappy the local sheriff (William H. Macy) and Harry.
What makes for good comedy, anyway? For one thing, this film features a number of lightening quick turns and detours, unanticipated little tangents that spin off abruptly from the main sitcom circumstances, if only for a moment. Here’s a corny example: when a man tells another who's puzzled by which way to tighten a nut onto a bolt: "lefty is loosey, righty is tighty". Or when Wayne unexpectedly smashes an armadillo roadkill over the head of registered meanie Bob Maslow. These surprises occur often enough to create a mindset in viewers, that one never knows what's coming next. There're also some fine moments of physical comedy in play here, always good in film because it is so photographable. I'm thinking in particular of Wayne desperately improvising as he leads a dance rehearsal for the pageant contestants.
There's another key to comedic success at work here: time after time the lines and ideas are farcical, way over the top, but never self conscious, timid, juvenile or prosaic, as is so often the case in contemporary bad comedy like that of the Farrelly Brothers. More importantly, as in other great comedies, like Funny Bones, these people are truly mad. We can feel the seething, flammable violence in Zahn's Wayne, the desperately irresistible, unctuous, sociopathic charm of Northam's Harry, the deep loneliness and angst in Macy's Chappy. So that when they say or do unexpectedly funny things, it releases the tension that their darker sides have instilled in us. The resulting surge of relief propels our mirth. I should also praise the female leads, for Walker and Douglas are both terrific. Walker in particular imparts to Jo's straight up character (she’s a local banker) a believable sense of vulnerability, a fear of growing old without fulfillment, and a basic goodness, but edged with a savvy, sexy, gritty quality that makes her appealing. The soundtrack, a mix of country, Latin and pop numbers, is very well produced, managing that rare balance point where you are aware of the tunes but not distracted by them. Grade: B+ (04/00)
HEAD-ON (Gegen die Wand) (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2004, 121 min.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY (SIBEL); SUICIDAL BEHAVIORS; PSYCHIATRIST AT WORK. Simply put, this tragic love story of Turks living in Germany is close to being a perfect film. It is well structured, well paced, intriguingly photographed, and brilliantly acted by the two star-crossed lovers, the brooding, impulsively violent Cahit (Birol Ünel) and the mercurial, incandescent Sibel (Sibel Kekilli). This pair meet at a psychiatric hospital after suicide attempts,
where the psychiatrist tells Cahit, “…you can end your life (i.e., your present way of life and circumstances) without killing yourself. Do something useful. Go to Africa. Help people.” A pretty fresh and thoughtful pitch, I thought, but the bristling, hostile Cahit isn’t buying it. Later Cahit is persuaded by Sibel to enter into a marriage of convenience. But in the midst of bedding others, they gradually fall in love, though by this time events occur which will separate them for years to come.
Sibel’s profile is a pretty clear cut case of borderline personality disorder: conflict in all key relationships; faulty modulation of emotions; impulsivity; frequent self destructive, suicidal behaviors; drug and alcohol abuse; promiscuity. In the end, when Cahit tries to reunite with Sibel, she turns him down in favor of the simple, straight, calm life she has achieved, living in Istanbul. During the long years apart from Cahit, she has made a positive, stable life for herself by yielding to the very thing she had fought hardest against with her traditional Turkish family back in Germany: the conservative way of life of traditional Turkish women. She now has a young daughter, a devoted boyfriend, a doting older sister. When Cahit comes for her, she no doubt rightly senses that breaking away from the safe life and support system she has taken years to establish might be ruinous, and so she chooses not to go with Cahit. It is a wise decision, though a classically tragic one. For a longer review, see my other film review website, www.AtkinsonOnFilm.com. (In German, Turkish & English) Grade: A (02/05)
HEAR AND NOW (Irene Taylor Brodsky, US, 2007, 86 m.). THEME: COHLEAR IMPLANTS BRING HEARING TO A LIFELONG DEAF COUPLE. In a new documentary fresh from its debut at Sundance last month, Irene Brodsky recounts the life story of her deaf parents and the outcome of their joint decision, at age 65, to undergo cochlear transplant surgery in order to hear for the first time. The film records a wonderful love story of two people deaf from birth who met first as children at the CID – the Central Institute for the Deaf - a residential school in St. Louis famed for pioneering an approach to communication based not on ASL - American Sign Language – but on intense training in lip reading and phonic speech, using touch (deaf student touches teacher’s jaw, throat, etc, while the teacher vocalizes, then touches own body and vocalizes to match vibrations).
The two children left the CID and returned to their hometowns, attended mainstream high schools, then reunited after college at a CID gathering, fell in love and married. All of this provides a fetching back story for the other focus of the film: the couple’s cochlear implant surgery. We are shown the pre-operative screening and testing processes, the surgery itself, and then periodic follow-ups over the first year after implantation. The post-implant process unfolds dramatically and divergently for the two, and it raises a number of intriguing psychological issues. Fascinating story, well told and filmed. Grade: B+ (02/07)
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (Robert Ellis Miller, US, 1968). THEMES: PROBLEMS OF A DEAF MUTE; ADULT WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY. Made from Carson McCullers' first novel, this film is less than the sum of its parts. The story concerns a lonely deaf mute metal engraver, John Singer (Alan Arkin), whose only close friend is a fat, developmentally disabled deaf mute (Chuck McCann). He must be institutionalized in a far away town because of his innocent but nonetheless socially intolerable misbehavior (repeatedly breaking the front window of the local bakery to eat the cookies on display there, for example). This leaves Singer more lonely than ever. He moves to be near his friend and takes a room in a family's home. There's a lot of story here, to be sure. Three major subplots are the relationship and fate of these two deaf mutes; the life and problems of the family where Singer lives and his connections with them; and conflicts in a black family whose head, a physician, develops a relationship with Singer as well.
The acting all around is superb. This was the film debut for Sondra Locke (who went on to become Clint Eastwood's favorite co-star for years) as Mick, the dreamy adolescent daughter of the family who take Singer in, and for Stacy Keach, Jr., as an alcoholic drifter with a good heart. Percy Rodriguez, as the black doctor, and Cicely Tyson, as his angry daughter, are good, as is Laurinda Barrett as Mick's bitter mother. But it is Arkin who shines, playing a role in which he is nearly always on the screen though he never speaks. Yet he manages with facial gesture and body movements to always be interesting, to hold attention. The direction and photography are lackluster. It was a mistake to shoot in color. B & W would have suited the material so much better. Grade: B+ (06/02)
HEAVY (James Mangold, US, 1994). THEMES: PASSIVE-DEPENDENT, AVOIDANT PERSONALITY; DYSTHYMIC DISORDER; EATING DISORDER. SPOILER ALERT! Heavy is, first of all, lifelike...its people and places (it was shot in rural villages in upstate New York) are compellingly authentic. This has been called a “small good film,” but that is wrong...it is a good film about small people, ordinary folks who, with a single exception, do their ritual chores each day, like feeding the dog, year after year, hoping or not hoping, trying or not trying, for some improvement in their lot. Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is an overweight, lonely, shy, demoralized bachelor, like Ernest Borgnine in Marty but with fewer social graces, who keeps house for his mother, Dolly (Shelley Winters). Dolly, bereft since her husband's death, finds consolation in keeping tight rein on the apron strings that control Victor's every move. He consoles himself by gorging sweets in delirious feeding binges and gazing at his fading pinup poster of Farrah Fawcett.
Things change for Victor when the exceptional, sensuous young Callie (Liv Tyler) hires on as a waitress in Dolly's restaurant, where Victor whiles away his life making pizza and playing solitaire. He becomes obsessed thinking of Callie and steals a photo of her for his fridge. Further upsetting Victor's equilibrium, his mother becomes critically ill. And as Victor's fantasies of Callie deepen, the gulf between his desire and his sense of his unfitness for her presses in upon him, and his ties to reality falter. (In one brief eerie scene, moments before a late night telephone call from his mother at the hospital, we seem to witness someone entering Victor's house...the action is never pursued or explained, but is instead left dangling like a shadowy hallucinatory fragment.)
When his mother dies, Victor cannot imagine his life going on, unless... unless...the now magically endowed Callie can take her place. But, of course, that cannot happen. We know it. Victor knows it. Nor will anyone else be able to step forward - as the other waitress, hard bitten Delores (played by former "Blondie" singer Deborah Harry) tries to do - to replace mother for this deeply dependent, depressed and immature man. Callie is appropriately puzzled about life, about herself, about love. She senses Victor's kindness and is touched by his adoration. But, inevitably, she goes off with her ill mannered boyfriend Jeff (Evan Dando), whose physical charms are irresistible to Callie.
It is a bold stroke by writer-director James Mangold to play Tyler's vivacity not against Dando's, but against its antithesis in Vince's wretched anhedonia. Still, it is a pairing fraught with peril. One might have expected that this juxtaposition of Tyler's powerful but unfocussed adolescent sexuality and Vince's nearly mute rendering of a soul in deep despair would evoke nothing but bathos. Not so here. Granted, there is a sweetness that unites the principal characters, but it is never maudlin, and we are also kept aware of the complexity of their passions. Vince and Tyler create wonderful dramatic tension, and the supporting players are all excellent.
This film could be regarded as an example of the film genre that focuses on clinical personality "types," like Jane Campion's Sweetie (immature or "borderline" personality) or I Shot Andy Warhol (the emergence of psychosis in a paranoid personality). But it is much more than that. Vince brilliantly engages the viewer, often only by the finest movements of his eyes, and our feeling for his humanity dismisses case study. If it did not, this would be a film with appeal limited to those attracted to abnormal psychology. As it is, the film’s appeal is so much more broad. Grade: A- (1996)
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (John Cameron Mitchell, US, 2001). THEME: TRANSGENDER ROCK MUSICAL. "The New Yorker" magazine calls it "trash perfection." It's a mock biopic of a transsexual rocker. It's a romantic musical in which the lovers are two components - male and female - of the star's own narcissistic divided self. It's an adaptation of a hit off-Broadway show. It's all of the above and it's vastly entertaining. Created originally by and for Mitchell, who wrote, directed and stars here as well. He's an interesting, flamboyant character, fun to watch, a good performer whether acting or singing. The story, such as it is, traces Hedwig's roots in East Berlin, son of a GI dad and German mom whose disturbed personality drives her hubby away. The boy is turned on to sex with men by another GI, who marries him/her after a sex change op. Dumped by this man, Hedwig finds love with a gorgeous young man, who goes on to become a rock celebrity and dumps her. Spiteful, bitter, still hopeful of getting back together, Hedwig follows this fellow on tour from city to city, she playing dismal little venues with her band ("The Angry Inch," which also alludes to the botched operation to remove her penis). The band, by the way, is terrific, and the songs, created by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, are very well done ("glam rock"). Grade: B+ (11/01)
HIGH ANXIETY (Mel Brooks, US, 1978). THEME: COMEDY: SATIRE ON PSYCHIATRY AND PRIVATE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITALS. Mel Brooks pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock in this unfortunately ponderous attempt at a satirical take on psychiatric treatment as well as the thrillers of the master. Brooks is a big shot Harvard psychiatrist hired to run a prestigious private hospital in Los Angeles (“The Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous”), after the former director dies unexpectedly. Turns out it was murder, and others will occur along the way in a film spoiled by Brooks’s inability to choose between creating a spoof of psychiatry and a satire of Hitchcock’s work (there are clear references to scenes from Psycho, North by Northwest, The Birds, and, especially, Vertigo). There are too many lulls, too many jokes belabored, too much that’s unfunny and unsuspenseful in this movie. With Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Dick Van Patten, among other supporting players, and Cloris Leachman as the dominatrix head nurse, Charlotte Diesel. Grade: B- (11/04)
HIGH ART (Lisa Cholodenko, US, 1998). THEME: HEROIN ADDICTION. Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson are entirely convincing as a lesbian couple well down the line in careers of heroin addiction. Radha Mitchell plays a young reporter who tries to encourage Sheedy’s character to return to her former career as an outstanding photographer. That doesn’t happen, although Sheedy and Mitchell do become close. Sheedy is terrific in this film. The portrayals of heroin addiction are lurid but not unrealistic. Grade: B (07/98)
HIGH FIDELITY (Stephen Frears, US, 2000). THEME: DEVELOPING CAPACITY FOR LOVE RELATIONSHIP. John Cusack is perfect as Rob, an unambitious thirtysomething proprieter of a Chicago used record shop, whose life seems to be going nowhere when Laura, his five year long live in lover, a spunky young attorney (Iben Hjejle) leaves him. He tells us the story of the "top five" relationship breakups of his life, speaking, as he often does throughout the film, to us, i.e., directly into the camera. And though this is a dangerous tactic that usually fails, here it works every time, thanks to Cusack's special offhand manner. His friends and employees at the shop - the shy, shaven headed Dick (Todd Louiso) and the fat, logorrheic smart aleck Barry (Jack Black, in real life the lead singer in the rock band Tenacious D) - are hilarious as perpetually adolescent pop culture mavens. The actresses portraying Rob's old lovers are less successful in cameo roles, but Hjejle finds the right blend of tenderness and self assertion in her larger role. And Joan Cusack is terrific as Laura's friend, a magnificant scold. John Cusack is wonderful as a sort of 90s urban American white Everyman. This film is way funny. Grade: A- (09/00)
HIGH HOPES (Mike Leigh, UK, 1989). THEMES: AGING (MILD DEMENTIA, LOSS OF INDEPENDENCE); AMBIVALENCE ABOUT COMMITMENT, OBLIGATION AND RESPONSIBILITIES TO FAMILIES; CORRUPTIVE EFFECTS OF SELF CENTEREDNESS ON MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS. Among British filmmakers, writer/director Mike Leigh is known best for two things. He creates intimate human dramas within the context of prevailing sociopolitical influences, permitting him to take a critical swipe at those larger forces which seem to make the lives of his characters more difficult. He also invites his actors to collaborate with him in creating the shooting script for his films, a process which can take several months. Sometimes this works wonderfully, as in his latest film, Vera Drake, and also here, in High Hopes, one of his best.
The time is the late 1980s in London. Margaret Thatcher has handed Labor another pasting, and, in her third term as Prime Minister, is moving Hell bent for leather, as usual, to reshape the social order in Britain, away from the welfare state and toward a conservative, free market system like that sought simultaneously in the U.S. by her arch buddy, Ronald Reagan. In both nations, it is the era of wealth acquisition, profiteering, and a ratcheting down of supports for the working class and those who live even closer to society’s margins. In High Hopes, Thatcher’s ideas play out in the avarice and self centeredness of the close relatives and neighbors of Mrs. Bender (Edna Dore), an aging, mildly demented and thoroughly disgruntled old woman. No one wants to step forward to help the old woman, who plainly needs assistance.
Mrs. Bender lives alone in the large old family row house in north London. She has two grown children, Cyril (Philip Davis) and Valerie (Heather Tobias), who could not be more dissimilar. Valerie and her brutish husband, Martin (Philip Jackson), who buys and sells stuff, are acquisitive, vain, deplorable people who’ve done well enough to move to a freestanding house in the suburbs, afford pricey cars, and trick out the house and Valerie’s wardrobe with every gaudy design that money and bad taste can buy. Cyril, on the other hand, is a dyed in the wool Marxist cast into abject demoralization by recent changes in the UK. (In one scene he and his partner, Shirley, visit Marx’s tomb in the Highgate Cemetery.) He rejects “ on principle” Martin’s advice to start a business and begin to accumulate wealth. Cyril and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), his lover of 10 years, perpetuate an ex-hippie lifestyle, smoking pot and raising cactuses, each working at menial wage jobs. They visit Cyril’s Mom, but it is clear Cyril doesn’t relish the time they spend with the old woman. Cyril, who does reveal a tender side toward Shirley, nevertheless insists that the whole notion of family is passé, a relic, and uses this argument against her wishes to have a baby.
The film’s structure is no so much plot-driven, more a series of happenings. One day Mrs. Bender goes out to the drug store but leaves her purse - with the prescription, cash and her house key - behind. She asks her next door neighbors for help. They are Laetitia and Rupert Boothe-Braine, well off, upwardly mobile snobs who, like others, have recently moved into the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Their condescension toward the Benders is painful. It takes forever for Laetitia even to let Mrs. Bender come in to make a phone call, as if the old lady’s mere presence will indelibly soil her house. Another happening is Mrs. Bender’s 70th birthday party, hosted by Valeria and Martin. The party, like the day long ordeal at the Boothe-Braine residence, is an over-the-top, achingly funny portrayal of selfishness and insensitivity on nearly everyone’s part. And on both occasions, one can feel Mrs. Bender’s apathy, mute rage and withdrawal grow larger and engulf her.
Against the narcissistic preoccupations of the others, only Shirley stands for something better, for a sense of family connection, for consideration of others, for commitment. After the birthday party, she senses Mrs. Bender’s distress and brings her by taxi to the flat Shirley shares with Cyril, because the old lady doesn’t want to go home. After the tedious day, having spent much of it in reveries about her deceased spouse and sister, as if she were reliving long ago events freshly, Mrs. Bender is enervated and exhausted, and soon falls asleep. Next morning they all climb up to the roof and have a look about. Mrs. Bender seems more settled, more relaxed. Shirley tells Cyril that they must help her, that his mother cannot go on independently, that she will need more care, and Cyril seems to accept this, as the film ends.
The acting is first rate all around in this bitterly funny satire. Ms.Dore, who was 66 when the film was made, brought significant pertinent experience to her role, having played a woman slipping into Alzheimer’s disease in the celebrated British TV sitcom series, The Eastenders. In those scenes when she sits, resignedly mute, avoiding contact with anyone else in the room, she is absolutely riveting. (By the way, now 82, she is still working regularly in film and TV.) In this splendid movie, Leigh accomplishes his goal, suggesting, I think, that, on a microscopic scale, Mrs. Bender’s plight is like that of the disadvantaged classes in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain: the needy are obvious among us, to anyone who is willing to look, but those with the means to help are too busy indulging themselves to respond or even to notice. See also my review of Leigh's other superb family tale, Secrets and Lies. Grade: A- (11/04)
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Jodie Foster, US, 1995). FAMILY DISSENTION AT THE THANKSGIVING TABLE. Holly Hunter (the daughter), Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft (her parents) and Robert Downey Jr (her gay brother) head a good cast in this satire about the turmoil that can surround Thanksgiving family reunions. Grade: B- (11/99)
THE HOURS (Stephen Daldry, UK/US, 2002) WOMEN’S FULFILLMENT; DEPRESSION; SUICIDE; AIDS. This ambitious film is, unfortunately, a seriously flawed apaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same title. Both book and film seek to find common strands of meaning in three separate stories of women touched by Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.” That celebrated work followed the course of a refined, mature woman’s activities and reflections over the course of a single day, as she prepares to host a party. Reveries of loves and losses long ago - what might have been - intrude upon concerns she has about the people foremost in her present life. Each of the three stories in this film also unfolds over the course of a single day, a day upon which each woman is planning a party. The first concerns Woolf herself (played by Nicole Kidman), on a day in 1923 when her sister, niece and nephews are coming to visit, and also the day she first began to write “Mrs. Dalloway.” Woolf is miserable living in a small village in Sussex. Late in the day, after her relatives have left, she tells her husband that if returning to the stresses of London might mean her psychological undoing, she still prefers that lively path to the deadly boredom of life in Sussex.
The second story concerns Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an unhappy suburban housewife in Los Angeles who is pregnant with the couple’s second child when we meet her in 1951. We learn later that she was a misfit even in high school, a loner on the sidelines. Now she is unsuccessful as a homemaker and mother – she can’t even bake a decent birthday cake for her husband - and is on the verge of suicide. She’s reading “Mrs. Dalloway,” and it appears as if the novel has a redeeming effect upon her. The third story is contemporary, set in New York City in 2001. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is a successful book editor who has maintained a stable lesbian relationship for 10 years. Much earlier, though, she had had an unforgettably grand summer affair with a man, a writer, Richard (Ed Harris) who is now dying of AIDS. Clarissa is his primary caregiver, visiting him daily. For years his preferred nickname for her has been ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (who’s fictional first name was also Clarissa). We follow Clarissa Vaughan’s day as she plans a party to honor Richard, who has just won a major poetry prize.
If all of this business seems overly complicated, it really doesn't play that way. The film is written and edited in a clever manner, with scene changes and brief intercuts that seamlessly move us from one situation and time to another, then to another, and back. The acting is uneven. Kidman is brilliant as Woolf and deserves the honors she has received for her work here, perhaps her best. Harris is riveting as the failing but still fierce Richard. The other two principals – Moore and Streep – offer somewhat beclouded turns. Streep’s Clarissa is enigmatic; she seems unfathomable at times. Moore’s Laura is even more difficult: her terrible misery remains largely incomprehensible. She seems a selfish crybaby whom you want to spank and tell to buck up.
In Cunningham’s novel, all three of these women are portrayed as having significant strengths. Yet it is only Kidman’s Woolf who is left with sufficient pluck in the screenplay to show through properly. What was screenwriter David Hare thinking of? Moore and Streep were assigned flawed versions of the characters described by Cunningham and this is evident in the ambiguous – in Moore’s case mawkish – performances they give. This film suggests that it is in the pathology of these women that we should seek the meaning of the title, perhaps time hanging heavily on troubled souls. Neither Cunningham nor Woolf would have agreed. See also my longer article on this film, “Measuring the Hours.” Grade: B (04/03)
HOUSE OF FOOLS (Andrei Konchalovsky, Russia, 2003). (Shown at PIFF 26.) THEME: MENTAL HOSPITAL LIFE IN A TIME OF WAR. SPOILER ALERT! The great films set in mental hospitals generally opt to present one of two contradictory views about such places. Some propose that hospitals are evil environs that cruelly dehumanize people. The ranking films here are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Frederick Wiseman’s legendary documentary, Titicut Follies. In contrast, some other films suggest that hospitals can be sanctuaries, safe havens in the larger, more destructive world of people and events gone bonkers. The leading film of this persuasion is the classic, King of Hearts, a lyrical, poetic tragicomedy in which a lost soldier (Alan Bates) is received as a God sent leader by a band of chronic mental patients set loose after an attack on a French village during WW I.
Now we have House of Fools, also an anti-war film, and one whose narrative has much in common with King of Hearts. And though King of Hearts will always be one of my favorite films, I dare say that House is perhaps also the better film of the two. House poses the ironic question: who is the more crazy, those within or those without the gates of the asylum? In so doing, it is wildly, passionately successful. The story is based on real events in 1996 at a psychiatric facility somewhere on the Chechnya-Ingushetia (Russian) border, shortly before the cease-fire. The hospital is old and understaffed, run by a kindly and diligent psychiatrist (Vladas Bagdonas).
The patients are a motley lot: an anxious dwarf; a man wheelchair bound with severe cerebral palsy; another man with severe contractures from sitting neglected for too many years, who hobbles along in a near seated posture; a prissy transsexual; an old man with psychotic depression who needs tube feedings; a woman with Downs’ Syndrome; and various and sundry others. These are real patients at a Moscow psychiatric hospital: they are a clichéd bunch, perhaps, but obviously a more clinically convincing ensemble than the actors mustered for Cuckoo’s Nest or King of Hearts.
Mixed in with them are professional actors, three of whom stand out. Vika (Marina Politsejmako) is a stout older woman, a communist of the old school, a somewhat manicky, officious sort who loves to bully others. The two central patient characters are Janna and Ali. Janna (Yuliya Vysotskaya, the director's wife, who also recently played Hildegard in the film Max, a film I have yet to see) loves music. When she plays her accordion (she’s a very good player), often at times of tension on the ward, the music ignites her fantasies: the light glows warm and sunny, and she imagines everyone singing and dancing gaily around her.
She also has a fantasized love relationship with her favorite pop singer, Canadian Bryan Adams. Adams (played by himself) often appears to Janna – whether these are internal fantasies or frank visual hallucinations is uncertain. Janna is also compassionate and quite knowing about the special needs of other patients, to whom she ministers in her hummingbird like style. Ali (Stanislav Varkki) is a diffident, blunt, grouchy schizophrenic poet. But he is also a respected natural leader among the patients; even the formidable Vika demurs to Ali’s orders. Life clamors along, never dull but, in the patterned eccentricities of its citizens, more-or-less routine and predictable, as befits any chronic ward.
And then one day all Hell breaks loose. The trains stop and the phone goes dead. The two nurses flee to their homes. The doctor goes off in search of buses to evacuate the patients. An artillery explosion rocks the hospital. Then another and another. War between Chechnian rebels and the Russians has arrived, uninvited. Muslim rebels occupy the hospital. The patients are scared witless but then things quiet down. The soldiers now simply dig in to wait vigilantly. They are mainly good natured. As in most films about the Bosnian war, small ironies abound here. One rebel wears a Calvin Klein Jeans logo T-shirt under his flak jacket. Two others trade marijuana for ammunition in a deal with Russian soldiers during a temporary truce. The rebel commander and a Russian tank officer discover that they fought together in Afghanistan.
A running joke develops among some of the rebels that one of them, Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), wants to marry the attractive but impulsive and quite mad Janna. Janna takes this notion seriously, anguished at having to renounce her (imagined) betrothal to Bryan Adams in order to give herself to Ahmed. After a few days, a major Russian attack against the hospital erupts: artillery, a helicopter gunship, tank and ground troops invade the area. The rebels scatter: most leave, a few hide inside. Gunfire and explosions again rock the hospital. Janna is left behind, in histrionic turmoil, joining other patients who are hiding in the basement.
Finally the doctor returns. He restores order, settling the patients down and also treating a Russian captain for acute stress disorder (he swears the doctor to secrecy about his need for help). At the end Ahmed - the only rebel still alive on the grounds - turns up in the dining room, masquerading as a patient. The others provide him cover. He is safe. Janna is pleased. No patient has died.
Compared to King of Hearts, House of Fools offers a far more starkly realistic view of both the handicaps of chronic mental infirmities and the harshness of an outside world gone mad. House further suggests that despite man's insane destructiveness, a collective safe and healing spirit can prevail, even among people with extreme limitations. The director, a filmmaker of long experience, is the older brother of the better known Russian director, Nikita Mikhalkov (Dark Eyes, Anna 6-18, Burnt By the Sun). (In Russian and Chechnian) See also my article titled, "War, Sanity and Asylum." Grade: A- (02/03)
HOUSE OF GAMES (David Mamet, US, 1987). THEMES: BOUNDARY ISSUES AND ANTIPSYCHIATRY, AS A PSYCHIATRIST DRIFTS INTO CRIME. Lindsay Crouse is Margaret Ford, a successful young New York City psychiatrist who discovers the depths of her own perversity in David Mamet’s first film, about con men and their marks. Ford meets Mike, a slick confidence man played ably by Joe Mantegna, in the course of aiding one of her patients who owes him big money. At the same time she is feeling weary from the burdens of caring for difficult patients and is eager for some new direction in her life. Boy, does she get one, when Mike becomes her teacher and budding love interest. Performances are constrained by Mamet’s trademark clipped, formalistic, highly stylized and unnatural dialogue, not unlike Hal Hartley’s. But the con arrangements Mamet has conceived are wonderfully convoluted. Grade: B (08/03)
A HOUSE ON A HILL (Chuck Workman, US, 2003, 89 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEME: AGING: FACING PAST FAILURES TO FIND "EGO INTEGRITY" (ERIKSON). It doesn’t take a PhD in the semiotics of dream interpretation to know that when the image of a house appears while we slumber, it often represents one’s own person (the basement being the subconscious, the main floor our worldly aspect, the upper floors more lofty spiritual or idealistic leanings, and so on). Writer-director Chuck Workman - best known for his feature-length documentaries (Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol; The Source) and short montages created for the Academy Awards shows and others - has employed this symbolic equation to create a soulful, deceptively simple, carefully woven narrative about the restoration of both a ruined house and the equally ruined, aging architect who had designed it.
The life and dreams of Harry Mayfield (played by the first rate actor, Philip Baker Hall) were all but destroyed years ago. He had designed and had built a house high on a hill, overlooking the Pacific above Malibu, for his wife and son. But one day the place caught fire, entrapping and killing Harry’s son. As is often the case after such a tragedy, Harry’s marriage did not survive this loss. He abandoned his practice in favor of a teaching job, and subsequently has merely subsisted, his life empty except for quiet despair.
Now a yuppie couple, the Banks's, comes along, want to buy the property and, although only the cement slab and an inverted V-shaped iron archway remain as vestiges of the original house, they also want Harry to preside over rebuilding of the structure as it used to be. Well, not quite. After Harry creates a model from the old drawings, Mrs. Banks wants changes that Harry thinks would violate the original design. Her friend Gaby (Laura San Giacomo), a filmmaker, who has tagged along to see the model, senses Harry’s frustration and feels similarly. Gaby and Harry make a connection, one based on their aesthetic sensibilities, not romance. This connection energizes Harry’s efforts to try to accommodate Mrs. Banks’ wishes and move ahead with the project. He agrees to let Gaby shoot a film about him and his work.
All seems to go well at first. And Harry definitely has a quicker step. But midway through framing of the house, the Banks's have a falling out and separate. The project is stalled. Perhaps - make that probably - indefinitely. Harry initially is crushed. He spends a tortured night sitting on the stoop of the place, exposed, in a rainstorm. (Mr. Workman, who was present for this screening, said in response to a question that he wanted the rain to represent a “cleansing,” presumably referring to Harry’s still soiled psyche.)
The following day he feels better, buoyed up some by a positive encounter with a neighbor, who tells Harry that he - the neighbor - used to think Harry was arrogant. Harry replies with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright: “Better to be arrogant than ignorant.” Gaby drops by the site and gives Harry a hug, thanking him for the inspiration for her own work she had gotten from him. We leave Harry with some confidence that he has found himself again, that his “house,” unlike the stalled structure nearby, is continuing to be revived.
This pensive, slowly paced film is psychologically sound, beautifully filmed and edited, and well acted. Shown almost exclusively at festivals, this fine film surely deserves wider distribution. With Shirley Knight as Harry’s former wife, Mercedes. Grade: B+ (09/06)
HOUSEKEEPING (Bill Forsyth, UK, 1987). THEME: INDULGENT AUNT-NIECE RELATIONSHIP; SURVIVORS OF SUICIDE. Billed as "A Tidy Comedy," this very serious drama, Forsyth's first Hollywood film, is something much more thoughtful. Christine Lahti is Sylvie, a free spirit who comes to look after her two nieces, the teenage daughters of her sister, who apparently took her own life by driving her car into a lake. The older niece disapproves of her aunt's fey ways and goes off to live with another family. But the younger niece, Ruth, shy and underachieving, forms a dependent bond with Silvie. The film poses deliciously vexing questions. Is it good for Ruth that Sylvie indulges her avoidance of school and allows her to forgo peer ties in favor of adventures with Sylvie, who clearly loves and dotes upon Ruth? Would Ruth be better off if taken from Sylvie and placed in foster care, made to conform to expectations that she attend school regularly, and so on? Tough call. Grade: B+ (09/00)
HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (Bruce Robinson, UK, 1989). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: DARK OR SHADOW SIDE OF PERSONALITY ("EVIL TWIN"); HUMOROUS TAKE ON PSYCHIATRY. Richard E. Grant stars as Denis Bagley, an aggressive, carnivorous advertising accounts executive who is showing dangerous signs of burnout. He’s frustrated, weary, and angry. He insults his dinner guests and is insolent toward his wife Julia (the luminous Australian actress, Rachel Ward). Circumstances send him over-the-top when he’s given the daunting assignment of mounting an ad campaign for medicines that aid skin conditions. Horrified at the very thought of focusing his work on pimples and boils and the like, he breaks out in a manic frenzy, devastating the house in a search and destroy mission: he’s going to end any dependence his wife and he have developed on advertised products. In the throes of this crazed state, about to resign his job, dashing about the house in an apron but otherwise nude, slopped all over with lotions and toiletries and prepared food products that have squirted away as he breaks their containers, Denis notices he has himself developed a boil on his neck.
This boil grows by leaps and bounds and turns out eventually to be a second head of his own: it’s Denis’s evil twin, the callous, cool, calculating, self contained, mustachioed, amoral advert exec who wants to regain dominance and overthrow the crazed reformer. The two aspects of Denis fight each other and in the end it is the advert exec who wins out, incorporating Denis’s mania into a new, supercharged, messianic advocate for world dominion by advertising. What a grim final note. The movie is pretty tight and funny for the first half, but as Denis’s obsessions and frenzy deepen, the movie itself seems to go off the tracks, in need of a tranquilizer perhaps. Humor evaporates as the film grows more and more didactic, staying relentlessly on message, ending as a bitter anti-corporate, anti-materialistic send up.
The film features a general practitioner with a Freudian bent, fearful early on that Denis’s anthropomorphic boil might represent his father and that lancing it before psychiatric therapy could lead to fixed or worsening symptoms. If only PCPs were more generally this circumspect. On the other hand, the psychiatrist uses a massage table for a psychoanalytic couch and dons a rubber glove to inspect the boil. Curious role reversals here. Mr. Robinson directed and wrote the screenplay (he also wrote the screenplay for Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, among others). Grade: B (12/04)
HUMAN RESOURCES (Laurent Cantet, France, 2000). THEMES: LABOR-MANAGEMENT TENSIONS IN THE WORKPLACE; PARALLEL STORY OF CONFLICT BETWEEN FATHER (FACTORY WORKER) AND SON (MANAGEMENT INTERN). SPOILER ALERT! A moving, personalized story of tensions in the contemporary corporate world between management and worker interests. Franck, a college student home from Paris for the summer, is accepted as a management trainee in the personnel department at the factory where his father has worked on the assembly line for 30 years.
The company is recovering from an unprofitable period by downsizing. Full of academic ideals and zeal, Franck enters buoyantly into the mounting conflict over the 35 hour work week backed by management, which union leaders fear will mean more layoffs or at least a demand for more efficiency and greater automation, which amounts to the same thing. He fashions a worker survey about the shorter work week which in effect bypasses and isolates a woman who is the most strident of the union leaders. His bosses are pleased and flatter him, but as he succeeds his relations with some other workers harden. His father, an extremely taciturn man who is quietly devoted to doing his job, is proud of his son but senses the gulf widening between them. (He seems to feel it is inevitable: he even coaches Franck not to be too friendly with the workers.)
When Franck inadvertently learns that his father is on a new list for firings, it changes everything. He feels that he, his father and all of the workers have been betrayed, and he joins the union leaders in organizing a militant confrontation and strike. His father is mortified by this turn of events, deeply embarrassed when the senior manager throws Franck out of the plant. Traditional and loyal to the company, and fearful of losing his retirement benefits, the father is one of the workers who break through the picket lines. A young black man who works with the father later befriends Franck and tells him how much his father has helped him, serving as a role model for the discipline of staying with the monotonous work, day in, day out. But Franck can only feel shame, shame for his father's monotonous, dogged worker's life, and shame for being ashamed. The film ends with a question about what the future holds for both younger men. See also my review of Cantet's more recent film, Time Out, about a man's dilemma when he is fired from a job. (In French) Grade: B+ (12/00)
HUMANITÉ (L'Humanité or Humanity) (Bruno Dumont, France, 1999). THEMES: DEPRESSION; BEREAVEMENT; MORALITY AND "HUMAN NATURE". SPOILER ALERT! This is a highly unusual, long (148 minutes), slow moving film, made in large scope (CinemaScope) and in muted colors, using amateur actors. Though the purpose of the film is far from clear, it does enigmatically explore the nature of human beings, not in some abstract manner, but very much in the particular, very much as a naturalist might use film to explore the behavior of particular animals of any species. Indeed, there is a farmyard scene in which Pharaon, a police detective, the central character (Emmanuel Schotté) seems mesmerized by a pig suckling its young, and he caresses the pig in the same sort of spellbound, casually erotic manner that he uses to nuzzle male suspects later at the police station.
There is very little dialogue throughout this film, and it doesn't convey much, adding to the sense that we are joining Dumont in an exercise of ethological observation of the conduct of several specimen representing this curious species, homo sapiens. The director focuses for long periods on the sad and wistfully gazing Pharaon as he stares out a window, or at the pimples near his nose that change form from day to day like clouds; or at the sweat on the neck of his fat and ineffectual superior officer; or at the highly nonromanticized, entirely graphic, almost clinical, lovemaking of his neighbor, the big boned, plain but lusty factory worker Domino (Séverine Caneele) and her loutish lover, the schoolbus driver, Joseph. The use of non-professional actors creates anonymity for them that enhances the sense that this is an inquiry into the tangible physical conduct of humans - apart from persona, celebrity, words and ideas. One might say that Dumont's view is like Wilhelm Reich's - that human character emerges from the body, it is grounded in physicality, and that is what is explored here.
The plot is a whodunit. An 11 year old schoolgirl has been savagely raped, bitten and killed in a field. Pharaon discovers the body and is terribly shaken. He is part of the group assigned to solving the crime, but in fact he is too dysfunctional to do much good...he is deeply depressed, almost catatonic. We learn that he lost his wife and baby two years earlier but we aren't told the circumstances. He now lives in considerable tension with his mother in a small flat in the northern French town of Bailleul, on a street named for his regionally famous artist grandfather. He barely can keep himself moving from day to day, always unkempt, barely able to speak most of the time.
Nonetheless we witness his empathy and his love of beauty, evident in his appreciation of his grandfather's paintings, his noodling at an electronic keyboard, his fondness for Domino, and especially his faithful cultivation of lovely flowers at the community garden. The end of the film defies logic. It first depicts a tearful, trussed up Joseph confessing to the crime (not at all in character - it just doesn't look like his sort of crime, for, whatever Joseph's shortcomings, his appetite for healthy fornicating with adult women seems more firmly established than any other fact presented in this film). Then, in the last scene, it is Pharaon who sits handcuffed in the same office at the police station. From the beginning, there have been numerous hints to suggest his guilt, but that notion had seemingly been swept off the table by Joseph's arrest.
This is quite a maddening film for anyone who insists on tidiness of plot. For me, it underscores the point that the plot is inconsequential. This film, as I have suggested, is about the paradoxical and mysteriously complicated nature of human beings, essentially rooted in their physicality, their sexuality. We are all guilty of something. And innocent as well. Sex can lead us into either pleasure or violence or both. We sweat, grow pimples, fornicate, yet counter our brutish animalism with affection and love of beauty, and the objects of our tenderness and adoration can be wonderfully varied. We are devastated by our losses yet can be callous toward those who care for us. We're lazy yet also hardworking. As adults we forget we were children and no longer can even talk with them. Like the workers' strike here, we can initiate acts with courage but often just as quickly give them up. And time often just passes, throughout our lives, much of it to no good end. It is these vagaries of human nature that seem to be what this strangely powerful film is about. (At Cannes 1999, this film won the Grand Jury Prize, and Schotté and Caneele were named best actor and actress. It is said that in receiving his award, Schotté behaved just as he did throughout the film. It seems to be him.) (In French) Grade: B+ (07/00)
I AM A SEX ADDICT (Caveh Zahedi, US, 2005, 98 m.). THEMES: PARAPHILIA; SEXUAL "ADDICTION" Nothing bores like watching hard porn or listening to someone carry on about obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Based on this film’s title, you might expect boredom but guess it’ll be from the sex, not OCD. Wrong. There’s a lot more frank sex on display in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs than there is here. Oh, yes, there’s lots of talk about sex. Endlessly so. Caveh Zahedi, a San Francisco filmmaker, purports here to present his own true confessional story of how he has sabotaged a long series of relationships with women by compulsively chasing after prostitutes – while still involved in ostensibly monogamous relationships - and spilling all the details to his wives and lovers. We meet him on his wedding day – well, his latest wedding day: this is his third trip down the aisle.
He then tells us the story of his sexual escapades in flashbacks, substituting actresses for the real women in his life (though he does insert real home movie footage of several). All of this comes across as pretty humorous for the first 30 minutes or so, in large part because Zahedi is a splendid physical comedian. His timing - the funny line delivered after just the right pause, the slow turning of his head to gaze into the camera lens at us at precisely the right moment - is exquisite. Anthony Lane, writing of this film in The New Yorker magazine, got it right: put a blond curly wig on this guy and give him a small air horn to toot and you’ve got a stunning reincarnation of Harpo Marx. But the material wears thin: it’s all too repetitive. After a while the titillation and humor pale, and you end up just wondering how the women who loved him could have put up for so long with Zahedi’s astonishingly self serving, passively cruel behavior. Grade: C+ (05/06)
I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN (Anthony Page, US, 1977) THEME: PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK WITH A SCHIZOPHRENIC PATIENT. This film, adapted from an autobiographical account by Hannah Green of her triumph over psychosis with the help of the eminent psychotherapist, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, is also dramatically compelling. The adolescent Green was ably played by Kathleen Quinlan, and a highly accomplished portrayal of the therapist was given by the Swedish actress, Bibi Andersson, who showed gentleness, compassion, patience and humility. It is perhaps the best portrayal of a female psychotherapist I’ve seen. Grades: (dramatic grounds): B; (Andersson's portrayal of a psychotherapist): A (09/98)
I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER (Gilbert Cates, US, 1970). THEME: AGING: FAMILY CONFLICT. A young Gene Hackman is torn between caring for his aging father (Melvyn Douglas) and leaving to follow his love, in a remarkably good story, very well acted. Grade: A (12/98)
I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (Mary Harron, US, 1996). THEMES: SEVERE PERSONALITY DISORDER; PARANOID PSYCHOSIS. Film based on the true story of a woman with a twisted, paranoid personality who, in 1968, after being spurned by Warhol after her efforts to enter his inner circle, seeks him out at his abode (“The Factory”) and shoots him, leaving him with lifelong aftereffects. Lili Taylor plays the woman, Valerie Solanas, very ably: she’s scary. The world around Warhol is recreated brilliantly. See also my review of The Assassinaton of Richard Nixon, another fact-based tale starring Sean Penn as a person with a paranoid personality who decompensates into a homicidal psychotic state. Grade: B (1996)
I STAND ALONE (Gaspar Noe, France, 1998). THEME: ANTISOCIAL, EXPLOSIVE, VIOLENT PERSONALITY. With the aid of lacerating music and speech, delivered in jarring, pulsating segments, and with newsbite pacing, this film depicts the decline of an enraged, emotionally bankrupt man who has lost his soul. His hard life has been made far harder by his own violent conduct. It gets worse. Hailed as an indictment of French society, this film is more of a slick horror movie for the art set. (In French) Grades: For sheer artistic and technical achievement, it is unquestionably superior and deserves an A. But based on content, I wouldn't urge my worst enemy to see it. I found it actually to be viscerally distressing, anxiety provoking, seriously enervating, to the point that I could only stand the first 25-30 minutes before leaving (I actually tried this twice, at two separate screenings). This film is recommended only for diehard students of filmmaking and psychopathology. (02/99)
THE ICE STORM (Ang Lee, US, 1997). THEMES: “SUBURBANS” (FAMILY CONFLICTS IN MIDDLE CLASS SUBURBIA); PREOCCUPATIONS OF SUBURBAN COUPLES IN THE 1970s (e.g., WIFE SWAPPING/DRINKING PARTIES) WHILE LIFE SPINS OUT OF CONTROL. The story is set in 1973 in an upscale Connecticut suburb. The adolescents squirm with hormonal pulses and disappointed embarrassment watching their parents act like kids. The general decline of serious, positive, loving connections among these people leads to tragic consequences at the end. With Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci as the Hood family, and Sigourney Weaver, Jamey Sheridan, Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd as the Hoods’ friends, the Carver family. Grade: B- (11/97)
IGBY GOES DOWN (Burr Steers, US, 2002). THEMES: ADOLESCENT ENNUI & DEPRESSION. "Coming of age" suggests a movement from innocence to worldly wisdom. But in this coming of age film, one very much in the tradition of “Catcher in the Rye,” 17 year old Igby Slocumbe’s sad life has been so affected by his experience in a truly horrid family that even in flashbacks to childhood he appears to be a weary old man, a person robbed of his childhood by too much exposure to the harsher possibilities of life. Igby’s only hope is to somehow reclaim his youth or something like it later in life. This writing-directing debut by Steers is outstanding. The film is highly intelligent in every sense. The characters are all interesting and multi-layered; each rings true, as do the connections among them. The dialogue is fresh and often very funny.
Igby despises his mother, the altogether corrosive Mimi (Susan Sarandon). His father Jason (Bill Pullman) disappeared to a psychiatric back ward years ago. Igby is played with superb control and nuanced complexity by Kieran Culkin. He is bold and crafty, sad and lonely, opportunistic, lost, enraged at a world that offers no safe place, no anchorage, buffeted about, often as a result of his own defiant actions, running from everything towards everything, but never without hope. He finds his only solace in sex but is too twisted and immature to offer anything of substance to Sookie (Claire Danes), a young woman who mothers him a bit.
Ryan Phillippe is also outstanding as Igby’s older brother Oliver. He obviously is modeled upon his mother: he is self centered, competent, unfeeling, acquisitive. Yet in the midst of the dysfunctional family surrounding him, it is Oliver who takes care of business for everyone, who can be seen as distancing himself from the others emotionally as a necessary strategy for his own survival, and thus he earns some measure of the viewer’s respect in spite of his obvious flaws. Most nefarious is “D.H.” (Jeff Goldblum), Igby’s wealthy godfather, who seems too attached to too many women besides his wife, including Mimi and the dark young junkie Rachel (the awesomely angular Amanda Peet). Goldblum makes a first class villain here. In a year offering few domestic films of much merit so far, this is one of the best. Grade: B+ (12/02)
I'M GOING HOME (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal, 2002). THEMES: ADJUSTMENT TO AGING; SIMPLE BEREAVEMENT. The Portuguese director was 92 when this film debuted at Cannes in 2001, 70 years on from his first film, in 1931! Here he works with an actor who is no spring chicken himself, the urbane French actor Michel Piccoli, who was 77 at the time of filming. The story is a simple one and is told simply and never in a rush. Gilbert, an aging actor, loses his wife, daughter and son-in-law in an auto accident. He carries on with equanimity, anchored by daily routines, his steady work as a stage actor, and the doting relationship he enjoys with his grandson, Serge, who was orphaned by the accident. There are occasional amusing sequences, and dramatic tension rises when Gilbert’s agent urges him to have an affair or accept a TV role, neither of which suits him.
He finally does accept a small film role in which he must speak English. It proves to be an unwise decision. Small supporting performances are offered here by Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, the latter quite good as a film director. Perhaps the best part of this movie consists in the daily routines, conveyed by repeated, lingering, pensive shots: Gilbert watching his housekeeper send Serge off to school each morning; G. having his daily coffee at his favorite little eaterie; G. silhouetted by morning sun at his desk studying a photograph (we never see who’s in the photo, but we can guess).
Unlike other recent films about bereavement, all of which emphasize some dramatic reaction or change in the survivors, de Oliveira is wise enough to show us instead how often it is true that people left behind simply and quietly carry on, and rather effectively at that. If there is a moral to this story, it may be that when survivors attempt to rashly alter things, it is then that troubles can occur. (In French and English). Grades: drama: B; portrayal of bereavement: A (02/03)
I’M THE FATHER (Vater) (Dani Levy, Germany, 2003). This formulaic divorce drama is partially redeemed by decent acting all around and by solid psychodynamic underpinnings. The sins of the parents are indeed visited upon the child. Marco's mother, Melanie, walked out when he was 15. In adulthood, Marco complains that his father never has time for him and his family. Alas, Marco is so caught up in his demanding career as an upwardly mobile young architect that he also neglects his wife and 6 year old son, Benny, and only realizes how much he cares for the boy after his wife leaves him, takes Benny with her, and blocks Marco's visitation rights. Unfortunately for everyone, whenever Melanie imposes new demands and limitations on Marco, he responds in some ever more desperate manner, which in turn provokes Melanie to raise the stakes once again. By the end Marco has lost his marriage and his career but has regained contact with his mother and better ties with his dad. The film could be helpful to people contemplating or already in the throes of marital dissolution. (In German) Grade: B- (02/03)
IMAGINARY HEROES (Dan Harris, US, 2004, 117 min.). CONSUMER ALERT! THEME: IMPACT OF SON’S SUICIDE ON FAMILY. This wretched psychodrama uses every shabby device in the book to wheedle attention and sympathy from us for its characters, who, with one exception, are not worthy of any notice at all, let alone two precious hours of filmgoers’ time. As in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (a superb film that, in comparison, clearly shows the vacuity of Heroes), a late teenage boy has died, leaving his family in the throes of bereavement. In this case, the death was a suicide, an event that nearly always poisons the emotional well of the survivors in a particularly corrosive way. We follow these people over the next 8 or 9 months.
The father (Jeff Daniels) becomes a withdrawn, virtually mute, usually drunken stiff who secretly takes leave from his job for months, sits instead on a park bench all day, and insists on setting a full plate of food at the deceased son’s place for every meal. He treats everyone else in the family with unerring nastiness. He sees his doctor regularly but the issue of therapeutic intervention in his obviously dysfunctional state never comes up. The mother (Sigourney Weaver) yells at the neighbor woman, among others, gets busted when she stupidly tries to buy "marijuana" (her term) at a head shop (what adult in reality would ever try such a dumb stunt?), and, near the end, swoons into coma with a lung condition that everyone in the theater assumes is cancer (she’s a heavy smoker). The older sister (Michelle Williams) is away at college and all too happy to distance herself from the family zoo.
The younger brother (played by Emile Hirsch) is the only credible member of the family. His suffering is genuine, its causes multifold, and his conduct is coherent within the circumstances. But Mr. Hirsch’s character is too softspoken, too morose and beaten down, to carry the movie. Ms. Weaver has a few flip lines but generally behaves too unintelligently to merit much empathy. The other bit players, subtexts and gimmicky, unreal dialogue don’t help. The suicide theme is echoed in an almost nonchalant manner in the case of two other minor characters. So what is Mr. Harris trying to say about this subject? Why Jeff Daniels agreed to play the sap of a father as written in this screenplay is something only his therapist might possibly be able to answer. Avoid this dog. Instead rent Redford’s classic.Grade: C- (02/05)
IN AMERICA (Jim Sheridan, UK/Ireland, 2002). THEMES: IMPACT OF LOSS OF CHILD ON FAMILY; PERSISTENT BEREAVEMENT. SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Sheridan, the Irish writer-director (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father), and his two grown daughters, also writers, have prepared a story based on their shared personal experience of losing a son and brother, Frankie, in childhood. In this story, an Irish family moves first to Canada, then, after a child - Frankie - succumbs to a brain tumor at age 5, to New York City, partly so the father, Johnny (Irish actor Paddy Considine), can find work as an actor and partly to escape the tragic past. They find an affordable apartment in a dingy multistory walkup that houses an unseemly assortment of drug addicts, transvestites, immigrant families and madmen. They struggle to settle in.
Johnny’s wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and the couple’s two daughters, 11 year old Christy, who narrates some of the story, and 8 year old Ariel (played by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), are in fact coping pretty well, they’re prepared to move on, open to the new possibilities of life in America. But for Johnny, as they say, the “geographic cure” isn’t working. He’s no better off in New York than before. Johnny blames himself for Frankie’s loss; he was tending to the children the day Frankie fell down stairs at age 2 and still thinks this caused the tumor. His grief is entrenched and unyielding: it saps his energy, blocks his ability to act and to be engaged emotionally with his family.
We meet the catalyst for change in Johnny and his family’s fortunes on Hallowe’en, in what must rank as one of the most entertaining trick-or-treat encounters on film. Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, from Benin), a fierce African artist, lives on the floor below. We’ve caught glimpses of him earlier, yelling and writhing in nocturnal frenzies, using his own blood to make drip paintings. He’s an exotic wild-eyed loner. But when the girls keep knocking on his door on Hallowe’en, despite his shouts for them to go away, he yields. Thus begins a fast and hearty friendship between Mateo and the family. Despite the fact that he is dying, Mateo is able to touch each of the four, even, in the end, Johnny himself, although he is the most reticent.
A major problem with this film is that it moves so fitfully: its pace is uneven, a series of lulls and bright moments, near stalls and restarts. The young Bolger sisters are quite effective, and Ms. Morton gives a good accounting as a warmhearted but worried woman, a turn that adds to her stature as a developing major acting talent, following upon her fine performance in Morvern Callar. I was less impressed with Considine. Even allowing for the fact that his character is supposed to be dispirited, I found him dull to watch. Djimon Hounsou, on the other hand, radiates charisma and electrifying energy; no wonder he’s been successful as a model. But his overnight transformation from isolated madman to sweetie pie/sugar daddy seems a bit much.
The idea that this vital force of nature can pass on his zest for living as a legacy to Johnny and the others is a wonderful idea for a film story. But here it remains primarily just an idea, one not that fully or convincingly realized. A strength of the film is it’s compelling demonstration of the impact of loss of a child on the family, and the impact of a parent’s depression on the other members. The movie also offers two very positive performances by young girls that would be worthwhile viewing for older kids, say from age 12 or so on up. For more on this film, see my article, "More Rooms in the House of Grief." Grade: B (01/04)
IN THE BEDROOM (Todd Field, US, 2001). THEME: COMPLICATIONS OF BEREAVEMENT. First rate psychodrama about a middle aged couple, Matt and Ruth, who live in a small New England town, where Matt (Tom Wilkinson) nis a family doc and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) teaches music at the high school (among the film's fine scenes are those in which Ruth rehearses a girlchoir singing Balkan folksongs). Their 20 year old son, Frank (Nick Stahl), an only child and promising architecture student, becomes involved in a summer affair with an older woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), mother of two, and Frank is eventually shot to death by the woman's violent estranged spouse, Richard (William Mapother).
I won't discuss plot further here, as it involves so much spoiler information. Let it suffice to state that this film could have been awash in bathos, but instead, while violence is a continuing major subtext, the film is a work of enormous compassion and suspense, attributable to brilliant acting all around and remarkable arrangement of scenes, both in large part the product of peerless directing by Portland's own Todd Field. Field understands the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words. Over and over he shows us narrative. The filmmaker also avoids the heavy handed Hollywood path of carrying out each scene to its inevitable conclusion. Instead we are often led just to a point where we can imagine what happens next. Example: when Matt gets the news of Frank's death, we see him slowly walk down a darkened corridor at Ruth's school and hear her choir rehearsing out of view. The song is funereal. He stops before entering the auditorium. The scene ends here. It is rare, at least in American cinema, for a director to demonstrate so much respect for the viewer's imagination. Above all, as Matt and Ruth's bereavement unfolds, this film becomes a profound meditation on the vicissitudes of grief. For more on this film, see my article, "Rooms in the House of Grief." Grade: A- (12/02)
IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (Neil Labute, US, 1997). THEMES: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY; INTERDEPENDENT FRIENDSHIP; MEN'S ISSUES. SPOILER ALERT! Aaron Eckhart plays Chad, a sociopathic young businessman, and Matt Malloy is Howard, Chad’s hesitant, basically good, get-along-go-along pal. Chad pretends his wife has left him; Howard’s really has. Chad suggests they even the score with the opposite sex by both hustling some unsuspecting and lonely woman, then dropping her purposely to hurt her. He discovers a deaf temp employee, Christine (Stacy Edwards), and the game is on. Chad cons his way into bed with Christine, because she loves him, but Howard actually falls in love with her. When Howard tells all, Christine is predictably hurt but does not believe in Howard's professed love, nor, sadly, does she love him. What a mess. What's worse, there are plenty of nasty young men out there like Chad, not to mention the timeless circumstance of unrequited love. This bitter movie won the 1997 Sundance Filmmaker's Trophy Award. Grade: B (06/00)
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/France/Thailand, 2001). THEMES: MARITAL LOSS; LONELINESS; LONGING. SPOILER ALERT! The year is 1962 and, by coincidence on the same day, two childless 30-something married couples - the Chans and the Chows - move into adjacent small apartments, both opening into a hall that connects with the owners' quarters, where everyone shares a common kitchen. We never meet Mr. Chan or Mrs. Chow, only their respective spouses. We notice that each is spending a lot of time alone, at work or at home, while their spouses are often working late or away on business. Gradually it becomes evident that the unseen couple are having an affair, and that their on-screen mates are lonely, isolated, disconsolate. Each is discreet and self contained to a fault, but finally they move beyond exchanging brief pleasantries. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) invites Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) out to dinner. They talk cautiously. In time they share their beliefs about their mates' affair. They are thrown together by this common source of misery but are chaste, offering each other emotional comfort but not sex. In a rare moment of comic relief, they even spend a night together in Mr. Chow's bedroom, unable to get Mrs. Chan back to her room because the owners and their friends are in the midst of an all night mahjongg game. Mr. Chow even coaches Mrs. Chan, rehearsing with her a confrontation she wants to have with her husband about the affair.
Finally one night Mr. Chow confesses to Mrs. Chan (we never hear either one's first name) that he has fallen in love with her. She remains silent, reticent. They go their own ways. After at least an hour, the film moves forward a year to 1963 and we find that Mr. Chow has left Hong Kong to work abroad in Japan and Singapore as a newspaper correspondent. Then there are other brief scenes through 1966. The couple never meets again, though it is evident that Mrs. Chan, now apparently divorced, thinks about Mr. Chow (once she even visits his place in Singapore while he is out). Mr. Chow also remains alone and quite likely still carries a torch for Mrs. Chan (once he revisits the old apartment house looking for her). The film ends.
The strength of this film lies in the bold, simple, slow (almost languid), dreamy, and highly stylized telling of this tale of longing, loss and love unfulfilled. To that end, writer-director Wong Kar-wai employs a number of strategies in a mixture that is intriguing, if not unique. First there is the screenplay itself, and the decision to focus exclusively on the spurned mates, radically simplifying plot and dialogue. Next is the photography: there are many long takes of each character, isolated at work, at home, or out getting food. These serve several purposes: they heighten the sense of emotional isolation that each person must be experiencing, even when in the presence of other people; their strivings to cope and present a normal outward appearance to others; and, not least, Mrs. Chan's singular beauty. Then there are slow motion shots, those used, for example, when Mrs. Chan is descending the stairs to the local basement noodle shop to get takeout. Wong also uses bold contrasts of shadow and light to accentuate the separateness of the central characters when alone.
Then there is the music. Michael Galasso has created for this film a restless yet agonizing work consisting of a rich, melodic cello line, supported by a throbbing rhythm accented by a string pizzicato. This music plays loudly (too loudly?) whenever we see one of the principals alone, especially Mrs. Chan, and when this music is combined with slow motion visuals of her walking, the effect is quite intoxicating. Then there is an old recording of Nat King Cole singing, in Spanish, the ballad "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (“Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”). This plays, more softly, whenever Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are together, or approaching one another. And so the soundtrack varies, from no music to interludes of the Galasso piece to Nat King Cole, as the scene requires.
Next there is the rain. It rains hard in Hong Kong, and Wong cannot get enough of it. Rain is the central character in several brief scenes. Rain surrounds Mrs. Chan as she stands waiting alone against a wall. Rain soaks Mr. Chow as he walks along. Rain, the tears of nature, stands as a proxy for the hurt within these stoic people, neither of whom, except for a single scene of Mrs. Chan, can cry. Finally there is repetition. By repeatedly shooting each central character in the same or similar poses or daily activities (especially the times each stands or sits alone and apart), use of the recurring musical themes, the frequent rains, Wong accurately captures the repetitive, recurring waves of grief and brooding that occur when people lose someone dear. The overall effects of these methods is to pull the viewer in, to engulf the viewer in the experience of these individuals.
When the story jumps forward after the long initial segment in 1962, the film comes unhinged. Subsequent scenes are brief and disjointed. No more images of bold shadow and light. No more rain. The music changes. We now get far fewer doses of the Galasso and Cole, and for the first time instead some brief snatches of typical light oriental music. Why the change in style here? Was it Wong’s intent to have the viewer experience the disjunction in life that occurred for these people after they parted? Is the fragmentation and discontinuity of the later scenes supposed to represent the subjective experience of the principals? Who knows. I think that the film would have had more integrity if the story had ended in 1962, without all the choppy scenes at the end. This is not a great film but it certainly is a bold and intriguing attempt to deploy film strategies to convey deep human feelings of longing and loss. (In Cantonese and Shanghainese) Grade: B+ (02/01)
IN THE NAVEL OF THE SEA (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Philippines, 1998). THEMES: COMING OF AGE STORY; GOOD DEPICTION OF FORCES THAT SHAPE AND MOLD ADULT CHARACTER; COPING AND GROWTH AFTER LOSS. Not your everyday movie. Beautifully photographed story, set in a remote island village, of the forming of Pepito, from his father's death during his boyhood until he becomes a respected village midwife and leader. Despite some rough spots, this film deftly shows how character is molded by the capacity for love and forbearance in the face of loss. (In Filipino & Tagalog) Grades: drama: B-; coming of age story: B+ (02/99)
IN A NUTSHELL: A PORTRAIT OF ELIZABETH TASHJIAN (Don Bernier, US, 2005, 80 m). THEMES: AGING; AUTONOMY, "AGING IN PLACE"; "EXECUTIVE" (FRONTAL LOBE) DYSFUNCTION; UNUSUAL CHARACTERS. Here’s a documentary about an aging single woman, someone without family or resources, a woman who has led a life notable for both her considerable accomplishments and her eccentricities, whose imagination, artistic sensibility, and desire for autonomy have tragically outstripped her capacity to care for herself. Born into an aristocratic Armenian émigré family on Manhattan’s upper west side in 1912, she performed violin recitals at age 9 and won awards for classical paintings at age 21 while studying at the National Academy of Design. She lived in a close bond with her mother, a Christian Science practitioner, until her mother died when Elizabeth was 47. She then took up her mother’s practice for a while but says that over time this work tired her too much, so she “retired.”
Several years before her mother’s death, the two had moved to a Gothic Revival mansion in Old Lyme, Connecticut. There Elizabeth established the “Nut Museum” – a place devoted to the display of various species of nuts. More important, the nuts became a vehicle for conveying her ideas about people, about human evolution and habits. She came to refer to herself as a "nut culturist." Whether she used the nut to concretize some personal judgment about the human condition is not certain. But her love of ideas and the mind sustained her. “I don’t live alone,” she says at one point, “I have my ideas.” Eking out a living from a few sales of her paintings (Kathryn Hepburn, whose family lived nearby, bought one), museum admission fees and honoraria for occasional appearances on TV shows in the early 80s, she struggled along in her later years, gradually losing her ability to manage money and keep her house in order. At age 90, she was found upstairs in a coma by a neighbor.
Ms. Tashjian defied medical prognosis and recovered. Against her most strenuously expressed, clearly articulated wishes, however, she was made a ward of the court, and a court-appointed conservator arranged for the sale of her house, while insisting that she live in a nursing home. Fortunately, Christopher Steiner, who teaches museum studies at Connecticut College, discovered Ms. Tashjian’s situation just in time to save much of her nut collection and her paintings. Near the end we see her aiding Steiner in the mounting of a very recent exhibition of her work at the college.
Another strong supporter has been Christine Woodside, a journalist. Steiner, Woodside and a neighbor appear often as thoughtful, respectful talking heads, though Ms. Tashjian herself takes center stage in much of the footage. And she is beguiling. Thoughtful, well spoken, impish, and a bit of a ham, she commands the screen whenever she appears. The film is deftly made. Editing is especially effective. Often we hear talking heads while viewing some other scene related to their verbal content. It is a distinct relief not to focus visually all that much on the interviewees themselves. The pleasantly non-intrusive soundtrack features swing music from the 20s among other themes, and even a few of Ms. Tashjian’s own compositions.
The aging issues raised in this film are important and tough ones. Ms. Tashjian shows disproportionate difficulty in looking after herself, when compared to the relative preservation of her intellect and her capacity to formulate and articulate clear goals for her own future. It is more her “executive functions” – the capacity to accomplish the little things one sets out to do each day – that appear to be diminished, rather than a more global dementia, as best I can tell through observing her conduct in the film.
My mother was in similar circumstances during her 90s. It got so she could not shop, fix adequate meals, clean house or balance her checkbook. Getting up for the day could be an effort. But she had the benefit of aid from her family to help her with such matters, and could afford to live semi-independently in a retirement center, where nurses looked in on her on those occasions when her energy reached a low ebb. The serendipitous circumstances of nearby relatives and financial resources protected her from the predicament that has befallen Elizabeth Tashjian, who, by the way, has recently moved to a cheery private room in her assisted living facility and is currently planning to sue the State of Connecticut to reclaim her freedom. Website for this film: www.mimeticmedia.com (Seen at the Idaho International Film Festival) Grade: B+ (9/05)
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL (Jessica Yu, US, 2004, 81m). THEMES: SCHIZOID PERSONALITY; CREATIVITY AND MENTAL ILLNESS (ART AS A MEANS OF WARDING OFF MENTAL ILLNESS). An imaginatively arranged documentary on the art and writings of Henry J. Darger, the reclusive Chicagoan whose posthumously discovered trove of paintings and drawings, and the epic stories they were intended to illustrate, have made him one of the country’s most celebrated “outsider” artists. Darger (1892-1973) grew up largely in solitary and harsh circumstances after his mother’s death when he was four, his older sister’s adoption out at that time (he never saw her again), and his father’s subsequent interment in a hospital for unspecified ailments when Henry was about 8 (the father died just a few years later). Thereafter Darger lived in an asylum for mentally feeble youngsters in rural Illinois for 10 years, until he escaped and returned to Chicago. Except for a brief period of stateside military duty toward the end of WW I, he spent the rest of his life in that city, supporting himself with menial shiftwork as a janitor or dishwasher at Roman Catholic institutions (he was a devout Catholic, often attending more than one mass a day).
A small, hunkered down man, typically dressed in much mended WW I style heavy military uniforms, even in summer, Darger hardly ever said a sociable word to anyone, though he was never disagreeable. When pressed, he might speak briefly of the weather. In his later years, as he more frequently became the recipient of kindnesses from his landlords, artist Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko, he would speak more to them. He once described to Nathan being raped by a 17 year old girl. He enjoyed the Lerners’ dog and once asked Kiyoko how much it cost to maintain one (her $5 monthly estimate was beyond his means, he told her). Darger never showed the Lerners nor anyone else his writings or pictures, which were discovered by the Lerners only after his death.
Once Henry Darger entered his own one room flat, he came to life, carrying on long dialogues in several distinctive voices, enough to make the neighbors wonder if he had a coterie of animated friends who came calling. In the midst of this select company, possibly acting out his fanciful dramas, Henry set to work each evening and on his one weekly day off. Beginning in about 1910, shortly after his escape from the asylum, Darger began his grand work, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a fantasy epic novel about the adventures of the Vivian girls, seven grade school age girls, who became the central heroines in an unending series of wars between the forces of good (the people of Angelinia) and evil (Glandelinia).
The adults in these wars, even the best of them, could switch temperaments and become mean spirited; they often wore black mortar boards, which Darger described with condescension as academics’ caps. Darger sometimes cast himself in the struggles, usually, but not always, on the side of the angels. By and large the Angelinians attempted to rescue and properly care for young girls, while the Glandelinians enslaved and often murdered them. Long lists of the numbers of people killed and the costs of the wars augmented the narrative. The first volume of this epic tale came to 15,000 closely handwritten pages, finished about 1932. An unfinished sequel came to 8,000 pages. A third written work was an extensive autobiography detailing Darger’s childhood and the rest of his life.
The writings, mired in obsessive, repetitive detail, have held little interest for collectors (they form part of a collection now at home in Manhattan’s American Museum of Folk Art that includes many Darger paintings as well). It is this rich trove of hundreds of paintings and drawings that Darger created to illustrate his stories that have made him a continuing international celebrity 30 years after his death. He couldn’t draw. His adult figures – most of the warriors in his battles – were ungainly, poorly proportioned. But for his beloved little girls, Darger cut out images from magazines and newspapers and paid precious sums from his meager wages to have enlargements made of the ones he most fancied. He would then cut out and use these as templates for tracings. He does recount, in his autobiography, that he practiced copying these images, apparently freehanded, and felt at one point as though he were making progress.
What distinguishes his art are his sense of composition and his fanciful and generous uses of color. He couldn’t afford commercial paints and instead made his own from common, cheap ingredients. His children are nearly always young girls, frequently naked or, in contrast, dressed in richly colored costumes. Far more often than not, the naked girls have boys’ external genitalia. There are many light spirited panels of girls enjoying themselves amidst colorful, bucolic scenes of hills, trees, water, and flowers, all done more or less in the art nouveau illustrative style common early in the last century. But many other panels show young girls cruelly slain: eviscerated, hanged, crucified. Darger also created fantastic creatures, dragon-like beings that, for the most part, were dangerous and destructive. Virtually all his creations are set in an unending drama of battles.
The film moves along nicely, emphasizing a well edited melding of material from the writings juxtaposed with Darger’s illustrations, along with interview segments with Kiyoko Lerner and a some other neighborhood people who were distant Darger observers, and views of Darger’s flat crammed with his work. Archival travelogue footage of Chicago is shown in three separate segments that I found superfluous. Perhaps Ms. Yu was trying to contrast Darger's exotic work with the ordinariness of city life. She also elected to animate many of Darger’s compositions, and I think this process works very well, without doing any disservice to the illustrations. A more controversial decision was to cast Dakota Fanning as a narrator (Larry Pine is cast as Darger, giving voice to quotes from his autobiography). I don’t object to the use of a young girl’s voice, but Ms. Fanning’s diction is sufficiently imperfect that I missed a number of her lines, especially in the first third of the movie (perhaps I had to train up to get her words).
What was wrong with Henry Darger? He certainly was extremely shy and eccentric. At the same time he was entirely reliable as a worker, regular in his daily religious observances, and never untoward in his public behavior, i.e., he never went bonkers. His writing and illustrating were obviously aspects of a highly private world, which Darger himself acknowledges in the very title of his epic creation and from which he drew great meaning and, presumably, satisfaction of a sort. From the Freudian perspective of psychosexual development, Darger’s own development seems to have been arrested at about the level of his young Vivian girls, who are pregenital, sexually ambiguous figures for whom a drive (libido and its shadings toward simple joyfulness and altruism) has no gender specificity.
The prime age of expression of such ambiguous pregenital sexuality is posited as around 4 to 5 years old, about Darger’s age when he experienced the dual tragedy of losing his mother and his sister. Darger said in his autobiography that losing his sister was the pivotal event of his life, and some writers have speculated that his epic struggle to rescue little girls enslaved by the Glandelians might represent an impulse in Darger to find and liberate his sister. At any rate, the notion of a traumatic developmental arrest in Darger's psychological development is highly plausible from the history.
The stories most surely also represent conflicts raging within Darger’s own psyche, between his more noble ideals, rooted in his Catholicism (angels - Angelinians) and his more sexual and aggressive impulses (glands – Glandelinians). The best evidence of this is the role switching which he evinces, i.e., when he fights on one side, then the other. We do have the odd story confided to Nathan Lerner that Darger thought on one occasion fairly late in his life that he had been raped by a young woman, a most unlikely event that smacks of a delusion or somatic hallucination. John M. MacGregor, who has written extensively about Darger, also tells us something omitted from the film: that among his belongings were several skulls and tibiae from little girls, bones polished to a degree suggesting frequent handling. No one knows their origin. For some writers, these macabre possessions, together with the brutality of his drawings of girls slain by the Glandelinians, stir the speculation that he may have been an undetected serial killer of children.
I doubt it. Darger most likely suffered from a schizoid personality disorder. These are people who lack the capacity for close relationships, may on the other hand be reliable and even highly successful in structured workplace settings, often suffer from private emotional passions, especially angry impulses, and may struggle to ward off episodes of psychosis (they have a greater than chance representation of schizophrenic relatives). I think that, rather than being expressions or products of mental illness, and in the absence of any objective information on Darger’s psychiatric status at any point in his life, his obsessive creative works most likely served to protect him from more overt mental illness.His illustrations and texts permitted him to safely channel outward his preoccupations and conflicts and thereby maintain his equipoise, however precarious this might have been. Grade: B+ (05/05)
Add: Fellow filmgoer Carl Warren has written me to suggest that Darger may have had Asperger's Syndrome, that form of autism associated with more-or-less normal speech and, not uncommonly, genius in some special area of aptitude or endeavor, together with social awkwardness, if not isolation, and an inability to sustain abiding human relationships. Mr. Warren could well be correct.
IN YOUR HANDS (Annette K. Olesen, Denmark, 2004, 101 min.). THEMES: RESPONSIBILITY FOR ONE’S MISDEEDS; GUILT, TRUST, LIMITATIONS OF ANOTHER’S ABILITY TO HELP. This thoughtful, richly written, splendidly acted film is also deeply distressing. It sounds themes of personal guilt, responsibility for the consequences of one’s own conduct, trust and forgiveness, and also touches upon the nature of divine powers. Not your average Hollywood fare, or even domestic indie material. The main setting is the women’s wing at a prison where Anna (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen), a newly minted Lutheran priest, has accepted a fill-in role as chaplain. About the time she begins work, a new prisoner, Kate (Trine Dyrholm), is transferred from another prison. She once committed a terrible misdeed while under the influence of drugs, an act that is perhaps beyond redemption. But, curiously, she also seems to possess some preternatural healing powers.
At their first encounter, Kate is somehow able to divine that Anna is pregnant, a condition Anna had no reason to expect was even possible. But the fetus turns out to have a worrisome chromosomal abnormality. Whether that will translate into an actual serious clinical problem in the baby is entirely unknown, though the odds are low. Still, the question of what to do about it, i.e., maintain or abort the pregnancy, tests the mettle of Anna’s longstanding relationship with her partner Frank (Lars Ranthe). (One of the film’s highlights is the loving partnership this couple share, a real breath of fresh air amidst so many films that typically feature dysfunctional, heartless or manipulative relationships. The screenplay has them indulge in sexy and amusing pillow talk without depicting graphic sex, a welcome change from the usual cinema drill these days.)
This film tells us a lot about life in a Danish women’s prison, a place that on the surface is run quite humanely, though drugs are an endemic problem in the cells, there is a predictable and tough dominance hierarchy among the women, and one of the guards has his family’s life threatened repeatedly by people on the outside with connections to one of the inmates. At one point or another Kate and Anna each attempt unsuccessfully to open themselves to possible aid from the other, and things turn out quite badly in the end for both of them, and for several others, in this tragic story, which shows scant evidence of any silver lining. The film follows the Danish “DOGME 95” rules for naturalistic filmmaking, and the dialogue is wonderfully lifelike. (In Danish) Grade: B+ (02/05)
INNOCENCE (Paul Cox, Australia, 2001). THEMES: AGING: REUNION OF YOUTHFUL LOVERS; REMINISCENCE; LIFESPAN PERSPECTIVES. 70 year olds Andreas, a widower, and Claire, who is married, rediscover a deepened love almost 50 years after their first affair. The roles of Claire (Julia Blake) and her husband are very well played. Charles Tingwell, as Andreas, delivers many good lines but shows little fire in the belly. The dialogue bears a heavy load of talk, in the manner of so many French films, about life, love and death. Grade: C+ (02/01)
INSIDE OUT (Robert Taicher, US, 1987, 87 m.). THEME: AGORAPHOBIA. Elliott Gould plays Jimmy Morgan, a wealthy business owner (through inheritance) who has severe agoraphobia. Stricken with severe anxiety at any prospect of going outside the confines of his New York City apartment, he never leaves the place, a huge, opulently appointed place, well stocked with every techie gadget available in its day to make his hermetic life comfortable. His heavy gambling habit, not his avoidance of the real world, leads to his financial ruin. At the end, cast out of his empty digs, he manages to contain his fears and seek out his early teen daughter, the only person who seems to matter to him. This desperation cure seems implausible. Gould delivers a convincing performance as an agoraphobe. With Jennifer Tilly as Amy, a call girl who comforts him, sporting an accent and style that, repeated seven years later, won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway . Grade: C+ (04/06)
THE INSIDER (Michael Mann, US, 1999). THEMES: COPORATE CORRUPTION; PLIGHT OF A WHISTLEBLOWER; MARITAL PROBLEMS CAUSED BY EXTERNAL STRESSES. This film is a docudrama about Jeffrey Wigand, a real life contemporary American hero. Wigand was head of research and a highly ranked corporate officer in a tobacco company when he first became disillusioned and later defected because he saw that his company was well aware of the addictive nature of nicotine, and actively enhanced its products chemically to produce greater and more rapid nicotine dosing and thus heighten addiction and achieve maximum cigarette sales volume. He also saw that his superiors would go to any lengths to deny and suppress these facts, for example, he had seen the "Seven Dwarfs" (as the CEOs of the 7 leading tobacco companies were called) perjure themselves before Congress about these matters.
This film loosely recalls the ordeal Wigand went through as he first gave evidence to the Mississippi Attorney General, and later on the TV news program, “60 Minutes,” exposing once and for all the unscrupulous conduct of Big Tobacco, paving the way to the multiple health-related litigation settlements against the companies in the past few years. Death threats, divorce and loss of his scientific career loomed along the way.
The well crafted screenplay (by Mann and Eric Roth) focuses on two pivotal relationships. One is between Wigand (Russell Crowe) and Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for “60 minutes” who tries to persuade Wigand to go public on his show with what he knows. The other is between Bergman and his venerable star reporter, Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), who comes off looking very badly here, as a man who has become vainglorious, taken his press clippings too seriously, and, as a result, is quick to sell out his professional values in order to protect his public image.
The film is longish (158 min) and variably paced, but is never less than absorbing. The main reason is the outstanding acting of all three principals, perhaps Plummer most of all, even though the story turns more on the tense relationship between Wigand and Bergman. The film merits high marks for folding one story within another so well: Bergman himself becomes an insider, who must choose whether to expose CBS's efforts to suppress Wigand's interview and, in the balance, risk his friendship with Wallace. Even the less featured relationships are well realized (Wigand and his spouse, Berman and his). The themes of corporate vs. public allegiances, and the plight of the whistleblower, could not be better portrayed than in this fine movie...here is Hollywood filmmaking in the classic mold, Hollywood at its best. Grade: A (11/99)
INSOMNIA (Christopher Nolan, US, 2002). THEMES: INSOMNIA; ETHICS IN POLICE WORK; GUILT AND CRIME. SPOILER ALERT! Here is a fine, bold suspense thriller with a rich, multilayered plot that turns on questions of police morality, ethics, and the nature of guilt. This is Nolan's third film - they are all suspense thrillers - and clearly his best (after Following and the gimmicky Memento). Besides its nuanced, complex screenplay, Insomnia offers fine acting and a fascinating setting (the Northern British Columbia outback). A young woman is found at the town dump: she's dead, beaten up, and there are odd things about her, like her nails being cut carefully after she died. The local police chief (Tom Dooley) decides this is too tough a case for his staff, who are used to drunken assaults and nothing more, so he calls in an old friend from his days with the LAPD, Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his assistant, Hap (Martin Donovan). We first glimpse them aboard a seaplane over a glacier. We see Dormer, in a reverie, visualizing blood on skin and a spot of it on some fabric that he's trying to rub out. ("Out, out damn spot!" one may think later, when the film is done). After the plane lands on a bay , they are greeted at the dock by local officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a fan of Dormer’s work (in fact he is a rather famous detective - his cases are considered hot stuff at the police academy where Burr trained) .
Dormer takes charge of the case, but his effectiveness is compromised by two problems. One, he cannot sleep in this land of the midnight sun. Two, and the more troublesome, Hap confides to Dormer that back home in LA, the police are investigating charges against him for falsifying evidence in at least one important capital case, and Hap has decided to cut a deal, i.e., to tell what he knows, which may in turn threaten or end Dormer's career and result in release of one or more people currently imprisoned through their rigged evidence. In a botched stakeout of the probable killer of the local girl, Dormer mistakenly kills Hap in the fog. He fears this will be construed as an intentional killing back home, to silence Hap and thus protect himself, so Dormer lies, saying the suspect killed the partner and takes steps to assure that this story will be proven correct. He begins to receive phone calls from the girl's killer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who witnessed Dormer kill his partner. Matters then play out with several plot twists. The subtext of the story is whether morally desirable ends justify false, manipulative means. What makes a "good" cop, anyway? Is it playing by the rules? Or is it doing everything one can to bring down the guilty party? These are the issues faced by Dormer and Burr. This film is a doozy. Grade: B+ (08/02)
INSTINCT (Jon Turteltaub, US, 1999). THEMES: PSYCHIATRIC TREATMENT OF THE CRIMINALLY INSANE; STUDY OF AN OVERLY AMBITIOUS PSYCHIATRIST; PSYCHIATRIC RESIDENTS (TRAINEES). SPOILER ALERT! Anthony Hopkins has established a unique acting niche as the go-to guy when you need the most bizarre criminally insane prisoner in the lockup. In the first few minutes, I thought this was going to be yet another chapter in the Hannibal Lecter series, but no, Hopkins’s character this time is not the psychopathic serial killer with a literal appetite for homo sapiens. This time he’s an anthropologist, Dr. Ethan Powell, who thinks he’s a gorilla. Well, that’s what others wonder, at least.
What everyone does know is that this man apparently lived in the African wild with gorillas for two years and was apprehended after killing two men and injuring several others with a club. No one knows anything else because Prof. Powell has been mute since his capture and will attack anyone who gets too close. Eventually he is extradited back to the psych unit of a Miami prison, where somebody orders an independent psychiatric evaluation. Dr. Ben Hillard (Donald Sutherland), a senior faculty psychiatrist at the medical school, is tapped for the job, but his most ambitious senior resident, Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) pleads to get the assignment instead and Hillard grudgingly agrees. This gets us on to the core of the film: the relationship established between Dr. Caulder and Prof. Powell during a series of interviews.
After some initial skirmishing, Prof. Powell decides, of course, to open up to Caulder, who he refers to by a Swahili term that means “Dr. Idiot” Turns out the professor knows perfectly well that he’s a man. He recounts with wonder his gradual acceptance into a gorilla group, and his anguish when gorilla poachers shoot and kill several gorillas in his group. He is convinced he brought on the death and destruction of the gorillas, whom he glorifies as more civilized than modern man. The rest of the film becomes a didactic exercise in hammering home this theme of man’s inhumanity to man, beast and nature, as if we hadn’t heard. We are relentlessly flogged, along with Dr. Caulder, with these lessons, with only a little relief provided by some of the other patients, who were selected from central casting for combining ugly looks with the capacity to act cute. In the end, the professor escapes and Dr. Caulder, his ambitions sullied and his illusions shattered, vows to no longer play the game of ingratiation to shinny up the ladder of fame and fortune. Good for him.
Actually Cuba Gooding, Jr., does a good turn here, convincingly portraying a rising young star who lacks the experience from which compassion is made. He learns a lot from the professor, changes his behavior, and grows up before our eyes in ways that make sense. Mr. Hopkins, on the other hand, has an easy time of it as the eccentric professor: not much challenge there. As for professional authenticity, Dr. Caulder takes way too many risks – both physical and psychological - in his work with the professor and other patients. As a psychiatrist, he’s downright reckless. In the real world of psychiatry, a senior professional asked to conduct an evaluation in a high profile case would never turn it over to a resident, nor would the requesting authority permit that. And these days residents don’t create star profile careers by evaluating patients and writing about them. They get famous by hitching their wagons to senior psychiatry researchers who study brain imaging and drugs for mental illness. Grade: B- (11/04)
INTERIORS (Woody Allen, US, 1978). THEMES: FAMILY CONFLICT AND RELATIONSHIPS; DEPRESSION. One of Allen’s three best dramas (along with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters). A remarkable cast bring to life a tangle of neurosis and family psychopathology that is as well imagined and performed as work of this genre can be, comparable in quality to some of Bergman’s best work. A well to do family has been dominated through the years by an intensely controlling, neurotically perfectionistic, depression-prone woman (Geraldine Page). The father (E. G. Marshall), now 63, announces his intention to separate and try to make a happier life for himself. The mother, predictably, is devastated and attempts suicide.
The couple’s three daughters have divergent connections to their parents and each other. Flynn, the youngest, is a Barbie-doll bit player on TV commercials, and is not much involved. Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) drifts aimlessly, the apple of her father’s eye but never able to satisfy her mother’s standards of creativity or intellectual accomplishment. Renata (Diane Keaton) is an accomplished poet and mother’s favorite, though Renata ironically spends almost no time with her mother while Joey dutifully but angrily looks after mother’s affairs. Things get very rocky and worse after the father meets another woman (Maureen Stapleton), who is fun loving, informal, down to earth…the antithesis of the mother. The mother’s rage, a strong but not frequently enough discussed dimension to depression in many people, is especially important in this film (as in a scene inside a church when she breaks a stand of votive candles, or her conduct on the evening of the father’s remarriage). Page, Marshall, Keaton and Hurt do wonderful work here. Grade: A- (11/02)
INTIMATE STRANGERS (Patrice Leconte, France, 2004). THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPY; LOVE RELATIONSHIPS. Patrice Leconte is fascinated by offbeat, enigmatic, eccentric relationships. Most of all, he likes to film quirky love stories. Monsieur Hire (1989), was adapted from a Georges Simenon novel about a forlorn voyeur who is obsessed by a beautiful young woman he watches constantly from afar. The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990), is the story of a drifter, a man with a passion for women barbers that began in childhood, who finally fulfills his dream. In The Girl on the Bridge (1999), a down and out carnival knife thrower and a striking young woman save each other from suicide. And in Felix and Lola (2001), another carnie with dubious prospects is attracted to a seductress with questionable loyalties. Even in The Widow of St. Pierre (2000), arguably his best film, although the story focuses to a degree on the connections between two men, their tie owes its existence to the more substantive relationship each has with the same woman.
Certain themes keep resurfacing in this corpus. The men are always middle aged, shopworn by responsibilities, personal habits or life itself. The women are attractive, sexy, mysterious and bold. More bold than the men, who tend toward reticence and inhibition. The women also seem more influential, if not stronger. They are able to discern and open up closed places within the psyche of these men, while at the same time the women remain enigmatic to their devoted consorts. A sexual relationship seems less important than the man’s fascination with the enigma of the woman, and her ability to evoke hidden aspects within the man.
Now we have Leconte’s latest offering, Intimate Strangers. The story revives all the familiar Leconte themes. It even stars Sandrine Bonnaire, who also played the young woman that so captivated M. Hire in Leconte’s film 15 years earlier. Here she is cast as Anna, a dyslectic, depressed, mysterious and powerful Parisian beauty who seeks psychiatric help for marital troubles. On the day of her first appointment with a psychoanalyst, she gets the directions to his office wrong and ends up spilling out her problems to an upscale tax accountant, William Faber (Fabrice Luchini), who at first mistakes her for a new tax client. Her husband Marc has withdrawn emotionally from her, Anna tells Faber; he refuses sex or affection. She wants help to restore their former harmony. The plain, fastidious Faber is so retiring, surprised, and spellbound by this lovely woman, that he cannot collect himself enough to stop and redirect Anna, who pretty much runs the conversation and ends by asking for a second appointment, which William reflexively consents to. He tries to square things at this second meeting, but Anna dismisses his claim not to be a doctor by saying she is well aware that not all analysts hold doctorates.
These doings set the stage for an amusing romantic comedy. It's one that takes a few good natured pokes at psychoanalysis. But as events unfold, one might easily conclude that this story could represent an analyst’s most enjoyable fantasy, a therapist’s deluxe wish fulfillment: having your patient and helping her too, while getting all the good lines, the fees, immunity from ethics charges, and a free lunch into the bargain. Grade: B+ (08/04)
IRIS (Richard Eyre, UK/US, 2002). THEME: ALZHEIMER'S DEMENTIA. Splendid biopic about British novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband, the literary critic, John Bayley, based on his two books about their final years together. Story contrasts the sad circumstances of the final years, when Iris was failing terribly as a result of Alzheimer's Disease, with the zesty, touching times they shared as young intellectuals in love with their youth. The acting all around is brilliant: Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville, respectively, as the older and younger Bayley, who offers tenderness and adaptability to Iris; and Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as their counterparts in the role of Murdoch, a bold, bohemian free spirit, self absorbed, thirsting for adventure. Winslet impressed me here as never before. The pathos of the final years is poignantly told, and the portrayal of Alzheimer's is clinically authentic, even though Dench lacks the ability or the coaching - whatever - to get the vacuous stare and the stiff body movements right, in the same way that Swedish actor Sven Wollter did when playing Martin in the recent A Song for Martin. Roger Ebert is right to point out the major shortcomings of this movie: its failure to indicate how profound a scholar Bayley has been, and the lack of reference to the profundity and prolixity of Murdoch's work. Still, there is no better account on film of a love where opposites attract (though African Queen is its equal). Grade: B+ (05/02)
JACOB'S LADDER (Adrian Lyne, US, 1990). THEME: PTSD, AFTER VIETNAM COMBAT; EXCELLENT DEPICTION OF TRAUMATIC COMBAT FLASHBACKS. SPOILER ALERT! Was Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) killed in combat in Vietnam in 1971, air-evaced in time to save him, or was he never in Vietnam at all? Does he now have a PhD and live with his wife and two sons in a swank New York City apartment house? Or is he a lowly postal worker who left his family and took up with Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña), a coworker? Did Gabe, one of his sons, die? Are nightmarish horned creatures chasing him, trying to kill him? Why won’t his old Army buddies talk to him anymore? Was he a subject in a clandestine aggression-enhancing drug experiment run by the government out of Saigon during the war? What scenes in this film represent Jake’s trauma-related flashbacks, drug-related flashbacks, nightmares, psychotic hallucinations, or just plain memories? Or were all the scenes except combat merely reveries as he lay in semi-coma near death? Did a dead Jake return as a ghost? Sheeez. Who knows? After watching this mesmerizing but hopelessly confusing film, I could go on and on building a list of all the questions raised but unanswered in this screenplay from Hell.
So, if you see this movie, don’t trouble yourself too much trying to make sense of it. However, it is worth seeing as a psychflick because it so well dramatizes and portrays one of the cardinal features of PTSD: vivid flashbacks - intense, distressing daytime recollections and nightmares in which the traumatic events are revisited. The best such sequence occurs very close to the beginning of the film, when Jake’s squad, in the jungle near Da Nang, gets stoned and then is attacked. (With Danny Aiello as Louis, Jacob’s talented chiropractor. By the way, the strange script was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, possibly while ripped on psychedelic substances, I should wonder. Mr. Lyne also directed Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and the 1997 version of Lolita, with Jeremy Irons, among other films.) Grades: drama: B; screenplay: D; portrayal of PTSD flashbacks: A (11/04)
JESUS' SON (Alison Maclean, US, 2000). THEME: ALCOHOL AND DRUG DEPENDENCE POLYSUBSTANCE ABUSE); HEROIN ADDICITON. . The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and there aren't that many good parts, in this story of a bumbling but good hearted loser, a drug and booze sodden aimless drifter nicknamed "FH" (Billy Crudup). The story, set in the early 70s, is based on a novel of the same name by Denis Johnson. It follows FH from rural Iowa to Chicago to Phoenix, as he chases after his on-and-off girlfriend (Samantha Morton). As a heroin shooting, needy and moody woman, Morton offers the best performance in a film which otherwise wastes a lot of talent (starting with Crudup, but including Denis Leary, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper and Jack Black). Granted, FH seems to be straightening himself out at the end, staying clean and sober, not stealing, and helping folks constructively on the staff at a nursing home, but you wonder how long it can possibly last. Grade: C- (12/00)
JIMMY & JUDY (Randall Rubin & Jon Schroder, US, 2006, 99 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: METHAMPHETAMINE INTOXICATION; DRUG-BASED CULT/COMMUNE. It’s the old formula of star crossed young lovers, misfits in their families and at school, who flee on a road trip resulting in murder and culminating in self destruction. Think equal parts of “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Wild at Heart,” “Natural Born Killers,” and any number of others. Compared to those films, however, this one suffers from lengthy unexciting intervals. Jimmy’s (Edward Furlong) constant video documentation of his life is a throw-in gimmick, though it is well accomplished. A far more charming aspect that elevates this film from mediocrity is the authentic aura of infatuation between Jimmy and his girlfriend Judy (Rachael Bella). These two people are obviously captivated by one another. Reason? It was the real thing: the two actors did fall in love while making this film and married; their first child, a son, was just born (on September 21, 2006). With splendid cameos by Chaney Kley as an intoxicated meth-head and William Sadler as Uncle Rodney, the predatory leader of a drug besotted commune. Sadler's fierce soliloquy about providing a haven for society's castoffs - the "garbage culture" he calls his supplicants - may make this film worth seeing. Grade: B (09/06)
JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE (Stanley Nelson, US, 2006, 86 m.). THEMES: CULT RELIGIONS; PSYCHOPATHIC (ANTISOCIAL) PERSONALITY DISORDER. This is a sad, chilling documentary about the rise and fall of psychopathic cult leader Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. Back home in Indiana, Jones had a morbid fascination with death and charismatic religion as early as age 5. He displayed an admirable acceptance of people of color, but he also killed small animals to serve as subjects for death rituals he conducted, a disturbing trait not uncommonly associated with adult personality leanings toward callous violence. Untrained in the ministry, he started his own church in Indiana - an offshoot of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) - while still in his early 20s. Later, in 1965, he moved his church west to a rural commune-like setting in Ukiah, in Northern California, and renamed it the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church.
After 9 years, in 1974 he moved the church again, this time to San Francisco, where he ingratiated himself with local politicos like George Moscone and Willie Brown, and, in return for his support of Moscone for Mayor, Jones was appointed to the city’s housing commission. In 1977 his church bought a large tract of land in the interior of Guyana, in northwestern South America, where a settlement, Jonestown, was rapidly established to permanently house over 1,000 church members. In November, 1978, after receiving complaints that all was not well in Jonestown, that people were being forcibly separated from loved ones back home and held more or less as prisoners, a California Congressman, Leo Ryan, made a trip to Jonestown to see for himself what was going on.
Ryan never returned, for he was shot and killed on the aircraft runway at Jonestown by armed stooges of Jones’s, on orders to do so because Jones feared that Ryan would bring trouble if allowed to return to the States. Later that same day, November 18, 1978, Jones used his extensive PA system to order all of his supplicants to take a cyanide laced drink, to escape the misery that would befall Jonestown once authorities came in large numbers, to go on over to the other side, as Jones put it, presumably to Heaven, where they would find peace.
911 church members died that day, many infants and children given poison by their parents, who then also took the poison drink to create possibly the largest mass suicide in history. Some who did not take poison were, like Rep. Ryan, shot to death. This was also the apparent cause of death for Jones himself. Fourchurch members survived; another 80 were away on some sort of field trip and were spared. Also surviving, desopite gunshot wounds,was an aide to Rep. Ryan.
This is the fifth and perhaps most unusual of director Stanley Nelson’s documentaries, which always concern race and the African-American condition (his prior feature films have taken up black journalists; Marcus Garvey; Oaks Bluff, a black summer community on Martha’s Vineyard; and the musical group, Sweet Honey in the Rock). Nelson’s interest in Jonestown is connected with the fact that a majority of Jones’s supplicants were black. Jones pandered to the suffering of poor blacks and whites alike. He also had sex with many women in the church, and even offered to sodomize anyone - female or male - who asked for or wanted this kind of connection to him, and apparently many did. Jones's impressive penchant for administrative detail is nowhere better illustrated than in his standing order that parishoners desiring anal intercourse with him must prepare themselves by taking a cleansing enema before their appointment.
Nelson’s approach here is intensely personal. He intercuts archival footage - of Jones’s life, his activities and various stages in the development of his church - with contemporary interviews of persons who lost loved ones in Guyana or survived the tragic day of the mass suicides. Also interviewed is the woman who had come to Jonestown as Rep. Ryan's aide. There are no talking heads in this film: no sociologists, no academics who study religious cults, not a single mental health professional to educate us here. Nelson doesn’t want us to understand the root causes of this tragedy; he wants us to feel the pain, the grief that this horrible and senseless loss of life wrought, just to feed the craving for power that was obviously Jones’s main source of sustenance. It is an interesting choice of focus by Nelson, and certainly it amplifies the poignancy of this deeply disturbing story. Grade: B (11/06)
JUNEBUG (Phil Morrison, US, 2005, 107 m.) THEMES: ORDINARY FAMILY DYNAMICS; NORMAL USE OF THE MENTAL MECHANISM OF SUPPRESSION IN DAILY LIFE; MISUNDERSTANDINGS OF "DYSFUNCTIONAL". Here’s a gem of a film for you, a genuine 5 star sleeper, the deceptively simple story of an ordinary middle class family in the U. S. heartland. It’s set in Greensboro, North Carolina, near where director Phil Morrison grew up, but it could as easily have been set in Iowa or anywhere else where folks live modestly but without material want and stick together through thick and thin, regularly renewing their solidarity with like minded people at potlucks in church basements. People like those Garrison Keillor writes about.
The family in this film are not glamorous, they don’t put on airs and wouldn’t know how to: they’ve got plenty of warts. The story is about how they love one another: how they endure, how they tolerate, ignore and otherwise put up with each other’s foibles, all the while maintaining a steady capacity for emotional support, for closeness. The lack of sentiment and unvarnished portrayals of the distinctive members of this family have led some critics to conclude that the film mocks them or condescends, but this is not the case at all.
Morrison, in an Indiewire interview, has said, “I think the word ‘dysfunctional’ has no meaning. I swear to God I don't see this family as non-functioning -- I think it's about how they manage to function in spite of the ways they're balanced against each other. And so I wanted to approach that not in a voyeuristic way but in a way …that we… don't purport that this family is evidence of everything that's not in our own heads and hearts.” In other words, we aren’t “others” apart from this family, viewing them and sitting in judgment. These people aren’t different from most of us, Morrison is saying. Thus he has brought a sense of humility to this project, and this perhaps was pivotal in his rendering of an honest yet deeply respectful film. These people are not portrayed as eccentrics or misfits: there is never a whisper of parodic melodrama, irony or condescension about anyone.
The story takes place over an interval of a few days. George (Alessandro Nivola) is the charming son who left town to seek his fortune up north in Chicago. Six months ago he met and married Madeline (Embeth Davidtz), a sophisticated woman who runs a gallery specialized in outsider art. She needs to visit a self- taught artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), the only eccentric in the movie, who lives and works near Greensboro. And so George takes this occasion to bring his bride home to meet his family.
They are his father Eugene (Scott Wilson), whose passive quietude masks a sweet, unconditional tolerance of everyone; mother Peg (Celia Weston), restive, hardboiled on the surface, indulgent of her children but wary of strangers – including Madeline; younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), a sulking hothead; and Johnny’s near-term pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams), an emotionally effusive sort, a lollipop on the surface whose genuine affection for others wins you over. Everyone - even the bit players - seem like real people, not at all like actors performing.
Drama is provided in large part by family tensions. Eugene and Peg are one study in opposites, Ashley and Johnny another. And Johnny nurses longstanding hostility toward George. Then there’s the disturbance of family equipoise by Madeline’s presence: curiously this lover of outsider art is herself the outsider here, though she does her best to put on a happy face and is unconditionally accepted as “family” by Ashley and Eugene, if not by the others. Two additional dramas compete in the latter part of the movie: Ashley goes into labor just at the moment when Madeline needs to revisit David Wark to implore him to sign up with her instead of a rival art gallery.
It becomes clear through the resolution of these dramas that, while Madeline is very much in love with George, when push comes to shove her professional passions outweigh her interest in his family and their needs, a natural enough development, though it shocks George, whose allegiance to his family has been strongly rekindled on this visit. At the end, however, events turn in ways that seem to settle most, though not all, of the issues and feelings that have been stirred up in everyone.
The film is steeped in wonderful details and brief vignettes, some of them touching, others humorous. There's a long take of a gawking neighbor woman as the family dash away, conveying Ashley to the hospital. When Madeline brushes a ceramic bird off a wall and it crashes to the floor, Ashley takes the blame because she wants so much for Peg to approve of George's new wife. At a church supper, Madeline is stunned when George sings a hymn to entertain, something he once did regularly; you can tell she didn’t have a clue about his past church involvement beforehand. As tensions mount in the household, nearly everybody gets a yen for a cigarette, including several nonsmokers: it's a long-running joke that works just right. Eugene’s long search for his misplaced Phillips head screwdriver is punctuated at one point by his casual lyricizing of an old pop tune. He carves a small wooden bird to give to Peg, a love gift to ease her distress.
In this richly observed, unpretentious film, we are privileged to witness at close range a tapestry that depicts a deeply traditional stratum of Americana that is still alive, one that is not made of the warps of class, race or material gain, or the wefts of violence, dysfunction or oddity for oddity’s sake – typical themes that dominate contemporary movies about our culture. Morrison and his screenwriter, Angus MacLachlan, instead have crafted a far more subtle fabric about the daily life of ordinary people, where the biggest dramas concern birth and death and the vagaries of marriage and family loyalties. Grade: A- (08/05)
KEANE (Lodge H. Kerrigan, US, 2004, 100 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: GRIEF; LOSS; PTSD; REENACTMENT OF TRAUMATIC SITUATION. William Keane (Damian Lewis) is a man haunted by the abduction of his young daughter, apparently whisked away from the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City months ago, never to be seen or heard of again. Keane is a highly disturbed man, living on disability payments. His life orbits around the loss of his daughter. He hangs out at the terminal, looking for a perpetrator he has never seen. He becomes convinced he’s found the right man at one point, and attacks him. Such is the privacy of Keane’s misery that we’re never sure whether this was a mistaken identification, based on some paranoid delusion, whether his daughter was in fact kidnapped, or, for that matter, if he had a daughter. But he does believe all of these things.
Eventually Keane meets a woman, Lynn (Amy Ryan), who has a daughter, Kira (Abigail Breslin), close in age to Keane’s lost child. He befriends the pair, aids the mother with some rent money, then is asked to stay with Kira while Lynn goes upstate to try to patch up an estranged marriage. Keane is attentive, even tender; he seems knowing in a fatherly role. Near the end, after Lynn returns to announce a marital reconciliation and impending departure, which will leave Keane alone once more, he proceeds as if to reenact his daughter’s abduction (he picks up Kira from school and temporarily leaves her alone in a fast food eatery, and again later at the Port Authority) or to abduct Kira himself. The scenes in which these possibilities loom are rife with an awful sort of tension.
A vivid degree of realism is sustained throughout this film. The understated and ordinary tenor of Keane’s encounters with others helps. The use of natural locations in the city helps as well. Long sustained camera takes (up to 4 minutes), minimizing the use of frequent brief cuts, helps even more to establish a verité sensibility to the film.
In Keane, as in writer-director Lodge Kerrigan’s 1994 film, Clean, Shaven, the study of a highly symptomatic schizophrenic man, Kerrigan makes heavy demands on his lead actor and on the viewer. Neither film is a cheap entertainment ride. Both require close attention to protagonists who are intensely and unrelentingly preoccupied with their own private agonies. Neither William Keane nor Peter Winter (played by Peter Greene), the central character in Clean, Shaven, is all that easy to fathom, to empathize with. Not without the sort of sustained consideration ordinarily expected only of close relatives, best friends, and mental health professionals.
Lodge Kerrigan, who was present for this screening of Keane at the 3rd "Frames of Mind" Mental Health Film Festival in Vancouver, B.C., says that a very close buddy of his developed schizophrenia in late adolescence, a difficult situation made all the more painful by the family’s inability to perceive the enormity of their son’s plight. Lingering impressions from that experience, and everyday confrontations with persons suffering from severe mental illness on the streets of New York City, where he lives, have shaped Kerrigan’s interest in making films that explore this disorder.
In Clean, Shaven, Peter Winter’s persistent eccentricity and aloofness, his insensitivity to pain, and the use of odd sounds to insinuate the unreality of his inner experience, are features that convey the pervasiveness of his mental illness and challenge the viewer’s capacity for empathy. Kerrigan says that he also wrote the character of William Keane as a person suffering from schizophrenia, but that aspect of Keane’s psychological makeup is more ambiguous than it was in the conduct of Peter Winter.
Keane may hear voices (which he tries to drown out with alcohol and loud music in a bar scene) and respond to hallucinatory phenomena (when he erupts in public after playing skeeball with Kira), but much of the time he behaves rationally. He can tolerate, and even encourages, a degree of closeness to Kira’s mother. He seems more plagued with grief and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than schizophrenia. He is hounded by guilt that his inattention may have abetted his daughter's abduction, paranoid preoccupation with finding the perpetrator, and even a need to arrange the reenactment of the circumstances of the abduction using Kira in place of his daughter – a bizarre twist sometimes seen in PTSD.
Is Keane disturbed? You bet. Odd, like Peter Winter? No. Keane, however understated and convoluted his emotions may be, touches us for reasons and in ways that are less idiosyncratic, more universal, than the experience of schizophrenia. And for that reason, this film should have much wider appeal. Grade: B+ (05/06)
THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE (The House Keys; Le Chiavi di Casa) (Gianni Amelio, Italy/France/Germany, 2004, 105 min.). THEMES: CEREBRAL PALSY; IMPACT OF DISABILITY ON FAMILY; BEHAVIORAL SEIZURES. A film about making amends and the demands of caring for a handicapped offspring. Gianni (Kim Rossi Stuart) - an appliance repairman, an ordinary family man living in Milan - is united for the first time with his teenage son, Paolo (Andrea Rossi), a 15 year old who suffers from severe cerebral palsy. Paolo’s mother Giulia, who was Gianni’s girlfriend at the time, died when Paolo was born. Gianni rejected the infant, and Giulia’s sister and brother-in-law took Paolo in and raised him. The family blamed Gianni for their loss and his irresponsibility toward Paolo. Now, for reasons that aren’t well delineated, Paolo’s aunt and uncle think it best if Gianni takes over, if Paolo comes to live with him, and Gianni, now settled with a wife and an 8 month old child, agrees. Gianni and Paolo are given no opportunity for brief, preliminary meetings to gradually get acquainted. Instead they are thrown together 24/7 when Gianni escorts Paolo on a train trip to Berlin, where the boy is returning for more therapy at a pediatric neuro-rehab institute.
Gianni can be forgiven for the state of bafflement and tension we see written all over him most of the time. An encounter like this would be awkward at best for any teenager and long estranged father. Actually, there are some fine moments for these two: eating ice cream; romping in a bathtub together; tickling sessions. But Paolo is a handful. His handicaps seem at first to be confined to motor system spasticity affecting his legs, torso, and left hand and arm. His speech is normal or nearly so. And he seems to have normal if not superior intelligence. He can be socially engaging, even beguiling. It is clear that he is skilled in manipulating adults. Gradually, though, we can see that Paolo also displays episodes of stereotyped behavior and vocalizations that are not normal. In these episodes he becomes stubbornly negativistic and will not or cannot stop his unacceptable behavior. In the most prolonged instances, he irrationally insists that he must return home to do a litany of chores, and makes active attempts to run away.
Gianni gets fair warning of the difficulties that lie ahead for him as a parent from Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), mother of an even more neurologically impaired daughter, Nadine, who is also receiving treatment at the institute. Filling idle time, Nicole and Gianni strike up conversations over several days. Nicole observes that Gianni always seems so apprehensive, embarrassed, ashamed. “Why do you look after Paolo,” she asks, “Do you need to be forgiven for something?” She tells Gianni to “prepare for suffering if you’re going to be close to him.” “How can you remain so serene?” Gianni asks Nicole. She replies that it took time, that she began by simply focusing on the little details of care. “But,” she adds, “I’ve done nothing since my daughter was born.” On the edge of tears in one long held closeup, she finally breaks the silence, saying “For 20 years my every thought has been about Nadine. And I think, sometimes, why doesn’t she die?” We don’t see Nicole again.
After watching the relentless tough pace of walking exercises a therapist is guiding Paolo through with the barked orders of a drill sergeant, Gianni interrupts, takes the boy in his arms, and shortly thereafter has him discharged from the institute. They journey up to Norway, where Paolo has a pen pal, a beautiful girl his age with whom he fantasizes establishing a relationship. Gianni wants Paolo to have the chance for this dream to come true. Riding a ferry at one point, Gianni purposely tosses Paolo’s four-point cane into the water. Gianni is minimizing Paolo’s problems while at the same time saying that he can fulfill all of Paolo’s needs: he can replace the cane with his own hands, his love can trump the therapists’ drills, he can make the impossible come true.
There is a perseverative quality to this behavior, a repetitive pattern, and these longer spells always end by Paolo mechanically reciting his home address and phone number. Thereafter he is calm and responsive. Are these outbursts of obsessive behavior to ward off anxiety in unfamiliar circumstances? Organically induced temper tantrums? Or are they so-called “psychical” or “behavioral” seizures of the sort one sees in temporal lobe epilepsy (at the Berlin institute Paolo is given a special all-night EEG study because of possible epilepsy, the doctor tells Gianni). Whatever the cause, these spells are alarming to Gianni, shaking his belief that his belated love can enrich and straighten out Paolo’s life.
At the end the two are in a car crossing a barren section of Norwegian countryside. Paolo wants to drive, and Gianni lets him steer. But he is erratic with the wheel and refuses to let go when Gianni asks, moving instead into one of his negativistic states. Gianni stops the car and goes out alone to sit on a rock, where he breaks into tears. Paolo follows him and offers him comfort, remarking that he, Paolo, must now be a caretaker for Gianni.
This film has its problems, especially regarding the structure of the screenplay, which was adapted by the director and others from a novel, “Born Twice,” by Giuseppe Pontiggia. Why should the aunt and uncle wait 15 years, years filled with the aunt’s resentments toward Gianni, only to turn a 180 and suddenly hand him over totally to Gianni’s care? Go figure. Why the escapade to Norway, a venture so likely to end in disaster when a perfectly normal teenage girl encounters the seriously disabled Paolo? Go figure again. Still, the acting by all three principals is outstanding. Mr. Stuart ably captures the mixture of good intentions, guilt-driven overprotectiveness and overindulgence, the rush to ingratiate himself with the boy, and, finally, the sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he has chosen to take on. Ms. Rampling, as usual, is able to convey compelling depth of unspoken feeling in close-ups of her facial expressions. Andrea Rossi, authentically afflicted with cerebral palsy, is quite astounding in his ability to act the role of Paolo in a manner that evokes all sorts of emotions in the viewer but never pity. His accomplishments here remind me of those of Pascal Duquenne, a man with Down Syndrome who shared a Cannes Best Actor award with co-star Daniel Auteuil for their work in the 1996 film, The Eighth Day.
Each of us - our personalities, our “selves” - can be represented as a house, and when we invite another person to know us and to share in our lives, we are, in effect, giving a “house key” to that person. Paolo asks Gianni at one point if, should he come to live permanently with Gianni’s family, will he be trusted with his own house key. Gianni says yes, but he is only beginning to realize the ordeal of opening himself and his family to be embraced by this new and troubling member. (In Italian & German) Grade: B (02/05)
THE KING IS ALIVE (Kristian Levring, Denmark, 2001). THEME: VARYING EFFECTS OF OF LIFE-THREATENING CRISIS ON GROUP OF PEOPLE. Latest film from one of the Dogme 95 group of Danish directors. A group of tourists is marrooned somewhere in the desert of southwest Africa when their bus runs out of gas. They spend days trying as best they can to survive, not knowing when or even if they will be rescued. Many are not able to handle the stresses of this situation very well. Not everyone survives, though most do. Jealousy, hateful prejudice, retribution, vanity, despair, even murder come bubbling rapidly to the surface under the strained conditions of the desert. In a pretty good cast, British character actor David Bradley stands out as Henry, an actor who writes down much of King Lear from memory and attempts to stage the play. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Janet McTeer also provide good turns. It is a harsh, gritty film, enhanced by following the Danish "Dogme 95" filming rules closely. The widespread petty and spiteful behavior of the group seems a bit much, though. (In Danish) Grade: B+ (06/01)
KING OF CALIFORNIA (Mike Cahill, US, 2007, 93 m.). THEMES: COMMUNITY CARE, TRANSITION FROM HOSPITAL TO COMMUNITY; IMPACT OF MENTAL ILLNESS ON THE FAMILY; BIPOLAR DISORDER. Michael Douglas plays Charlie, who suffers from a severe, persistent mental disorder (he seems to me to be in a barely controlled state of mania most of the time). He is discharged following a year-long hospitalization (the latest of many) and comes home to his old, dilapidated house, surrounded by newly built suburban tract homes near Los Angeles, where his teen daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been looking after herself, working at a fast food place. Charlie has plans. From extensive reading at the hospital library, he has become convinced that there is buried treasure in the area. Having established this arrangement in the first few minutes, the remainder of the film consists of Charlie’s antics trying to discover the treasure, and his daughter’s cynical – and entirely justified – stance that her father is simply bonkers. Or could it be otherwise? The tone of this minor film is one of light comedy, nothing maudlin or soapy about it, which is its strength. Douglas does a decent job of representing an eccentric mental patient, but Wood is wooden. With Willis Burks II as Charlie’s buddy and accomplice, Pepper. Grade B (01/24/08).
KING OF HEARTS (Philippe de Brocca, France, 1967). THEMES: MENTAL ILLNESS AND HOSPITALIZATION AS WAYS OF ESCAPING DANGER IN THE WORLD, I.E., WAR. SPOILER ALERT! Sir Alan Bates died recently, and though he offered several turns of greater stature during a long career, I shall always vividly recall him as Charles Plumpick, the bemused Scot soldier in Philippe de Broca’s 1967 cult favorite antiwar fantasia, King of Hearts, a film with loose ties to hospital psychiatry. I recently revisited this film to pay my respects. Pvt. Plumpick looks after carrier pigeons for his World War I infantry unit. He knows about ornithology, not ordnance, but he can speak French. These credentials are sufficient, in the view of his dimwitted commanding officer, to justify dispatching Plumpick to defuse German time bombs meant to blow up a strategically located French village nearby. The villagers had also got word about the hidden bombs and eloped along with the retreating Germans, abandoning the town to the inmates of a local insane asylum.
Plumpick arrives, inspiring the patients to venture forth. They don brilliant, conveniently available period costumes that match either their real or delusional identities: one’s a duke, another a prostitute, another a priest, a hair stylist or a general. There’s even a circus left behind, with an elephant and bear to turn loose. For the rest of the film Plumpick, having traded in his kilt for a natty shepherd’s plaid suit, alternates between the role of beguiled cheerleader for this decorous group and that of the occasionally fretful, luckless bomb sleuth. The patients, for their part, stage a perfectly delightful non-stop party over the next 24 hours, full of pranks and pageantry, all carried off with dazzling talent and not a trace of mental instability. Plumpick finds the bombs in the nick of time, but then Scot and German detachments enter the town and shoot each other up in 18th Century point blank style. As the villagers return, the patients see that the jig is up, shed their party garb and retreat, not without sadness, to the hospital, carefully locking the gates behind them. In the final scenes, Pvt. Plumpick joins them, arriving buck naked at the front gate, bearing only his cage of pigeons, to be let in by the nurses, now firmly back in charge.
The message of King of Hearts is simple enough: war is insane. The film’s conceit is to expose a society gone mad by contrasting it with the mental hospital, portrayed as a safe place to take refuge. The notion of mental patients acting more sensibly than others about war was refreshing and resonant, even if it did require suspension of disbelief, to those who opposed our escalating military involvement in Vietnam 37 years ago. The film is an amusing fantasy, resonant with late 60s counterculture interests in merriment, costume and antiwar politics. The "patients" bear no resemblance to the mentally ill. The themes and general story line are updated in the sharp-edged Russian film, House of Fools. (In French and English) See also my article titled, "War, Sanity and Asylum." Grade: B (05/04)
KING OF THE HILL (Steven Soderbergh, US, 1993, 109 min.). THEME: COPING ABILITY OF YOUNG TEENAGER. Depression era drama set in St. Louis, in 1933, based on a novel by A. E. Hotchner. The Kurlander family has been hard hit. Erich (Jeroen Krabbe) isn’t making enough as a salesman to pay the bills, and his wife (Lisa Eichhorn) is having a relapse of her tuberculosis. They can’t afford a house or even an apartment, instead dwelling in a flea bitten downtown hotel. They have to send their youngest son away to live with relatives. That leaves the older brother, Aaron (Jesse Bradford), a junior high youth, who is charming, smart and disturbingly full of guile. When Mom must go off to the sanitarium and Dad gets a better sales job that requires him to go on the road for weeks on end, Aaron is left to fend for himself.
This Aaron does quite ably, though the arrangements Dad made for Aaron to get one hot meal a day fall through and he comes close to starving. All ends well, however, as the family are reunited with enough income to afford better quarters. The film also features Adrian Brody as Lester, an older youth who takes Aaron under his wing and pulls him through a scrape or two, Spalding Gray as an alcoholic denizen of the hotel and Elizabeth McGovern as the prostitute who helps dispel his loneliness. The film, adapted, directed and edited by Soderbergh, does capture a sense of the times and the hardships, though it all has a touch of Hollywood feel good gloss. The original musical score, by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez, is at once suspenseful and full of caprice. Jesse Bradford carries the film, quite a load to shoulder for a 13 year old. But he is terrific: poised, soulful, savvy, courageous but never cute. No doubt one factor in his skillfulness is experience: this was the eighth film or TV project he’d worked in, starting at age 4. Grade: B+ (03/05)
KINSEY (Bill Condon, US, 2004). THEMES: RESEARCH ON HUMAN SEXUALITY; CONFLICTED FATHER-SON RELATIONSHIP; BISEXUALITY; SEXUAL MASOCHISM. Docudrama/biopic about Alfred C. Kinsey, the pioneering researcher into human sexual behavior. Kinsey was a biology professor whose chief earlier work was creating a taxonomy of wasps, compiled in an obscure 1929 volume. He learned from this work that there is tremendous diversity in the living world, even within the same genus of animals. In the 1940s and 50s, he attained world wide notoriety as the first legitimate scientist to survey human sexual behavior, using systematic interview methods and data processing techniques. Once again, what he showed was enormous diversity of sexual experiences, more than anybody had previously guessed. Operating from his academic base at the University of Indiana, and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Kinsey trained a team to conduct interviews with thousands of adults. The results were published in two volumes, “Sexual Behavior of the Human Male” (1948) and “Sexual Behavior of the Human Female” (1953).
The first report resulted in widespread controversy that was, in the main, helpful to Kinsey, though there were always criticisms of his methods of acquiring information and doubts about the veracity and representativeness of his findings. By the time the second volume appeared, witch hunts for Communists were in full sway. One Congressional Committee, the Reece Committee, suggested that Kinsey was a Communist trying to erode the moral fiber of the U.S. through his trumped up findings. Though always staunchly supported by the U. of Indiana President, Herman Wells, Kinsey’s main financial backer, The Rockefeller, withdrew support and Kinsey could not find replacement funds. His third intended study, of sexual perversions, was never initiated. Three years after publishing the female sexuality study, Kinsey was dead, at 62, following a heart attack.
Kinsey was vilified by his detractors, including conservative religious groups. Accusations of unusual sexual behaviors made against him and his staff were numerous and, in many instances, never confirmed or supported by a convincing body of evidence. Generally he was described as a bisexual masochist, probably not far from the truth, and a view certainly depicted in this film. More specifically, among other allegations, it was often said that Kinsey seduced graduate students and staff members at his Institute, encouraged group sex among his staff, and prompted his wife and some others to take part in films of sexual activity. Among masochistic pursuits, it was said that he indulged in such habits as sticking a toothbrush up his urethra, cinching a rope around his testicles, and once attempting self-circumcision without anaesthesia.
I have no independent verification of the severe conflict with his father that is depicted in the film. We see in several scenes that the senior Kinsey was regularly and blatantly critical and condescending toward the younger man, and favored his brother. The father also apparently had some unusual illness in his own childhood involving his genitalia, though what connection this has to Kinsey’s life is never clear, except that the father thought Kinsey had wasted his education and training to pursue such a subject as sexuality.
This film is as well crafted as Mr. Condon’s 1998 hit, Gods and Monsters. It is lucidly written and edited, and straightforwardly photographed. The story is told with unflagging pace, and it always sustains one’s attention. The cast are excellent in all the key roles: Liam Neeson (Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara, known to Kinsey as “Mac,” his wife of 35 years), Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey’s key aid and sometimes lover, Clyde Martin), Oliver Platt (U. of Indiana President Wells), John Lithgow (Kinsey’s harsh father, Alfred S. Kinsey) and Dylan Baker (Rockefeller Foundation head Alan Gregg).
Neeson captures what we all presume, I guess, was the complexity of Kinsey’s personality: an obsessive, tenacious workaholic, drawn to his subject, perhaps, by his own complicated sexual preoccupations, who was at the same time an innocent, a tough minded researcher, a sophisticated voyeur, intensely curious about other people’s sex lives, and a loving husband and father. The film shows that he was a skillful interviewer, able to delve into the details of others’ most intimate sexual experiences and fantasies, and to do this successfully because he was empathic, non-judgmental, caring and humane. Nevertheless he was blind to the fact that bias might be introduced, e.g., when the interviewer knows or has a special relationship to the interviewee: he interviews his colleagues, even his own father. We cannot tell whether he envisioned his role as a cultural trailblazer, helping to hack out the path toward a more open, freer approach to sexual knowledge and conduct. But he was that. Grade: A- (12/04)
KIRA’S REASON – A LOVE STORY (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 2002). THEME: POST-PARTUM PSYCHOSIS. Kira has lost her reason for a reason. Her third child, a daughter, died when only three days old. Kira responded to her loss by developing a post partum psychosis from which she has been unable to recover. There is evidence that emotional problems run in her family. We meet her fresh from her latest psychiatric admission but it is clear that she is very unstable. Roles of Kira and her spouse are both very ably acted. Wonderful use of subdued interior lighting, perhaps the best yet seen in a Danish film following "Dogme 95" rules on natural source lighting. Grades: (dramatic values): B; (clinical authenticity): A- (02/02)
KISSING JESSICA STEIN (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, US, 2002). THEME: FARCICAL STORY OF A WOMAN WHO TRIES TO COME OUT AS A LESBIAN. Romcom with a twist: Jessica has struck out so often with men that she’s willing to try a lesbian fling with Helen, for whom this is also a first. Good storyline and fine supporting cast, but film is compromised by Jennifer Westfeldt’s nitwit performance as Jessica. She's way too talkative, loud, hyperactive, tense as a banjo string, and just plain annoying. The role of Jessica needed Sarah Jessica Parker or Sandra Bullock. Grade: B- (02/02)
KLUTE (Alan J. Pakula, US, 1971). THEME: CHARACTER STUDY OF A SUCCESSFUL CALL GIRL. Bree (Jane Fonda) is a hot ticket call girl in New York City who acquires an unwanted admirer in the form of a stalking killer. Meanwhile a small town detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is trying to solve the missing person case of a friend of his who has disappeared. As it turns out, the trail leads to Bree, and Klute moves from being suspicious of Bree as a suspect to becoming her protector and love interest. Fonda’s performance as the tough/vulnerable Bree – icily without feeling with her Johns, cynical, smart, sexy - is among her best. Grade: A (09/97)
L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta, US, 2001). THEME: PEDOPHILIA; INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT. Brian Cox plays a man of staggering contradictions in this extraordinary film about teenage boys hungry for affection and the adults who do, or don't, or can't, take care of them. L.I.E. is the Long Island Expressway, a road to sordid old suburbs, not just the Hamptons. Cox rivets us with his unlikely mix of predatory sexual lust for young boys; militant, jingoistic Marine Corps. patriotism; his relish of small town comraderie; his profound generosity of spirit and concern for others; his callous manipulations; his childlike cringing fear of his aging mother's reproach. And all of these parts feel real. Grade: A- (05/02)
LANTANA (Ray Lawrence, Australia, 2001). THEMES: MARITAL AND OTHER LOVE RELATIONSHIPS AND CONFLICTS. Samuel Johnson said that "marriage has many pains but celebacy has no pleasures." Substitute "sleeping around" for celebacy and you've got the subtext of this story of the strains and bonds in domestic relationships of four Sydney couples, with a thriller subplot thrown in. The film is about these eight people - with one or two others as well - whose lives intersect to varying degrees as the story unfolds (isn't this structure getting a bit overdone these days). The overriding issue for these folks is the question of trust between people, betrayal of this trust, and the difficulties of repair.
There is a claustrophobic sense of foreboding that sustains tension throughout the film. What is mainly at stake is the survival of several marriages on the brink of disaster: a whole lot of people seem to be living unpredictably on the edge. But the tension is propelled by more concretely sinister concerns as well. The film opens with views of a body. We cannot be sure who it is. With this beginning, the use of many nocturnal and underlit scenes, a police detective's violence, unusual cuts, and a suspenseful score, our attention is sustained.
The film features a Who's Who of current Aussie acting talent - led by Anthony LaPaglia (Leon, the detective), Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey (married couple Valerie and John, she a psychiatrist who has just written a book about their 11 year old daughter's murder, he a law school dean) - and it is the acting that gives this film its appeal. Especially good are Rachael Blake as Jane, a recently separated, sexually predatory woman who at the same time is not without conscience; Daniela Farinacci as Paula, Jane's strikingly real, happily married neighbor; Kerry Armstrong as Sonja, Leon's love starved wife; and Leah Purcell, in a feature acting debut as Leon's perceptive detective partner. (LaPaglia and Armstrong won Best Actor/Actress awards from the Australian Film Institute; Blake and Vince Colosimo - as Nik, Paula's husband - won AFI Best Supporting Actress/Actor awards, and Farinacci was also nominated. AFI also judged Lantana to be the best film, and gave best director honors to Lawrence.)
Lantana, by the way, is a tropical shrub, transplanted to Sydney, that has thrived there to become a nuisance. It features lovely small, colorful blooms and vivid green leaves, but this innocent surface hides dense, thorny undergrowth, brambles that grow to 6-8 feet. As a metaphor, the bushes might be likened to people or relationships, with an attractive or serene surface glossing over underlying menace and problems. More literally, it is in the brambles of this plant that the body is viewed at the film's beginning, and in which a vital clue is later found by one of the characters. A handsome film. Grade: B+ (03/02)
THE LARAMIE PROJECT (Moises Kaufman, US, 2002). THEME: HATE CRIMES IN AMERICA. Docudrama based on the stage production about the 1998 Matthew Shepard homophobic hate murder in Laramie, Wyoming. Kaufman, a New York playwright, sent a team to Laramie within a month of the killing to collect literally hundreds of interviews with townspeople of every stripe. This material formed the basis for a successful play and now this film. The cast is loaded with talent, the likes of Peter Fonda, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci and many others. The focus is mainly on the notion that we in America - the people of Laramie standing as an implicit proxy for all of us everywhere - must confront the extreme hatred and brutality, based on sexual and racial prejudices, that seems to run deep within our national character. What tends to go missing here is the particular individual who was martyred…we learn almost nothing about Matthew Shepard as a person, and that is unfortunate. Grade: B+ (09/03)
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (Kevin Macdonald, UK, 2006, 123 m.). THEME: BRILLIANT CHARACTER STUDY OF AN OUTSIZED, NOTORIOUS, PSYCHOPATHIC POLITICAL LEADER. SPOILER ALERT! Forest Whitaker is one of the finest yet most underappreciated actors of our time. He is an extremely hard worker, having participated in 66 film and television acting projects over the past 25 years; and in that span he has produced and directed films as well. Among his performances, I highly esteem his Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 docudrama, Bird, for which he won a Best Actor award at Cannes, and his role as a self styled Samurai assassin in Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Splendid as those performances are, they pale in comparison to his personification of the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, in this docudrama about Amin and his relationship with a young British doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy).
Idi Amin, a fatherless youth from a dirt poor family, became a Ugandan Army officer trained by the British and later President from 1971 to 1979. If you wonder how megalomaniacal a character Amin was, just dig the title he is said to have once bestowed upon himself: "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular." He idolized Scotland, often wore kilts, and also dubbed himself with the title used in this film (also the title for the novel written by Giles Foden upon which this film is based). Regarded in the West as a buffoon, Amin became an increasingly dangerous and destructive force over the years, perpetrating ruthless oppression against various ethnic and religious groups, Asians and Jews in particular. Estimates of the numbers slain by his regime vary from 80,000 to 500,000.
But Amin was not a simple fellow, certainly was no fool, and his initial rise to power seemed to derive from genuine populist sentiments and ambitions. Power, however, as we well know, corrupts. And so Amin’s conduct in office darkens over time, and we see the changes. Whitaker’s interpretation has Amin by turns eloquent, charming, visionary, ebullient, and, increasingly, arrogant and paranoidally hostile. If Amin was a man of extreme passions, appetites and mood swings, then Whitaker has nailed the man cold. It is an incredibly energetic, astonishing performance.
I wish I could say as much for the rest of the cast and narrative subtexts. But strip away Whitaker, look at the scenes and subtexts in which he is absent, and there’s little to see but a soap opera. The Garrigan character is fictional but based a real man named Bob Astles, called "Major" Bob, a former British soldier who inveigled himself into Amin's favor and became part of his apparatus of repression. British newspapers used to call Astles "Amin's White Rat." After Amin's fall, Astles was imprisoned for ten years in a Kampala jail. Though this movie as a whole is only average (I grade it a straight "B"), Whitaker's performance makes it a must see film. (01/07)
L’AVVENTURA (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960). THEMES: EXISTENTIAL BLEAKNESS, SOCIAL ESTRANGEMENT, DESPAIR, LONGING, LOSS AND LOVE AMONG THE IDLE AFFLUENT ITALIAN UPPER CLASSES. In one of Antonioni's most celebrated films, Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing when a group of friends stop their pleasure craft at a barren, rocky island for a hike. Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) keep looking for her in vain, on the island and then back on the mainland, and in the process become infatuated with each other, all but forgetting the missing Anna. The film raises a question about how much an individual really matters to their ostensible loved ones. In contemporary jet set society, is it just ‘easy come, easy go?’ (In Italian) Grade: B+ (12/98)
LEARNING TO SWALLOW (Danielle Beverly, US, 2005, 89 min). THEMES: BIPOLAR DISORDER; MANIC EXPERIENCE; LONG TERM HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF A SERIOUS NONLETHAL SUICIDE ATTTEMPT; HOPE AND RESILIENCE IN RECOVERING FROM SERIOUS MENTAL AND PHYSICAL ILLNESS. During a depressive episode, Patsy Desmond, a woman with bipolar disorder, was driven by suicidal impulses to swallow a corrosive drain cleaner which destroyed her stomach and lower esophagus. The film’s director, who has been Ms. Desmond’s close friend for over 22 years, documented her course over the next four years, including a major operation to restore normal digestive function that failed, serious malnutrition, bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, and periods of extreme mood dysregulation and family conflict. Coping with Ms. Desmond’s tempestuous conduct stirred ethical quandaries at times, the director told us, moments when she wondered whether she should continue to shoot the film or stop to intervene. She did call relatives more than once when danger seemed imminent.
Patsy Desmond’s story is a testament to resilience, as she struggles again and again to find a toehold for normal living. To that end, and despite continued problems with nutrition, she has for now achieved sobriety, sold her photographs at several shows, and is finishing a BFA degree. Ms. Beverly did especially good work in recreating the sense of a manic episode her friend once experienced, simulating racing thoughts by employing a “layered audio” track consisting of two simultaneous voiceovers while at the same time rapidly displaying a succession of still photos taken by Ms. Desmond during this episode, when she had dashed down to Buenos Aires on a lark. It is the most ingenious rendering of manic experience I have seen on film, and it doesn’t even show the subject (Ms. Desmond), a strategy that in fact helps keep our focus on her inner experience rather than objective external observation. Grades: overall: B; simulation of manic experience: A (Seen at the 3 rd AFI “Silverdocs” Festival) (06/05)
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (Mike Figgis, US, 1995). THEME: ALCOHOLISM AS A FORM OF SUICIDE. This film tackles the notion that for many alcoholics, especially those far along the path of alcohol-induced destruction of health, relationships and/or career, continuing to drink represents a willful, knowing if slow form of suicidal behavior. Figgis has writ this notion large, melodramatic and over-the-top, adapting a semi-autobiographical novel whose author suicided shortly before this film was made. Nicholas Cage plays an alcoholic screenwriter who’s career is washed up, important relationships irretrievably severed. He wants to die and decides to go out in grand style: he will head for Las Vegas, lay in a massive supply of booze, and drink till he croaks. He picks up a hooker along the way (Elizabeth Shue) and offers her a free ride on his journey, provided she swears not to interfere with his plans. She agrees, only to find later how difficult a bargain she has made. The film offers some dark humor and gritty emotional display. In an odd way, it also conveys something of the experience of people who try to aid late-stage alcoholics who are on their steep and slippery slope toward self destruction. Grades (as drama): A-; (for clinical authenticity): B (1995)
LEGEND OF RITA (Volker Schlöndorff, Germany, 2001). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER; THE PSYCHOLOGICAL MAKEUP OF A TERRORIST. Story of the fate of a 1970s west German terrorist and her fellow gang members, loosely based on the Baader-Meinhof gang. After several high profile bank robberies and shootings, culminating in the killing of a Paris policeman, the gang is forced to disband and urged by its East German benefactors to assimilate in the GDR. Some resist and disappear. Rita Vogt, the central character in this story, agrees and takes on a new name and identity (called her “legend”) in the GDR, and develops new friends. Her cover is blown in time, and she moves on to still another legend in another place, which also is doomed by the constraints placed on her by her terrorist past and by the officials who sponsor her.
Finally the GDR falls along with the Berlin Wall, but the consequence of this is that the old government agrees to turn over all known terrorists it has harbored. Rita tries a desperate escape and fails. This is a sad story featuring a fine performance by Bibiana Beglau as Rita, who is a sad woman. Many things are done well in this film. Rita’s passion is all the more poignant for its understatement. For example, her leftist idealism is not constantly sounded, but is manifest openly in just a single scene not far from the film’s end in a confrontation with fellow workers in an office. But that is enough. Similarly, her lesbian relationship with Tatjana (Nadja Uhl) is tenderly and subtly presented. Rita is so complex: she is an amalgam of carnal and political appetites, devotion to people and causes, and she also is a seriously dangerous person. (In German, French and English) Grade: B+ (01/03)
LENNY (Bob Fosse, US, 1974). THEMES: NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY; HEROIN ADDICTION. Biopic, adapted from a play, about the life and times of scatological comedian Lenny Bruce. It's odd to see him suffer from the ignominy of multiple arrests and bankruptcy merely for using foul language on stage in his standup routines - the very fiber of virtually all standup comedy today. Call him a pioneer, a trailblazer who shook the norms and conventions to make it safe for latter day comics to say what they please. Call him a supreme narcissist who loved every minute of acting the provocateur, the enfant terrible. Call him a rival with his mother, also a nightclub comedian, for the right to be top banana in the family. Call him a heroin addled, obsessive bum. All partly true and not true. Dustin Hoffman is perhaps too clean cut here or perhaps not weary enough or insolent enough to be entirely convincing as Bruce. Which is odd. As Ratso Rizzo he was raunchier. Still, he does a decent turn. And Valerie Perrine as his stripper spouse, Honey, is terrific. Grade: B+ (09/02)
LIAM (Stephen Frears, UK, 2001). THEMES: IMPACT OF UNEMPLOYMENT & POVERTY ON A FAMILY; BOY WITH SEVERE STUTTERING DISORDER. It's hard times for factory workers in 1930s Liverpool, and things only get worse. Unemployment, poverty, nascent fascism, anti-Semitism, anti-Irish sentiments, self-destructive pride, the uselessness of the Catholic church: all are on full display in this bleak but very believable drama. The young boy of the title, despite the tensions and lack of food at home, and his paralyzing stuttering problem, manages to keep up his spirits as young children tend to do. After an hour and a half of morbid doings, it is lovely near the end to see Liam bouncing up and down at the movies, exuberant, while watching a western. Grade: B- (12/02)
LIBERTY HEIGHTS (Barry Levinson, US, 1999). THEMES: COMING-OF-AGE; ANTI-SEMITISM; RACIAL BIGOTRY. Levinson's affectionate memoir about growing up Jewish in early 1950s Baltimore. Ben, his two buddies, and his older brother, struggle against antisemitism and the family angst surrounding Ben's father's occupation as a small time mobster (numbers racket), but mainly this film is about the timeless preoccupations of adolescent boys trying to grow up. Excellent subplot of black-white relations as well, when Ben becomes infatuated with Sylvia, a black girl, and a black drug dealer wins a numbers jackpot that Ben's dad can't afford to pay off. With Joe Mantegna as the father, Bebe Neuwirth as the mother, Ben Foster as Ben, Adrien Brody as his brother. Grade: B+ (06/00)
LIFE AS A HOUSE (Irwin Winkler, US, 2001). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; FAMILY RECONCILIATION. Formulaic drama in which a dying man tries to mend tattered relationships and make peace with loved ones before the end. The film is saved from being a snoozer by the excellent acting of the three principals - Kevin Kline as George, a 40-something maverick architect who has a bad cancer, Kristin Scott Thomas (the English actress does a generic California accent perfectly) as Robin, his ex-wife, and Hayden Christensen as Sam, their teenage son, who is at the outset a very lost young man with no self esteem, a serious drug habit, and attitude with a capital A.
George and Sam have drifted apart for years. But on the eve of his demise, George decides to fulfill an old dream of tearing down the crummy shack on a gorgeous property overlooking the ocean that his father left to him, and building his dream home. Moreover, he demands that Sam spend the summer helping him do this project. Sam isn't buying, at first. Robin is mired in an unfulfilling second marriage and starts hanging around George and Sam, finding their old love rekindled. Things move along sentimentally toward a predictably positive finish, sans George at the end, of course. The other wonderful work in this film is done by George's dog, an aging Golden Retriever who provides comic relief at several points where it is desperately needed. Grade: B- (06/02)
LIFE IS TO WHISTLE (Life is Whistling) (Fernando Perez, Cuba, 2000). THEME: HUMOROUS DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER (PSYCHOGENIC FAINTING AT MENTION OF GUILT-RELATED WORDS). Julia, Elpidio and Mariana share a past and future but no present in a film that is visually delightful, especially Mariana the ballerina's dance scenes, but otherwise engorged with enough material for at least two movies. Julia apparently left Mariana as a foundling 20 years before, and suffers a dissociative neurosis because of this: she faints when she hears the word 'sex' spoken. This symptom becomes a running gag at one point, when her psychiatrist pursues her down a street, shouting out words like 'freedom' and 'false morality' which cause many others to faint in the streets. Elpidio was another foundling in the home, and his mother is none other than a large woman auspiciously named 'Cuba.'
Much (too much) is made of destiny - of looming apocalyptic events to take place on December 4 (The Feast Day of Santa Barbara, or "Chango," African saint of destinies) at 4:44 pm. We hear this over and over and are briefly introduced to bit characters we are told will play a key role on that fateful day. But the whole does not add up to the sum of the many parts in this film, a jumble of allegory, magic and fact. What's the point here? Is it that the Motherland has forsaken the soul of its people? Is it the classic struggle between pursuit of excellence versus love? Is it the scourge of neurotic guilt? Synchronicity and predestiny? The diversity of the human agenda? One lesson is clearly intended: stick around, we're told, and, oh yes, don't forget to whistle. (In Spanish) Grade: B- (02/00)
THE LIFE OF ME (Manfred Becker, Canada, 2004, 51 m). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; BIPOLAR DISORDER; REHAB EFFORTS. Documentary about two mentally ill former actors who seek stability and hope through performing once again in a special rehab drama program. The strains of rehearsal and performance before an audience are palpable. One can only imagine the extremity of stage fright that must seize someone who suffers from a disorder that is characterized in part by the exquisite disorgaizing effects of anxiety. These people come through with triumphs of craft and heart. Grade: B (06/06)
LITTLE MAN (Nicole Conn, US, 2005, 112 m). THEME: ISSUES ARISING IN CONNECTION WITH ADVANCES IN NEONATAL CARE THAT MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO SUSTAIN THE LIFE OF AN EXTREMELY PREMATURE INFANT. An intensely personal and deeply troubling film documenting the heartrending ordeal of the survival of Nicholas, a micro-premature neonate (Nicole Conn’s baby delivered by a surrogate), the baby’s seemingly endless series of complications and health problems over the next two years, and the emotional toll taken on Ms. Conn, an award winning documentary filmmaker and writer, and her partner, Southern California political activist Gwen Baba. The surrogate mother had lied about her history of health problems and developed preeclampsia, necessitating emergency Caesarean section delivery of Nicholas 100 days early. Weighing just 1 pound, his odds for survival were rated at less than 4 in 100,000.
Baba and Conn already had a delightful, healthy two year old daughter, Gabrielle. Baba was reluctant to have another child, what with the busy careers of both women. But Conn was insistent, even after it became clear that the pregnancy was extremely problematic. We are led step by graphic step through Nicholas’s course over the 158 days he spent in the Neonatal ICU, hooked to numerous tubes and monitors. He is so tiny: a cuff measuring his blood pressure is the size of a bandaid. Nicole Conn stays almost constantly by his side, through his persistent inability to breathe or nurse on his own, bouts of kidney failure and seizures, emergency abdominal surgery to establish a gastric feeding channel, and more. He comes so close to death so often. And it almost appears as if Conn’s indefatigable will that he should live is what sustains Nicholas.
Meanwhile, Ms. Baba is raising Gabrielle as a virtual single parent, and the women rarely have a moment together. Baba fears that the fabric of their family will be irreversibly damaged. She cannot in good conscience fully support Conn’s attitude that Nicholas’s survival is the paramount issue. Everyone the couple knows implores Conn to let go of Nicholas. She won’t. She can’t. And against all odds Nicholas does survive and finally comes home. But the problems don’t end there. He develops signs of dysautonomia, an inability to regulate functions of the sympathetic nervous system. Later his extreme myopia is discovered and corrected with glasses. Then a severe hearing disorder is detected.
Now, at age 18 months or so, Nicholas is peppy and beguiling, but way behind developmentally. As new problems multiply, even Nicole Conn has begun to second guess her earlier steadfast conviction that she had done the right thing to advocate for, to insist upon, his survival. The questions raised here are stupendous in proportion and scope. Pro-lifers will of course applaud Ms. Conn for resolutely standing by her convictions. For these activists, Nicholas’s survival will represent the supreme triumph of love and reverence for life over expediency and personal convenience. On the other side, as regards the current sophisticated state of neonatology, Conn, Baba and Nicholas are - as someone in the film expresses it - “trapped in a Devil’s dance of technology,” …a “world of manufactured disability.” An imponderable question is this: how much distress has Nicholas endured through the months of agony in the NICU? What will be the lasting effects of these traumatic experiences? Moreover, Nicholas will likely suffer from severe, handicapping problems for the rest of his life. So, what will be the quality of his life in the future? When does a mother’s passion cross the line from caring to self-serving obsession without due regard for the infant at risk?
And what about the financial costs and their consequences? By the point Nicholas left the NICU, the bill had risen to more than $2 million dollars. Conn and Baba had good health insurance, to be sure. But astronomical expenses in complex cases inevitably result in higher insurance premiums for everyone. Without insurance, taxpayers would have ended up footing the total bill. As this film demonstrates so profoundly, the frontiers of premature infant care are being pushed back all the time, and cases like Nicholas’s are becoming more and more common. Can we afford this? Should we afford this? How many children with lesser problems will be denied access to care or receive compromised care because of the preemptive costs in cases like Nicholas’s? Website: www.littlemanthemovie.com (Seen at the Idaho International Film Festival) Grade: B+ (09/05)
LITTLE VOICE (Mark Herman, UK, 1998). THEMES: ADOLESCENT BEREAVEMENT; EXPLOITATION OF TEEN BY ADULT; MOTHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT; NATURE OF COMEDY; SOCIAL ANXIETY. By turns hilarious and monstrous, this film shows the underbelly of comedy – dark comedy call it - in a manner reminiscent of the film Funny Bones. Jane Horrocks captivates as a grieving and exquisitely shy teen, whose nickname is “LV” (for Little Voice). She has become a recluse since her father died, retreating from the hostile, boozy world of her bitter, widowed mother (Brenda Blythen) into the glamorous fantasy world of her favorite singers and entertainers - all from the 40s and 50s: Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, and so on. These performers are featured in her father’s record collection, and when she sings the songs it’s as if he’s there with her. Well, in fact he is, in a sense, for LV has his ghost at hand. Mother's latest boyfriend, Ray, (Michael Caine) notes LV's savant like talent for imitating her favorite singers and lures her to perform at a fourth rate nightclub, hoping he can strike it big as her manager. Ewan McGregor, giving one of the best performances of his that I've seen, is an equally shy suitor of LV's, and Jim Broadbent , as the nightclub owner, "Mr. Boo," round out a marvelous cast. Horrocks impressively sings all her own songs. Caine won a NY Film Critics' Best Actor award for his role. Grade: A (09/99)
LONE STAR (John Sayles, US, 1996, 135 min.). THEME: RACIAL & ETHNIC TENSIONS AND THEIR EFFECTS ON PEOPLE’S LIVES IN A TEXAS BORDER TOWN. This splendid film is one of Sayles’s best . I thought so on first viewing in 1996. Felt the same seeing it again last night, 9 years later. Sayles tells stories guided by a finely honed social conscience. He’s our Ken Loach, our Mike Leigh. In fact he’s often faulted for being a writer of social criticism who somehow made a wrong turn into filmmaking. That would be a really bad rap here. Using an unsolved murder that took place 40 years ago as a suspenseful hook, Sayles creates a robust, complex and incisive portrayal of life in a Texas border town, amid palpable racial and ethnic tensions, civic greed and corruption, family ghosts and skeletons, love's curious workings in people's lives, the condoning of sadism in a still violent west, and more.
The film is chock full of interesting characters, relationships and activities involving Anglos, Mexican-Americans and Blacks, but the people and subplots - as well as the complex sociology of the place (the mythical town of Frontera, in Rio County) - are presented bit by bit in a simple, clear, almost leisurely manner. There is no sense in this rich film of being rushed, snowed with information, or carried along on a superficial wave of characters and events. This film is always thoughtful and fully sustains one’s interest.
Sayles, who wrote and edited in addition to directing, manages to keep most of the pieces working together with grace and subtlety in this cavalcade-of-life film, where Robert Altman, among others, has had difficulty. Even at his best, in Nashville, Altman seems less interested in depth of character or the history of a place, than in guiding a tour through stereotypic situations and characters in a clamorous pageant of contemporary popular culture, substituting a fast paced, kaleidoscope of actions and events for richness and nuance.
Sayles wants to look more deeply below the surface, usually not a wise idea for a film director to follow, for it leads most often down the path of preachy offerings from a Pandora's Box of facile psychological and social presumptions about why people behave as they do, something Altman has always avoided, to his credit. But here we have a pleasant surprise: Sayles indeed does look within his characters and their predicaments, but he does so with a gentle touch, typically relying much more on the simple facts of relationships, not fancy ideas, on the intertwined histories of the individuals who live in Frontera, not the history of civilization, to explain the circumstances. And by grounding, as he does, each relationship in its own particular facts, Sayles shows us how racial prejudices affect people while avoiding mere displays of prejudice as abstract ethnic and racial clichés and stereotypes.
To aid his storytelling, Sayles uses flashbacks to perfection; each is a brief bit revealing a few important facts, and each is made seamlessly. Stuart Dryburgh's photography is intimate, lingering on characters, but he is not intrusive. The high quality and understated intensity of acting is extraordinarily even across virtually all the players. One feels almost as if eavesdropping on real conversations, not being entertained by actors. And there is ample opportunity for even minor characters to be rendered in a manner that sparks curiosity.
Among a long list of good players are Chris Cooper, (as the brooding central character, Sheriff Sam Deeds), Clifton James (Mayor Hollis Pogue), Joe Morton (Colonel Del Payne), Ron Canada (Payne’s father, Otis), love interest Elizabeth Pena (Pilar Cruz, Sam Deeds love interest), and Kris Kristofferson (the deliciously corrupt lawman, Charlie Wade). This is a long film, but you won't feel that, not with all the tumult of life being lived by this group. Grade: A (04/05)
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962). THEME: EFFECTS OF POVERTY ON BEHAVIOR AND FAMILY LIFE. Bleak Britain at the start of the 60s, still not recovered from WW II, but well before the rock and roll revolution, the escalation of racism, and the Thatcher era of prosperity for those who can afford it. The working class is still being squeezed hardest in these times, and Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is the eldest child in such a home, where his father is dying and his mother has a boyfriend who sponges on her widow's settlement after her husband's death. A bitter lad with little future in store, he and a buddy rob a bakery cashbox, get caught, and it's off to prison for Colin. Eventually he is sent to Borstal, where an optimistic warden (Michael Redgrave) believes in remolding character by means of sport and hard work, especially sport. Colin's progress there is nicely interwoven with his past life story told through flashbacks. He proves to be the top cross country runner and Redgrave is delighted, savoring a victory and receipt of a coveted trophy when his lads go up against the top public school team in the area. But Smith has vowed to mislead the warden and then show him up. Will he do so here, in the process possibly sacrificing his own opportunities for a better future? Courtenay is able to capture the deep resentment of authority of the working class. His quiet fury is riveting. This was among the great "angry young men" British social commentary films of its time. In grainy B & W. Grade: B+ (08/02)
LOOK AT ME (Agnes Jaoui, France/Italy, 2004, 110 min.). THEMES: CONFLICTED FATHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP; PASSIVE-DEPENDENT PERSONALITY. A new urbane comedy from the team that created The Taste of Others. Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is an established novelist and publisher at the top of his game. He is vain and condescending to a fault, taking time to notice only his young and gorgeous trophy wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), though even she is more apt to irritate him than otherwise. His older daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) is seriously plump and plain, and Etienne has no time at all for her, indeed seems repelled by her ordinariness. In what passes for affection, he constantly refers to Lolita as “my big girl,” and the the double entendre is not lost on anyone. For her part, Lolita desperately seeks approval from her father while at the same time she feels fat, inferior, unworthy of anyone’s attention. She does, however, have one talent, a good singing voice, and she develops this instrument under the guidance of a teacher named Sylvia Millet (Ms. Jaoui). Sylvia is married to a novelist, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), who is far less prolific than Etienne and pessimistic about his prospects for fame. When Sylvia learns that Lolita is Etienne’s daughter, she facilitates a connection for her husband with the great one, hoping to advance Pierre’s fortunes. Hovering around Lolita is an Algerian youth, Rachid (Keine Bouhiza), who goes by the name Sebastien to avoid discrimination. Sebastien is keen on Lolita but, as befits the misery of her self loathing, she constantly rebuffs him.
The film is freighted with mindless conversations among these generally vapid people. The only characters with steadfastly redeeming features are Sylvia and Sebastien. Things are made all the worse by the constant intrusions of everyone’s cell phones. Indeed, this is the first film I have seen in which the cell has a leading role among the actors. Lolita, forever wasting her energies either reaching out to her fatuous father or suffering from his rejections, finally suppresses her self pity long enough to do a couple of worthwhile things toward the end. She sings gorgeously at a concert of her choral group, and she finally chases after the longsuffering Sebastien, once she is assured that he has acted with integrity and not used her as others (including Sylvia) do, to gain access to her father. This often boring movie is of value clinically, but I would otherwise recommend it only to people who enjoy choral music: there are some very nice snatches of Monteverdi madrigals and Schubert lieder. (In French) Overall grade: C+; clinical issues (father-daughter conflict; daughter’s personality disorder): B (02/05)
LOOK BOTH WAYS (Sarah Watt, Australia, 2005, 100 min.). THEMES: RESPONSES TO LIFE CRISES LIKE DEATH OF LOVED ONES AND PERSONAL ILLNESS; ROLE OF "LUCK" IN HUMAN AFFAIRS; VISUAL DEPICTION OF INNER EXPERIENCES. Here’s the latest entry in the “web-of-life, luck, and loss” film derby that has recently become either an overheated fashion among filmmakers or an emerging genre, depending upon how you look at it. Two things make this one more noteworthy than most of its ilk. The characters are nearly all distinctively etched, yet none is an oddball, someone cooked up merely for eccentricity's sake. And the writer-director, Sarah Watt, has succeeded brilliantly in one of the toughest tasks in filmmaking: representing the inner experience of people – their thoughts and fantasies – visually, cinematically, without resort to soliloquies, dialogue or voiceovers to convey such interior events.
Ms. Watt has been making short animated films for over 15 years, and she uses her animation skills to great advantage in this, her first feature length, narrative movie. She concentrates her efforts toward interiority on the two most central characters (there are about a dozen altogether), and so will I. Meryl (Justine Clarke) is a water colorist by avocation. Her father died just two weeks ago. Then she witnesses a man struck dead by a passing freight train. In the wake of these events and another unconnected to her, a horrific train accident elsewhere in the country, Meryl begins to imagine brief catastrophic scenes at every turn, in which she herself dies a violent death. We are shown these flashes of vivid visual imagery, which always take the form of animated watercolor paintings, in a style like those she makes in her spare time (this is where Ms. Watts’s animation skills come into play).
Nick (William McInnes) is a photographer with the local paper who covers the accidental death caused by the freight train that Meryl witnessed. His father died about a year ago. And he has learned only today, the day of the accident, that he has testicular cancer. We witness his preoccupation with his condition, which, quite appropriately, takes the form of vivid colored still photos of his cancer, shown in rapid succession, and moving pictures of tumor proliferation and the like. He also begins to notice skin lesions and other evidence of abnormalities or illness in other people, and, again, we see in photographic images Nick’s preoccupying fantasies about the decline of these people that he imagines.
Meryl and Nick eventually become a couple near the end, though only through pure luck does one of them avoid probable sudden death. I won’t wear you out by trying to recount the other characters and their stories. But they are absorbing, especially the angry, grieving partner of the man killed by the train, the devastated train engineer, and a hotheaded reporter colleague of Nick’s and the two women in his life. The film is not without problems. In flashbacks, Nick’s Dad talks directly into the camera to us a few times; these are unwise and disconcerting little scenes that should have been left on the editing floor. The photography is undistinguished, apart from the fantasy scenes, as is the soundtrack. That said, I think Ms. Watt has real promise as a narrative film director; she appears to work well with actors, and her own imagination shines. Grade: A- (01/06)
LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola, US, 2003). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; ADULT RELATIONSHIPS; LONELINESS. SPOILER ALERT! He’s 52, she’s 22. Over a few days, these two disconnected souls – strangers from America with time to kill in a Tokyo hotel, each drained by insomnia, isolation and unfulfilling marriages – manage to exchange some badly needed attention and affection. Then they part. Sound like a pitch for a comedy? Not only. This superbly crafted, bittersweet film works simultaneously as a comedy of manners, morals, human relations and romance.
Bill Murray offers what is surely one of his finest performances as Bob Harris, Hollywood action film star, who’s come to Japan to pocket a quick $2M making whiskey ads. He has reached the apogee of his career, or is perhaps in early decline. He’s travel weary, wincing after receiving a fax in which his wife sarcastically reminds him that he neglected to wish his daughter happy birthday, and he's bewildered by the locals. These include a cadre of deferential escorts who glom onto him at every turn as if he were a visiting head of state, an aggressive prostitute sent up to his room by the producer as a special gift, a manicky TV talk show host in a psychedelic striped suit who leads him through absurdly silly antics, and a video ad director whose lengthy and spirited soliloquy in Japanese is translated as “turn your head toward the camera.” This fellow wants more intensity from Harris. Harris wants more sleep. In phone calls home, he wants to tell his wife that he loves her; she wants to discuss carpet samples.
Meanwhile, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a freshly minted Yale graduate, is languishing in another room at the same hotel while John, her self-absorbed celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), is out of town shooting rock bands. She’s unsure how her life will unfold, but current signs aren’t promising. After eyeing each other once or twice, Bob and Charlotte chat one evening in the hotel bar. She invites him to a party thrown by her local friends. They spend time talking over the next few days, when Bob isn’t working. The attraction the couple share is based on their passing circumstances, to be sure, but also, and more importantly, on lack of pretense and a reciprocity made possible by the very fact that each of them stands at a different station in life.
Bob is way past feeling full of himself. He tells Charlotte (in, of all things, a chaste pillow talk scene) that life gets easier when you know yourself and what you want. He knows he’s not getting the affection he wants at home, but is ruefully wise enough to discern that the complexities of family life require him to put this need behind him. He’s the first to admit it’s not easy. Charlotte’s allure is twofold: she has a sensitive intelligence while at the same time she offers the promise of simple youthful devotion to love. She’s developing serious doubts about John these days, watching while he ignores her in favor of dweeb women like the self-important starlet from LA who’s just arrived in town. Charlotte finds in Bob a man beyond vanity, without a trace of ego-beclouded myopia, who thus is able to see her clearly and appreciate her.
This account of the ingredients of autumn-spring romance is as eloquent as one could ever hope to see in a contemporary film. The dialog is natural, believable. Problems are not solved. But these people help each other feel a bit better. Murray is able to convey the complexities of Bob’s situation with extraordinary nuance. Fatigue, sadness, puzzlement, the discomfort of taking easy money for minimal effort, the tentativeness of touching the young woman – he gets them all and many more moods as well in a richly layered performance. Much of the humor in his work here derives from Bob’s frequent confrontations with unaccustomed situations. He often doesn’t know what to say or do.
How affirming it is to see in Bob the same halting discomfiture any of us might feel. Johansson provides a distinct counterpoint. No doubt she is privately a thoughtful person, but with few exceptions she’s self-contained, inscrutable even. Her lovely Madonna face expresses either sober solemnity or a sphinx-like smile. Next to Bob, she seems at ease in her surroundings, tranquil. Her simplicity of manner here may or may not be intentional. But it surely works well.
Sofia Coppola was praised for her first film, The Virgin Suicides, which I deplored because it so badly misrepresented the phenomenon of teen suicide. In that work Coppola had to create a screenplay from the peculiar material in Jeffery Eugenides’ novel. For Translation, she has created a screenplay from scratch that is far superior. In fact it is downright ingenious, working the neat and deeply ironic parallelism of individuals feeling equally lost within a foreign culture and within marriage, that supposedly most intimate of personal relationships. People can find themselves talking past each other so often; mutual incomprehension can be huge, as if different languages were being spoken.
The photography and mis-en-scene are deployed to great advantage in intensifying the themes. Bob is bedeviled by faxes arriving in his room at 4 am and window draperies opening automatically at sunrise, touches that accentuate his sense of dislocation. Best of all are frequent shots of Charlotte sitting on her highrise hotel windowsill staring out over the city below – set in the midst of millions of busy people yet alone and apart from them all.
At the end Bob and Charlotte’s parting communication is rushed, awkward, unsatisfying. But dumb luck offers them another chance to get it right. He whispers something tenderly in her ear, we don’t know what. And on that small and lovely note, the film draws to a close. Grade: A+ (10/03)
THE LOST WEEKEND (Billy Wilder, US, 1945). THEME: ALCOHOLISM. The classic Hollywood portrait of an alcoholic, Don (Ray Milland), a wannabe writer in New York City whose only real success is in being a first rate lush, propped up by the generosity of his brother, Wick (Howard de Silva), in an equally classic portrayal of the codependent enabler. With Jane Wyman as the ineffectually played, long suffering love interest, and Frank Feylen as a bartender. Like so many films of the era, this one features broadly melodramatic acting, with all the subtlety of mortar fire. Everyone talks loud and fast. Every minute of the film is preoccupied with some aspect of the alcoholic's drinking, rather than weaving this material into some context of more ordinary life activities, as is typical of the majority of alcoholics. It's hard to believe the film won Oscars as best film, best actor (Milland), best director (Wilder) and best screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). On the other hand, it is important to judge the film in the context of its time: this was the first film to confront alcoholism with any elements of realism, or to suggest it be seen as a health problem. Milland's obsession with finding the next drink does ring true, as does Wick's enabling role. Trivia Quiz item: this was judged the Best Film at the very first Cannes festival. See also my article titled “Good to the Last Drop.” Grades: drama: C; portrayal of alcoholism: B (12/99)
LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (Richard Kwietniowski, UK, 1998). THEMES: AGING; HOMOSEXUAL OBSESSION AS A RESPONSE TO BEREAVEMENT. A stuffy London author’s drab and lonely life is made worse after his wife dies. He even bears the name of death, he’s Giles De’Ath, played in a tour de force turn by John Hurt. One day he goes out to see a film, an E.M. Forster adaptation, but mistakenly enters the wrong screening room and instead witnesses a trshy American teen sexploitation film, “Hotpants College 2.” There Giles is smitten by the love bug for the class C actor in this sleazy movie, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). From there Giles develops an increasingly consuming, obsessive passion for Ronnie, which ultimately leads him on a trip to Long Island to meet the actor, a straight man now confronted with the desperate overtures of an aging gay man whose life has been lived, until now, in the closet. Hurt is magnificant, and Priestley shows surprisingly nimble acting chops here. The director adapted George Adair’s novel. Grade: B (03/98)
LOVE LIZA (Todd Louiso, US/France/Germany, 2002). THEMES: IMPACT OF SUICIDE ON SURVIVORS; GASOLINE INHALATION ABUSE. Philip Seymour Hoffman is cast as Wilson, a grief stricken man in the wake of his wife’s unexplained suicide. He resorts to sniffing gasoline and becomes more and more dysfunctional, casting aside his excellent job, railing angrily against his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), well meaning friends and store clerks. He discovers a suicide note addressed to him but won’t read it. Things do not get better. His mother-in-law retaliates by having all his household goods removed. Wilson forfeits a promising new job opportunity. That’s about it. The notion of a white collar adult developing a gas sniffing addiction is quite unlikely. Gas sniffing is a serious problem among young teenagers, especially in certain ethnic minorities, in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. Substitute alcohol for gasoline, though, and the story might fit thousands of bereft people.
In this story, Wilson learns nothing, achieves nothing beyond his own misery and the angry flak he gives back to those who try to help him. Such wasteful pathos can, regretably, overcome vulnerable survivors not only of a suicide but any loss of a close loved one. The film does depict this sad scenario with poignancy. The unspoken but nonetheless obvious subtext for some of both Wilson's and his mother-in-law's behavior is guilt, a sense of culpability for the suicide. This is an almost reflexive response to suicide among those closest to the deceased. One sees this perhaps most clearly among mental health professionals when one of their patients suicides.
There is a tendency to assume that the suicide necessarily means that care was inadequate, even in cases when the patient had been disposed toward suicide for months or years despite the best of care. It is always wise for professionals to review their care in such cases, to see if mistakes were made. But the sense of responsibility not infrequently exceeds rational bounds, as it can for loved ones as well. Edwin Schneidman, a prominent suicidologist, once said that "suicide poisons the well" - a vivid metaphor for the long lasting painful burden of a suicide on survivors. The role was written for Hoffman by his brother, Gordy Hoffman, whose screenplay won the Waldo Salt Award at Sundance. I’m not sure why. For more on this film, see my article, "More Rooms in the House of Grief." Grades: C+ for dramatic values; B for portrayal of angished survivor of spouse's suicide (04/04)
THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) (Leos Carax, France, 1991). THEMES: HOMELESSNESS; LIFE ON MARGINS; SUPPORTIVE LOVE RELATIONSHIP. SPOILER ALERT! An extraordinary, spellbinding story of two homeless young people, Alex (Denis Levant) and Michele (Juliette Binoche), who meet on a Paris street in 1989 and begin to share themselves and, at night, a stone bench and blanket on a bridge that is closed for repairs. Alex is a down-and-out, self destructive drug addict and street performer with no future. Michelle is a painter who is going blind and is deeply despairing, but she comes from vastly different, well off circumstances. Still he fascinates and energizes her with his courage and libidinal interest. For his part, Alex becomes completely infatuated with Michelle. He senses her dissatisfaction living with him on the street, the only place he feels secure, but it is all he can offer. One thing leads to another and they inevitably part; she goes off to vision-saving surgery and resumes a comfortable life, while he goes off to prison.
What makes this film stunningly memorable are the many wonderfully imagined, wildly improbable, magical scenes, visual elaborations that seem so perfectly Parisian and at the same time just right for the story. As in the films of David Lynch, the flow of the story will come to a point, and at that moment expand or digress into some provocative, totally absorbing, wildly lyrical scene that probes, more intensely portrays, or otherwise embellishes or enhances that point, and then the story moves forward again, with things either back as they were, or jumped along to some new level. The difference from Lynch is that Carax doesn't rely on the grotesque or sinister for his stunners.
Examples abound. The French bicentennial fireworks display is one example here - one of the most psychedelic moments on film. The couple's first meeting, when Alex is run over on the street, and his subsequent phantasmagoric experience at the emergency station. Alex breathing fire in his street performance. The priapic silhouetted chase scene of Alex and Michele at the beach; old Han's deliberate walk down a set of steps to his demise on the dock; the final scenes in the River Seine. And throughout, one gets a vivid sense of the curious and complex amalgam of hostility, rough edged humor, extreme selfishness, suffering, tenderness, danger, aimlessness and despair that typify so many real street people.
Yet at heart Carax seems to be a romantic, and this may be the single false note, the one unbelievable conceit in this otherwise majestic film. He wants a happy ending, no matter how much at odds with the circumstances it may seem. Happy ending or no, this is a towering work of visual artistry. And who's to say, as the couple move triumphantly together on their journey down the river, away from us, whether this scene is yet another passing image on the way to... (In French) Grade: A (07/00)
LOVESICK (Marshall Brickman, US, 1983, 95 m.). THEMES: PSYCHOANALYSIS; ETHICAL BOUNDARY VIOLATIONS; COMEDY. Here’s a rare successful “psychflick comedy” - a delicious satire, a send-up of psychoanalysis that, after a fashion, is as true as it is insulting, and outrageously funny in the balance. Dr. Saul Benjamin (Dudley Moore) is a Park Avenue analyst who falls in love with his young patient, playwright Chloe Allen (Elizabeth McGovern). He proceeds to make a fool of himself in the same uproarious yet touching manner Moore displayed four years earlier while chasing Bo Derek through the film 10.
What’s even more fun for me is the analytic subtext. Saul seeks advice from his former analyst, Dr. Geller (John Huston), who sagely tells him all the right things. “Of course this romance in compelling,” Geller gruffly intones, “it comes from the bottom – the muck.” Geller advises Saul that it will ruin his career if he doesn’t break off the romance. That there must at least be a “decent interval” between referring Chloe to another therapist and taking up romantically with her, though the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, insofar as the couple have already hopped in the sack by now. (Remember that this film was made 23 years ago, when ethics were looser than today. The notion of a “decent interval” is now long gone, replaced by a lifelong prohibition against a therapist coupling with a former patient.)
Also on hand is the ghost of Sigmund Freud, perfectly personified by Alec Guinness, whom only Saul can see. Unlike Dr. Geller, Freud is playful, frivolous. He teases Saul about his counter-transference issues but seems, if anything, to be titillated by the romance, almost in league with Saul. At one juncture, as they hide together in the bathtub at Chloe’s apartment, Freud suggests that this is a womb, and that through the romance Chloe will give birth to Saul. When Saul looks incredulous, Freud shrugs, “Oh, well, it was just a thought.”
Saul violates the rules so often and so egregiously that no one could view his conduct as other than farce. He dashes past his next patient in the waiting room to follow Chloe after one of their sessions, telling the waiting patient that her appointment is cancelled. He decides that he has not been an honest practitioner, so he abruptly terminates a patient after several years’ treatment, telling her she never has had significant problems. Inebriated on alcohol and benzodiazepines while on call one evening, he cheerily makes light of a patient in a suicidal crisis, who puts off killing himself in order to come to Saul’s assistance.
Other events in this film strike closer to reality. Saul regularly drinks tea in sessions, not offering any to his patients, but that’s no big deal. The renowned psychoanalyst Franz Alexander regularly consumed a full course breakfast while conducting his first analytic session of the day. Saul is finally called before a committee of senior analysts to explain himself. Though warmly supported by Dr. Geller, the others, led by Dr. Gross (a stony faced Alan King), are sternly disapproving. What really galls them is that Saul now wants to work with “untreatable” street people, and that he returned over $6,000 to that patient he terminated.
It's not the specifics here that touch truth, it's the unmannerly presumptuousness of these people. I once applied for a position at a hospital dominated by psychoanalysts. A committee of senior analysts interviewed me one evening, each sitting in a corner of the room in shadows, surrounding me, firing their questions, as I sat in the center under a lit floor lamp. This chummy little gathering felt just like the committee scene in Lovesick. (I was eventually offered the job but declined for what I hope are obvious reasons.)
The film is loaded with comedic talent. Besides Moore, Huston and King, we have a clutch of veteran comic character actors (like Gene Saks and Renée Taylor) portraying outrageous, stereotyped patients, as well as the likes of Ron Silver, Wallace Shawn and David Strathairn in straighter roles...the talent goes on and on. It also helps immensely that writer-director Marshall Brickman developed his chops writing screenplays for that inveterate sniper at analysts, Woody Allen (Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Manhattan Murder Mystery).
In the end, Saul gets the girl, and Freud gets the last word, as he is about to depart for a New Age gathering in Latin America, when he says, “Psychoanalysis was an interesting experiment, but I never meant it to be an industry.” Grade: B+ (10/05)
THE LUZHIN DEFENCE (Marleen Gorris, UK, 2001). THEME: OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE PERSONALITY. SPOILER ALERT! John Turturro offers a virtuoso performance as Sasha Luzhin, an eccentric, obsessional chess grandmaster, come from Russia to a tournament on the lovely shores of Lake Como, sometime after World War I, in this period film based on a novella by Nabokov. There he meets a young woman (Emily Watson), also of Russian roots, who falls in love with him. To quote A. O. Scott in the New York Times, "...the lush scenery and period costumes are not vehicles of historical reckoning or social observation but rather the scaffolding for a delicate fable about memory, devotion and the vulnerability of genius in a cruelly ordinary world....The love story is touchingly and convincingly play by Mr. Turturro and Ms. Watson. Their odd, attractive faces and slightly nervous performing styles seem perfectly complementary, and their romance is a welcome respite from the usual mechanistic movie star courtship. Neither seems to possess an ounce of vanity."
For the tormented Luzhin, however, the sudden opening of a path to success in both chess and love is overwhelming, too traumatic, like freedom from the "Glass Bead Game" was for Magister Ludi, and Luzhin cracks under the internal pressures generated by the circumstances. Adding further to the stress are the efforts of his jealous old chess teacher, Valentinov (a deliciously malicious Stuart Wilson), to derail him. And so there is a tragic although not surprising ending. There are many flashbacks to Luzhin's boyhood with his family, and these are excellent. The boy chosen to play the young chess star has the requisite resemblance, manner and acting skill. Grade: B (05/01).