SAFE (Todd Haynes, US, 1995). THEME: MULTIPLE CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY DISORDER. Safe is probably the first feature film to take up the theme of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) disorders. This contemporary techno-affliction arises in adults heretofore enjoying apparent good health, who develop a panoply of physical and/or emotional symptoms not easily explained on a conventional basis. Specific symptoms vary from person to person. The theory here is that these symptoms may be reactions to chemicals found in the environment (these disorders are also termed by some as “environmental sensitivity” disorders). In classical industrial and environmental toxicity, the poisonous nature of the offending substance is scientifically established, and exposure affects many people. Of course in some instances, such as cancer from chemical pollutants, only some individuals develop the disease, presumably because of some interaction of the chemical with other factors that only apply to certain people.
Environmental sensitivity pushes this paradigm further, to situations in which the posited offending chemical agent or agents occur at very low concentrations that do not affect the great majority of individuals. The very small minority who are afflicted, it is thought, must have some special vulnerability to these agents, which may include a broad array of substances, everything from inhaled products like engine emissions or common household solvents and personal hygiene fragrances, to internal poisoning from the small amount of mercury contained in dental amalgams. Why some individuals should become sensitized to such substances has not been satisfactorily explained. About 85-90% of patients are women, and onset is typically between age 30 and 50.
The most common symptoms are fatigue, diminished concentration and memory, depression, weakness, dizziness, and headache. About half of patients meet criteria for depression and anxiety disorders, but the relationship of such disorders to MCS is not clear. That is, it is not reliably known whether the psychiatric condition is a cause or consequence of MCS, or simply a coincidental problem. Some sufferers believe that living in environments controlled to maintain low chemical exposure is the only strategy for combating such disorders. Many scientists and physicians no not accept the validity of these disorders, because the science of toxicology has not established the health hazards of low levels of chemicals posited to account for symptoms in most MCS disorders. Nor do the clinical disorders conform to a common model for allergic illnesses. So many health professionals discount these putative illnesses as physical, thinking of them instead as the consequences of depression, anxiety or psychosomatic disorders. (A non-judgmental reference on the subject is “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome” by Michael K. Magill and Anthony Suruda, in the journal, American Family Physician, vol. 58, pp. 721-730, September 1, 1998.)
The protagonist in Safe is Carol White (Julianne Moore in her first major film role; Haynes and Moore teamed up again more recently in Far From Heaven), who lives the material life of a moneyed suburban housewife in Southern California. She, her spouse and her stepson occupy a house the size of Hearst's castle, and she whiles away her days shopping and partying with other women like herself. She has a vague sense that life could be better, more substantive, more fulfilling, but isn’t deeply troubled by these fleeting thoughts. Then she starts to have health troubles out of the blue, really bad things, like collapsing in a faint, spontaneous nosebleeds, acute anxiety episodes with shortness of breath, associated with transient delirium in which she doesn’t know where she is.
Apart from the nosebleeds, her symptoms could be accounted for by depression and panic disorder with hyperventilation leading to confusion and fainting. But these episodes, or at least some of them, seem to occur when she is in proximity to fuel emissions, household cleaners, and the like. Then there’s the nosebleeds, not your everyday marker for emotional troubles. Her family doctor rolls his eyes at all of this and bundles her off to a psychiatrist from Hell, a wooden goon who looks out at Carol from behind his desk in a sterile, contemptuous manner guaranteed to drive away any sensible person. Getting worse, and getting only the fish eye or worse from her spouse and friends, she finally in desperation answers a bulletin board ad and winds up at a New Age style commune for people with chemical sensitivity disorders, where, at film’s end, she is feeling a bit better and planning to stay on.
Safe, written as well as directed by Haynes, is a most peculiar film. The story is sympathetic to MCS sufferers, but in a left-handed way. Their plight - caught between the skepticism and condescension of intimates and doctors, on the one hand, and the acceptance and emotional support of fringe practitioners and fellow sufferers, on the other – is well narrated. But by and large Haynes seems to slam just about everyone, patients included, in a sort of take-no-prisoners critique of the MCS phenomenon. Carol White is portrayed as a dependent, childlike ditz, with zero self esteem and about enough introspective acumen to fill a small thimble. Her friends are all superficial spoiled spenders, but at least they aren’t sick: they love their material world.
Carol’s husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) is a robo-business Neanderthal type. He has absolutely no patience with or capacity to understand Carol’s problems, seeing only that her mysterious malady is thwarting his sex life, and it makes him mad. Carol’s friends are taken aback, concerned in a vague way, but clearly more interested in their next trip to the mall. The doctors are of no use. The commune is run by a guru named Peter (Peter Friedman), a snake oil charmer who preaches the line that (a) MCS is caused by a breakdown in the body’s immune functions, and (b) the immune breakdown is caused by lack of self love and by pursuing a lifestyle that violates humanistic values. Only the commune’s co-director, Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart) comes across as a solid, no-nonsense, warm and caring human being. The final hopeful note of the film is Carol’s statement that she may be starting, just a smidge, to love herself, as if this is the key to recovery.
So what is this film? Does Haynes believe that MCS is real? Is this film his sincere effort to shine light on this contemporary medical conundrum? He certainly suggests that the basis of MCS is psychological in nature. Does he take the New Age, emotional approach to the disorder seriously? Or is this film a broad-brush satire all around, sparing no one? Who can tell? Grade: B- (05/03)
THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS (Rose Troche, US, 2001/2003). THEMES: TROUBLED RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILIES; IMPACT OF DISABILITY ON FAMILY. This film knocked about on the festival circuit for nearly two years before a poorly promoted regular theater distribution in 2003. It’s easy to see why it has languished. It fits squarely in the genre of ‘suburban psychodrama.’ The movie is ponderous from beginning to end, heavy with a gloom of pathos brought on by, among other things, an auto accident a year or more earlier that affected the lives of most of the principal characters and left a young teenage boy in perpetual coma.
After opening with very clever credits that mention four families who live in the same cluster of homes - showing us the families and their houses as white paper cutouts, we are plunged into a rapidly changing, thoroughly confusing series of intercut scenes that casually and chaotically introduce us to at least 16 characters, including all the kids. Gradually, as in a Robert Altman film, this chaos does gives way to some order, though aspects of the narrative remain shrouded in the mystery of the auto accident, details of which are only slowly brought to our attention, some crucial elements only at the end.
It won’t serve any useful purpose here to plunge into the endless details of these people’s lives or the narrative arc of the film. The film’s title seems to refer to our tendency to distract ourselves either with material goods (a child’s Barbie doll or basketball, a lawyer’s fancy new dishwasher, overdue child support payments, a contest to win a new SUV) or strangers (a pickup date in a tavern, a contrived allegiance to a neighbor’s cause, the kidnapping of one child to replace another that died) to assuage bad feelings and troubled relationships.
Among the large acting ensemble, several of the kids do well, especially Kristen Stewart as tomboy Sam Jennings. As for the adults, Dermot Mulroney is amazingly stupid playing an ambitious corporate lawyer in career doldrums. Mulroney better watch out: this role coupled with his performance as the doofus son in law to be in About Schmidt may typecast him so that only the Farrelly Brothers keep his number in their Rolidex. Glenn Close and the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson fare better, each giving a competent turn as the principal women in the film. Too bad their talents are wasted on such glum business. The movie is the stuff of TV soaps and nothing more. By comparison, it makes The Ice Storm and American Beauty seem like great films (which they aren’t). Grade: C+ (12/03)
SARABAND (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden/Norway, 2003, 120 m). THEMES: FAMILY DYNAMICS; THREE GENERATIONAL CONFLICTS; LIFE REVIEW. Now well past his mid-80s, Ingmar Bergman continues to create thought provoking psychological dramas. Technically, he has stuck to his word that his 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, would be the last he made for the big screen; Saraband, like his other work since Fanny, was made for Swedish television. It doesn’t matter. For all its convolutions, Saraband is a story of family and love: love’s entrenchment and endurance, its vicissitudes, the terrible power of its loss and the surprising possibilities for its discovery.
On an impulse possibly connected to life review, Marianne (Liv Ullmann), an attorney in her early 60s still practicing law, decides to visit her former husband Johan (Erland Josephson), now in his mid-80s. They haven’t seen one another in 30 years. (These two characters, played by the same actors, were in fact first introduced to us by Bergman 30 years ago in Scenes from a Marriage.) Johan’s a retired music academic now holed up at his back country house, living alone. He’s rich, vainglorious and, till recently, was a lifelong womanizer. In a cabin on the same property, Johan’s son by another marriage, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), a widower who is also a musician, lives with his 20 year old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), whom Henrik is teaching to prepare her for a career as a cello soloist. Another character, whose influence on these people is palpable, is Henrik’s wife (and Karin’s mother) Anna, who died two years earlier.
Johan and Henrik despise each other, always have. Johan perceives Henrik as weak and clingy (he is) and this has always been repulsive to Johan. On the other hand, Johan is unconflicted in his adoration of his granddaughter. This is so often the case: the ogre parent can at the same time be a sweetie pie grandparent. Johan’s doting is fully reciprocated by Karin. But she is locked in deep conflict with her father, Henrik. He wants to control her destiny, mold her career in ways she feels are not right for her. Most of all he wants to cling to her. It also turns out that Johan has his own scheme to push Karin’s career along the same lines she deplores. The frictions in these parent-child relations have intensified since Anna’s death: her loving acceptance of everybody had at least kept them all civil.
Marianne walks into the middle of this three generational cauldron of conflict and wishes she hadn’t. Nevertheless, she is drawn especially to Karin, who uses Marianne as a confidante. This is most gratifying for Marianne, whose relations with her own grown daughters (by another man) have always been tenuous in the extreme. One moved as far away as possible (Australia) and the other is institutionalized because of severe autism or chronic catatonia. So Marianne stays on at Johan’s house.
The family plot thickens when Karin asserts herself, eschewing a soloist’s career for orchestral work, frustrating both her father and grandfather. Henrik cannot bear being without her. He has nurtured suicidal impulses since Anna’s death, his tenuous grip on life sustained only by his devotion to Karin and her presence. His suicide attempt is a predictable response to Karin’s successful emancipation. But he and his father survive well enough. The only real surprise in the story is the unexpected opening of Marianne’s heart to her own daughter, an opening brought about as much perhaps by the lingering spirit of Anna’s presence as by Marianne’s closeness to Karin.
This film feels very much like Scenes from a Marriage and Faithless (the latter written by Bergman and directed by Ms. Ullmann). It really doesn’t break new ground. Nor are the characters well developed. But it does leave its mark by depicting the parallel development of Karin’s emancipation from the dominating men in her family and Marianne’s emancipation from the strictures on her own heart. (In Swedish) Grade: B+ (08/05)
THE SAVAGES (Tamara Jenkins, US, 2007, 113 min.). THEMES: AGING; DEMENTIA; CAREGIVERS; INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT; SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS. First rate family drama/comedy in which two siblings, Wendy (Laura Linney) and her older brother Jon (the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman), must come to the aid of their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco) when his dementia progresses to the point where he can no longer care for himself. Lenny is an irascible, cold, foul mouthed man, who was possibly abusive to his children when they were young, and to his wife, who ran away many years earlier. Struggling to come to terms with their father, Wendy at one point says to Jon, “Maybe dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were.” Jon in turn says at another point, “we’ll take better care of the old man than he ever did for us."
Wendy, an unsuccessful playwright, and Jon, a college professor who works endlessly on a book, each have had lifelong impairment in their capacity for intimate relationships with potential partners and with one another. They struggle in their reactions to their father’s decline, and in their efforts to find consensus about decisions that must be made concerning Lenny. Wendy’s response is one of emotional volatility, while Jon is more matter of fact, the more practical of the two.
There is authenticity in each actor’s conduct and in the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is an increasingly common sort of family scenario that feels here like it is happening to real, ordinary people. All three principals give fine performances, especially Hoffman in one of his best turns ever. The original screenplay by Ms. Jenkins is extraordinary, well deserving of the several honors she has received, e.g., winning best screenplay awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, with additional nominations for best screenplay from the Writers Guild of America, U.S.A., and the Independent Spirit Awards. Grade: A- (01/08)
SAVING GRACE (Nigel Cole, UK, 2000). THEME: MARIJUANA. Set in a remote fishing village in the north of England, this is a lame comedy in which Grace, a middle aged woman (Brenda Blethyn), is confronted by enormous debts after her husband dies. Her young gardener Matthew (Craig Ferguson, who also wrote the screenplay and co-produced) is a major pot consumer, along with his girlfriend and buddies, including the town doctor. Grace is renown in the region for growing prize orchids, and Matthew asks her help in resuscitating some marijuana plants that are barely alive. The plants thrive, inspiring the pair to hatch a scheme to pay off Grace's debts and save her house, by raising marijuana to sell. It's a preposterous, too cute script in many ways and not terribly funny in ideas, dialogue or acting. Grade: C (12/00)
SAVIOUR SQUARE (Plac Zbawiciela) (Joanna Kos-Krause & Krzysztof Krause, Poland, 2006, 105 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT; DEPRESSION. A widow, Teresa (Ewa Wencel), is, on the one hand, a tiny but tough, outspoken woman, employed in a high level job and physically fit, but she’s also prone to depression and regularly takes haloperidol (a very strong tranquilizer) and another psychoactive medication as well. Against her wishes, she has reluctantly taken in four houseguests in her somewhat cramped apartment, people who are open-endly staying on with her: her deadbeat son Bartek (Arkadiusz Janiczek), who can’t or won’t find work, and whom Teresa judges to be just like his abusive father, Bartek's wife Beata (Jowita [Miondlikowska] Budnik), who is chronically depressed, overweight, pouty, and also cannot work, she claims, because she must care for her two young children, also camping at grandma’s. This well wrought psychodrama follows the course and conflicts of these people over several weeks, or is it months? In the event, things go from bad to worse as the jagged edged, claustrophobic family circumstances grind on toward a critical resolution that lands Beata in prison for 15 years. The photography gives us many excellent close up views of the principals and the kids, which enhances the sense of people experiencing way too much togetherness for their own good. Wencel, Budnik and Janiczek collaborated on the screenplay, adding dialogue, suggesting that the Krauses work somethat in the fashion of Ken Loach. (In Polish). Grade: B+ (02/08)
SCHIZOPOLIS (Steven Soderbergh, US, 1996). THEMES: ANOMIE IN THE SUBURBS; ANTI-SCIENTOLOGY; SEXUAL OBSESSION. A bizarre array of digs at modern life, e.g., suburbia, the corporate ratrace, Scientology, sexual obsession, and the degradation of language. The film is full of jumpcuts and odd camera angles. This sort of thing often jars and distracts. Here it works to intensify the sense of fragmentation of the protagonist’s life. Mr. Soderbergh was present to discuss the film at the screening I attended. He shot it during spare moments over a year’s time on a shoestring budget, using his friends as actors willing to work for next to nothing, and cast himself in the lead because that also was the cheapest way to go. In fact Soderbergh proves to be a wonderful deadpan comedian in the role of Fletcher Munson, who works for the cult known as “Eventualism.” Grade: B (02/97)
SCHULTZE GETS THE BLUES (Michael Schorr, Germany, 2003, 114 min.). THEME: COPING WITH LONELINESS AND ENNUI AFTER RETIREMENT. For those of you in a rush, here’s a microreview: “Satisfying, long, slow moving, quirky geezer comic road movie from Germany.” For others, here’s more. This film is in the tradition of slow moving droll European comedies like last year’s Kitchen Stories, Hukkle or Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Schultze (Horst Krause) and his best buddies, Jürgen and Manfred, have toiled literally in a salt mine for 30 years and now retire. There isn’t a whole lot to do in their small town on the Saale River in the eastern part of Germany. Schultze’s two cronies are soon entrained by their wives into domestic serfdom, but the stout, phlegmatic Schultze himself must bear the burden of freedom. His wife is shut away in a nursing home, the victim of moderately severe Alzheimers. Schultze dutifully visits her, where he is much sought after by a libidinal and cognitively unimpeded woman with a ready bottle of Bushmill’s single malt. He gets regular opportunities to drink beer and play chess with his mates. But much of the time he is left to wash the faces of the statuary gnomes in his garden, practice the accordion (he basically knows about two polkas) and dine alone.
We watch for a long time as Schultze lives out his slow paced and unexciting daily life (a major feature of his day is a battle of wits with the fellow in the railroad observation tower who runs the manually operated gate at the road crossing; he likes to leave the gate down, to elicit the impatient ringing of Schultze’s bike bell.) Finally, near the half way mark, Schultze is selected to represent his town, and to play his accordion, at a festival in New Braunfels, Texas, his town’s “sister city.” (Earlier, when he had said he hoped he would not be chosen, one of his friends showed a keen awareness of Texas justice, teasing, “Hey, Schultze, you afraid they’ll put you in the electric chair for your polka.”)
The remainder of the film tracks his adventures in the U.S., first in New Braunfels (he sees how good the other accordionists are and never goes near the stage to play), then running a small fishing boat down a river to the Gulf, then over to what is probably the lower Mississippi delta region in Louisiana. Nothing much happens, beyond running out of gas once. He gets on well enough with people, though his English vocabulary consists of about four words, goes to dances, sees a lot of scenery, and winds up under a full moon on the roof of a delta houseboat, where the owners, a black woman and her daughter, have taken Schultze in, fed him full of fresh steamed crab, and taken him to a Cajun dance. Not an ebullient soul, Schultze nonetheless seems content with his travels and writes regularly to his friends about his adventures. The film ends on a somewhat somber note but that does not nullify the sense one has of having been quietly and sweetly amused. (In German & English) . Grade: B+ (02/05)
THE SEA (Baltasar Kormakur, Iceland, 2003). THEME: INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT. Kormakur directed the great little comedy, 101 Rekjavik, so I was eager to see his new work. Like 101, Sea is filled with over-the-top, outrageous behavior. But there is a stark difference between the films. Throughout Sea, I kept looking for the drollery that enriched 101, but the laughs never arrive. Although technically well made, what we have here is your standard, straight forward sturm und drang family psychodrama about rich, spoiled people, blind to their own foibles, who act in extremely destructive ways toward themselves and one another. Everyone - father, stepmother, the three adult children, two married in-laws, and a step sister, they're all a pack of louts.
Only the father has any socially redeeming features. Though he can't stand his kids (he is a pretty good judge of people), he is concerned for the welfare of his community, the future of the small fishing village where he owns a huge fish cannery, the economic backbone of the town. He's been having a series of t.i.a.'s lately and must give up control of the company to save his health. But to whom? His children? God forbid. He fears that if he sells his fishing quotas (permits to fish, issued by the government, that amount to an equity interest that can be bought or sold privately) along with his plant, the buyer might shut down the plant and use the quotas to ship fish to a larger facility somewhere else, where processing would be cheaper. This would spell disaster for the village.
The best of his three kids is a cowardly sneak of a man who is a manager at the plant and is secretly trying to arrange a deal to sell off the business, behind Dad's back. His sister is an extremely dangerous shrew who likes to forklift people in their cars and dump them into the bay for sport. The kid brother lives in Paris to detach himself and, using money Dad sends for college, he is taking art lessons and having fun. Back home on a visit with his French fiancee in tow, he has no trouble rekindling his old passion for his half-sister, starting some very nasty family arguments, and creating one Helluva splendid industrial fire, which we see burning at the beginning and again at the end of the film. The kids cannot forgive their father for starting an affair with their aunt - their mother's sister - as mother lay dying of cancer years ago (subsequently she became their stepmother).
These are the ingredients of this relentlessly earnest yet outrageous film. The film is OK - it certainly is well acted and well photographed - but it adds no new wrinkle to the genre. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe set the standard, at least for marital bickering. If you want to see a first rate contemporary extended family squabble, look at the 1996 French film, Un Air de Famille (Family Resemblances), by Cedric Klapisch. Or try Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 offering, The Celebration. The only mildly interesting character in Sea is the grandmother, herself a clichéd character who is simply fed a number of blunt and funny lines. (In Icelandic) Grade B (02/03)
THE SEA INSIDE (Mar adentro) (Alejandro Amenabar, Spain, 2004). THEMES: EUTHANASIA, ASSISTED SUICIDE. This richly produced docudrama makes the case for the right of an individual with a severe, irreversible medical illness, debilitating injury or handicap to choose suicide, and to be assisted by others if necessary, without risk of penalties to those who aid the individual.The issue here is not physician assisted suicide,but something broader: euthanasia or mercy killing at the request of the person with the illness, suicide, if you will, assisted by anyone – friends, relatives or others.The story is based on the life and death of a real person, Ramon Sampedro (played brilliantly in the film by Javier Bardem), a quadriplegic Spanish fisherman who fought for nearly 30 years for his right to die.
At the age of 25, Sampedro suffered a severe injury to the cervical spine in a diving accident. A formerly hearty, physically robust young man, he became miserable living a shut in, bedridden life, even though he was able to develop keen writing skills, to the point of publishing a book of his experiences and poems, “Letters from the Inferno.” Cared for by his devoted sister-in-law and other relatives, he also remained a charming and persuasive man, capable of attracting the allegiance and support of many people, especially women. With the assistance of several attorneys, Sampedro challenged the Spanish law that declared it a felony to assist another person to commit suicide, punishable with a prison sentence of up to 10 years. He won judicial reviews at both state and federal levels, but his bids to overturn the law were unsuccessful.
He lost patience with this legal struggle after five years and carried out a carefully contrived plan that culminated with Sampedro filming himself sipping a lethal potassium cyanide solution, in 1998. "When I have drunk this I will have renounced one of the worst types of slavery, that of being a living head glued to a dead body," he said in the videotape later shown on Spanish television. "You can punish [the person helping me] if you want. But you know that what you will simply be doing is seeking revenge when, in fact, I am the only person responsible for my actions." Spanish police tried to find out who was behind the camera and who helped prepare the cyanide, but eventually gave up. Sampedro’s case has become one of the most celebrated in the Death with Dignity movement in Western Europe.
All the arguments concerning euthanasia are presented here, albeit with a bias in favor. Most lively is a shouting debate Ramon conducts with Padre Francisco (Jose Maria Pou), a quadriplegic priest who has come to the Sampedro house to talk Ramon into abandoning his quest for death. The priest’s wheelchair is too bulky to be brought up to Ramon’s bedroom, and Ramon has no intention of coming down to see the priest, who had previously suggested on national television that the problem here was that Ramon’s family did not love or care for him sufficiently, a charge that was both false and insulting. So the two spar amusingly by shouting up and down a stairwell. Fr. Francisco asserts that our bodies are not private property but belong to God. Ramon snorts that he thought there was no greater champion of private property than the Church, with its vast wealth. Ramon’s sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) gets the last word, telling the priest as he departs that one thing she is sure of is that he has a very big mouth.
Limited to an exploration of the pros and cons of its subject, this film could have become constipated and platitudinous, edifying but abstract, academic, dull. Instead there is a vitality in the film, a fine drama of the grit of real people bearing difficult burdens. It is in the particulars of how Ramon’s situation affects the rest of his family that the movie finds life and touches us. Ramon’s father is quietly full of grief. He takes visitors to the cove where Ramon dove the day of his accident all those years ago, and you know that for the old man, this event happened just yesterday. There is a harsh encounter between Ramon and his older brother, who has given up his life as a fisherman to make a home to care for Ramon. The brother is furious with Ramon for making an already difficult life, in which the others have made sacrifices for Ramon, even harder by bringing notoriety, embarrassment and shame upon all of them. Then there is Manuela, the brother’s wife, who has given herself completely to caring for Ramon; she lives in a perpetual state of unconditional devotion and service. Finally there is Javi, their son, Ramon’s nephew, a teenager whom Ramon loves like the son he could never have.
The movie is visually gorgeous. A scene of Ramon’s fateful dive and near death experience is rerun several times with all the force of an unbidden reoccurring flashback of traumatic events. Other scenes show Ramon’s fantasies come to life, moments when he soars up and away from his confinement, flying across fields and hills to the water he loves.
Bardem was only 34 when Sea Inside was made, but beyond the art of makeup, Bardem invests the role of Ramon with the gravitas and weary patience one would expect to find in a worn and sickly man of fifty. That’s not all, though. Bardem’s Ramon is also an entrancing presence in nearly every scene, bringing charisma, liveliness, passion, wit and grace to his performance purely by means of facial gesture and manner of speaking.
The supporting cast are all excellent, especially the women, Ms. Rivera and several others: Belen Rueda (as Julia, a married lawyer with a degenerative neurological disorder who falls in love with Ramon and gets his writings published), Lola Dueñas (as Rosa, a young, sorrowful radio dj who is dependently infatuated with Ramon), and Clara Segura (Gené, a young legal aide).
The film has stirred lively debate on the euthanasia question in Spain. A number of government officials have attended screenings. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, has been outspokenly negative. But surveys indicate that two-thirds of Spaniards support some type of controlled euthanasia. This splendid film works effectively as a drama and is also a highly intelligent, useful social propaganda film. I mean that, in the highest sense, as a compliment. Grade: B+ (12/04)
SECONDHAND LIONS (Tim McCanlies, US, 2003). THEME: AGING: AUTONOMY AND A LONG TERM RELATIONSHIP OF TWO ECCENTRIC OLD MEN ARE EXPLORED IN A COMEDY THAT LEANS HEAVILY ON STEREOTYPES. A two for one special: a geezerflick and coming-of-age combo about a boy, Walter (Haley Joel Osment), who is dumped off by his trashy mother at the dilapidated midwestern farm where his two eccentric great uncles live, so she can get back to enjoying her low life in Las Vegas unfettered by parental obligations. The old gents (a crustily avuncular Michael Caine and a menacing, slightly crazed Robert Duvall) are reputed to be filthy rich, and the rumors of how they came by their fortune vary from big city crime to African high adventures. Walter’s mother also hopes he can worm his way into the codgers’ favor and get himself and Mom named in their wills. Turns out there’s already plenty of competition for this honor, ranging from a lugubrious group of relatives to a retinue of salesmen whom the geezers fend off with rifle fire, which is also their preferred method for catching fish.
Caine and Duvall pretty much sleepwalk through their roles, as stock Hollywood tough-old-buzzards-with-hearts-of-gold. In fact nearly all the parts in this film are standard Hollywood types, including five dogs of uncertain pedigree, a pig and a genuine secondhand lion that are called upon to buoy up the proceedings whenever things start to sag too much, a not uncommon occurrence. The exception is 15 year old Osment (that special kid from The Sixth Sense), who continues to build upon his long but still youthful career with another intelligent turn here: he can be convincingly vulnerable or assertive, but always with a preternatural air of self possession. Alas, neither Osment nor the animals deliver quite enough to make this film worth recommending, except to those who find pleasure in treading water through familiar swamps of sentiment and stereotype. Grade: (drama and portrayals of aging): C+ (06/04)
THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS (Isabel Coixet, Spain, 2005, 115 m.). THEME: POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER IN A WOMAN SURVIVOR OF BOSNIAN WAR. SPOILER ALERT! Isabel Coixet’s well crafted narrative screenplay interweaves two subtexts: an intriguing psychodrama about the long lasting wounds of war trauma and a convoluted, slowly building love story of two damaged people brought together by chance on an oil rig in the North Sea. Josef (Tim Robbins), an engineer on the pumping station, has been burned and temporarily blinded while trying in vain to save a coworker from a fiery suicide. Hanna (Sarah Polley), a social recluse who works as an assembly line factory worker in England, has more or less been forced by the HR department to take a month long holiday, to quell the animosity of her fellow workers, who resent her scrupulous punctuality and four year record of never having taken leave for illness or vacation.
A chance conversation in a tavern leads her to volunteer to serve as a nurse to Josef, aboard the oil rig. (Hanna had been trained in and practiced nursing for several years in the past.) The initial encounters between Hanna and Josef are spiced with unpredictable thrust and parry. Josef does the thrusting: mouthing off provocative sexualized comments to Hanna, like a guy coming on at a bar. She in turn remains all but mute; she won’t even tell her name at first. She is diffident toward the rest of the crew as well. Slowly over the next days she lowers her guard, begins to thaw with everyone. In time Hanna shares her story with Josef. Her origins in Sarajevo. Her detention along with other women by their own Bosnian troops, who held her captive for months and systematically raped and mutilated her and the others. She tells Josef that he’s just like those other men, harboring only a lascivious interest in women. She also tells him that a friend of hers was forced to kill her young daughter by shooting her through the vagina, though we suspect that the “friend” was Hanna herself.
This catharsis, possibly her first disclosure to someone other than her therapist (played by Julie Christie) seems to dissipate Hanna’s deep malaise. Josef discloses his own sources of remorse: his affair with a woman married to his closest friend, possibly the same man who had suicided aboard the rig, though we cannot be sure. Josef in time is medivaced for care in a hospital and Hanna returns to the factory. But in the end they find each other in a plausible reconnection that is tender and genuine but devoid of any sentimental pretensions.
A nice sidebar is provided: some glimpses of how men on the rig pass time. They improvise playground swings, play cards, make up song and dance performances, and a few engage in homoerotic encounters. The supporting cast of crew members is very good, led by the chef, Simon (Javier Cámara). All in all this bittersweet production offers a compelling view of the far reaches of the grotesque trauma of war. (In English) Grade: B+
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, US, 2003). THEME: COPING WITH MARITAL INFIDELITY. Here’s a domestic tragicomedy that is neither sad nor funny. But it is a believable account of a couple overcoming a crisis of marital infidelity. Well, overcoming may be too strong a term and a bit misleading. It’s more a matter of two people slip sliding their way through a crisis, avoiding explicit communication about their conjugal problems and disappointments, about the burdens that have led to doubts and loss of confidence in their relationship. Instead of breaking up, they more or less just tacitly agree to stay together and move on. This isn’t the idealized sort of resolution prized by marriage therapists. Far from it. Neither party consults a counselor. Nobody “processes” any “issues” here. But what does occur is undoubtedly a lot closer to the truth for many people, an accurate reflection of the way couples often patch up strains, even if it means that their differences are only swept under the rug, leaving a bump that could trip them up on another day.
David (Campbell Scott) and Dana (Hope Davis) met in dental school. She was the smart one. He was swept away by her. Now, 10 years on, they share a joint dental practice in the suburbs and are raising three young daughters. The couple are in the throes of the unglamorous, labor intensive phase that supercedes the halcyon days of infatuation, courtship and childless early marriage. Between the grind of the dental drills and the domestic grind, life is, well, a grind. David, who’s a dear fellow at heart, by chance witnesses Dana nuzzling with another man, and his fantasies go wild. He is nagged by all the inevitable rush of hostile, cynical, frightening worries and vengeful impulses, impulses that become embodied in an alter-ego, a man named Slater, a devil perched metaphorically on David’s shoulder, played by a leering Denis Leary, who’s a scold of an unsatisfied dental patient in David’s practice.
The problem here is that the ocean of tedium and plain hard work in which the couple are barely keeping afloat is so authentically realized that the film is basically a drudge to watch. It rekindles all the old feelings of fatigue and ennui that all adults finished with childrearing have quite properly packed away in our mental attics, where they should remain, undisturbed and unexamined, at all times. Scott offers a wonderful turn as the longsuffering cuckold and unceasingly dependable father. But how is one expected to enjoy a movie in which (1) the dialogue varies between the mundane and the nonexistent; (2) the role written to provide comic relief (Leary as Slater) bombs – for Leary here is not funny in the least; and (3) a major source of dramatic tension at the center of the story is provided when a gastro-intestinal disorder sweeps through the family, drenching everyone in vomit, fever, and near coma. Remember those good old days?
Alan Rudolph made a terrific film nearly three decades ago, called Welcome to L.A. I keep waiting for his next really good one. All that having been said, this could be an excellent trigger film for group discussions of marital strain and infidelities. Grades: As a dramatic film: C+; as a realistic example of couple coping with marital crisis: B+ (05/04)
SECRETARY (Steven Shainberg, US, 2002). THEMES: "CLUSTER B" PERSONALITY DISORDER; HABITUAL SELF INJURY (CUTTING). Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee, a glum, socially awkward, ritually self injuring woman who finds work as a secretary after release from a mental hospital. Her father is an alcoholic crank. Her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is a gooney blonde who follows Lee around offering supercilious support. Her new boss (James Spader) is a weirdo attorney who acts more like an errant member of the Addams family, starring eerily at Lee, losing client files in the garbage. How any client could confide in him is beyond imagination. Everyone’s acting is strangely unnatural (the film hype calls it stylized). The story and characters move so bizarrely and badly that I quit watching after 25 minutes before the promised S&M aspects began. Grade: C- (07/04)
SECRETS AND LIES (Mike Leigh, UK, 1997, 136 min.). THEMES: FAMILY CONFLICT; MOTHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT; FAMILY RECONCILIATION; ADOPTED ADULT CHILDREN SEEKING REUNION WITH BIRTH PARENTS. Leigh follows up his excellent 1989 film High Hopes, about the lives and aspirations of haves and have nots in London, a story built around a particular family, with an equally penetrating look here at the conflation of pretenses and unrevealed truths that subtly gnaw at the fabric of family life, with implications for the larger British society. Actors Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall and Claire Rushbrook all shine in this intense family melodrama. Ms. Jean-Baptiste is Hortense, a self sufficient London optometrist in her late 20s who, following the death of her adoptive mother, seeks her birth mother, Cynthia Purley (Ms. Blethyn), for the first time. What a surprise to them both when black daughter meets white mother!
Cynthia was 15 when she became pregnant, presumably during a one night stand in the hippie times of 1968, and she never even glimpsed the newborn before signing it away, even had forgotten the man. In fact, once over the shock, Cynthia is delighted to have good natured, respectful Hortense in her life, which is otherwise full of conflict and regret. She’s locked in battle with her other daughter Roxanne (Ms. Rushbrook), the issue of a later brief liaison, a surly 20 year old who is as high strung as Cynthia. They live together in an atmosphere of tightly wound acrimony and cigarette smoke in the old family rental house in SE London, a place that still has an outhouse in lieu of a proper loo.
Maurice (Mr. Spall), Cynthia’s brother, has made something of himself as a portrait and wedding photographer. He and his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) live in a spiffy unattached suburban house, tricked out with three bathrooms, if you get the contrast to the house Maurice had grown up in. Maurice has his hands full with a booming business and a spouse made sad by 15 years of futile efforts to get pregnant. They drink a lot of wine. Maurice sees very little of his sister and niece, though he does provide Cynthia with cash to make ends meet from time to time, but he hopes to make amends when he and Monica host Roxanne’s 21st birthday party. Cynthia convinces Hortense to attend, but with the guise that she is a friend from the factory where Cynthia works. Roxanne brings along her current squeeze, Paul (Lee Ross), a nervous, quiet, but kindly chap who also chain smokes.
Things move along reasonably well until Cynthia, with too many glasses of wine aboard, announces that Hortense is in fact her other daughter. This news bulletin breaks the ice on a round of truth telling. Maurice confesses the marital barrenness that has burdened him and Monica. Monica declares her envy of Cynthia for having two daughters. It comes out that the money used by Maurice to buy the photography business was insurance proceeds from their father that belonged as much to Cynthia. Roxanne is devastated by her mother’s concealment of the story of Hortense. And so on. Maurice, aided by Paul, gets everyone to calm down and have a good cry. He laments that the three people he loves – Monica, Cynthia and Roxanne – can’t stand each other, and that “secrets and lies” have kept everyone apart. The final scene is a hopeful one: Hortense and Roxanne chat amicably in Cynthia’s little rear yard, then sit down for tea with her.
This film might have sunk into the bathos generated by Ms. Blethyn and Ms. Rushbrook, but their emotional excesses are marvelously countered by the presence of Ms. Jean-Baptiste, whose delightful mix of serenity, impishness, sadness and forbearance draws our attention to her whenever she is on camera. This permits Mr. Leigh to prevail in delivering his message that truth trumps deceit and is the proper cornerstone of love and reconciliation. It's good for families and might apply equally well to society at large. Grade: A- (03/05)
SECRETS OF A SOUL (Geheimnisse einer Seele) (Georg W. Pabst, Germany, 1926, 58 min). THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPY; PSYCHOANALYSIS; HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT PSYCHFLICK. This is perhaps the earliest dramatized depiction of a psychoanalyst at work with his patient. Werner Krauss (who had played Dr. Caligari in the 1919 German classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) plays Martin Fellman, a chemist who develops a phobic fear of knives after a neighbor kills his wife with one. He eventually is treated by an analyst, Dr. Orth (Pavel Pavlov), who uses dream interpretation to assist Fellman in recovering memories of long repressed pathological jealousy from his childhood. Then a young girl preferred another boy to Fellman and gave him her doll. His rage about this reemerges when a handsome young man, his wife’s cousin, comes to visit. We see that all is not well even before the cousin arrives: there is no affection between the Fellmans, and their lack of children hints strongly of longstanding disaffection as well.
Frau Fellman’s delight in her cousin’s company stirs (unconscious) resentment in Martin, which takes the manifest form of sudden onset of fear of knives. The phobia “protects” him from acting on and even experiencing impulses to kill his wife, as the neighbor had done. All of this eventually is interpreted to Fellman by Dr. Orth, and as a result the phobia is resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. There’s even a baby for the Fellmans at the end. The story is melodramatic and the dynamics and cure are way too pat by today’s standards, of course. But this was a significant film given the early date of its release, and the prestige of its director and star. Two of Freud’s inner circle of analysts – Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs – collaborated in the development of the screenplay. Grades: Overall quality and content: C; historical significance: A (silent, with English intertitles) (06/05)
SEE YOU IN THE MORNING (Alan Pakula, US, 1988). THEMES: STRESSES OF DIVORCE WHEN THERE ARE CHILDREN; MAINTAINING TIES TO CHILDREN OF DIVORCE; REMARRIAGE, STEP-PARENTING; SURVIVORS OF SUICIDE; CHILDHOOD BEREAVEMENT. The Livingstones (Larry, a psychiatrist, and Jo, a celebrity fashion model) and the Goodwins (Peter, a successful concert pianist, and Beth, who’s homemaking) are two New York City families who seem to have it all: health, good looks, nice kids, fine careers. No, they don’t know each other. But Peter (David Dukes) develops a condition that prevents him from playing, and he ultimately commits suicide. At the same time, Jo Livingstone (Farrah Fawcett) cannot resist all the temptations for sex with other men that come her way, and Larry (Jeff Bridges) finally divorces her. A couple of years go by, and mutual friends introduce Larry to Beth Goodwin (Alice Krige), Peter’s widow. Turns out Larry and Beth have something intimate in common: they are prone to migraine headaches. One thing leads to another. They marry. Jo finds another man as well.
I wish I could say this is a good movie, but in fact it is a bore: poorly written, way too long, unimaginatively photographed, badly edited and lacking in continuity, especially in the first half hour. So I cannot recommend the film on cinematic grounds. What may make it useful are the contributions of two of the principals. Ms. Krige is highly believable as a tense, migrainous woman who is still grieving the death of her first husband. One gets through her a sense of the terrible legacy left behind for family when someone suicides. Mr. Bridges is almost always a joy to watch, and he does not disappoint here as a sweet, loving man. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see him working as a psychiatrist (you’ll have to see the film K-PAX for that). But we do see Bridges challenged as a father to maintain ties to his young children (who stayed with Jo) after divorce and remarriage, and at the same time challenged in a new role as stepfather two somewhat older kids who are still grieving the loss of their father, especially the son. These issues are not often examined in Hollywood films and are well dealt with here, though possibly things are too pat, too positive and tidy. Grades: drama: C; selected theme portrayals: B+ (12/04)
THE SELF-MADE MAN (Susan Stern, US, 2004, 58 min.). THEMES: AUTONOMY AT THE END OF LIFE; “RATIONAL SUICIDE.” Tough, maverick businessman Bob Stern made enough money in steel and real estate to retire at 37 and move to an isolated but sunny acreage not far from San Diego, where he installed a photovoltaic electrical system and proceeded to live off the grid with his family for the next 40 years, trying without success to promote alternative solar energy. A man born before his time. Antiauthoritarian, strong willed to a fault, a control freak, he reckoned all of life’s decisions on a careful cost benefit analysis. And then he got sick.
His daughter Susan has made a film of her father’s struggle over what to do about his health problems, using as the central footage a videotape he made for his daughters in the final days of his life, in which he sets forth his analysis of whether to submit to surgery or kill himself. She weaves other material around this footage: reflections of Bob’s friends and family members about the sort of person he was, and biographical information about him.
Of his choice of shooting himself to end his life, which he did at age 77, his son Mike puts it best when he says that his father must have decided, as in his business dealings, that he "was no longer a good investment and it was time to sell." There is a certain arbitrariness, even callousness, about Stern’s conduct at the end. The tape he made betrays a considerable degree of insensitivity in this man toward the feelings of his devoted wife and children. (There is also ample evidence that he was insensitive to many people throughout his life.)
His health problems, while formidable, were not necessarily life threatening: he had a recently discovered abdominal aortic aneurysm that needed surgical repair, and also had slowly developing prostatic cancer, apparently noninvasive and nonmetastatic. Otherwise, he seemed fit. He would not in any sense have qualified for physician assisted suicide under the Oregon law. The tape also suggests that he was neither depressed, demented or psychotic when he made his choice to die.
This film is troubling because Bob Stern, on tape, confronts not only his family but every viewer with his struggle and its discomforting resolution. He looks at each of us squarely in the eye. He raises tough questions about the proper limits of autonomy, the collision of interests of the individual and his or her family, and what to do about such conflicts. Stern appears to be so coolly rational about it all. Susan Stern wondered aloud at the Q & A whether, perhaps, her father was in the end not strong enough to face being weak.
Most of us don’t regard ourselves as self-made, in Stern’s mold. We understand the interdependencies with other people and circumstances that have shaped the course of our lives. We are social beings. No man is an island, John Donne said. Being so constructed, the question arises whether our assumed right to exercise complete individual autonomy is validly grounded. Ms. Stern commented in the discussion that there is a fine line between isolation and independence. One might add that there can also be a fine line between autonomy and selfishness. This is the stuff that Susan Stern’s film stirs in my thinking. And for that, it is a fine film. Grade: B+ (Seen at the 3rd AFI “Silverdocs” Festival) (06/05)
SET ME FREE (Lea Pool, Canada, 1999). THEMES: COMING-OF-AGE; SUPPORTIVE SIBLING RELATIONSHIP; DEPRESSION; SUICIDE ATTEMPTS. This fine film is possibly an autobiographical story about the director. Except for the beginning and end, it is set in Montreal, in 1963, and the subject is Hanna (Karine Vanasse), a 13 year old Quebecer girl, who is struggling to grow up. The film opens with evidence of her menarche while swimming during a summer visit to her maternal grandparents' farm. There is a tender scene there with Martin, an adult with Down Syndrome, who is her uncle. We know from these early scenes that the film will offer some refreshing perspectives.
Back home in Montreal, we meet Hanna's parents, who obviously love her, but they are hopelessly neurotic and self absorbed. The mother appears chronically depressed, and makes frequent half hearted suicide attempts with pills. Her father, a refugee Polish Jew, is a failed writer. Mother is the breadwinner, working as a seamstress. Hanna's slightly older brother is upbeat and supportive: he offers Hanna reliable companionship and empathy. But she longs, appropriately enough, for a relationship with her mother, who can offer Hanna nothing. In anger Hanna runs away from home and pretends to be a hooker, emulating her film heroine, Nana, in Godard's Vivre Sa Vie, which she has seen repeatedly.
There are good scenes involving a female classmate, and other scenes with her teacher, a vibrant, caring woman. Hanna finds some fulfillment with each of them, but clearly they cannot make up for her emotionally absent mother and "loser" father. Her mother is finally sent off to the psychiatric ward after another overdose, and then out to the grandparents' farm to recuperate. In the last scenes, summer has arrived again. Hanna's teacher lends her a movie camera to use over the long vacation. Hanna is enchanted by this, and we see footage she shoots of her mother, looking somewhat revitalized, when Hanna returns to the farm.
This film has substance and is very well crafted. It is beautifully photographed, the screenplay is coherent, the acting generally excellent. What it lacks, at least for me, is sufficient dramatic tension. I wonder if the problem perhaps could be that Vanasse's Hanna is so wonderfully self assured, so full of pluck, so redoubtable (her winning smile returns after each frustrating event or episode). She seems to lack vulnerability, and leaves too little room for doubt that she will prevail. (In French) Grade: B+ (02/00)
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (Steven Soderbergh, US, 1989) THEME: MARITAL INFIDELITY. A callous Yuppie lawyer's (Peter Gallagher) affair with his wife’s sister is exposed when his old buddy (James Spader) comes to town. Andie MacDowell is excellent as the wronged wife. Film took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Spader got the Cannes Best Actor award, and Soderbergh’s career was launched (he wrote as well as directed). Considered along with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to be the two most influential indie films of the 90s. Grade: B+ (01/99)
SEXY BEAST (Jonathan Glazer, US/UK, 2001). THEME: ANTISOCIAL, EXPLOSIVE CRIMINAL PERSONALITY. "Gal" Dove (excellently played by Ray Winstone), has retired, after a successful criminal life in London, to a marvelous hacienda on the Costa del Sol. But he becomes unretired rather joltingly at the behest of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) who plays a truly crazy mean man - an asocial character who just plain has no feelings except rage, who intimidates everyone who refuses to do his bidding until they do. Logan comes to Spain to urge Dove to come back to London for another job. And Logan won't take no for an answer. Not that Logan had quite imagined precisely what circumstances might succeed in budging Dove, who wants to return to London to do a job about as much as Bill Clinton wants another date with Monica Lewinsky. The heist itself is dumb technically and lacks drama - quite a contrast to the job in The Score. But the head honcho of the crime - Teddy (Ian McShane) - is all serious menace. It's actually hard to get very interested in Dove or his wife and pals, or anyone else in this rather superficial and disappointing film. There is one spectacular scene, however, when a giant boulder rolls down a hill into Dove's swimming pool. Cool. Grade: Drama: B-; personality disorder portrayal: A- (08/01)
SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire (Peter Raymont, Canada, 2005, 91 m). THEMES: PTSD; MORAL ISSUES IN THE MILITARY. Roméo Dallaire, a French Canadian career soldier, a lieutenant general in the Canadian Army, was sent to head up the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in early autumn, 1993. (the sympathetic UN military officer portrayed by Nick Nolte in the film Hotel Rwanda is loosely based on Gen. Dallaire.) He stayed at his post through the 100 day genocidal disaster in the spring of 1994, unable to stem the slaughter of 500 to 800 thousand people (although his tiny force was responsible for saving about 25,000). He was psychologically devastated by this experience and suffered for several years from suicidal depression, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dallaire eventually retired from the army and has attempted more recently to put his life together again. This film, a documentary/memoir based on his 2003 book, “Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda,” is part of that effort.The film and book tell Gen. Dallaire’s personal story of Rwanda and its aftermath. For more details about the Rwandan tragedy, go to my other website, AtkinsonOnFilm.com, and access my review of this film under current cinema.
By the end of the genocidal slaughter, Dallaire had become almost unable to function, issuing orders and dictating memoranda that were incoherent, according to his executive assistant at the time, Major Brent Beardsley. This most likely represented some mixture of acute stress disorder and depression. But beyond that immediate period, Gen. Dallaire was broken by the Rwandan experience, blaming himself for not finding an approach that would have succeeded in mobilizing UN support from higher ups to prevent or stop the killings. For the next several years he suffered from prolonged depressive episodes and heavy drinking, and needed to be hospitalized at one point. Medications now stave off most depressive symptoms. But he continues to suffer from symptoms of PTSD: severe survival guilt and distressing, incessant images (flashbacks) of the carnage in 1994.
With his depression stabilized and his sobriety now restored (I infer the latter because he is the only one drinking orange juice at a recent reunion of his UN Rwanda staff shown in the film), Dallaire then wrote his memoir, entered into this film project and recently attended the 10th anniversary gathering in Kigali, honoring the dead and their surviving families. He was welcomed as a hero, a label he rejects, by the Rwandan President and addressed a crowd in the same stadium where his soldiers had sheltered 12,000 people 10 years earlier. Such steps can be seenn as excellent reparative efforts to reduce his residual guilt and proneness to depression.
Today, among other projects, Gen. Dallaire serves as a consultant to various entities concerned with preventing PTSD. This film is almost unique in portraying chronic stress disorder in a military leader, based at least in part on his sense of moral responsibility for not being able to do more. Rarely are high ranking officers willing to disclose so much publicly, even after retirement. Grade B (overall film quality); A- (for the unusual view of PTSD in a military leader. (10/05)
SHINE (Scott Hicks, Australia, 1996). THEME: SCHIZOAFFECTIVE DISORDER. This biopic about the life of classical pianist David Helfgott is a near masterpiece. Helfgott, an obvious child prodigy, lost the years from age 23 to 37 to an unusual form of major mental illness, schizoaffective psychosis - with mixed features of schizophrenia and mania. His recovery was probably in part spontaneous and also attributable to the steady, loving support of Gillian, the woman he married shortly before his first recital in 14 years, in 1984. Helfgott has subsequently established a fine international career, touring five continents and creating best selling CDs. The Danes and Japanese especially love him (one Japanese composer has created a symphony with piano solo just for Helfgott). The film covers the time of his first childhood recitals to his 1984 return.
Three well chosen actors represent Helfgott as a child (Alex Rafalowicz), young adult before his illness (Noah Taylor), and as an older adult (Geoffrey Rush). Rush in particular is so creative, so incredibly skillful, that I was able to make the diagnosis from watching him, weeks before I could corroborate this fact. The sublime acting ensemble also includes Sir John Gielgud (David's first teacher in London), Lynn Redgrave (Gillian), and the incomparable Armin Mueller-Stahl. The conflict between David and his father is vastly interesting, though some viewers might conclude in error that schizoaffective disorder is simply the product of interpersonal conflict. It is not. People suffering from this illness show a strong family history of both schizophrenia and major mood disorders. This is an amazing story, authentically presented in this film (unlike the equally amazing story of John Nash that is inauthentically presented in A Beautiful Mind). For more on this film, see my article titled "Acting Just Like a Patient!" Grade A (06/02)
THE SHIPPING NEWS (Lasse Hallström, US, 2001). THEMES: STOIC, SHY, AVOIDANT PERSONALITY; COPING WITH LOSS AND ADVERSITY. Beautiful and faithful adaptation of the novel to film, about as good a job as is possible, rendering the look and feel of place, the quirky characters, the humor, and the sense of will and perseverance of the principal players. Kevin Spacey (Quoyle) and Julianne Moore (Wavey) give stellar performances, and there are several excellent supporting roles (Judi Dench as the Aunt, all the guys at the newspaper, the kids who play Quoyle's daughter and Wavey's son). Grade: A- (12/01)
SHOCK CORRIDOR (Samuel Fuller, US, 1963). THEMES: MALINGERING; PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL CONDITIONS. SPOILER ALERT! Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), the film’s protagonist, is an ambitious reporter who dreams of winning a Pulitzer prize by cracking the unsolved murder of an inmate at a public mental hospital. To accomplish this, he trains for a year to simulate a psychotic patient and thus gain admission to the hospital, coached by a psychiatrist hired by Barrett’s editor. Once inside, he gradually gains the confidence of three patients who had witnessed the murder. Along the way he is given medications and even endures electroshock therapy. Eventually he is able to expose the murderer, one of the ward attendants. But in the process, which takes months, Barrett experiences progressive unfeigned symptoms. In the most arresting scenes, he hallucinates a rainy deluge that floods the ward corridor and sweeps him helplessly along like a raging river. By the end he has become catatonic and inaccessible.
In their book, “Psychiatry and the Cinema,” Glen and Krin Gabbard refer to films like Shock Corridor as a subgenre of prison movies: lurid tales of involuntary institutions as tyrannical, punitive, inhumane places. Fuller’s hospital is a rough and tumble place, alright, where ECT is used as punishment, as it is in Milos Forman’s fictional drama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, made a dozen years later. In my view, placing such films under the umbrella of prison exposes tends to obscure the fact that large public mental hospitals really were wretched places where mistreatment of the mentally ill was commonplace. These dramas and others like them (The Snake Pit, Shock Treatment) were in fact less harsh than the real thing, depicted by Frederick Wiseman in his documentary, Titicut Follies, about conditions in a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane, that debuted four years after Shock Corridor.
Fuller’s film is also a political movie, following a theme popular at the time: that insanity is a logical response to the pressures of an insane world. Each of the three witnesses to the murder became psychotic after enduring stresses related to important socio-political issues of the 1950s and early 60s. One had been a POW in the Korean War, brainwashed to speak out against the U.S.; returning home he couldn’t bear the guilt of this experience and now takes refuge in a fantasy world as a Confederate Civil War officer. Another had been the first African American admitted to a southern university; but he wound up on the ward an arch bigot, delusionally convinced he is white, inciting other inmates against the occasional black patient. The third was a scientist who had helped develop nuclear weapons and rockets for the space race, but he now acts as if he were an innocent young child, making simple drawings and playing kid games.
Lest you think that this film is all grinding grimness or irony, I should mention that there are amusing interludes as well, though the humor does play on ill informed notions about the mentally ill. At one point Barrett sneaks from one room into another, and finds himself surrounded by a phalanx of alarmingly feral women. “Oh, Oh…Nymphos!” he mutters, just before they attack him. He has a porcine roommate who sings opera and teaches Johnny a sure fire non-pharmaceutical treatment for insomnia: just stuff an entire pack of chewing gum into your mouth, chew until all your jaw muscles are thoroughly fatigued, and this brings on sleep.
How hard is it to simulate mental illness and gain access to treatment? Easy as pie. At least back when this film was made. It didn’t take a year’s training or intricate responses, contrary to Fuller’s script. Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan showed this in his notorious study, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” published in “Science” in 1973. Rosenhan and seven other “stooges” merely presented themselves for admission to various mental hospitals with the complaint that for three weeks they had heard a single voice that simply said “thud.” They were all admitted. Once inside, per plan, they behaved normally and said the voice had stopped. Aside from giving false names and not disclosing that they were research plants, they gave accurate personal histories to interviewers. They were kept on the wards an average of 19 days, often medicated (they were trained to cheek meds), and their diagnosis (always schizophrenia) was never questioned by staff. Actual patients, on the other hand, often figured out they were fakes. (Another psychologist, Lauren Slater, claims she replicated Rosenhan’s study more recently, after improvements in the DSM, with a similar outcome, except that this time outpatient drug treatment for depression was the typical response.)
Are people who fake mental illness for external gain vulnerable to actually developing such illnesses? There have been anecdotal reports from time to time to this effect, suggesting that the fabricated symptoms reflect imaginings derived from the patient’s unconscious vulnerabilities. Modern systematic studies do not support this notion, however. Surely there is something psychologically deviant about malingering. Not everyone does it, after all. Among those who do, there is at least a high likelihood of antisocial or histrionic personality disorder, and the presence of such a disorder does place a person at greater risk for faulty coping responses and consequent symptoms under stress. As for the form that trumped up symptoms take, the source of inspiration these days is more likely to be a checklist gleaned from USA Today, Oprah or the DSM-IV than the patient’s own imaginings. Grade: B- (07/04)
SHOT IN THE HEART (Agnieszka Holland, US, 2001). THEMES: CRIMINALITY; DEATH PENALTY; FAMILY CONFLICT; Made-for-TV (HBO) biopic based on a book by Mikal Gilmore, telling the story of the life and death of his oldest brother, Gary Gilmore, the first man executed for murder in 1977, after the US Supreme Court lifted a 10 year moratorium on the death sentence. The film focuses, as apparently did the book, on the encounters of these two estranged brothers in prison visits during the last week of Gilmore’s life. Mikal was a young child when Gary went his way, on a long, sordid criminal career that featured a sum of 22 years of incarceration. He came by his career honestly, son of a violent petty criminal, Frank (played in the film by Sam Shepard). Mikal (Giovanni Ribisi) and another older brother, Frank Jr. (Eric Bogosian) come to the prison to try to talk Gary (Elias Koteas) into relinquishing his demand to die. In fact Utah law permitted next of kin to petition for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Their mother wants this. Frank Jr. wants this. Mikal wants to do the right thing too, but feels torn between what the family wants and what Gary wants. Mikal and Gary are in fact strangers, and they spend the week getting acquainted in a series of taut, melodramatic encounters. Both Ribisi and Koteas are quite effective in these meetings, which are the main substance of the film (there are brief flashbacks to early family scenes, all effective and nonintrusive). The film is really quite gripping, though it ends badly with an anticlimactic, limp reading by Mikal from his book to an audience. Grade: B (12/02)
SHOWER (Xizao) (Zhang Yang, China, 2000). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; LOVING FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS; The passing of cultural traditions and the passing of an old man, and the effects of both on those who live on, are celebrated in this warmhearted, intimate film set in northern China. The prosperous elder son of a private bathhouse owner returns to visit his aging father and mentally retarded brother, after receiving a postcard from the brother on which he has created a drawing suggesting that their father is ill. There are many scenes in the bathhouse, frequented primarily by other old men, for most of the the young men are too busy now to while away the hours in pasttimes there (cricket fights, a form of checkers, tea, informal psychotherapy, temporary loans and general conversation, along with soaks and massage).
The companionship of the widower father and retarded son is a marvelous study of a mutual loving adaptation to meet the special needs of both men. They jog in Nike style sweatsuits each evening, and hold contests to see who can hold his breath underwater the longest. The older son, remote and subtly impatient at first, gradually opens himself emotionally to his father and brother, and this transformation is also beautifully rendered. A few scenes of life in rural arid northwest China serve to remind us of the scarcity and value of water to people from these remote areas, including the father, and help us understand how the watery urban bathhouse life could be experienced as almost miraculous to the old people who had known such scarcity. (In Mandarin) Grade: B+ (08/00)
SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne, US, 2004). THEMES: DEPRESSIVE & NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITIES; MEN'S ISSUES; INTERDEPENDENT FRIENDSHIP. SPOILER ALERT! Here’s a highly amusing guyflick about two old college roomies, now 30-something, with a romantic subplot thrown in for good measure. Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is your basic restive, dysphoric Everyman. He’s dumpy, lonely and he scowls a lot. He teaches 8 th grade English in a San Diego middle school, and has spent years rewriting a sprawling novel that his agent cannot get a nibble for. Miles has been in therapy for two years since his wife divorced him and he takes Xanax and Lexapro. And he drinks too much. From the perspective of his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), none of this has helped. What will help, Jack sincerely believes, is for Miles to get laid this week.
The occasion is a trip the two have planned, driving up into the wine country of northern Santa Barbara county and beyond. This to celebrate Jack’s impending wedding the day after they return: it will be a moveable bachelor party. The itinerary call for golf, good food, and sampling fine wines. (Miles is a consummate wine nerd: he knows his structures and can detect the hint of asparagus in a cab as well as the strawberry and pepper.) Oh, yes, and getting laid – well, that’s on Jack’s agenda at least, his final fling. Miles could care less.
Jack, I should add, is about as opposite to Miles as can be; he’s a huge hunk of a fellow, a TV actor who’s on the early downslope of his career, formerly a regular in a couple of TV series, nowadays doing some commercials and voiceovers. He’s not the brightest bulb on the tree but he’s cheerful, sensitive and devoted to Miles. And he’s perniciously horny.
Before long Jack has arranged a double date (of course mum’s the word about Jack’s matrimonial plans). Miles is matched with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a recently divorced restaurant server he’s actually visited with on earlier trips to the wine country, and Jack himself is paired with Stephanie (Canadian actress Sandra Oh), a wine pourer who shares Jack’s carnal appetites. They are soon swept away in a rush of frenzied lovemaking, while Miles and Maya talk intensely about wines. Maya asks at one point why pinot noir is his favorite varietal, and when Miles rhapsodizes about the delicacy of the fruit, its sensitivity and need for constant nurturance, everyone including Maya knows that Miles’s talking about himself, not just grapes.
After a couple of days in the hay, Jack goes off the deep end, starts fantasizing about a different life here in wine country, living happily ever after with Stephanie and her little daughter. Miles rages at him, calls him (quite rightly) an infant, reminding him about his fiancée and the wedding a few days hence. Jack, for his part, is furious with Miles for drinking too much, pouting and glowering at every turn, and acting avoidant toward Maya, who obviously likes him. All true.
We see that these two guys are each as canny in their insights about one another as they are blind to their own foibles. They’re like two sides of the coin of narcissism: Jack is full of himself, the vain, self indulgent, would-be star who basks in admiration, like a kid in a candy shop with women, a gourmand, a guzzler of life. Miles on the other hand is supremely self critical, obsessive, finicky, always expecting the worst, a timid sniffer and sipper of life. He’s self denying when it comes to pleasure, but can also write a manuscript 8 inches thick, mainly about himself.
Things get rather madcap late in the week. Miles does rise beyond his negativity to have some intimate moments with Maya. But inevitably the secret of Jack’s wedding comes to light and Stephanie beats the bejesus out of him with her motorcycle helmet. Maya also feels deceived by this news and refuses further contact with Miles. The guys head back to San Diego on schedule, sadder for sure, but wiser? Who knows? Jack’s wedding takes place as planned. Miles returns to teaching. But then one day he gets a letter from Maya. In the final scene he comes knocking at her door up north. The picture fades to black.
Everything about this film is well crafted, sure, a pure pleasure to watch. Payne and his team are very good at what they do (think of Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt before this film). Payne’s direction is impeccable, and the screenplay, adapted by Payne and longtime cowriter JimTaylor from Rex Pickett’s novel, is briskly paced and full of laughs. Photography by James Glennon, music by Rolfe Kent, and production design by Jane Ann Stewart (all involved in the four movies) are equally impressive efforts. Giamatti’s character is much like that of his Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Will we see more of this Giamatti persona? Is a rougher, less urbane, Italian version of Woody Allen’s neurotic antihero emerging here?
Grade: A- (11/04)
SINCE OTAR LEFT (Depuis qu’Otar est parti) (Julie Bertucelli, France/Belgium, 2004). THEME: AN OLD WOMAN COPES INGENIOUSLY WITH LOSS OF HER SON. The Age of Psychotherapy has placed a high value on “transparency” – honest disclosures of our true inner feelings communicated to the people we care most about. There’s plenty that’s good about this. Unexpressed anguish and corrosive misperceptions can fester for years when families insist on conspiracies of silence. But it’s also true that before the late 20th Century, people were more concerned with such equally important matters as saving face and sustaining social respectability, and were prepared to use deception, even big lies, in the service of protecting themselves and their loved ones from the gratuitous pain that “brutal” honesty can cause. My mother, who died recently, 2 months short of her 99th birthday, could tell some real whoppers when she reckoned that this would subserve peacemaking in the family.
One of my wisest teachers of psychotherapy once described a patient of his, a man who told his wife the intimate details of his extramarital sexual encounters and then wondered why she responded with anger. After all, he said, he didn’t want to be sneaky, to hide anything from her. Why couldn’t she appreciate his honesty? My teacher finally interrupted him in the middle of one such story, saying indignantly to him, “My God, man, haven’t you the decency to lie?!” Deception is a principal subtext in this marvelous inter-generational drama about three women who live in Tlibissi, capital of the Republic of Georgia: Eka the grandmother (Esther Gorintin, who didn't begin to act until age 85,in a wonderful turn here at age 90), her daughter Marina, and Marina’s daughter Ada. (Ada’s father died during the Soviet-Afghan War.) Eka’s beloved son, the apple of her eye, Otar (Marina’s brother, Ada’s uncle), a physician trained in Moscow, went to Paris in 2000, two years earlier, seeking a better life.
Now Marina and Ada learn that Otar has died in an accidental fall. They fear that news of his death will imperil Eka’s health, for she has a bad heart. So Ada, against her better judgment, agrees to follow Marina’s dictates and forge letters from Otar as if life is moving along normally for him. This works for several months, though Ada begins to feel more and more uncomfortable about the subterfuge and thinks her mother may be indulging her own needs more than Grandma’s. Circumstances shift abruptly when Eka sells her father’s library of precious leather bound French books and uses the money to purchase tickets for all three women to visit Otar in Paris. The outcome of their journey reflects not only the importance of saving face, but the depths of affection that paradoxically can inspire huge prevarications.
This tender story also shows how the dynamics of parent-child relationships can be passed along from one generation to the next. There's some humor along the way, including a great line delivered by Eka the eternal Communist, to the effect that she has proof that Stalin never murdered anybody. People in earshot can only roll their eyes. The photography is inventive, and from time to time there are wonderful bursts of Georgian choral folk singing. (In Georgian and French) Grade: B+ (02/03)
SINGLES (Cameron Crowe, US, 1992). THEME: 20-SOMETHINGS LEARNING TO FORM RELATIONSHIPS. Crowe's second film (1989's Say Anything, also set in Seattle, was his first) about love and work among 20-somethings in Seattle. Like many romantic comedies, this one starts promisingly with a lot of laughs and movement, only to make the common, predictable turn toward serious love pangs and a jettisoning of funny stuff. In the end we are left with some degree of pathos for the ones who don't find love and sentimental warm feelings for those who do, but there is little fun in the final half. What goes up must come down in this formula. Too bad. Campbell Scott is excellent as Steve Donne, an idealistic urban planner who falls in love with Linda (Kyra Sedgwick). Sheila Kelley lends some energy as Linda's neighbor Debbie. Bridgett Fonda and Matt Dillon offer little spark as incompatible lovers. Grade: B (07/02)
THE SISTERS (Arthur Allan Seidelman, US, 2005, 85 m.). THEMES: ADULT SIBLING CONFLICTS;FAR-REACHING EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL TRAUMA. When the former assistant to a deceased eminent academic comes to pay his respects to the great man’s family, the visit stirs old, half hidden conflicts and triggers an avalanche of emotions in this overheated, theatrical drawing room drama based on Anton Chekhov’s play, “The Three Sisters.” (Richard Alfieri wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from his own updating of Chekhov’s play.) Maria Bello, Mary Stuart Masterson and Erika Christensen play, respectively, Marcia, Olga and Irene, the three Prior daughters.
Ms. Bello holds center stage most of the time, hurling one angry speech after another at just about anyone in shouting distance (though they’re all in one room). She is angry primarily because her father systematically abused her sexually as a child, second because Harry Glass (Steven Culp), the psychologist she married, has not been able to heal her deeply wounded personality, and, finally and most recently, because Vincent Antonelli (Tony Goldwyn), the visitor, a man she become instantly infatuated with, turns down her overtures and leaves. Her conduct is clinically authentic, insofar as she may suffer from a borderline personality disorder, a disorder often linked to a history of childhood sexual trauma. (Some authorities believe that BPD should be thought of as a post-traumatic personality disorder in such cases.)
Baby sister Irene turns her hostility inward, and galvanizes everyone’s attention by taking a large drug overdose. Andrew Prior (Alessandro Nivola), their brother, is angry too, but in sneakier fashion. He’s mad because his sisters bully him and dislike his fiancée/bride Nancy (Elizabath Banks), who’s also a nasty sort, someone deserving of the sisters’ contempt. Then there’s the incendiary social science professor, Gary Sokol (Eric McCormack), whose explosive behavior never ceases. Sokol’s mad because Irene prefers another suitor, Sokol’s erstwhile buddy, philosophy professor David Turzin (Chris O’Donnell), who doesn’t seem to be mad at anyone. Olga, a bleak, unfulfilled Lesbian, at least keeps her unhappiness contained. She is the most dignified member of the family.
Somehow the veteran actor Rip Torn got himself inserted into this literal madhouse as old Professor Chebrin. And while Mr. Torn has been memorably hostile in some of his films (he’s played gangsters, tough soldiers, tougher cops, Richard Nixon and even Judas Iscariot among 165 roles spanning a 50 year career), he’s quite the good humored, sanguine fellow here, almost alone as a source of equanimity in these proceedings.
The director, Mr. Seidelman, has made nearly 70 films, but almost all for television. This may explain the soap operatic, way overacted, tone of this movie. You’ve got to shout it out to be heard above the din of family life on the boob-tube. But the clamor of this film is ratcheted up way too much for pleasurable viewing on the big screen. (The IMDb says this film is 113 minutes long, so somewhere along the line 28 minutes got cut to create the version I viewed. Probably a good thing.) Grades: C for drama, B for depiction of sibling conflicts and effects of childhood sexual trauma on adult personality. (04/06)
THE SIXTH SENSE (M. Night Shyamalan, US, 1999).THEME: CHILD PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK. Bruce Willis in a subdued role as an empathic child psychologist challenged by a young boy who is terrified, has disturbing visions, and develops inexplicable injuries. There seems to be something ominously supernatural afoot. We could talk more about it, but then the suspense would be ruined for you. Grade: B+ (12/99)
SLING BLADE (Billy Bob Thornton, US, 1996, 135 min.). THEMES: ADULT WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY (AUTISM?); MORAL CONUNDRUM WITHOUT A CLEAR ANSWER. SPOILER ALERT! Karl Childers is a man who has spent 25 years in a public mental institution since he intentionally murdered his mother and her lover, when he was just 12 years old, after witnessing them making love. Now his commitment is up and he must return to the outside world, something he is most reluctant to do. The film traces his experiences after his release. This film is an astonishing tour de force by Mr. Thornton, who conceived of the lead character, wrote a play for the stage and performed the role of Karl in it, then adapted his script for the screen, directed and starred again as Karl in this film.
Karl is clearly not a normal individual. But the diagnosis is not an easy one. We learn that he has always been considered to be mentally retarded, and that he was tormented in school by other kids because he was different, and that his parents made him live in a separate shack at the rear of the property with a dirt floor and a hollowed out hole to sleep in. His posture is stooped and he walks with a peculiar, stiff gait. He speaks in a strangely mechanical, flat manner, makes stereotypical grunts and gestures, constantly wrings his hands. He typically does not speak unless spoken to, and not always even then. Yet he seems to enjoy the company of some people, especially a young boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), who befriends him the day he returns to his hometown after release from the hospital.
He almost always accepts invitations to spend time with other kindly adults as well. He is gifted in his capacity to diagnose and repair small engines, to the delight of an engine repair shop owner who agrees to take him in. There are other signs now and then of Karl’s shrewdness in sizing up social situations. Karl is of course an invention of Mr. Thornton’s imagination and, from an artistic viewpoint, need not conform to any clear cut clinical syndrome. I would say that the best diagnostic fit would be a high functioning person with autism, i.e., Asperger Syndrome.
Besides Karl’s basic disability, his character has been shaped by spending 25 years in what sociologists have called a “total institution” – where some patterns of eccentric and maladaptive behavior occur as the result of the drab, regimented and dependent life people live in such places (the British social psychiatrist John Wing called this condition “institutionalism.”) Life in these human warehouses does breed dependency, and persons placed in the community after meny years may not be able to cope and desire to return to the hospital.
Among the adult friends Karl makes are Frank’s mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her close chum Vaughan (John Ritter), a gay man. Karl moves from a room behind the mechanic’s shop to the Wheatley home, at Linda’s invitation. His encounters with some others do not go so well. He has a brief reunion of sorts with his estranged father (Robert Duvall), who disowned him after the murders years ago and disowns him again now. Worst of all is Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), Linda’s alcoholic, predatory boyfriend, a seriously nasty, insulting individual who frequently menaces Frank and Linda. Karl becomes concerned that Doyle will do violent harm to the Wheatleys and so he calculatingly kills Doyle one evening, then turns himself in to authorities. This of course results in his return to the hospital, no doubt for good this time around.
The moral conundrum with which Karl and film viewers are confronted here is well wrought. Doyle is highly likely to kill or permanently injure little Frank, perhaps Linda too. Karl, in spite of some obvious satisfaction he has found in a few key relationships, is still a fish out of water living in the town and from this perspective has little to lose by sacrificing his freedom as the price of killing Doyle.
The movie is too long, principally because it is poorly edited, with unnecessarily long takes in many scenes, so that it often drags. The original musical score is for the most part way too full of itself, too ethereal, too urgent in suggesting that this movie is about stuff of COSMIC IMPORTANCE. Some supporting turns are fine: J. T. Walsh (as the hospital superintendent), Mr. Ritter and, in particular, Mr. Yoakam, whose Doyle is chillingly realistic. But Lucas Black, the kid Frank, a central character, is unreal: he is regrettably assigned long speeches delivered in a manner unlike the way children really talk. And Ms. Canerday is quite ineffectual as his mother. Though the basic premise of the story is intriguing and Thornton’s performance is exceptionally fine, this is not a very good film. Grade: B- (12/04)
THE SNAKE PIT (Anatole Litvak, US, 1948). THEMES: PSYCHODYNAMIC MODEL OF SEVERE MENTAL ILLNESS; PSYCHOANALYSIS; PSYCHOTHERAPY; PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK; THE PUBLIC MENTAL HOSPITAL AT MID-CENTURY. This melodramatic film is historically important for its nuanced depiction of psychiatry near the mid-20 th Century. Several subtexts are explored: the protagonist’s illness and her care using the mental hospital and conventional physical treatments of the day; the psychological explanation of her illness and her more definitive recovery through psychodynamic psychotherapy, working with a skillful psychiatrist; the chaotic state of public psychiatric institutions at the time; and the pressures on staff to move patients through the system with only superficial care because of crowding and inadequate funding. The image in the film’s title derives from an alleged archaic practice in which mentally ill persons were thrown into a pit of snakes as a sort of shock therapy to provoke their survival skills and thus restore their sanity. The screenplay is based on a book by Mary Jane Ward, published in 1946, in which she gave a partly fictionalized account of her experience of mental illness and hospital treatment in the early 1940s.
Olivia de Havilland stars here in an Oscar-nominated role as Virginia Stuart Cunningham, an aspiring novelist who develops a severe psychotic illness soon after marrying. As the film opens, we meet Virginia on the grounds of the state mental hospital where she has been incarcerated for several months. Then, in a long flashback narrated by her husband Robert (Mark Stevens), as he is interviewed by her psychiatrist, we learn about their on-again, off-again courtship, marked by Virginia’s ambivalence about marrying and her more generally unpredictable temperament: strong, witty and confident sometimes, insecure, dependent and frightened at others. Now, in the hospital, she is most definitely psychotic. She is prone to paranoid delusional suspicions and hears disembodied voices coming from the spaces behind her back. At other moments she seems quite rational and makes friends. Perhaps she suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, but it’s not clear cut. Against this diagnosis is her tendency to forget things and misidentify familiar people like Robert or suspect imposters (not common in schizophrenia, more common in people simulating psychosis). She also seems fixated on certain specifics, like the date “May 12,” suggesting some hidden, possibly traumatic or symbolic element that could explain her condition. Or so it seems to her psychiatrist, Dr. Kik (English actor Leo Genn). But Virginia will not reveal anything to him, apparently too terrified to do so.
After five months of getting nowhere, Dr. Kik (short for his unpronounceable multisyllabic middle European surname) finally gives Virginia a short course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – just enough, he hopes, to help mobilize her capacity to make contact, to talk with him. Sure enough: after just four treatments they have a meaningful session in which she seems to experience a cathartic reenactment of some earlier traumatic event on May 12. Later Dr. Kik gives her sodium amytal (the old “truth serum”) to aid her catharsis. In her further flashbacks, the story gradually comes together. It’s a classic Freudian oedipal situation with added twists of guilt. As a youngster, Virginia was daddy’s girl. But at a developmentally pivotal time, when she was about 4, Dad began to take Mother’s side in disciplinary disputes, and Virginia felt betrayed and enraged. We see her in one flashback decapitating a male doll who stands for her father. Shortly after this event Dad developed a terminal illness and Virginia blamed herself. Subsequently, she never dated boys as a teenager, and later, in adulthood, she became convinced that she could not love any man. Meaning that for her, all men are equated with her father, and thus forbidden as objects of adult love. She did grow platonically close to one, an older man who reminded her of her father, but she panicked when he proposed marriage. It was the day of his proposal, May 12, while driving in his car, that her acute anxiety distracted him, causing the accident in which he died. When she finally married Robert, also a good and caring man like Dad, she experienced a complete breakdown. “I thought [being married to Robert] was wrong somehow,” Virginia says, “I was afraid.” Over time, as all of these details fall neatly together, Virginia’s symptoms recede.
But it isn’t easy. For one thing, there’s Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), an archly sinister woman who has a crush on Dr. K. She resents his attentions to Virginia, and tries her best to retaliate, for example, trying to work Virginia in for some extra ECT. There’s also a loathsome supervising psychiatrist – a fat, cigar chomping, in-your-face sort. He wants Virginia discharged, prematurely in Dr. Kik’s opinion, justifying his stand because of crowded conditions, though he seems motivated more by prejudice against Dr. Kik’s notions about the usefulness of psychotherapy. This fellow provokes Virginia at a pre-discharge staff conference, which she ends by biting the finger he is shaking in her face, we later learn, and for that she gets to stay on at the hospital, a serendipitous occurrence. The hospital itself is drab enough (actual back wards at the Camarillo State Hospital north of Los Angeles were used as a shooting location). And the wards are crowded. There’s no privacy. One ward is quite chaotic, noisy with the din of poorly controlled, acting out patients.
All of that said, the hospital portrayed here is actually a pretty nice place. More lurid scenes would reach the big screen in mental hospital exposẽ films that followed, in the 1960s and later, films like Shock Corridor, Titicut Follies, Frances, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Film codes were such in 1948 that we are spared from actually seeing Virginia convulse when they turn on the electricity. For that matter, it seems exceptional that ECT was employed so judiciously for Virginia. State hospital patients in that era typically received dozens, sometimes hundreds, of such treatments. We don’t even get to see her bite the piggish psychiatrist who taunts her at the discharge staffing. All the wards seem clean and orderly but one. The patients generally are civil and alert, not drugged or spacey. The grounds are lovely. There’s an upbeat coffee shop where visitors come. A patient dance party near the end is at least as decorous as a junior high dance. And when we are swept out the front door with Virginia, when she finally is discharged, aglow in her apparent recovery, it is easy enough for us to leave behind all the other patients who aren’t getting psychotherapy or moving forward in life. It’s a highly sanitized presentation all around.
The notion that psychotic disorders are likely to arise from lack of nurturance during early life, or from psychological conflicts or traumas later in childhood or in the years beyond – all mechanisms suggested in Virginia’s case – reflects the ascendance of the psychoanalytic perspective in American psychiatry in the years following World War II. Today, although we still recognize that reactive and psychogenic psychoses can and do occur, we consider the cause of most disorders like Virginia’s to be an interaction between genetic vulnerability and influential life events. Leo Genn’s Dr. Kik is an exemplary psychotherapist. He is reliable, even tempered, candid in his responses, warmly empathic, curious but not pushy, engaging but not overly familiar. He does come across as paternalistic, even indulgent at times, but that would be appropriate for anyone hoping to establish rapport with a regressed, terrified, distrustful patient. Whatever the cause of her condition, Virginia needs to learn in therapy that she can have a positive, constructive, trustworthy relationship with a man whom she does not equate with her father. This is the transferential bridge back to realistic reengagement with her husband.
It is, on the other hand, highly unrealistic to suggest that a large underfunded public mental hospital in any era would have sufficient psychiatric staff to enable intensive individual psychotherapy to be conducted for any patient, as occurs in this film. Such treatment – then and now - is only available in private hospitals at great expense. The only exceptions in the past were public hospitals designated as training sites for psychiatrists and psychologists, where a few carefully selected patients might be assigned for supervised psychotherapy, for learning purposes. So it is odd in this film, incongruous, to have Virginia shuttling back and forth between the enlightened, sophisticated proceedings of her psychotherapy and the primitive conditions of her captivity on the ward, however well sanitized. To their credit, the filmmakers do establish that there are not sufficient resources to provide proper psychological treatments for patients who might benefit, and this was 15 years before the community mental health movement got seriously underway.
(Trivia item: Actress Betsy Blair gives a splendid uncredited cameo as Hester, a mute, psychotic woman whose unblinking eyes are supercharged with lunacy. It is an arresting performance, comparable to Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Blair went on to marry Gene Kelly, and later starred as Ernest Borgnine’s girlfriend in the award-winning Marty. She was blacklisted by Sen. Joe McCarthy and moved to England, where she married again, to film director Karel Reisz.) (Film seen most recently in November, 2004). Grades: drama: C+; psychiatric themes:A-
SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, US, 2007, 106 m.). [NOTE: I missed the first 25 minutes, saw the last 81 m. (76%); I think I saw enough to permit a fair review and grading of this film.] THEMES: DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES; DOMESTIC VIOLENCE; INFIDELITY. All of the usual suspects appear in the lineup of this ultraformulaic contemporary domestic psychflick: family dysfunction, alcoholism, infidelity, domestic violence, betrayal of friends, child custody battles, and three unnatural deaths caused by different means. It’s all so over-the-top that, were it not for everybody’s earnestness, you might mistake this psychodrama for satire. Writer/Director David Gordon Green chose to adapt Stewart O'Nan's novel for this film, and maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. His own original screenplay guided his earlier and much better film, All the Real Girls. Dubiously titled since it is in fact a first rate guyflick, Real Girls is a bittersweet and richly realistic story of a recognizable group of southern small town high school pals now in their mid-twenties and, to borrow a phrase, still crazy after all these years.
There’s only one rational couple in Snow Angels, and they are adolescents in the heat of first love: Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila (Olivia Thirlby), whose scenes together provide the only real substance to this movie. Oh, yes, there’s also one sane adult, Arthur’s mother, Louise (Jeanetta Arnette), but we seldom see her. The other adults are bonkers, though the actors do their bathetic turns well enough (Kate Beckinsale, Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Sam Rockwell and Amy Sedaris – David S.’s kid sister). Filmed in a small town in Nova Scotia. Grade: B. (02/21/08)
Add: Filmmaker David Gordon Green and his adolescent star Michael Angarano (Arthur) were both present at this screening. There was much talk about dialogue. Green's scripts are distinctive for the simplistic realism of the actors' lines. He says that he writes a script and has his cast first go through it adhering to what’s written. Then they go through it again, this time ad libbing in character. The final product is something of a Hegelian synthesis, scripted bits dotted with ad libs, he says. The result is, hopefully, something fresh. ‘In the end who cares what’s written on a scrap of paper,’ to paraphrase Green’s reference to the shooting script. Angarano says of Green’s approach that usually the cast more or less automatically reverted to primarily using the scripted dialogue. Green says he shrinks away whenever someone recommends a “clever” script for his review, because he knows this means “clever” dialogue that may play well on the page but will be unsatisfactory (i.e., too complex, to unlike real ‘talk’) on screen. [My take: the dialogue in Real Girls is especially noteworthy for its realistic simplicity, maybe more so than Angels.]
SOLAS (Alone) (Benito Zambrano, Spain, 1999). THEME: COPING WITH LONELINESS. This is a marvelously inventive and touching film about loneliness and the surprising opportunities that can ease the pain of this experience. Maria is a hardened woman in her mid 30s who lives alone, works as a charwoman, drinks too much, and has just discovered she is pregnant by an uncaring truck driver who wants her only for sex. In the midst of all of this, Maria's father becomes ill and must come from his village to the city for surgery. He is a nasty lout who has always treated his wife, Rosa, and his daughters abusively (Maria had fled the family home as a teenager, and her father still will not speak to her). Rosa, a longsuffering, generous and tender woman, comes along and moves in with Maria. Rosa tries to add some note of cheer to Maria's drab rooms, bringing home plants, salvaging a rocker and cooking decent food, between visits to her husband's hospital bedside, where he verbally abuses her whenever he is not sleep. A neighbor, an old man who lives with his German Shepherd dog, Achilles, offers companionship to Rosa, inviting her in for tea. She fixes him a meal or two, and once helps him when he has been ill. They become obviously fond of each other, and both are sad when Rosa must return with her husband to their village.
Maria, who has reacted ambivalently to her mother's presence again in her life, also misses her once she has left. A moving scene follows Maria's gaze around her kitchen, from one plant to another, and to the empty rocker where her mother always had sat. The film might have ended here. Instead, the old neighbor man transfers his attention to Maria. He coaxes her to confide her troubles to him. She really wants to keep the baby, but thinks she should have an abortion, partly because she fears she will be an abusive mother (her truck driver sex partner has accused her of being inadequate to be a mother - conveniently for him, since he favors the abortion - and her mother always has told her she has a bad temper like her father's). The neighbor man says the opposite, that he sees good and kindness in her, and he makes an incredible proposition to her: that he become the "adoptive grandfather" of her child, live with her and help her with expenses and so on. She is shocked, thinking at first that he is merely toying with her, or worse, but he persuades her of his seriousness and that he has her bests interests at heart. And so these two find an unusual solution for their separate plights in an ending that is fresh and completely consistent with their characters. There is never a false note throughout this fine, well acted, well photographed film, moving at an even, unhurried pace that never drags or cuts corners. (In Spanish) Grade: A (02/00)
THE SOLDIER’S TALE (Penny Allen, France/US, 2007, 52 min.). THEMES: PTSD (ANXIETY DISORDERS); IMPACT OF MENTAL ILLNESS ON THE FAMILY (FAMILY); DIVORCE (RELATIONSHIPS); POST-TRAUMATIC PERSONALITY CHANGES (PERSONALITY DISORDERS); WAR (SOCIAL & LEGAL ISSUES). In 2004, Penny Allen, an American narrative filmmaker who has lived and worked in Paris for the past 15 years, was flying home to Portland, Oregon, because of her mother’s death. By chance, her adjoining seatmate was a soldier, an Army Sergeant, who was returning home on leave at the midpoint of his 12-month deployment in Iraq (he is referred to only as “Sgt. R.”) They struck up a conversation about Sgt R’s experiences in Iraq. Subsequently, and unexpectedly to Ms.Allen, he sent to Paris many still photos and a video entitled “War is Hell” filmed by Sgt. R and a number of his soldier buddies during their tour of duty. He expressed to Ms.Allen his hope that she would use the material to increase public awareness of the awful nature of war.
Moved by her encounter and the visual material, some of it disturbingly graphic, Ms. Allen set forth to film a documentary for French television. To complement the in-country material, she also conducted and filmed a five hour interview with Sgt. R, about a year after his return. The result is The Solder’s Tale, a brief (52 minute), balanced, apolitical and entirely arresting story about the rigors of insurgency and counterinsurgency combat, spanning not only the uncertainty of survival and the anguish of loss and maiming of lives, but also the exhilaration and lure that soldiering can elicit. The difficulties coming home, including marital disruption, and clear signs of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are also addressed.
This film’s one significant flaw is that, in edited scenes from the 5 hour interview conducted by Ms. Allen with Sgt. R, her voice comes through loud and clear, but the Sergeant, unfortunately, is a mumbler, and one misses a number of his presumably important comments. In spite of this drawback, and my wish for a longer, somewhat deeper presentation, I find this to be one of the most poignantly revealing war stories I have viewed on screen. Penny Allen was present at this screening to provide the backstory of the making of the film. She has posted several photo strips prepared from Sgt. R's material which can be seen at her website, http://www.pennyallen.info. Grade: A- (01/07)
A SONG FOR MARTIN (Bille August, Sweden, 2002). THEME: ALZHEIMER'S DEMENTIA. Remarkable account of love in the autumn of life for Martin, an acclaimed composer, and Barbara, concertmistress of the Stockholm Symphony. All too soon, however, their marriage is torn asunder when Martin develops Alzheimer's Disease. Real life partners, the actors Sven Wollter and Viveka Seldahl, deliver fine performances. Wollter's impression of an Alzheimer's patient is clinically perfect. He gets right the vacant stare and stiff, leaden movements often seen in Alzheimer's. Seldahl insightfully demonstrates the anguish and longsuffering of the spouses of Alzheimer's patients everywhere. But clinical authenticity is not enough to guarantee a first rate drama. (The recent film Iris, on the other hand, achieves greater dramatic impact by weaving the story of Iris Murdoch's dementia within a larger dramatic context of a lifelong relationship in which her husband's solicitous concern for her is balanced against her self-+absorbed freedom of spirit. (In Swedish) Grades: (for dramatic values): B; (for clinical authenticity): A (02/02)
THE SON'S ROOM (Nanni Moretti, Italy, 2002). THEME: BEREAVEMENT. A psychoanalyst and his genuinely happy family are devastated when their teenage son drowns in a diving accident. Their grief is palpable yet gently displayed, aided by a pensive musical score. Months later, a brief interlude with the son's girlfriend and her new beau helps the family regain some lightness to carry on. Surprising touches include the father's grief-driven, mad roller coaster ride. For much more on this film, see my article, "Rooms in the House of Grief." (In Italian) Grade: A
THE SOPRANOS(David Chase, 1999-2003). THEMES: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY; PANIC DISORDER; PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK. It is rare for me to include any television production in these reviews. However, this series provides the best and most detailed look at psychiatric office practice ever filmed. One of very few instances where a female psychiatrist conducts herself ethically, resisting boundary transgressions. For detailed review, see my article entitled "Treating Tony Soprano." Grade: A (2001, 2002, 2003)
SOUTHERN COMFORT (Kate Davis, US, 2001). THEMES: LIFE AND LOVE EXPERIENCES OF TRANSGENDER ADULTS; DEATH & DYING. Sensitive, highly effective documentary about the lives and loves of several middle aged transsexual people who live in the rural hills of Georgia, of all places. Far from the intense adolescent tumult of young Brandon Teena’s life (The Brandon Teena Story; Boys Don’t Cry), Robert Eads’s story follows a very different path. Eads, a 52 year old wizened, goateed, self styled cowboy, lives alone in a single wide in the woods, a place he calls his farm. Born Barbara into a middle class family, Eads has done it all. As a woman he married and raised two sons, one of whom we meet. It’s more than a little disorienting when he calls the flinty, chain smoking Robert, “Mom.”
Although he had regarded himself as a man trapped in a genetically female body since childhood, it was only about a decade ago that Robert transitioned (outed) into a full time, through-and-through male role. He had breast amputations and began taking male sex hormones, but chose to forgo any genital surgeries. When we meet him in the spring of his final year of life, Robert has reached the threshold of a severe, if ironic, fate. He’s got an inoperable cancer of his internal genitalia (it isn’t clear to me whether it’s a uterine or ovarian tumor). The film follows his odyssey through the final months, surrounded by his friends. Most notable among them is Lola Cola, born a male, who has transitioned to become a woman. They met years earlier at a conclave in Atlanta called “Southern Comfort,” an annual regional gathering of transsexuals that offers support, guidance, and opportunities for networking.
Lola and Robert have only lately fallen in love, and one of the film’s great virtues is that the couple are able to inform us about their love, which has moved beyond simple sexual interest into a much deeper and more embracing intimacy. We also meet Max, a younger, somewhat feisty transsexual (genetic female) who is married to the ivory skinned transsexual Cori (genetic male), and still another couple, transsexual Cas (genetic female) a stocky, rugged machinist, who is married to Stephanie, a straight woman. We share their stories and hurts about stigma and rejection. We learn of Robert’s and Max’s estrangements from their families of origin.
At a time when he was suffering major uterine bleeding from his cancer, Robert was denied medical care by multiple hospitals and gynecologists because of his gender orientation. Stephanie worries that this film will bring ostracism or worse into everyone’s lives. We hear about the difficulty of finding competent surgeons for plastic procedures, and the consequences of choosing poor operators; the pros and cons of surgery to create a penis in transsexual males. Robert articulates his skepticism about whether sex-preoccupied Max is capable of intimacy. We visit the last Southern Comfort meeting Robert will be able to attend, where he and Lola lead a seminar on intimacy and Robert gives an after dinner address wearing a tuxedo, and dances with Lola at the annual dress ball, shortly before his death. Kate Davis, the filmmaker (she produced, directed and edited), says that her primary interest is making films about “misunderstood people on the margins of society.” In 1987 she made Girltalk, about three abused, runaway teenagers. She has produced several films for the A&E TV Channel, including Transgender Revolution, about transgender people’s fight for civil rights, and another on anti-gay hate crimes. She fully achieves her aims in Southern Comfort. What makes this film so powerful is not the sharing of experiences unique to transsexuals, intriguing as these stories may be, but the fact that the people featured here are, special issues aside, living their lives just about like the rest of us, lifted up by similar hopes and affections, frustrated by similar problems and fates. Davis has neither ennobled these people nor gotten preachy about the bigotry to which they are vulnerable. She has revealed their universal humanity; she's brought them to the table we all share. The film was a festival prize winner at Sundance, Seattle and Berlin. Grade: A- (06/04)
SPELLBOUND (Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1945) THEME: HYPNOTHERAPY TREATMENT OF MAN WITH POST-TRAUMATIC AMNESIA; PSYCHOANALYTIC THEMES. Film offers an especially corny psychoanalytic tale but is noteworthy for being among the first films to build a story around a psychotherapy relationship and for its early deviation from conventional gender arrangements. This film overly dramatizes the powers of a psychotherapist (Ingrid Bergman) to heal a man (Gregory Peck) who suffers from a post-traumatic dissociative disorder, but no real effort is made to depict therapy realistically, and the couple cross the line into romance. Called by Hitchcock, himself, "just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," Spellbound arrived at a time (1945) when psychoanalysis was in the first flushes of its 40 year run as the dominant force in American psychiatry. See also my article titled, “Freud’s Far Reach on Film” for more information on this movie. Grade: B- (01/98)
SPIDER (David Cronenberg, Canada/UK, 2003). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; MATRICIDE. SPOILER ALERT! Spider tells the story of Dennis Clegg (Ralph Fiennes), who is disabled by severe chronic schizophrenia; the story links his present dysfunctional condition to circumstances when he was a pre-teen. Placed in a public mental hospital when quite young, as the film opens he is being outplaced in a residential board and care facility in East London, in the neighborhood where he was raised. Back in old, familiar haunts, Dennis finds himself increasingly preoccupied by painful, unbidden recollections of his childhood, which ended very badly indeed, with the death of his mother, presumably perpetrated by Dennis.
The story is not an easy one to follow. Cronenberg and screenwriter Patrick McGrath (who adapted his own novel) use the same strategy as the makers of A Beautiful Mind, insofar as they draw us into the action as it is perceived by the psychotic person. Fiennes offers here what I consider perhaps the best and most clinically authentic dramatic realization of a person suffering from chronic schizophrenia that I have yet seen on screen. One might reasonably worry whether this film will nourish popular fears about mentally ill patients being violent and dangerous. When properly treated, chronically mentally ill people are not more dangerous than the general population. The plain fact is, however, that many persons suffering from schizophrenia and allied psychotic disorders either refuse treatment, cannot afford it, or live in places where good care is not available. Like many films featuring highly abnormal characters, this movie may not be suited to everyone’s tastes. But I found it excellent; it is a richly imagined, keenly insightful, artistically brilliant milestone in the film depiction of mental disorder. See also my review of the film, Clean, Shaven. For more Spider, see my article titled "How DoYou Film a Delusion? II." Grade: A (04/03)
SPRING FORWARD (Tom Gilroy, US, 2001). THEMES: FRIENDSHIP; MEN'S ISSUES; RETIREMENT. What a gem! Murph (Ned Beatty) works for the parks department of a small New England town. He'll retire this year. Young Paul (Liev Schreiber) has just been paroled from prison after serving 18 months for armed robbery and is trying get a fresh start in life at his first job after release, working as Murph's partner. The film follows them through the seasons of a year, starting in the spring, each season harkened by brief vignettes of kids and adults doing things that are seasonal (uncovering the swimming pool, trick-or-treating). The "action" consists of Murph and Paul's neverending everyday conversations and growing friendship. It is a simple masterpiece. These guys talk the way people really talk. And there are pauses when there is no talk. And through all of this each man gives the other an enormous gift: Paul gets the fresh start he so desperately requires, and Murph restores his self respect as a man capable of helping another man to succeed in life. Bravura performances by both Beatty and Schreiber. This is My Dinner With Andre for Everyman. Grade: A (04/01)
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noah Baumbach, US, 2005, 80 m.). THEMES: SEPARATION/DIVORCE; IMPACT OF FAMILY BREAKUP ON CHILDREN; NARCISSISTIC DEFENCE AGAINST DISSAPPOINTMENT AND FAILURE. The strains and hassles of a family breaking up have never been more realistically portrayed than in this new film, set in a middle class Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 1980s. The Berkman marriage had been fraying for several years. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) once wrote a good novel, he claims, and aspired to literary greatness, before the winds of creativity died down, leaving the sails of his writer’s vessel perpetually slack.
Bernie turned to teaching creative writing to college students to put bread on the table, but at mid-life he is a bitter fellow, a man who knows inside that he’s in the doldrums, that he has fallen way short of his dreams. His malaise intensifies when his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), begins to show some serious literary chops of her own: she’s close to finishing a novel and getting short pieces published in places like The New Yorker magazine. The couple have two sons, teen Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and pre-teen Frank (Owen Kline).
The biggest problem in the family is that along with failure, and no doubt largely because of it, Bernie has become a world-class jerk: hypercritical, bombastic, self-serving to a fault. No one ever gave a better demonstration of narcissistic self-inflation to sooth the pain of deep personal disappointment. With the marriage on a crash course, an inevitable separation occurs and Bernie packs off down the road to a rental house.
He’s become so offensive that it’s amazing when anybody sides with him, but son Walt strongly aligns himself with Dad. Perhaps Walt has bought into Bernie’s illusions of his own grandeur, or maybe it’s just that, at mid-adolescence, Walt needs to have a father to believe in. The younger Frank ostensibly is the family member most emotionally devastated by the separation and he strongly sides with his Mom.
Unlike writer-director Noah Baumbach’s earlier screenplay for “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which was awash in deadpan (and, I thought, also deadening) ironies, “Squid” is delivered from the heart without irony, disclosing sentiments that ring true. All four players give solid turns, as does William Baldwin as Ivan, a tennis coach who cozies up to Joan along the way.
Critics say that Jeff Daniels’ performance is his best ever, and it may be true. But the most touchingly genuine turn is offered by young Owen Kline. His Frank emerges fully for us, evincing the emotions and conveying the epitome of tragic consequences – the heart-rending impact on young children - when a family comes apart at the seams. Grade: B+ ( 11/05)
STAN KANN: THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD (Mike Steinberg, US, 2005, 67 min.). Here’s the fellow who set a record (77) for appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Showand went on to hundreds more guest appearances on other TV programs in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, all because he was a natural clown, making one seemingly spontaneous goof after another while demonstrating the antique vacuum cleaner collection that had been an enduring passion throughout his life, and the kitchen gadgets that he acquired later to expand his repertoire, maintaining a cheerful countenance all the while. He probably began his TV career innocently enough, but gradually, I think, he carefully cultivated his happy doofus persona, one that brought him a bit of fame and a decent living, as sort of a domesticated Buster Keaton, if you will. Director Steinberg weaves archival footage together with a series of interviews with Kann (rhymes with "can"), now 80, and others, to make his film. Kann was also a theater organist of note in his hometown, St. Louis, before his glory days on TV, and he still plays some for touring groups. Kann chuckles a lot, usually at himself, but I’m not sure that is a marker for happiness. His life seems to have exclusively consisted of his creative showmanship. Still, he surely brought good cheer to others, and that’s something. Grade: B- (Seen at the 3rd AFI “Silverdocs” Festival) (06/05)
THE STATION AGENT (Thomas McCarthy, US, 2003). THEMES: AVOIDANT PERSONALITY; COPING WITH LONELINESS. In the most memorable sequence of Tom DeCillo’s 1995 film, Living in Oblivion, the indie film director played by Steve Buscemi finds himself beset by an actor, Tito, a dwarf who has been cast as a character in a dream sequence. Tito is diffident and surly from the getgo. And when Buscemi’s director asks him to modify his delivery before a scene retake, Tito, with icy fury, excoriates Buscemi. Why, he demands, does every idiot screenwriter in the world drag in a dwarf for dream scenes? Is that the only possible function of a dwarf in film? And so on. Tito winds up this rant by walking off the set, for good. Tito was Peter Dinklage’s film debut, and Thomas McCarthy, himself an actor the same age as Dinklage (34), may or may not have been inspired by his performance. In any event, in his debut here as a writer/director, McCarthy has created a wonderful lead role for Dinklage, one that Tito would surely approve of, in a crackling good drama about the power of friendship to assuage isolation, stigma and loss. What’s more, the film is brimming with affectionate humor.
Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a handsome, solitary fellow of few words - the very model of taciturnity - who is obsessed by trains. He earns a living repairing model trains until his friend the shop owner dies suddenly. From this man Fin inherits a patch of land replete with a vacant, dilapidated old stationhouse, next to the train tracks, somewhere in backwoods New Jersey. Fin, characteristically, walks the tracks from Hoboken to his new home. Soon he meets two other misfits, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson). Joe sets up his mobile fast food van daily in the little parking lot next to Fin’s stationhouse. He’s coping with a seriously ailing father. He’s thirtysomething going on 16, a huge, garrulous, intrusive puppy dog who just wants to be friends. Fin doesn’t. Olivia is a painter who is still grieving the death of her young son two years earlier and also fending off an estranged husband she prefers to be rid of. Nervous and preoccupied, early on she nearly runs Fin down twice in her SUV, which does little to diminish his natural wariness.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the budding of friendship among these three eccentric souls, with the main emphasis on Fin’s incremental emotional thawing, aided by these new pals, among others. The interpersonal symmetry created here by McCarthy and his lead actors is as daring as it is effective. Left to their own devices, Fin (isolated by his avoidant, “burnt child” withdrawal from a life of insufferable notoriety) and Olivia (isolated by her grief and rage) would not conceivably have become friends without Joe’s exuberant catalytic extroverted energy. Cannavale has gotten less attention than the other two principals for his work in this film, but I think he deserves high marks for jump starting Fin's and Olivia's emotional stasis, balancing between over-the-top immature attachment to the others and a warm, genuine charm that is entirely worthy of their requited attention. One does wonder why Joe apparently had no life before now.
The only maudlin chord in the film is struck one night when Fin gets drunk enough to let loose his anger and self pity. The dialogue is witty, unpredictable, and true, and the narrative pace varies from brisk to pensive, always when it should. The photography is confident and unselfconscious, and the music is imaginative and countrified, in harmony with the film's bucolic setting, served up by such instruments as a saw and a bowed banjo. Here’s a “feel good” movie that can hold its head high; it celebrates friendship without a drop of goo. Grade: A- (12/03)
THE STERILIZATION OF LEILANI MUIR (Glynis Whiting, Canada, 1996, 47 min.). THEME: HISTORY OF FORCED STERILIZATION OF DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED PERSONS. In 1995 Leilani (Muir) O’Malley, then age 50, became the first person in Canada to sue a province (Alberta) successfully for damages as a result of having been sterilized at age 14, without her knowledge or consent, under an Albertan law (on the books from 1928 to 1972) that permitted such procedures for persons assessed to be mentally retarded. At age 11 she had been left at the doorstep of a state “training school” by her mother, who simply wished to be rid of her. She received no formal mental assessment whatsoever for two years, then a single “I Q test” on which she scored around 70. This was the basis for the surgical procedure. (Over subsequent years other tests have shown that she has normal intelligence.) She was told only that she had had an appendectomy and did not discover the fact of her sterilization until a gynecological examination sought many years later after failed efforts to become pregnant.
This short documentary, presumably made for television, very effectively recounts Ms. Muir’s personal story set against a larger subtext of the eugenics movement that began in North America in the 1880s and reached its peak in the 1930s. Eugenics was a pseudo-science that embraced the idea that the human race would be improved if its mentally handicapped members were not allowed to procreate (after 125 years, there's not a shred of evidence to support this conjecture). The idea caught on in the U.S. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to enact a compulsory sterilization law for institutionalized developmentally disabled individuals, dispensing with patient consent.
By 1929, the year after Alberta’s law was enacted (the first of just two Canadian provinces to do so, the other being British Columbia), 30 states had such laws on the books, at peak; in 1936, 32 to 35 states had enforced sterilization laws for retarded citizens. Once widespread knowledge emerged about Nazi atrocities based on eugenics, this movement was rapidly discredited. Most states gradually abandoned the practice of forced sterilizations after the 1950s and many later repealed the laws that enabled the procedures. But in some states, like North Carolina, these laws are still on the books. To my knowledge only one state, Arkansas (in 1969) enacted a compulsory sterilization law after 1942.
All told, more than 60,000 sterilizations were carried out in the US under these laws, about a third in California alone (it is documented that the Nazi regime regarded the California experience as proof that a eugenics program could be successfully carried out on a large scale basis). There were over 2,800 procedures in Alberta and roughly 200 in British Columbia. After Ms. Muir’s successful compensation suit (she received an award of $CA 750,000), $55 million was later set aside to settle 200 further claims by surviving victims of sterilization in Alberta. A suit on behalf of 9 victims in British Columbia is working its way through the courts now.
Thus far in the US, there have been public apologies to victims of forced sterilization by officials in at least two states (Virginia, Oregon) but no compensation. A suit declaring the Virginia law unconstitutional reached the US Supreme Court in 1927, prompting Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, to issue his infamous, eugenics infused opinion that, "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Since then, as far as I can discern, there has been no case brought in federal courts to challenge the constitutionality of sterilization laws.
This film is well crafted and provocative, an excellent trigger for discussion and debate of an issue that is far from settled. The very fact that Ms. Muir herself was clearly not developmentally disabled raises the grim question of how many among the 60+ thousand sterilization victims were misdisgnosed.
At this screening, part of the 2nd “Frames of Mind” mental health film festival in Vancouver, BC, we had the privilege of participating in a post-film discussion with Leilani (Muir) O’Malley, herself, and Jay Chalke, Public Guardian and Trustee for British Columbia. Ms. Muir, who is poised, articulate and passionate about the issues, has shown this film and spoken to numerous groups in Canada and the U.S. over the past few years. Mrs. O'Malley, who lives in Edmonton, hopes for new opportunities to take her film and story further afield, both in the U.S. and to developing nations like China where reproductive rights are precarious.
Mr. Chalke reviewed the current status of litigation by victims in BC. We learn that just this session, the North Carolina legislature is considering a bill to designate a sizable fund for settlements with surviving sterilization victims in that state. When asked why it was that only the two westernmost provinces in Canada enacted forced sterilization laws, Mr. Chalke indicated that the greater influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the eastern provinces was no doubt a significant factor, as the church had always opposed sterilization under almost any circumstances. It has also been noted that the states in the US having sterilization laws tended to be those with Protestant majorities. Blacks received a disproportionate share of forced sterilizations in some southern states. At one point such procedures perpetrated on blacks were even referred to as “Mississippi appendectomies.”
Another related issue was raised in the discussion by the mother of a 34 year old severely retarded woman. The mother has sought unsuccessfully for years to arrange for a sterilization for her daughter, who lives at home. The mother argues persuasively that it would be tragic for her daughter to become pregnant, because of health problems, the trauma of pregnancy and birth, and her unfitness for motherhood. But physicians, hospitals and courts are reluctant in such cases to turn away from the common law rule requiring patient informed consent to surgery, and in this particular case, planned surgery has been cancelled at the last minute on three occasions. This is a dilemma without a clear cut solution. Grade: B+ (05/05)
STEVIE (Steve James, US, 2003). (Shown at PIFF 26.) THEMES: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY - DEVELOPMENT FROM CHILDHOOD TO ADULTHOOD; "BIG-BROTHER" TYPE PROGRAMS FOR DISADVANTAGED KIDS. Documentary about the resumption of a dormant “Big Brother” relationship between the director and a young man, Stephen Dale (“Stevie”) Fielding. From 1982-85, when James was in film school in southern Illinois, he volunteered in a Big Brother program and was assigned to connect with Fielding, then a disadvantaged grade school kid. They lost contact when James moved on to Chicago in 1985 to make films (ultimately including the acclaimed documentary, Hoop Dreams, and the docudrama, Prefontaine). Feeling he had not lived up to a pledge to maintain contact, James renewed ties with Fielding in 1995, and gained his consent to film their renewed relationship.
According to one of the producers, Adam Singer, who attended the Festival screening of this film, the plan was to film for a couple years at most. But in 1997, a shocking, unanticipated event occurred: Stevie, himself a childhood sexual abuse victim, was indicted for sexually molesting an 8 year old girl he was babysitting. He confessed. The film’s focus became unavoidably altered and protracted by this event and its aftermath. James follows the arduous events of the next few years, culminating in Stevie’s sentencing to a 10 year prison term in 1999. Stevie, like many disadvantaged and traumatized kids, can easily be classified as “a loser” – as at least one film critic labeled him. Indeed, his record, even apart from the molestation, is sordid: burglary, assault, drunk and disorderly, fights, credit card fraud – you name it. He only learned the identity of his father recently. He hadn’t worked in over 4 years before his sentencing. He has few supportive or constructive ties in the family or to the community. But he does have a devoted fiancée, Tonya, an endearing woman who seemingly suffers from some sort of developmental disability.
This is a long (144 minute) film. In advance planning, according to Singer, the intent was to focus on Stevie, then in his early 20s. James had not planned be on screen in this film. His presence emerged spontaneously during filming, i.e., gradually the relationship became the focus, rather than Stevie. Unlike the narcissistic Michael Moore, James does not ham it up here or try to influence the viewer through self-aggrandizing polemics and stunts. He just soberly says what’s on his mind. James is obviously troubled by the mess that Fielding has made of his life. He may believe that their 10 year disconnection contributed to Stevie’s deepening problems, although that issue is never made entirely clear. James and his wife, who is a professional counselor, try to be supportive and helpful, but events after 1997 have a gravity and momentum that tend to sweep aside and render nearly useless any efforts that the Jameses, Tonya or others can make to stem the tide of Stevie’s fate. The judge said later that he would have decreed a lesser sentence (6 years) had Fielding expressed remorse for the crime. Instead Stevie refused the judge's invitation to speak and ;made no statement at all. He has now served over 3 years of his prison term.
Everyone in Stevie's family has now seen the film, but Stevie has not, so far. Singer guesses that if and when he does see it, Fielding will be angered by it, at least at first. Critical response has been varied. It got strong praise from several reviewers after screening at the Toronto Film Festival last September. But one internet reviewer thought the film a waste of time to make and a bore to watch, not because it was made badly but because Stevie Fielding is a "rural poor white trash...loser" who's story does not merit anyone's attention. Wow! I'm glad that fellow wasn't reviewing manuscripts the day Dickens dropped off "Oliver Twist," or that he wasn't in charge of funding decisions when Frederick Wiseman needed cash to make Titicut Follies. When the film screened at a recent documentary festival in Amsterdam, Singer told us, it was criticized on ethical grounds. Some people thought that James had exploited a marginal young man in circumstances when he was especially vulnerable. They argued that instead of continuing to shoot, James should have cast aside his camera and resumed his earlier private role as a supportive figure in Fielding’s life.
The film is well crafted and honest in its enquiry. With regard to Fielding, I am concerned that naïve viewers might form unnecessarily pessimistic generalizations from the film about the fate of troubled, delinquent young people. Although men like Stevie may continue a pattern of antisocial behavior well into their 20s, later, in their 30s and 40s, many begin to fare better, especially if they find a loving and steadying partner like Tonya. This sort of outcome was commonly found, for example, in the famous, large, Boston study of delinquent inner-city boys that has been going on since 1940, a unique longitudinal lifespan project initiated by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck and continued to this day by George Vaillant.
But really this film is as much about James and his Big Brother role as it is about Fielding. And isn't it also in part a morality tale about the vicissitudes of liberal gestures of doing good? If so, what should one conclude? Is it a matter of “in for a dime, in for a dollar”? That if you want to be a Big Brother, you’d better be prepared to stay the course and not walk away, as James did? That seems a tall order. Should one draw the opposite conclusion, that Big Brother-type programs are fatally flawed in their very conception? Somehow, when James tells Stevie near the end that he "will be there for him," my reaction was that, while James was undeniably sincere, his phrase rang hollow, seemed more reflexive, i.e., it was the 'right thing to say,' rather than being a solid confidence builder. Did it mean anything to Stevie? Can it be trusted? Will it matter? This film raises troubling questions. Perhaps that will be its lasting value. Grade: B (02/03)
STORMY WEATHER (Sólveig Anspach, Belgium/Iceland/France, 2003, 91 min.). THEMES: LIMITS OF PSYCHIATRIC TREATMENT RELATIONSHIPS; IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY CONTEXT TO NORMAL FUNCTIONING; LIMITS OF COMMUNITY AND HOSPITAL CARE. A young psychiatrist, Dr. Cora Levine (Élodie Bouchez), takes special interest in a mute, unidentified woman patient (Icelandic poet/novelist Didda Jónsdóttir in her acting debut) found homeless on the streets of Brussels and brought to the psychiatric hospital.
Cora spends more and more time with the woman, hoping for a breakthrough. The woman does seem to feel calmer and content in Cora’s company, and at one point on a walk in the woods, when they become separated, the woman cries out Cora’s name and the two women embrace when together again. Then, while Cora’s on a short leave, the identity of the woman is determined somehow and she is whisked away home to the tiny Icelandic island of Vestmannaeyjar (where the director, Ms. Anspach, was born). Cora, horrified that her patient had been thus dispatched, quite prematurely in Cora’s opinion, promptly sets out to follow her home to assure that she gets proper psychiatric care back in Iceland.
Upon arrival in the small island village, Cora makes a number of surprising discoveries. Her patient, whose name is Loa, has a husband (Ingvar Sigurðsson) and small child and, like all women in the town, works in the fish cannery. There is no psychiatric treatment here, only a primary care doctor, Einar (Baltasar Kormakur), who tells Cora that Loa has been a bit strange all her life, with bouts of odd behavior back in schooldays, and at least one other more recent occasion when she fled off the island as she had done this time. Cora is horrified that no specialized care will be possible. Einar reassures her that the support of the community will be sufficient.
Cora does not fare well here. She fails to find a place to stay her first night on the island and develops hypothermia sleeping in exposed quarters. She must remain bedridden at Einar's house for several days and needs medications from him as well. Meanwhile, after an evening when Loa's husband passes out from drink and she seems oppressed by her infant's needs, Loa acts up at work, running through the cannery naked and hiding in a cold locker. Cora, now recovered from her bout of exposure, is summoned to coax Loa out of harm's way. This episode further convinces Cora that she must rescue Loa. Cora schemes to kidnap Loa off the island and return her to care in Brussels.
Matters are resolved more through everyone’s resignation than otherwise. For Loa, the status quo will prevail. For Cora, perhaps this episode will be an important lesson learned, about the complexity of her patients' lives and the limits of her own professional reach, even in circumstances where simple compassion impels her to intervene.
The story provides an excellent example of social context as a lynchpin of successful coping. In Brussels, it is Loa who is out of place and unable to function. In Vestmannaeyjar it is Cora who malfunctions and needs care at least as much as her patient. And what would have been the long term result had Cora spirited Loa back to Brussels for treatment? Could an odd and unresourceful person from another culture find a better life there than back home? Seems unlikely.
Coming home has obviously not been a cure all for Loa. The village is not glamorized here. Loa’s husband, the women at work, and even the town doctor tolerate her but do not really understand her. Perhaps that is as close to an ideal of acceptance as many communities, especially small, inbred villages, can achieve with folks who behave far outside the norm. Still, this surely is a less rosy picture than advocates of community-based care often paint.
This same theme is explored in another recent film from Iceland, Noi Albinoi, about a brilliant but socially misfit young man who cannot find a niche in his remote village. (In French & English) Grade: B (05/05) (Seen at the 2nd "Frames of Mind" Mental Health Film Festival, Vancouver BC. Unfortunately, this thought provoking film has not received commercial distribution in the U.S.)
THE STORY OF US (Rob Reiner, US, 2000). THEMES: MARITAL STRIFE AND RECONCILIATION. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a well off suburban couple who after 15 years of marriage and parenthood have built up an agenda of grievances against each other that leads reflexively to one round of alienation and nasty fighting after another. They come perilously close to divorce, but in the end begin a reconciliation instead. Intended as a domestic comedy, one big problem with this film is that very little of the dialogue is at all funny. The other big problem is Pfeiffer. Whereas Willis shows redeeming warmth and joie de vivre to balance his petty rages and insensitivity, Pfeiffer is perpetually irritable and grating, and her only bright spots come when her anger subsides now and then and she is merely quiet and pretty to look at, like an oriental cat. Grade: drama: C; portrayal of reconciliation: B (09/00)
THE STRAIGHT STORY (David Lynch, US, 1999). THEMES: AGING: UNUSUAL CHARACTER; AUTONOMY; RECONCILIATION AT THE END OF LIFE. This is an unusual and deeply moving road movie - based on a factual account - about Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an aging, nearly infirm rural Iowa man who sets out to effect a reunion with his estranged brother, Lyle, (Harry Dean Stanton, whose role is unfortunately limited to about 2 minutes at the end), who lives in rural Wisconsin and has just suffered a stroke. Too ill to possess a driver's license, and too proud to take the bus, Alvin makes the several hundred mile trip driving a John Deere riding Lawnmower and pulling a jerrybuilt trailer. Along the way he meets a pregnant runaway girl, a traumatized fellow WWII war veteran, twin brother mechanics who try to cheat him, and a number of other people with whom he shares feelings and a bit of wisdom, and who help him out.
As Stanley Kauffmann points out, writing in “The New Republic,” this film is not only honest but it conveys a national self-image of the "…self-reliant, stubborn, humane yet taciturn, courageous loner - or at least someone who is willing to be alone if the situation demands it." Farnsworth's character is indeed iconic. He has been in films for 40 years, but never in a role like this one. The screenplay was not written by Lynch, and features none of the supernatural, violent or grotesque touches that have typically marked his work. The film is beautifully and authentically crafted in every way: the conduct and dialogue of the people, the countryside. Kauffmann notes that in Lynch's hands, what could have been "…Norman Rockwell becomes Thomas Eakins." With Sissy Spacek in a very good turn as Alvin's melancholy daughter. Add: Farnsworth was a stuntman for decades before his first credited film acting roles. At 80, he was the oldest actor ever to receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this film. The next year (2000) he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; he had terminal cancer at the time. Grade: A (12/99)
STRANGERS IN GOOD COMPANY (Cynthia Scott, Canada, 1990). THEMES: AGING: DIFFERING STYLES AND THEMES OF AGING; LIFE PERSPECTIVES MUTUAL SUPPORT; COPING WITH CRISIS. Eight women – all amateur actors but one – play themselves in this engaging, wondrously suspenseful story of a group of old women on a bus tour of Quebec back country who are stranded when the bus breaks down. The unfolding of their individual stories and personalities, and the ways in which they support or fail to support one another during their ordeal, make for a gripping tale in the sure hands of Ms. Scott, who co-wrote the screenplay with three others. Alice Diabo (age 74 when the film was shot) is a Mohawk elder; Constance Garneau (88) was born in the U.S., later moved with her family to Quebec; Winifred Holden and Cissy Meddings are both 76 and were each born in England, later immigrating to Canada, as did Beth Webber (80); Catherine Roche (68) is a Roman Catholic nun; Mary Meigs (74) is a painter and writer who published a book based on this adventure, “In the Company of Strangers.” Michelle Sweeney is the youngster in charge, age 27, a jazz singer and actress from Montreal; this was her third film acting experience – and she’s been in a dozen more movies since this one. None of the women had met prior to gathering for the film shoot. An exceptionally fine movie. Grade: A (1994)
STROSZEK (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1977). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER, MIXED FEATURES; LIFE AT SOCIETY’S MARGINS; ALCOHOLISM; IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCES. The film concerns the odyssey of three Berlin misfits - an alcoholic man, Bruno Stroszek (“Bruno S.”), who has spent much of his life in institutions, a prostitute, Eva (Eva Mattes), and a gnommish old man, Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). When a nephew in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, invites his old uncle Scheitz to come to America, Eva earns enough money hustling to pay the way for herself and Bruno to come along too. It looks for awhile as if their fortunes may improve, but their good life on credit comes to a rapid end when the bank forecloses, Eva runs off with two truck drivers, and Bruno and Scheitz try to avenge themselves by pulling a hilarious armed robbery that backfires.
Stroszek is an innocent, a man who by his own admission has lived too long shut away from the world to know how to fend for himself. A homely, unkempt fellow who is an easy target for bullies, he nonetheless has wonderful gifts to give: he is kind, generous and loyal to his friends, fondly cares for his pet Macaw, and has a fine musical sensibility, playing piano, accordion and glockenspiel. The contrast between the fate meted out to him in Germany vs. Wisconsin is instructive. As Stroszek says, in Germany nasty treatment is obvious, unveiled, raw. But in Wisconsin people smile and pretend kindness while they do you in, as epitomized by an obsequious bank representative whose pronouncements on repossession are delivered with unctuous indirection.
The film has its amusements, such as the robbery and a roadside concession featuring performances by a dancing chicken, a piano playing hen, and a rabbit who drives a toy fire truck, but the bleak reflections on life's difficulties for the disenfranchised are sobering and rendered with great irony. Ms. Mattes is an actress with extensive experience working with multiple directors, before and after this film; Mr. Scheitz worked exclusively with Herzog in a few other films. Bruno S. is the real deal, in effect playing himself in this film. He was in fact the unwanted son of a prostitute, who once beat him so severely at age 3 that he became temporarily deaf. This led to his placement in a mental institution. He spent the next 23 years in various institutions, often running afoul of the law. He is a self-taught painter and musician, though he has worked at many jobs, such as driving a fork lift. Herzog discovered him watching a documentary about his life. The film features music by Chet Atkins and a there is a credit to Errol Morris, for the dancing chicken perhaps? (In English, German and Turkish) Grade: A- (06/00)
SUGARBABY (Zuckerbaby) (Percy Adlon, Germany, 1985). THEME: ORAL AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY. The outrageous Marianne Saegebrecht stars as a lonely, obese mortuary worker in Munich who becomes infatuated with a slight blond subway conductor and methodically sets out to snare him, never mind her less than attractive charms, lack of any real contact with the man, or the fact that, as she soon learns, he is married. Her stalking and seduction pay off when the man's wife goes off for an extended stay and a lusty affair commences, though one doomed ultimately to fail. Adlon and Saegebrecht also teamed up later to make the films Bagdad Cafe and Rosalie Goes Shopping. (In German) Grade: B (09/00)
A SUMMER BY THE RIVER (Markku Pölönen, Finland, 1999). THEMES: GUYFLICK; FATHER SON RELATIONSHIP; CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCE. Set in Finland's forested north country, this robust film is a celebration of the life of men. A recent widower and his son join a log floating crew. Hard work, tall stories, grief, music making, fighting, camaraderie, humiliation, love and filial loyalty are all here. Often very funny. Superbly acted. And the storytelling is spellbinding. (In Finnish) Grade: A (02/99)
SUNDAY (Jonathan Nossiter, US, 1997) THEME: LONELINESS; TRANSIENT FRIENDSHIP David Suchet and Lisa Harrow star as two lonely and decidedly eccentric characters who meet after a chance misidentification starts their first conversation. She’s a failing actress. He’s a homeless, depressed accountant living in a group home. While he’s out for a walk one Sunday morning, she mistakes him for an old director friend from years ago and invites him in. Charmed, nourished by her attentions, in his own desperation he tries to live out the character she presumes him to be, but of course this ruse ultimately fails. Not a film for everyone. Grade: B+ (11/97)
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (John Schlesinger, UK, 1971). THEMES: PROBLEMATIC LOVE RELATIONSHIPS; BISEXUAL & GAY ISSUES. Brilliant reflection on cultural dilemmas and values in the early 70s. Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced career woman and Daniel (Peter Finch), a gay physician, discover that they share a lover, Bob (Murray Head), a successful young artist , an amoral and narcissistic man who well represents the self indulgence of the age - which is both correct for the period but also one major reason the film feels somewhat dated on recent re-viewing. The other reason is that the film dwells on a major preoccupation of those times, altered states of consciousness (dream and daydream sequences, use of marijuana by children and tranquilizers by Alex). Mr. Head's skills are not up to his co-leads, but then we aren't meant to think much of him. What saves the work are wonderful and timeless portrayals of frustrated lovers by Finch and Jackson, who are magnificent, especially Finch, and the screenplay (by Penelope Gilliatt) and fine direction, regarded by critics as Schlesinger's best work. Grade: A (06/00)
SUPER SIZE ME (Morgan Spurlock, US, 2004, 100 min.). THEMES: OVEREATING; OBESITY; TOXIC EFFECTS OF FAST FOODS. First time writer-director Spurlock seized the right moment to ride the wave of public interest in our national epidemic of obesity and overweight, and the important role of popular reliance on fast foods in contributing to this problem. As everybody knows by now, Mr. Spurlock, a fit fellow in his early 30s, dedicated himself to a month of eating exclusively at McDonalds. His self imposed rules: 3 meals every day, trying every item on the menu at least once, saying yes whenever a clerk asked if he wanted to alter (“upgrade”) his order to the “Super Size,” and eating everything he ordered.
He was initially evaluated by his primary care physician, a gastro-enterologist, a cardiologist, a registered dietician and an exercise physiologist. They also checked him at regular intervals and for months following his binge. Up till this binge, he ate sensibly (his partner is a vegan), had only 11% body fat and ran a cholesterol of 165. At the end of a month, having eaten at McDonald outlets in Manhattan (where there are 83 vendors, we learn), California and Texas, he had gained over 25 pounds, his body fat was up to 18%, and his cholesterol was now 225. Moreover, he showed as much as 10-fold increases in hepatic enzymes, indicating acute inflammation of liver cells, most likely due to acute fatty liver. His blood pressure had risen significantly. He was having regular headaches, fatigue and depressed mood, all of which could only be reversed by the next McMeal. His libido had faded to nothing.
Spurlock is the first to admit that his binge was extreme. Even the most devoted consumers at the Golden Arches probably don't eat three full meals a day there, day in, day out (though fast food has become the main food source for an increasing number of citizens). Still, the symptoms he rapidly acquired and the biochemical changes that occurred serve as impressive evidence of the toxicity of the McDonald diet. Arguably the standard fare there also has an addictive effect, since the relief of bad symptoms (headache, dysphoria, depression) is brought about by the next McFix. I'm not enthused by our culture of victimization with its attendant lawsuits against big tobacco and other corporate giants for destructive personal habits that can by curbed by addicted individuals. But I think that the facts of Spurlock's experience provide as much justification for holding the fast food industry culpable and responsible for poisoning America as is true for the cigarette manufacturers.
Spurlock nicely meshes segments on his own McBinge odyssey with useful information on weight, diet and health from talking heads like former US Surgeon General David Satcher. For anyone still in the dark about it, there is plenty here on the multiple health hazards of overeating and overweight. He has done a fine piece of public service here, packaging critically important health messages within an engrossing and often humorous personal story. By the way, it took 8 weeks for his liver and cholesterol test results to return to normal, and 14 months to take off all the weight he had put on. Grade: B+ (04/05)
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (Atom Egoyan, Canada, 1997) THEMES: BEREAVEMENT; IMPACT OF TRAUMA (LOSS OF CHILDREN IN SCHOOLBUS ACCIDENT) ON FAMILY AND COMMUNITY. Russell Banks wrote poignantly about the far reach of trauma on people. One of his stories led to the film Affliction, about a violent, alcoholic father’s indelible scarring of a son. This film, based on a true story, concerns the citizens of a remote town in northern British Columbia. A school bus crash kills 14 children. A big time lawyer, played amazingly well by Ian Holm, comes to town months later to try to persuade the affected families to file a lawsuit against the authorities and the bus manufacturer. We see the gradual polarization of the town into those who want to press legally for compensation and those who want to turn away and avoid the pain of continuing involvement in the matter. Most importantly, this film yields a vividly realistic, thoughtful look at the varieties of response to loss. Grade: A (12/97)
SWEET NOTHING (Gary Winick, US, 1996). THEME: CRACK COCAINE ADDICTION.
Angel (Michael Imperioli), a computer programmer in New York City, celebrates the birth of his second child by smoking crack cocaine for the first time. Thus begins a three year inexorable downhill spiral in which Angel becomes hopelessly hooked on crack, abandons his job in favor of dealing the drug, ultimately loses his marriage and family, and nearly his life, before a rehab. comeback at the end. It’s a grimly realistic morality play, devoid of humor or unusual plot twists. Just the grueling destructive march of serious addiction. The apt title says it all. Imperioli is convincingly haunted, increasingly self centered and unscrupulous in his conniving to acquire money for drugs. With Mira Sorvino in a good turn as Angel’s wife, Monika, and Paul Calderon as Angel’s erstwhile buddy, the ascendant drug lord, Ray.
Straightforward portrayals like this one about the odyssey of an addict, even when they are accurate, are, unfortunately, rather dull to watch, like hard porn or gamblers at work. Crack cocaine addiction, which peaked in the mid-90s, was especially likely to occur among inner city minorities. Middle class whites were more apt to snort powdered cocaine. Also, there are insufficient clinical details to differentiate Angel's habit from something like smoked heroin addiction. He should have appeared more depressed, slowed down, devoid of energy and sleepy at times he would run out of drug. They did get hyperphagia right: Angel chomping voraciously on candy suckers during withdrawal on one occasion. Still, the film gets points for a more general authenticity and decent acting. Grades: Drama: B-; depiction of addiction: B (09/04)
SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, UK, 2003). THEMES: MORAL DILEMMA FOR A YOUNG TEEN; IMPOVERISHED LIFE AT SOCIETY'S MARGINS. Loach and his team score again, after their excellent recent films, My Name is Joe and Bread and Roses, in this very well written, gritty story of Liam (played superbly by Martin Compston, a 17 year old with no previous acting experience). Liam is a tough but honorable teenager from a marginal family in a river town next to Glasgow. He’s devoted to his mother, who’s serving a prison term after taking the fall for Stan, her lowlife drug pusher boyfriend. Liam has his sights set on getting the money to buy a decent place to live for him, his sister and her toddler son, and his mum, when she leaves prison, so she will not be forced to return to Stan. It’s a very tall order, a real longshot, one that drives Liam to become involved with some powerful criminals and risk his ties to his best pal, Pinball (so nicknamed because as an orphan he had bounced around to so many foster homes), not to mention his own life. Events at the end move rapidly, and, though surprising, each happening is entirely consistent with the fabric of the story. The screenplay, which won at Cannes last year, is by longtime Loach associate Paul Laverty, a human rights lawyer turned writer. Laverty also wrote Bread and Roses and My Name is Joe. Sixteen is superbly acted all around; the roles of the other young people are, like that of Liam, filled largely with amateurs. (Loach shows great mercy, as he did in Joe, by providing subtitles…an absolute necessity given the working class Glaswegian spoken here. Speaking of language, this film sets a new standard for the number of times the "f" word is used. Grade A- (02/03)
SWEETIE (Jane Campion, Australia, 1989). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER; BORDERLINE PERSONALITY; PARANOID PERSONALITY. Campion’s first feature film is about a family containing two highly dysfunctional sisters. After some time away, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) – an obese, hugely destructive troublemaker – returns home to upend any semblance of family decorum. Her withdrawn, paranoid sister is also interesting. Lemon’s performance may be over-the-top, but I have seen situations only slightly less melodramatic perpetrated by people with severe personality disorders. Grade: B+
SWIMMING POOL (Francois Ozon, France/UK, 2003). THEMES: CREATIVE PROCESS; WHAT'S REALITY AND WHAT'S FANTASY IN THIS STORY OF A NOVELIST AT WORK? The English actress, Charlotte Rampling, is in the midst of a breathtaking comeback from obscurity. Early in her career, she became known for her tightly wound, arrestingly perverse characters in films like The Damned (1969), The Night Porter (1974), Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and Stardust Memories (1980). Woody Allen once said of her that “she reeks from neurosis” and included her along with Franz Kafka in a guest list for his fantasy ideal dinner party. Rampling did suffer a bout of mental illness in 1991 for which she was treated in London. Her second marriage, to French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, ended in 1995. Now in her mid-50s, at an age where fading female stars find less work, not more, she has made 12 feature films in the past 5 years, more than in any comparable period of her career. She has lived in Paris in recent years, and the French connection has been a key source of work: 5 of her recent films have been French productions.
Her two collaborations with the young French writer-director, Francois Ozon, have been especially interesting. In the first of these, Under the Sand (2001), Rampling’s Marie is a recent widow who cannot accept the fact of her husband’s accidental death. Now, in Swimming Pool, she plays Sarah Morton, a successful but weary English mystery novelist who encounters strange happenings while on a writing retreat at her publisher’s country house in Provence. Both films reveal Ozon’s keen penchant for building suspense, often out of the most trivial stuff, in a manner suggestive of Chabrol or Hitchcock. And both reveal Rampling as an actress who has entirely mastered her craft, now capable of expressing a full range of nuanced moods, no longer bound by the dark tautness that characterized many of her early performances. Here she can be aloof or engaging, world weary or slyly curious, frigid or sensuous. Ozon likes his camera to gaze at beautiful women (as in his eye candy piece, 8 Women), and his films with Rampling draw strength from the many long takes of her filmed both close up and in the middle distance. She remains trim and handsome, and her frequent pensive, thoughtful pauses followed by quick, confident actions make her more fascinating than ever to watch.
The story in Swimming Pool is full of puzzling, unresolved mysteries. The film never lets one feel certain about what's real and what's not, like another recent French thriller, Dominik Moll's With a Friend Like Harry. Sarah - rigid, neat and work oriented - has an amusing, lengthy encounter with a promiscuous, free spirited young woman (Ludivine Sangier) who may or may not be the publisher’s daughter, Julie. This young woman may or may not kill a man one evening beside the country house pool. For that matter, the whole encounter between the two women may or may not have actually occurred. But with two fine performances to relish, no viewer needs to waste effort worrying about plot. (In English and French) Grade: B (07/03)
SYLVIA (Christine Jeffs, UK, 2003). THEMES: SUICIDE; DEPRESSION; PERSONALITY DISORDER. Superb biopic about poet/novelist Sylvia Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), covering the brief period from the time she fell in love with and married poet Ted Hughes until her death by suicide, in 1963, at age 30, seven years later. Plath’s was an intriguing instance of misery as muse. Her works concerned alienation, mental anguish, death and suicide. She never overcame her grief after her father died when she was eight. She wrote her first poem around that time. She came very close to killing herself by overdose at age 21, two years before going to Cambridge on a Fulbright, where she met Hughes. Her most acclaimed works - “The Bell Jar,” her only novel, published under a pseudonym the year she died, and “Ariel,” a collection of poems published posthumously – were largely written during the years of her estrangement from Hughes, a period of increasing desperation that culminated in her gassing herself.
Ms. Paltrow, whose physical resemblance to Plath is striking, offers a splendid performance. She conveys Plath’s jealousy (Hughes was a notorious womanizer), and, after Hughes leaves, her increasing desperation, her sense of emptiness, her feeling of being only half a person, vividly conveying these feelings and impressions but never in a manipulative or histrionic manner. This conduct is apparently quite true to Plath’s character. At the same time she soldiers on, caring for her two small children and writing steadily. Hughes is played effectively by Daniel Craig, a lean, emotionally more opaque, ruggedly charming Brit who is four years older than Paltrow. Craig’s performance is properly subordinated to hers, for this film is about Plath.
Color is used to distinct advantage in the film, which opens, appropriately, in fall colors, sunlight and leaves all in golden and orange tones. It is, after all, the autumn of Plath’s tragically shortened life. As Plath’s depression deepens, colors darken. There are sickly dull greens in many interior shots, colors similar to those used in Spider, David Cronenberg’s recent film about a schizophrenic man whose psychosis is getting worse. And the snowy barrenness of winter is evident at the moment of Plath’s suicide, which did occur in February. This film also steers clear of a major vexation often encountered in biopics of noteworthy artists (I think of Pollock and Frida as two glaring recent examples): the tendency to crowd such films with one-dimensional cameos representing individuals who were important in the life of the artist, to the point of distraction. Ms. Jeffs keeps a clear central focus on Plath, a lesser focus on Hughes, and permits only a few other characters to emerge at all (including, briefly, Blythe Danner, who is Gwyneth Paltrow’s actual mother, as Sylvia’s mother). Perhaps the major strength of the screenplay is its evenhanded recounting of Plath’s plight, resisting any temptation to reduce or simplify the story by blaming Hughes or Plath’s own vulnerability for her demise.
Clinically, it is clear that Plath suffered from recurrent severe depression. The downhill spiral near the end of her life was almost certainly abetted by Hughes’s refusal to reconcile with her. She may also have had a significant personality disorder, given her sense of emptiness and self-expressed tenuous personal identity. Many professionals today believe that severe childhood trauma (in Plath’s case, the loss of her father) can produce long lasting post-traumatic personality problems akin to borderline personality disorder. At the same time, one cannot help wondering whether Plath’s unstable sense of personal identity might have been ameliorated or avoided had she come along a generation later, in the midst of a feminist movement that authenticated the strivings of ambitious, talented women. Grade: A- (09/04)
TAKE MY EYES (Te doy mis ojos) (Iciar Bollain, Spain, 2004, 109 min.) SPOILER ALERT! THEME: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. This film is the best dramatized account of domestic violence I’ve seen on screen, so comprehensively accurate that it feels more like a documentary than a fictionalized story. We immediately meet Pilar (Laia Marull) and only know that she is terrified. She awakens her young son in the night and the two flee to her sister’s house. The full sad story gradually unfolds. Pilar has been married to Antonio (Luis Tosar) for nine years. He has repeatedly beaten her, sending her often to the hospital emergency department. This is apparently the first time she has left him, and Antonio regards the matter as serious enough that he joins an anger management group and begins individual counseling. We come to see that Antonio has a chronically low opinion of himself, thinks he compares unfavorably with other men, and this sense of inferiority is a root cause for his pathological jealousy, possessiveness, and need to dominate and control Pilar. We learn that her mother Aurora (Rosa Maria Sarda) lived a martyred life with a man who regularly mistreated her. She sides with Antonio and fails to be supportive or understanding of Pilar’s plight. Of the people closest to her, only Pilar’s sister Ana sees the true nature of the predicament. As is so often the case, though, Pilar to a significant degree is her own worst enemy. She succumbs to Antonio’s entreaties to return, hoping against hope that he will change this time. She is even secretive about reengaging with him, like a relapsing addict hiding evidence of renewed drug use.
To his credit, Antonio does try to adopt new tactics that might divert or arrest his explosive outbursts. He goes to his meetings, seems game enough to try the cognitive-behavioral tactics offered by the therapist, for awhile even keeps a notebook of the thoughts that set him off. But Pilar begins to expand her horizons. She gets a clerk’s job at the art museum (in Toledo, where the film is set). There she finds new friends, becomes ambitious to learn about the world of art and art history, aspiring to serve as a docent. As he perceives her boundaries expanding, Antonio cannot understand why she is interested in “useless things” but is all the more threatened that he cannot offer her a life she considers adequate and that he cannot even comprehend. This further stokes his hostility. When he roughs Pilar up and terrifies her on the morning she had planned to go to Madrid to seek a new job at a museum there, it is the last straw. She and their son leave for good.
It is an extraordinary feat that the horror of Antonio's violence is so palpably conveyed to us though we never actully witness more than Antonio's menacing shouts and gestures, except for the "last straw" event where he pushes Pilar and tears her clothes off. (The only blood drawn is Antonio's own in a manipulative parasuicidal gesture.) Rather than focusing on mere acts of physical violence, this film gives us the roots, the dynamics, the dance of violence. Every element in this story is clinically true to life. Antonio’s therapy sessions are realistic. We are drawn into Pilar’s terrible, sickening fear, as well as her son's anxiety. My sense of dread heightened as the minutes passed by, causing me to squirm, check my watch, disengage and avoid what I thought would be an inevitable bad ending for Pilar. Instead one is left with optimism for her prospects, though not for Antonio’s. (In Spanish) Overall grade: B; portrayal of dynamics of domestic violence: A (02/05)
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (Anthony Minghella, US, 1999). THEME: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY. Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel gets its second screen treatment here - the first was Rene Clement's 1960 French version, Purple Noon...and a later Highsmith novel featuring the Ripley character was the basis for Wim Wenders's American Friend. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), an ambitious young man who is going nowhere as a piano tuner and busboy in 1950s NYC, discovers within himself a penchant for pretending he is someone else. Following a chance meeting with a wealthy couple, he deceives them into thinking he was a college chum of their playboy son, Dickie (Jude Law), who is disporting himself around Europe. The family offers to pay Tom's way to Europe, plus a bonus, if Tom will bring Dickie back home to papa. Tom's lies and role playing engender increasingly complex circumstances in Europe, and things spiral out of control, even to murder. Beneath the killing, larceny, lies and a variety of sexual yearnings, the real tragedy of Tom's character and life is gradually revealed: he longs to be esteemed for who he really is, but has deep misgivings that anyone who gets to know him will care a hoot for him.
Rounding out the cast are Gwyneth Paltrow in an excellent turn as Marge, Dickie's girlfriend, whose nuanced suspicions about Tom mount as the circumstances build in tension, and the superb Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as Freddy, Dickie's cavalier, hard partying Princeton buddy. A lovely film to watch and listen to (the music runs from jazz to choral masses), it is also well acted. But it is significantly flawed by Damon's inability to convey his character credibly. Where Ripley should be entertaining, Damon is earnest. When Ripley should seem slippery, Damon is soul searching. Where a con man is called for, Damon is neurotic. He simply lacks the charm, the chutzpah, to pull off the fabulous fakeries we see him perpetrate. Jude Law, on the other hand, is a slickly polished rogue. Anthony Lane, writing in “The New Yorker” magazine, suggests he would have made the better Ripley. In "Purple Noon," the rakishly handsome Alain Delon was a more believable Ripley. Minghella's film is better than Clement's, but is unavoidably compromised by Damon's limitations. See also my review of the more recent film, Ripley’s Game. Grades: drama: B+, portrayal of antisocial personality: C+ (01/00)
TALK TO HER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002). THEMES: UNCONDITIONAL LOVE; PROFESSIONAL BOUNDARY VIOLATIONS. Almodovar, master of the outrageous, offers what is for me his best work to date because of its compassion and tenderness. He has always employed outsized, audacious characters behaving in extreme, often bizarre, ways, in order to open our eyes to the further reaches of human nature. But most of his films can be too easily discounted as celebrating either eccentricity or flamboyant style for style’s sake. Not here. The theme is love, or rather that bedrock of love which is unconditional devotion and generosity, the desire to completely share oneself with another and provide for the needs of the loved one, not contingent upon what one gets in return.
To pursue this theme, true to form, Almodovar invents an outrageous situation: a young, effete, tender, virginal male nurse (Benigno, played by Javier Camara) adores a young woman (Alicia, Leonor Watling) who was the victim of an auto accident that left her in a stable coma that has been going on now for four years. There’s no evidence that she will ever return to consciousness, nor any sign that she has much of a brain to return with. Benigno developed a crush on her before the accident, watching her from his apartment window as she did ballet classes at a studio across the street. Purely by happenstance, she is placed in the rehab. hospital unit where he works, and he is chosen as one of her two special care nurses by Alicia’s wealthy father. Benigno cares for Alicia with ardor and selfless devotion. He talks to her constantly, reads to her, massages her skin, treats her entirely as if she were normally present with him.
Meanwhile, another relationship is brewing, between feature print journalist Marco (Dario Grandinetti), an older, worldly, melancholic man, and Lydia (Rosario Flores), a celebrated bullfighter. They meet when Marco wants to write a profile of her, and they fall in love. But she receives a morbid closed head injury when gored by a bull several months later. Again by happenstance, Lydia is placed in the same rehab. unit where Alicia is located, and Marco and Benigno becomes friends. Benigno notices Marco’s reticence to get at all close to Lydia: he never touches or talks to her, never participates in her care. Benigno counsels him to treat her better, more intimately, and when this does not happen, Benigno senses, rightly as it turns out, that all was not well in love between these two. By setting aside the issue of whether love is actively requited, Almodovar is able to focus here purely on the generosity of spirit essential to the act of loving someone. What’s more, he conveys the depth of sadness when one loses love. Benigno crosses an ethical boundary in his care of Alicia, and Almodovar does not shy away from confronting this. Benigno pays a heavy price for his transgression, as he should. But the central issue of generosity in love still stands.
Benigno's fate does, however, raise several critical questions. How risky is unconditional love? Can it exact too high a price? At what point does selflessness cross the line to become martyrdom? Is selflessness an illusion? That is, does one ever act toward another person without some stake of self interest? We are left to ponder such questions by the final, outrageous ironies of Almodovar's story (his screenplay rightly won an Oscar this year). Grandinetti's is a familiar screen presence: the Argentinian starred in Eliseo Subiela's Dark Side of the Heart. His performance here is extraordinary. Geraldine Chaplin performs well in a small role as Alicia’s dance teacher; it’s nice to see her at work. Besides being Almodovar's most touching film to date, Talk offers some wonderful moments of music and dance, most notably a song by Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucu paloma” that is heart stopping in the beauty of his singing. (In Spanish) Grade: A (04/03)
TARNATION (Jonathan Caouette, US, 2004, 88 min.). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA (SCHIZOAFFECTIVE TYPE); RELATIONSHIP OF SCIHZOPHRENIC MOTHER AND HER SON; PSYCHOSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT OF A GAY MAN. “Tarnation” means “the damned” or “Hell.” This film is a confessional, a highly personal documentary about the Hell of suffering of a family of the damned: Hell for the filmmaker when he was a boy growing up in this chaotic, unstable family; Hell for his chronically psychotic mother; Hell for her parents – the boy’s grandparents, whose early promise and prosperity gave way in middle life to a wretched, aimless mutual subsistence.
As presented here, these people all seem damned, all except for the boy that is, who managed to extricate himself from the family morass and his own adolescent pattern of self-destructive behavior in his mid-20s, when he moved from Texas to New York City. There he found a gentle, steady lover and a measure of stability, and these assets have given him the stamina to exercise an impressive artistic genius in preparing this film. Moreover, despite the world of woe depicted here, Caouette presents his story without a hint of self pity, mawkishness or manipulation.
This is a raw, sometimes lurid, often painful story, presented in a kaleidoscopic, fast paced, Warholian sequence of photomontages ingeniously created from family photos and home movies, commercial film and TV show clips, answering machine messages, video diary commentaries, computer generated split screen, mosaic and briefly flashed still imagery, an ever changing palette of colors and black and white, a broad array of music from traditional kids’ Sunday School ditties to punk rock, and more.
A few brief scenes seem to have been enacted specifically for this film, but very few. Rather than using the overworked method of narrative voiceover, Caouette instead utilizes still text intercuts to fill in the storyline and aid transitions. These are always brief, easy to read, and never overdone. How refreshing. Caouette tells his story impressionistically, thematically, like an artist, with only a moderate nod to chronologic exactitude. Be warned that this can cause some viewer confusion.
From the film’s very opening scene, when we see her singing “This Little Light of Mine,” to the last scene, in which Jonathan lays his head on her sleeping chest, his mother, Renee, is portrayed as the central character in Jonathan’s life. This is not to say that the film is just about Renee. Indeed, it is mainly about Jonathan, his development, problems, his perceptions of himself and his family. He is candid in guiding us through his own odyssey as an emerging gay teenager. There is a stunning home movie clip in which, at age 11, a cross-dressing Jonathan portrays a young mother who is the victim of domestic abuse. By 13 he is regularly attending a gay nightclub, hiding his youthfulness by dressing like a Petite-Goth girl. His hard won stable life in New York owes much to the generous emotional support provided by his partner, David.
But it is Renee to whom the viewer’s attention is turned again and again. She maintains a presence in our minds even during the long stretches when she does not appear on screen. Jonathan wanted it that way, I’m sure. The nature Renee’s illness is not entirely clear. Jonathan says her diagnosis is schizophrenia, but the accuracy of diagnoses in large public mental health systems is often suspect, and no professional psychiatric advisor is listed in the film’s end credits. Jonathan informs us that she has endured 100 psychiatric hospitalizations over a 35 year period, and first had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments, at regular intervals for two years, beginning at age 12 or 13. We know that she was taking lithium carbonate in recent years, a mood stabilizer most often used to treat bipolar disorder.
In one scene when she behaves in an uninhibited manner - it’s near the end, and she’s playing with a small pumpkin – there is a facetious, manicky quality, but the joke she keeps laughing about is private, not clear to this viewer at least, and this conduct makes me think that she has a schizoaffective disorder, a sort of hybrid of schizophrenia and bipolar problems. In any event, Jonathan, Renee and her parents all go to some length to externalize the possible cause of Renee’s disorder. Renee blames her parents for physically abusing her as a child. She even doubts that they are her real parents, preferring to think that Elizabeth Taylor is her mother (Renee was a strikingly beautiful brunette when younger, even a regionally well known teen model).
Renee fell off the roof of the family home at age 12, and never seemed the same thereafter, leading to a family belief that a brain injury had occurred. Jonathan asserts that there was nothing psychologically wrong with his mother before she was given numerous ECT treatments, implying that unnecessary, damaging treatment caused her chronic mental illness. Jonathan also tells us that Renee harbors a delusion that her entire family experience is part of a government experiment.
Myths, delusions, all the various external sources of blame of course serve a purpose for distressed families whose loved ones are afflicted with severe mental disorders. They bring a measure of comfort, however meager. Unfortunately false convictions of causality can also subvert effective treatment. But we see here, in the film’s penultimate scene, what Jonathan must face when the myths are stripped away. It is 5 am and he has arisen specifically to film himself making a video diary entry. He sequesters himself in the bathroom so as not to disturb the household. It is 2002, a few weeks after Renee took a near fatal overdose of lithium, and he has brought her to New York to stay with David and him. At first he stares silently into the camera. He can’t seem to get started. Then he begins to cry softly, and he speaks of his fear that he will turn out like his mother.
“I love her so much,” he says.
It is a powerful and telling scene, and it pulls the many loose ends of this daring film together as nothing else could do. See also my article entitled "All About My Mother." Grade: B+ (03/05)
“I can’t escape her.
She’s inside me.
In my hair.
Behind my eyes.
Under my skin.”
A TASTE OF CHERRY (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1997). THEMES: DEPRESSION; SUICIDAL PLANS. Absurdist tale of Mr. Badii, a desperately depressed, sleepless middle aged man who drives around Tehran begging various people to assist him in dying: he wants to suicide but needs someone to see that he is properly buried. He has already picked the spot in the cemetery, and personally has dug out the grave. All the other person must do is fill the hole once Mr. Badii is in. People offer various reasons for declining to help. He finally finds an old man who is willing, a man with his own burdens who has attempted suicide in the past and understands. (In Farsi) Grade: B (11/98)
THE TASTE OF OTHERS (Agnes Jaoui, France, 2000). THEME: MARITAL INFIDELITY AND LONGING FOR (BEING) SOMEONE NEW. Delightful comedy about good and bad taste, boorishness and intimacy. A married, stuffy suburban businessman is smitten by a bohemian woman he sees at a restaurant. He pursues her but discovers he fits not at all within her circle. This is another funny, scathing work from Jaoui and her spouse, Jean-Pierre Bacri, the hottest duo in French theater and cinema these days. They co-wrote this screenplay and both act: Jaoui plays Manie and Bacri is Castella, the businessman. The two bodyguards provide wonderful comic moments. (In French). Grade: B+ (02/01)
TAXI DRIVER (Martin Scorsese, US, 1976). THEMES: POSSIBLE PTSD; POSSIBLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, MIXED (SCHIZOID, ANTISOCIAL FEATURES). SPOILER ALERT! Scorsese’s masterpiece about a highly disturbed man, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) who takes a job as a New York City cabbie. He’s attracted to the work because he suffers from insomnia and loneliness, and thinks working long hours every day behind the wheel will fill his time passably while earning decent money. It does work out. But Bickle has a looming, ominous passion to do something about what he calls the “scum, the filth, the shitheads” that he sees all around him on the streets. He is referring to the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and other lowlifes. And though he’s willing to take fares anywhere, even up into Harlem and the Bronx, where many drivers won’t go, we get more than a hint that Travis is a racist. Though he’s decidedly a loner – his social life is limited to chatting with other cabbies at a diner, men like “The Wizard” (Peter Boyle), he does make a very blunt effort to begin a relationship with a middle class political campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But he frightens her off when he takes her to a hard porn movie on 42nd Street on their first date. So much for the high road.
Travis also takes an interest in a very young street prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). Eventually he buys an arsenal of black market handguns and spends countless hours perfecting his shot at a target range and practicing quick draws before the mirror in his room. One day he shows up at a rally for the candidate Betsy works for. He’s wearing all 4 of his guns and a knife, dressed in a fatigue jacket, and sporting a freshly shaved radical Mohawk haircut. When security agents spot and chase him, he decides to try to liberate Iris from her pimp, Matthew (“Sport”) (Harvey Keitel). He walks up to Sport on the street and shoots him, then makes his way to the rooming house nearby where Iris turns tricks, ending up killing three men while being seriously wounded himself. He lives and, ironically, the press turns him into a hero, the guy that single handedly took on a gang of petty criminals to save a young girl. He gets an appreciative letter from her parents. And in the last scenes he’s back behind the wheel, driving his taxi shifts again, still living in the same place, still alone.
By common agreement, Travis Bickle is considered to be unbalanced because of war experiences in Vietnam. In reviews, he’s typically referred to as a “disturbed Vietnam Vet.” Yet, curiously, not one solid piece of evidence for this conclusion is expressed in the film. What we do learn is that he had an honorable discharge from the Marines in 1973 and wears an old military fatigue jacket. Even when we see several newspaper articles tacked to his wall about his rescue of Iris, none of the headlines or text, in the first paragraphs I could read at least, refer to him as a Vietnam Vet. He never says he was in Vietnam, never speaks of memories of the war. The Vietnam war is mentioned only one time in the entire film, well into the second hour, in a speech by the political candidate.
Travis’s symptoms are nonspecific (bear in mind that the film was made 5 years before the diagnostic criteria for PTSD were first widely disseminated). He suffers from severe insomnia, a tendency for his temper to flare, headaches, and some sort of stomach troubles (he takes a lot of alka-seltzer and says he’s worried he has stomach cancer). Only the insomnia is a classic feature of PTSD. We get no evidence that he has daytime flashbacks or nightmares of war. He’s avoidant of people, but tells us in one voiceover that he’s been lonely his whole life. He does not display an exaggerated a startle response.
In a short film on the making of Taxi Driver shot in 1998, scriptwriter Paul Schrader says his inspiration for the character came from his personal experience of going through a major life crisis (divorce, loss of a lover) and living a solitary, isolated life for weeks on end. Scorsese only mentions Vietnam in one circumscribed context. He says he had heard about solitary special forces operatives (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol personnel or “Lurps”) in Vietnam doing eccentric things in their grooming, like sporting a Mohawk haircut, and that gave Scorsese the idea for Travis to do this, part of his mystique of being on some special mission.
One can conceive of Travis as suffering from a severe mixed personality disorder, with schizoid, paranoid and antisocial features, who at times slips into a paranoid, obsessive psychotic state in which he sees himself as an avenger who must clean up the city. Despite no clear evidence that Travis was a Vietnam combat vet, and with insufficient clinical information to justify a PTSD diagnosis, I nevertheless include this film under PTSD because so many filmgoers think of Travis Bickle in that way. Anyway you cut it, Travis is your average guy; in fact he is the scariest sort of fellow who can pass for normal one day and shoot up the town the next. Shades of the Texas Tower, Columbine, and any number of other massacres. Grades: drama: A; depiction of PTSD: C- (11/04)
TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE (Mark Wexler, US, 2004, 95 min.). THEME: CONFLICT BETWEEN CELEBRITY FATHER AND SON; OUTSIZE, CONTRARIAN, CONTROLLING, NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, now nearing 83, is surely one of the most cantankerous curmudgeons ever to cut a swath through Hollywood, and that’s saying a lot. Here his son, Mark Wexler, makes a valiant effort to create a documentary about his ornery dad, and at the same time try to work through some of the lifelong problems he has had as a child of somebody profoundly rich, famous, narcissistic, stubborn, opinionated and controlling. The film is not the lyrical likes of Nathaniel Kahn’s recent film, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, another documentary that grappled with famous father-son issues. This one is more raw, and, unlike the late architect Louis Kahn, who died several years before his son made his film, Haskell Wexler is very much alive and kicking throughout this movie. Indeed, it is the sometimes tense and always intriguing interplay between father and son that makes this film worthwhile. With interview clips of Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Conrad L. Hall, Tom Hayden, Dennis Hopper, Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Albert Maysles, Sidney Poitier, John Sayles, Martin Sheen, Lee Tomahori and Studs Terkel, among many others. A must for cinephiles. More to follow. Grade: B (02/05)
THE THIN BLUE LINE (Errol Morris, US, 1988, 103 min.). THEME: SOCIOPATHIC (ANTISOCIAL) PERSONALITY DISORDER. Documentarist Errol Morris fashions a thrilling account in which the case against Randall Adams, a man convicted of the shooting death of a Dallas policeman in 1976, is reviewed and analyzed step by step, leading to the probable conclusion that Adams is innocent. Instead the crime was most likely committed by a younger sociopathic man, David Harris, who, though only 16 at the time, had already perpetrated car theft and several armed robberies. Adams was a drifter and Harris a runaway when they met by chance one night in Dallas, hung out together at a motel, drank and smoked some marijuana. The next night the police officer was killed. The car was one Harris had stolen, but Harris denied the crime and police chose to charge Adams instead. One reason for this decision was that Harris, at age 16, would have been too young to qualify for the death penalty. There's good old Texas bloodlust justice for you. Adams was found guilty and sentenced to death, a verdict upheld by the Texas Supreme Court, but later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-1 vote. Rather than order a retrial as directed by the high court, the prosecutor chose to ask the governor to commute Adam’s sentence to life without parole, which was done.
The film was made more than a decade after the first trial. It features some re-enactments of events around the time of the shooting, using actors, together with remarkable interview footage with a host of the original players: Adams, Harris, and various police, prosecutorial, defense and judicial participants in the original trial and subsequent appeals. Harris is the most interesting of the lot. He, like Adams, is interviewed in prison. Harris is in fact on death row after his conviction for killing another man. He had compiled a sordid record of crimes between 1976 and his last murder offense. He is an understated, composed, even tempered, superficially cooperative man, well groomed, with well cut hair, clean shaven and articulate, though obviously not that well educated. His responses – especially when pressed by Morris for details about the 1976 shooting of the policeman, e.g., whether Adams was the guilty party or Harris himself, or someone else for that matter – are a model of evasion, ambiguity, talking just past the point, hinting obliquely that only he knows that Adams probably didn’t do the shooting, without giving away whether he was present or did the shooting himself. He is coolly polite, earnest, in control. A charming, chilling fellow.
The film is well made, as are all of Morris’s documentaries, though he tends to replay the shooting incident too often. Philip Glass’s score is properly sinister. Morris’s later films (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Mr. Death, The Fog of War) show his evolution as an increasingly skilled craftsman in using film to dissect the character of outsized and eccentric individuals, often people who have an unsettling indifference toward their fellow man. Grade: B+ (01/05)
THE THIN RED LINE (Terrence Malick, US, 1998). THEME: ACUTE COMBAT STRESS REACTION. A meditation on combat experience, adapted from James Jones' 1962 novel. The troops are landing on Guadalcanal, one of the major flashpoints in the Pacific in WW II. There is no resistance at all at the beach, not a single sign of the enemy, not for a long, eerie stretch. But that changes later, devastatingly, once the troops have moved inland. This film draws its strength from a series of powerful scenes that disregard plot, action and spectacle in favor of emotional tone and the juxtaposition of scenes of opposing tone - scenes that feel at odds with one another - creating ironic tension and more. Example: a forward observer faces death as he scouts out an enemy machine gun bunker, and as he struggles up a mountainside toward the bunker we share his flashbacks of a gauzy romantic holiday with his wife in Hawaii. We learn from this how thoughts of loved ones sustain a man in battle. Another example: a grunt is wrought with extreme anxiety just before an attack: his eyes roll in his head; he breathes heavily; he looks as if he will bolt like a scared rabbit into the line of fire to run away. But next we see him heroically dashing not backward but forward, shooting his way to the roof of the bunker, throwing in a grenade that stops the machine guns once and for all. Thus we learn how valor emerges out of terror, not machismo.
This is a long (170 min) and rambling film. It has a huge cast of well known players, several of whom have trivial cameo roles that do not deserve the credits they command (John Travolta, George Clooney). A few well knowns are interesting (Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and especially Nick Nolte as an aging West Pointer reveling that he finally is getting a chance for "my first war."). Two of the most intriguing players are less well known: Jim Caviezel (who most recently played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), a Montgomery Clift look alike whose character is something of a moral compass - he doesn't want to be involved in war at all, but since he must be, he will act to save others, and Elias Koteas, who plays a well educated Captain who refuses orders that would sacrifice most if not all of his men. This film gives such a sharply etched feeling of the anxiety of combatants that one can almost smell their fear. The few scenes near the end, of captured Japanese soldiers, are especially vivid in this regard.
It is curious that this film debuted at the same time as another widely acclaimed WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan, which won all the major Oscars (best film, best director) in 1998. Ryan is clearly the slicker film, with a tight screenplay built around a better known event (the invasion of Normandy), a clever backstory (the mission to save someone who is the lone survivor among four brothers who went to war), and Hollywood's finest surefire product, sheer spectacle, in the initial invasion scenes. Thin Red Line is a very different sort of film, one might call it a psychological study of individual war experience. It is intimate in portraying the depths and variety of human emotions in and around battle. For its de-emphasis of action (as action) in favor of telling another sort of story, one of pathos and suffering and irony, I rate it, along with Oliver Stone's Platoon, way ahead of Ryan. Grade: A- (06/02)
THIRTEEN (Catherine Hardwicke, US, 2003). THEMES: TEEN-PARENT CONFLICT; TEEN SEXUALITY, DRUG ABUSE (ECSTACY), WRIST CUTTING. SPOILER ALERT! Riveting drama of life in the fast lane for 7th graders in Los Angeles, where sex, fashion, cell phones and drugs can propel kids - especially troubled, vulnerable kids – at speeds that far outstrip their tenuous capacities for maintaining self control. Tracy, the central character, is played by 15 year old Evan Rachel Wood in her 14th role (she began in TV at age 6). Tracy longs for the popularity and glamour she sees in fast moving, seductive Evie (played by 14 year old Nikki Reed, making her debut here not only as an actress but as co-writer, the screenplay based in part on her own experiences).
Tracy’s envy of Evie owes much to her own melancholy. Life has been bumpy for her. Dad left years ago. Mom’s in recovery from an unspecified addiction, conducts an on-and-off romance with another former addict, struggles to eke out a meager living for the family cutting hair at home. Mom – Melanie, Mel (Holly Hunter) - is caring, kind and responsible, but is as tightly wound as her daughter. Both live on the edge. Both sneak cigarettes. Tracy also relieves emotional tension by wrist cutting. Only teen brother Mason (Brady Corbett) seems to possess any sense of equanimity. The tension level rises when Mel’s boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) moves back in, after Mel had sworn to the kids she would not go back with him. Tracy finally attracts the attention of Evie, whose swagger, unsurprisingly, belies her own troubled home life and neediness. Evie lures Tracy into shoplifting, body piercing and sexy Ecstacy parties.
While excited by all of this, Tracy predictably becomes more tense, angry, scattered, ineffective; soon she’s failing in school and rejecting her old, more innocent friends. She escalates her power struggles with Mel, whose efforts to intervene are all rebuffed. The disingenuous Evie takes advantage of this situation by spending increasing time at Tracy’s house and sweetly ingratiating herself with Melanie – playing “good daughter” to Tracy’s “bad daughter.” When Mel, who’s been through plenty of tough scrapes, confides to someone that she’s really frightened by the changes she sees in Tracy, anyone who’s parented a teenager can feel her terror.
By the end everyone – players and audience alike – is exhausted, but we are left with hints of reconciliation and of hope. This is also a debut as writer-director for Catherine Hardwicke, heretofore a production designer. The agonizing realism in this film owes much to Hardwicke, but also to the uniformly splendid performances of Wood, Reed and Hunter, very ably supported by Corbett and Sisto. Grade: B+ (04/04)
THIRTEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING (Jill Sprecher, US, 2002). THEMES: FULFILLMENT AND DISSATISFACTION IN EVERYDAY LIFE; ROLE OF FATE OR LUCK IN ALTERING FUTURE COURSE OF EVENTS IN PEOPLE'S LIVES. Interlocking vignettes look at four groups of characters, but only one, the employees of an insurance company claims investigations staff, headed by the cynical Gene English (Alan Arkin) provides several well developed characters and patterns of interaction among them. The other groups vary in both character development, and the freshness of the circumstances that enmesh them. The talents of John Turturro, Amy Irving and Helen Sukova are largely wasted in one trite subplot, about the misfortunes of a college professor who cannot accept ordinary contentment in marriage. In general the dialogue and situations seem stylized, formal, somewhat unreal. This inconsistent but at times thoughtful film would have been aided by a stiff injection of humor, but it can boast good photography, a fine, spare score, and a fine turn by Arkin. The predicaments of these people could trigger useful discussions. Grades: (Drama): B-; (psychological authenticity): variable, from A- to C. (01/02)
THIS BOY'S LIFE (Michael Caton-Jones, US, 1993, 115 m). THEMES: ADOLESCENT COMING-OF-AGE STORY; CHILD ABUSE. Leonardo DiCaprio is featured in his first major film role as Toby, a proud, bright, troublesome mid-adolescent trying to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances of his life, as he follows his mother’s (Caroline, played by Ellen Barkin) impetuous fortunes and frequent changes of venue in her breathless quest for happiness. Caroline eventually meets up with Dwight (Robert De Niro), who on the surface seems like a simple but kindly small town regular guy, a single parent struggling to raise three kids while keeping an auto repair shop humming.
Turns out Dwight’s a narcissistic, self pitying, alcoholic son of a bitch who can’t wait to tyrannize Toby, to force him to be subservient. After their marriage, he hardly treats Caroline any better. This is a shattering account of child abuse, and De Niro is almost picture perfect as the abusive and violent stepfather. DiCaprio was 18 when this film was made. It was released the same year as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, in which DiCaprio’s turn as the developmentally disabled Arnie was so astonishingly rich and convincing. He’s equally good here, showing the contradictory facets of a youngster whose defiance is not a product of antisociality but deep frustration, longing and hurt. The screenplay was adapted from an autobiographical novel by Tobias Wolff, whose early life is represented here. Wolff, by the way, went on from his difficult beginnings to a successful academic career as a writer and literature professor. Grade: B (05/05)
THE THREE FACES OF EVE (Nunnally Johnson, US, 1957). THEMES: DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER (MULTIPLE PERSONALITY); PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK. Based on true story of psychiatric treatment of a woman with multiple personality disorder. What’s good about it is the role of the psychiatrist, played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb's therapist conducts himself in a manner that stands up well as a model today, 40 years later. He is a strong and interesting character, while at the same time he is emotionally supportive, attentive, reliable, caring, even tempered, ethical (his only transgression, by today's standards, is to chain smoke cigars during sessions). Partly the integrity of this portrayal can be credited to writer-director Nunnally Johnson, who faithfully followed the account given in a book length report of the case by Georgia psychiatrists Hervey Cleckley and Corbett Thigpen, who treated the actual patient. But Cobb deserves much of the credit as well. Grades: (as drama): B; (Cobb's role): A- (09/98)
THUMBSUCKER (Mike Mills, US, 2005, 96 min.). THEMES: DRUG TREATMENT OF ADHD (COMIC SENDUP); THUMBSUCKING; "SUBURBAN" FAMILY FILMS. The comedic drama Thumbsucker is the antithesis of typical “suburban” films, you know, movies like American Beauty and The Ice Storm that wallow in psychopathology, in which somebody always comes to a bad end. Here we have the Cobbs, a family that operates reasonably well, though you have to watch them for awhile to get that straight. We follow their story, built around the coming of age of 17 year old son Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci). In the end nobody has gotten hurt. The family gets a vote of confidence. We have a few laughs. Yet we also see here that family life can be precarious. These people must fend off several slings and arrows of the sort manufactured regularly in our culture, but they do prevail.
The other Cobbs are the father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), a plant manager; mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton), a nurse; and Justin’s kid brother Joel (Chase Offerle). Justin is way underachieving and may not have the grades to get into a good college next year. And he’s still sucking his thumb, for Heaven’s sake! Audrey (both parents prefer their sons to call them by their given names…makes them feel less old) is sweet and supportive to the others, but is weary of her job and, Justin surmises, of her life as well. Mike is inexpressive, brooding, remote - from his sons at least. The family myth (he never talks about it) is that Mike lost his career dream of playing pro football because of a college knee injury and never got over it. Does Justin have a “success neurosis” – is he fearful of achieving more than his Dad? Joel, for his part, tells Justin that he’s so weird that Joel feels compelled to act normal, just to maintain some balance in the family.
Justin isn’t entirely weird. He indulges in robust fantasies about a girl in his debating class. He wants to go to college. Enough so that he cleverly fabricates a bleeding heart autobiography on his application to NYU, telling how his poor grades are a result of his ordeal growing up with mentally ill parents. (He’s accepted). He’s savvy enough to question the propriety of his hilariously self absorbed New Age orthodontist, Dr. Lyman (Keanu Reeves in one of the few enjoyable roles of his that I’ve seen), who spouts psychobabble and tries hypnosis to rid Justin of his thumbsucking.
However, Dr. Lyman’s efforts to pathologize Justin are paled by school officials, who assert that he suffers from a clear-cut case of ADD and needs Ritalin. Never mind that he shows no trace of hyperactivity or behavioral problems at school. No matter that he doesn’t receive a proper psychological assessment. Mike resists the plan (our first clue that he is a pretty sensible fellow) but Audrey and, particularly, Justin want to give the pills a shot. Taking Ritalin, Justin is instantly transformed - the entire screen goes white moments after he gulps the first dose, but it is never clear whether the changes indicate properly treated ADD or initial placebo effects followed by progressive stimulant dependence.
Overnight Justin can read “Moby Dick” from cover to cover in a flash. He becomes assertive in debate, even eloquent and intellectually sophisticated. He is invited to join an elite competitive debate team. He begins taking extra pills, becoming more aggressive. Ultimately his debating coach tells Justin that he’s become a monster, conveniently forgetting that it was this same teacher who got the Ritalin ball rolling. In a wry twist, Ritalin becomes Justin’s gateway drug to pot.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Audrey has taken a new job at a drug addiction rehab center; among her patients is a TV action star whom she’s had a crush on for years. Justin imagines that Audrey is having a real affair with the star (this development parallels Justin’s rejection by the girl he fancies, who has a new boyfriend). Justin tries to engage Mike in a heart to heart about all this, to no avail.
Mike Mills, making his feature directing debut, also adapted the story from a novel by Walter Kirn. Mills attended this screening; he's a cheery fellow with a gently self deprecating sense of humor. One can easily imagine him setting a relaxed tone on the set and giving actors plenty of room to do their work. It shows: every actor in the Cobb family performs wonderfully, as do Reeves and some of the others.
At the end Justin goes off to NYU. Mike laments that this is happening just as he’s getting to know his son, and we can tell he means it. There is no affair in Audrey’s life. She and Mike are doing OK, thank you, have been all along, though their lives are way too busy. Before we’re done, we’ve covered the medicalizing of adolescent behavior, the culture of victimization, addictions, and the lack of scruples commonly affecting competition in high school and getting into college these days. The story is both sobering and uplifting, though it happily substitutes sendups for sermons. For many families, there aren’t many supports out there in the ‘burbs, and there are often wolves at the door. Families – not just kids - are largely on their own. But the Cobbs show us with a sufficient degree of realism that resiliency can win the day. Grade: B+ (09/05)
TIME OUT (L’Emploi du Temps) (Laurent Cantet, France, 2002). THEMES: ADULT LIFE CRISIS; IMPACT OF JOB LOSS. SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Cantet is interested in the psychological impact of workplace problems on people. His excellent 2000 film, Human Resources, developed an intriguing conflict between a blue collar factory worker and his university educated son, who was brought on as a management summer intern at the father’s factory. Time Out takes up the issue of the demoralizing and dislocating impact of job loss, when a man, Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), is fired from his position as a management consultant. We've all taken "mental health" days, when we lie to ditch work. But Vincent carries this to extremes. Ashamed and bewildered, he initially hides his dismissal from his wife and friends, pretending to go off to work each day.
From here, let me give you the plot synopsis from the IMDB, on which I cannot improve: “Vincent spends his days driving around the countryside, talking into his cell phone and staring into space. [He] fabricates a new job for himself so his family and friends will not know that he is out of work. At one point, he even sneaks into an office building. As Vincent roams the building's sterile halls, peeking into meeting rooms where men are busy at work, we see [in Vincent] a man who yearns not just for a new job, but also for a place in the world. While this pantomime of work initially registers as sad and even a little pathetic, it slowly and unnervingly becomes terrifying.” Inevitably Vincent becomes ensnared in his own trap. The viewer is effectively engulfed in the protracted agony of Vincent’s experience, partly achieved by the length (134 minutes) and glacial pace of the film. We also feel his claustrophobic, disconnected isolation, almost like an estranged refugee or fugitive, accomplished by shooting so much of the film inside his car, where, in effect, he has taken up residence. Grade: B (02/02)
TITICUT FOLLIES (Frederick Wiseman, US, 1967). THEME: EXPOSE OF INHUMANE CONDITIONS IN TRADITIONAL STATE MENTAL HOSPITALS. Perhaps the most extreme exposé ever filmed about the dehumanizing conditions in public institutions for the mentally ill. Wiseman made the film in 1966 at the Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, essentially a large, high security mental hospital. The film's title comes from an annual variety show put on at the hospital by the staff and patients. The show stars a garrulous, craggy faced, leering senior security staffer whom we see performing and mugging impromptu for the camera at other times in the film as well. He serves as a sort of demonic MC for the film; in a similar way to the MC in Cabaret, he seems almost an emissary from the Devil.
The film cuts from one fairly lengthy scene to another of activities on the wards or in the exercise yard, without ever offering any introductions or background narration. The first scene appears to be either the admissions process or a periodic inspection of inmates. A large room is filled with naked men and guards, all milling about somewhat chaotically. The guards inspect the men's bodies and each article of their clothing. Then the men dress again. Most are older, white and sullenly quiet. A few are excited. One man, obviously psychotic, carries on a constant barrage of talk to no one in particular, punctuated by repetition of neologistic magical words. We meet him again later in the film. In the next scene a man who apparently is a doctor, who has a middle European accent and who smokes constantly, is interviewing a subdued young man about his sexual involvement with young girls, apparently the basis for his incarceration. The doctor asks various questions about his sexual habits, betraying profoundly deficient interviewing skills.
We are then shown life on "F Ward," apparently a place for the most disturbed inmates. Each man lives in a locked cell that has no furnishings except for a mattress. Most men are naked, a few wear shorts. The guards taunt and heckle one old man relentlessly while they shave him, because he has messed up his room. We see another thin naked man given a tube feeding because he apparently refuses to eat. The same doctor we saw earlier administers this intervention, with a cigarette in his mouth the whole time. While the tube feeding goes on, brief scenes are intercut of a corpse being prepared for burial in the morgue, and we assume it is the same man.
In the exercise yard we meet an excited, fast talking, very logical and articulate young man who is demanding to return to the prison he came from, saying that this place is making him worse. Later he appears at a staffing conducted by a senior psychiatrist (not the doctor we have seen before, but a more sophisticated man). He again excitedly demands to return to the other prison, accusing the staff here of wanting to make him worse. While we sympathize that this setting would unnerve any sane person, we aren't given any background information to permit an informed opinion of this man's true psychiatric status (we are told that he said at the other prison that his coffee was poisoned and that others were controlling his thoughts; these can certainly be symptoms of schizophrenia. But there is no hint of bizarre thinking, hallucinations or delusions in the scenes we see).
Not every ward is like F Ward. We see a birthday party on a quiet, even decorous ward, where female staff or volunteers try to create a cheery atmosphere, and the patients seem sociable with staff and one another. Back on F Ward we see guards assisting an old man to bathe. They seem more caring than in other scenes, trying to discourage the man from drinking his bathwater (which he has likened to champagne) and speaking to him with some respect. Near the end a priest gives last rites to a quiet older man in bed, and later his body is transferred to a coffin in the morgue and taken to the hospital cemetery for burial. The film ends with the finalé of the Titicut Follies show.
This film was so incendiary when first shown that the State of Massachusetts went to court and had it suppressed for the next 24 years! The basis of the state's successful suit was violation of privacy rights of the inmates (they are certainly depicted graphically, often entirely naked and often behaving in bizarre or at least unusual ways). Wiseman and many others, however, have assumed through the years that the real reason for seeking suppression was the state's concern that the film documented the severe shortcomings and inhumane conditions of inmate care, conditions so horrid as to invite criticism, censure and demands for reform that the state wished not to face. In any event, Wiseman pressed his case and finally, in 1991, the Massachusetts state supreme court reversed the earlier decision and for the first time permitted public showing of the film. Shortly afterward it was presented on PBS as a feature hosted by Charlie Rose. It is a tape made of that showing that we are now able to see; no commercial video seems to be available. (Length about 90 minutes). Grade: A+ (07/00)
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Robert Mulligan, US, 1962) THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA. My favorite Gregory Peck film, in which he is a southern small town lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, in a story based on Harper Lee’s novel. Robert Duvall made his film debut in this, as a chronic schizophrenic protector of Peck’s daughter, the character called Arthur “Boo” Radley. He never speaks a word but is flawless. Grade: A+ (08/98)
TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). THEMES: INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICTS AND THE INFLUENCE OSOCIETAL CHANGES ON THESE PROBLEMS; AGING; PERVASIVE SENSE OF LOSS. Ozu's masterpiece and frequent entrant in all time top film lists. An aging couple from a small coastal city journey to Tokyo to visit their grown children and their families: the eldest son, a struggling family doctor, his wife and two sons; the elder daughter, a hard bitten beauty shop owner and her husband; and Noriko, the widowed daughter-in-law, whose husband, the middle son, was killed in the war 8 years earlier (the youngest son lives in Osaka where he is a railroad clerk - they see him on the way - and the younger daughter lives with the parents and stays behind because of school teaching commitments).
Nearly everyone is estranged and preoccupied, it seems, and neither Tokyo offspring wants to spend time with the parents, so they foist them off on Noriko for a day or two and then send them off to a spa hotel. But the parents don't like the Club Med atmosphere there and decide to go home, passing through Tokyo again briefly and unannounced along the way. The mother becomes very ill on the journey home and dies at home shortly thereafter. The children seem unaffected and stay there with their father for as brief a time as custom permits, then all leave.
Noriko, who embodies a more kind and generous spirit, does stay on for awhile, and there is a touching scene near the end when the widowed father tells Noriko how much his wife and he have appreciated her. The youngest daughter and Noriko also have a moving exchange, when the daughter expresses her outrage at the selfishness of her older sibs but is calmed by Noriko's more philosophical and forgiving comments.
Underlying the story are the themes of grief about the losses brought about by the war and the new preoccupation with self-advancement in the younger adult generation, with the concomitant loss of traditional filial honor and ties to the parents. There are some wonderfully humorous details. While packing for the trip to Tokyo, the father misplaces an inflatable pillow and repeatedly insists that he gave it to his wife to pack, but of course he later finds it in his own case. In a scene on a bus, everyone's head bobs in unison as the bus jogs along, and syncopated music accompanies the bobbing. The father has a reunion with two old pals who have moved to Tokyo and they all get humorously drunk, complaining about their living children, sharing their grief about the dead ones, and recalling geisha girlfriends from the past. A rich and comprehensible drama of family life and conflict, animated in significant measure by the deep transitions taking place within the culture that surrounds these people. (In Japanese) Grade: A+ (11/00)
TRAFFIC (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2000). THEMES; DRUG ABUSE; WAR ON DRUGS. First honest US film about America’s War on Drugs and an excellent film on cinematic grounds in the bargain. The complexity of the drug problem is well suggested by the unfolding of three seemingly independent stories, stories in which interconnections among characters only gradually come to light. There is the convoluted Mexican story (with segments color coded in sepia), full of treachery and double dealing, in which everyone seems corrupted in some way. Then there is the Cincinnati story (with segments in filtered blue), in which a respected federal judge is tapped to become the nation’s new drug czar, even as his 16 year old daughter is secretly spiraling down into hard drug addiction herself. Finally there is the San Diego story (in full, bright color) about a well to do woman whose husband turns out to be a major drug distributor rather than the respected businessman she thought him to be.
At the end several people have died and no real progress has been made, although the final scene is one not of cynicism but of some hope as the drug czar’s daughter speaks at her self help group meeting. Not every aspect is touched upon. We don’t learn of the desperate poverty that drives so many small people to participate in drugs – whether producing them in Latin America or dealing them on U.S. streets. After 40 years of drug addiction films that show only the horrors of individual addiction (from Man with the Golden Arm to Requiem for a Dream) it is about time for a more frank film about the scope and complexity of the problem and the ineffectualness of our national efforts, which focus overly much on criminal justice and not enough on prevention and treatment. For more on this film, see my article titled "Our War Against the Western Hemisphere." Grade: A- (01/02)
TRAINSPOTTING (Danny Boyle, UK, 1996). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: HEROIN ADDICTION; SUBSTANCE ABUSE; EXPLOSIVE PERSONALITY DISORDER; GUYFLICKS. One of the most widely acclaimed films of the late 1990s, Trainspotting was adapted from the inventive novel by Irvine Welsh (who has a bit part as Mikey Forrester) and concerns the lives of five buddies from the same working class Edinburgh council housing project . They are Renton, the central character and narrator ( Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (a seriously nasty Robert Carlyle), and Tommy (Kevin McKidd). The first three are deeply involved in heroin when we meet them. Begbie spurns all drugs but alcohol, which he swills endlessly. He also has a penchant for going ballistic, even contriving circumstances to trigger his appetite for mayhem. He’s one impressive brawler. Tommy is a health nut who practices abstinence and weight lifting until a breakup with his girlfriend leads him to try heroin too, and then he tailspins into the worst of habits and ends up with a severe AIDS-related infectious disease.
This movie is fast paced, stylish, full of sensational pop music, color and panache. It opens with Renton and his buddies running Hell bent down a street, having heisted some stuff, a few steps ahead of the law. It keeps moving at breakneck speed, like a roller coaster, especially through the first hour, filled with smart, sassy stuff about shooting up, screwing, soccer, stealing, shit (pronounced “shite” with a long “i”), and how it’s “shite being Scottish.” The big choices, Renton intones near the start, are between (a) standard middle and working class materialism, (b) a more real life based on deeper values, and (c) heroin. He has chosen heroin. We follow him and his mates through their addictive ups and downs: withdrawing, staying clean awhile, becoming addicted once again. In the end Tommy is dead, Renton’s other mates are mired in their usual ruts, but Renton himself chooses to walk away from it all, oh, yes, helped along with about ₤12K he rips off from the others after they score a major drug sale deal (he does leave some money for the hapless Spud).
While paying lip service to the downside of opiate addiction, this film in fact glamorizes the junkie life big time. Renton is quite clear about it. Early on, he says, “Heroin is all about misery, desperation and death, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget [to tell you] is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid, at least not that stupid.” Addiction is portrayed in a surreal, over-the-top manner. The best example is when Renton loses two narcotic suppositories before they melt when he has diarrhea. Horrified that his only drug supply of the moment is floating down the toilet, he dives into the bowl. His entire body disappears and he’s then seen from a distance as if in a pool or lake, swimming down deep until he rescues the white suppositories and can paddle back up to the oval of light that is the toilet bowl top.
It’s not that the clinical and social facts are distorted. The ecstasy of getting high, the rigors of withdrawal, the hustle of scoring drugs and money for drugs, the disapproval by parents and others, the horrible consequences (Tommy’s AIDS, a dead baby, prison) – all of these things are depicted with a fair degree of accuracy. (One notable exception: Renton experiencing vivid visual hallucinations of the baby crawling on the ceiling, another surreal touch; such hallucinations do not occur as a result of opiate withdrawal.)
It’s more the manner, the tone, in which these facts about addiction are conveyed that feels wrong. Maybe glamorized is the wrong term here. It's more that everything is prettied up, sanitized. Late in the film, when the good times have thinned out, when Renton is on probation, clean and sober and employed, while Tommy lays about in a drug fugue growing ill and everyone else is strung out too except for Begbie, who’s still crushing heads, all of these circumstances are presented in a breezy way, without much conviction, and with none of the depression, angst, grimness or grit that enshroud the copping, hustling life. It’s the sort of comic book take on heroin addiction that Quentin Tarantino would think of. Spellbinding dialogue (working class Scotspeak in this case). Glittering, colorful scenes. Hot music. Style über substance. When the lads come to London to do the big drug deal near the end, why there’s even a Tarantino-style hommage to the Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
This film is cocky, whip smart, often amusing and, unlike most junkie films, never dull. But it doesn’t feel real. You want real? See Drugstore Cowboy, the best junkie movie ever made.
(With Kelly Macdonald, in her film debut, as Diane, Keith Allen as The Dealer, a.k.a. "Mother Superior" because of the length of his habit, and Peter Mullan as Swanney.) Grades: drama: A-; portrayal of heroin addiction: B (11/04)
TRANSAMERICA (Duncan Tucker, US, 2005, 103 m.) SPOILER ALERT! THEME: TRANSGENDER PROTAGONIST. A fair road movie with a transsexual twist. LA based Stanley Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is only days away from a sex change operation that will seal her long desired fate to become completely Bree, the woman she feels she always has been. But then an urgent phone call comes from a young man in a New York City jail who says he is her son, calling his father, Stanley, for assistance. Stanley’s counselor Margaret (Elizabeth Peña) refuses to give the psychological clearance required for Stanley’s surgery until he first responds to his son’s predicament. So off to the Big Apple traipses an exasperated Stan, there encountering 17 year old son Toby (Kevin Zegers), a street hustling gay prostitute and druggie, and, more importantly, one of the more annoying adolescents ever to appear on the big screen.
Stanley, always dressed as a woman, as Bree, and pretending to be a social worker from a local church, agrees to drive Toby to Los Angeles, where Toby hopes to live with his “rich father” (Stanley nee Bree is quite poor, a humble apartment dweller in a run down neighborhood). The road trip that follows is replete with a predictable assortment of eccentrics, not least among whom are Stan’s family in Tucson. The trip is dominated by bickering between the two principals. Toby is about as much fun to have around as yellowjackets at a September picnic. And yet both he and Stan/Bree do change gradually to accommodate one another. In the end they become friends, Toby gets a job making gay porn films, and Bree gets her surgery. This roughly composed film is noteworthy primarily as a vehicle for a fine acting turn by Ms. Huffman, a veteran actor with no prior big hit to her credit. She gets one here. With Graham Greene in a touching small role as Calvin Manygoats, the gracious Navajo man who develops an instant crush on Bree. Grade: B. (01/06)
TREMBLING BEFORE G_D (Sandi Simcha DuBowski, US, 2002). THEME: RELIGIOUS CONFLICTS OF HOMOSEXUALS. Why would gay or lesbian Jews want to suffer endlessly from the frustrations of being denied recognition or acceptance by Orthodox or Hassidic sects that absolutely castigate them for breaking Biblical and Torah commands against fulfillment of their sexual destiny? You could ask the same question of many Roman Catholic homophiles. Is it simply a matter of “have your cake and eat it too?'” Is it something deeper, familial-cultural religious roots that are as much a part of the person's identity as their sexual preference? Is it poke-'em-in-the-eye protest for protest's sake by mavericks or exhibitionists? We see examples suggesting all of the above in the responses shown here by several gay and lesbian Jews, interviewed by DuBowski in the US, London and Jerusalem. A number of participants' faces are hidden from view to protect their anonymity, and this unfortunately and inadvertently compromises their integrity and our efforts to know and appreciate them better. This enforced hiding and some problems in filming and editing make for an uneven, flawed documentary effort here, but one worth seeing nonetheless. Grade: B- (04/02)
TRULY MADLY DEEPLY (Anthony Minghella, UK, 1991). In the fresh bloom of young love, Jamie (Alan Rickman), a healthy fellow, dies suddenly, and Nina (Juliet Stevenson) is left in the throes of heartbreaking bereavement that disrupts her work, her other relationships, her basic ability to make decisions about where and how to live. Her inability to let Jamie go is further dramatized by Minghella's decision to have him reappear in Nina's life as a ghostly but vivid presence. Not only that, he brings his buddies from the other side to warm themselves with Nina's blankets and watch films on her VCR. In time another (real) young man enters her life, and, sadly but predictably, Jamie's hold on Nina begins to fade. She chooses life over the living dead, as of course it should be. Wonderful realization of the agony and course of grief when a close loved one dies. My mother, even into her late 90s, had occasional visually vivid visitations from her long deceased husband, and from her mother, who would sit at her bedside as she entered twilight sleep. She always found these visits comforting. This was Manghella's directing debut (he had worked in theater and as a screenwriter up till then). Stevenson is magnificent. Click to see my review of Under the Sand, another story of a bereaved woman whose deceased spouse visits her regularly. Grade: B+ (10/02)
THE TRUMAN SHOW (Peter Weir, US, 1998). THEMES: RISKY FREEDOM VERSUS SAFE BUT CONTROLLED LIFE; SURVEILLANCE ISSUES: PRIVACY VERSUS SECURITY. Ingenious screenplay tells the story of a 30 year long TV show in which a whole community is simulated around a single, unsuspecting person, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), whose life is constantly video monitored and broadcast live, 24 hrs a day. And then one day Truman discovers the truth. The film raises intriguing issues: e.g., (1) the pros and cons of living a free but risky life vs. totalitarian-controlled but predictably safe life; (2) hidden surveillance in modern society – an increasing problem in the post 9/11 era; and (3) the ruthlessness and exploitation of people by TV producers. Carrey and Ed Harris, as the show’s director, are both terrific. Grade: B (03/99)
TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE (Mick Jackson, US, 1999). THEME: DEATH & DYING. Based on newspaper sports columnist Mitch Albom's (Hank Azaria) true story about his inspiring teacher at Brandeis University, Morrie Schwartz (Jack Lemmon in his final role), his reunion with Schwartz 16 years after graduation, after Schwartz was stricken with ALS, and the impact on Albom's life of his regular Tuesday visits with Schwartz as he was dying of the disease. This made-for-TV movie won three Emmys for best movie, best actor and best supporting actor. Wendy Moniz lends an attractive screen presence as Albom's fianceé, Janine. Grade: B+ (07/01)
TURTLE DIARY (John Irvin, UK, 1985). THEMES: ETHICS: SAVINGS ANIMALS; RELATIONSHIPS: THE ROOMATE FROM HELL; ANOTHER BRIEF BUT SIGNIFICANT NONAMOROUS RELATIONSHIP. Ben Kingsley is a divorced London man who works in a bookstore, and Glenda Jackson is an author of children's books. They have a chance meeting and discover their mutual interest in freeing giant sea turtles in the local zoo. They find a surprisingly willing accomplice in the zookeeper who looks after the turtles (Michael Gambon). The story is notable for its sensitive rendering of a nonamorous yet deeply felt and intimate transient relationship between the principals (Jackson in fact ends up in bed with Gambon, Kingsley with another bookshop employee). The screenplay is lively, as one would expect from its creator, Harold Pinter. With Jeroen Krabbe as Kingsley's delightfully horrid rooming house mate from Hell. Grade: B+ (06/00)
TWENTYFOURSEVEN (24-7) (Shane Meadows, UK, 1997). THEME: OUTSIZE PROSOCIAL CHARACTER; HELPING DISADVANTAGED YOUTHS. Bob Hoskins is Alan Darcy, a middle aged former boxer who has a vision to help the aimless young men in his town: to redeem their lives through boxing. He revives the moribund boxing club that years before gave him a new direction in life. All goes well for awhile, but a tragic occurrence leads Darcy to exile himself and breaks up the boxing club. Shot in black and white, the photography, the timing of takes and camera angles in particular, are superb, the sound track is outstanding, the young men in the club are interesting, the other supporting players good, and Hoskins is both fierce and enormously kind and caring - a great role for him. The only drawback is the unavoidable problem of all films shot in the north of England: they don't speak English there. Yet so much is well conveyed visually in this film that the language barrier is not all that bad. End credits not only show pictures of the players with names but interactions among them in small groups, a wonderful touch. All in all a surprisingly complete, well put together and moving film. Grade: A (01/00)
TWO TOWNS OF JASPER (Whitney Dow & Marco Williams, US, 2003). THEME: RACIAL (BLACK) HATE KILLING. Feature length documentary about the impact on a southern community of the heinous killing of a 49 year old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by three drunk young white men on June 7, 1998, outside the east Texas town of Jasper, population 8,000, about half black. (Byrd was chained and dragged behind a truck for 3 miles; the evidence suggests that he was conscious for a long part of the journey.) The film was made over the year 1999 during which each of the accused men was tried and convicted. Two received the death sentence, the first whites apparently ever so sentenced for the murder of a black man, although it isn’t clear if it was the first such conviction in Texas, the South or the country.
A special strategy adopted for creating the film was both wise and productive. White (Dow) and black (Williams) producer-directors teamed up. They assembled a white crew led by Dow to follow and interview whites in Jasper, and a counterpart black crew led by Williams to probe the feelings of the black community. Undoubtedly this approach assured a relatively high comfort level of many participants that enhanced their candor in the interviews. There is throughout an ironic juxtaposition of racial progress (Jasper’s mayor and a number of other civic officials and leaders have been blacks) and throwback hideous bigotry (the murder itself, de facto segregation in many areas of town life, racial innuendos in small talk among the “good old [white] boys [and women],” and the overarching taint of vicious racism in prisons: just days before the crime, the two men given capital sentences had been released from prison, where they had joined a white supremacist group).
This thoughtful film ably depicts the current status of race relations in this country: some progress, lots more needed. The film was followed on the next night by a town hall discussion in Jasper led by Ted Koppel. This was a live broadcast, thus placing it more than 3 years out from the filmed material. The most striking thing is the movement made by a few black and white people, especially a white 30-something businessman named Trent Smith, who appeared in the film as a much-tattooed man who had been a self-professed white supremacist prison inmate sometime before 1999, but who has moved dramatically to a more racially tolerant position over the past 4 years. Technically, the film at times is compromised by ambient noise that can drown out interviewees, especially in one long, interesting scene in a black beauty salon. But generally this is an effective and important documentary on black-white relations in the U.S., debuting at a highly relevant time in the wake of Trent Lott’s recent fall from grace caused by his own egregious racial bigotry. Grade: B+ (01/03)
UN AIR DE FAMILLE (Family Resemblances) (Cedric Klapisch, France, 1996). THEME: FAMILY CONFLICTS AND THEIR ROOTS. This was the second hit in a row for Klapisch, who also directed the very humorous and light When the Cat's Away, released the year before in France. This fare is more serious and concerns the playing out of relationships in a family that were set in motion long ago, as shown to us in brief but wonderfully revealing flashbacks to the childhood of the three sibs, Henri, Phillippe and Betty. But 98% of the film takes place in the present on a Friday evening in Henri's modest bar and grill (named "Sleepy Dad's Cafe") in a run down section of the city next to the train tracks.
Henri, who muddles through life keeping up this seedy place that his deceased father started, is the son less favored by his mother, who dotes instead on Phillippe, an executive in a software firm. Both sons have been married for 15 years. Today is Phillippe's wife's (Yolande - Yoyo's) birthday, and they arrive with mother at the cafe to pick up Henri and Betty for dinner elsewhere. The kid sister, Betty, is a defiant but honest, independent punkish woman of 30. Mother is also highly critical of her for not being "ladylike." Other characters include Denis, who works for Henri and lives in an apartment at the cafe. Denis is in love with Betty, but she seems to reject him at the start of the film. Caruso, the aged, paralyzed dog, is the other character whom we meet. We never do see another nonetheless important character, Arlette, Henri's wife, who has chosen this day to announce (by telephone) her intention of separating from Henri because he is so inconsiderate.
The various dramas within this extended family are tightly and fiercely portrayed in a series of conversations among these people that produces an increasingly tense atmosphere in the cafe, now closed for the evening, where they all remain for a forlorn, impromptu meal and birthday celebration, having abandoned the idea of going for a more glittery dinner elsewhere. This arrangement could have produced a stiff set piece of the claustrophobic but static variety one often associates with adaptations of theater dramas to film, which this is. But not so here. There is an immediacy and flow, a dynamic movement that pulls the viewer in. The actors are brilliantly able in using subtle body language to convey feeling; the camera is used to great advantage to move from character to character, and the cafe interior itself is a richly cluttered set of rooms that seem entirely real, interesting in their own right, not like props. A spellbinding, nuanced, utterly believable domestic drama, and one that is especially rich in its compassion for ordinary people. (In French) Grade: A- (08/00)
UN HEROS TRÉS DISCRET (A Self Made Hero) (Jacques Audiard, France, 1996). THEME: SOCIOPATHIC FABRICATION OF IDENTITY, OR IMPOSTURE. Well crafted in every way - story, acting, photography and original music score - this is an absorbing tale of fabricated identity by a stealthy French youth who wants to be a WWII Resistance hero. Young Albert Dehousse (Mattieu Kassovitz) learns, late in WW II, that his father is not the war hero he thought, and his mother has been a collaborator with the Nazis. At the ned of the war, he leaves his wife and journeys to Paris, boasts of his exploits in the resistance, and uses these trumped up stories as an entrée to work tracking down collaborators. Jean-Louis Trintignant narrates as the aged Albert. Fine film. (In French) Grade: B+ (02/97)
UNDER THE SAND (Francois Ozon, France, 2001). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL BEREAVEMENT, WITH DENIAL AND DISSOCIATIVE HALLUCINATIONS OF LOST LOVED ONE. A sensational performance by Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter; Farewell, My Lovely; Stardust Memories; The Verdict) fuels this story of pathological bereavement. As the film opens, a middle aged, well off couple are motoring toward a seaside vacation at their beach house. Their relaxed, effortless geniality and comfort in being together is obvious. The following day they go to the beach. While Marie (Rampling) doses, Jean, her husband, goes for a swim and does not return. Marie awakens, discovers Jean’s absence, and frantically seeks assistance to search for him. His body is found weeks later in the nets of an offshore fisherman. Marie returns to the city, resumes her career as a university teacher of English literature, and reengages easily with her friends.
A man she is introduced to at a dinner party pursues her. She demurs, then consents to dinner and later the beginnings of an affair. But through it all she continues to refer to her husband in the present tense, as if he is on the scene, as if nothing has happened. What’s more, she sees Jean when she is at home. He goes to bed with her. He asks her about Vincent, the suitor who has been calling. When friends confront her gently about facing up to Jean’s death, she is defensive, evasive. Finally, when police call to indicate the body has been discovered, she puts off coming in to identify the remains and property. But she does visit Jean’s mother in a rest home and tells her she fears Jean may have suicided. The mother is spiteful, hostile, says her son would do no such thing, but she shows her own brand of denial, suggesting that he probably faked his drowning and went away because he was bored with Marie. Marie retorts that the mother should be in an asylum, not a rest home, and the mother responds that Marie will be in an asylum before she will.
Marie finally goes to the police in the seaside town, views the remains, identifies the swim trunks but when shown a wrist watch that exactly matches the description of Jean’s, she denies it is his with an hysterical laugh. She then returns to their beach house and to the exact point where Jean drowned. She sits in the sand and, for the first time since his disappearance, she cries deeply and long. Then she glimpses a figure of a man far down the beach. In the last scene she runs, then walks toward the man, but does not reach him before the scene fades. What is wrong here?
Normal grief is entirely blocked by Marie’s denial of her husband’s death, and by the vivid realization of his continued presence, in the form of detailed hallucinations of his presence in the home (though never elsewhere). These forms of denial and dissociative hallucinatory experience of the presence of the lost loved one do occur, and not all that uncommonly. Obviously this situation is a desperate, unstable and unrealistic coping device that blocks a constructive adjustment to life after loss and the process of normal bereavement that can lead to a freeing of emotions for reinvestment in other relationships. A remarkable portrayal. The photography and music are also magnificent. (In French and English) For more on this film, see my article, "More Rooms in the House of Grief." For another film with the same theme (bereaved woman visited by her deceased spouse), see my review of Truly Madly Deeply. Grade: A- (04/03)
Add (01/06): I have just been introduced to Joan Didion's recent book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," a memoir that is astonishingly clinical in the rich detail with which she describes her experiences of grief following the sudden death of her husband of 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and two life threatening medical crises that befell their daughter, Quintana Roo. She stresses above all else patterns of her own behavior that can only be understood as having been based on a virtually delusional belief lurking for months just at the surface of her consciousness: namely, the distinct yet subtle conviction that her husband would come - could come - back to her
Ms. Didion provides a highly useful framework for viewing Marie's experiences in Under the Sand not so much as "mental illness" as it is a response at the extreme edges of "normal" bereavement.
UNKNOWN WHITE MALE (Rupert Murray, US/UK, 2005, 88 m.). THEMES: PSYCHOGENIC AMNESIA OR AMNESTIC DISORDER; FUGUE STATES. Rupert Murray makes his film directing debut here, in a documentary film that tells the story of a friend of his, a young man, Doug Bruce, an intense and successful stock broker in New York City who one evening experienced a dissociative fugue state that lasted perhaps up to several days. Once he had come to his senses again, lying in a hospital bed, he realized that he had no memory whatsoever for his past: his identity, name, or personal history. He retained excellent language skills and other instrumental abilities, could learn new material and remember it, and even was able to write his first name accurately - his only link to his past - when registering for medical tests.
Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a Harvard Memory Psychologist, appears early in the film as a useful talking head, offering us a concise review of the various classes of memory: episodic (personal identity and life events), semantic (general fund of information about the world), and procedural (language skills, how to ride a bike) memory. It is only episodic memory that is compromised in psychogenic amnesia. Bruce's retained language skills and other procedural abilities, and his intact fund of general knowledge, demonstrated that Bruce was suffering from a psychogenic amnesia, not an organic amnesia, i.e., one based on obvious brain damage. In organic cases, e.g., in Korsakoff’s or Alzheimer’s diseases, or after severe head trauma, amnesia also is not limited to the past (retrograde amnesia) but also affects the capacity to form new memories and retain newly learned material (anterograde amnesia). An MRI study did show that Bruce had an enlargement, perhaps a tumor, in the area of the pituitary gland, but this could not explain his fugue or memory loss.
Bruce had a broad enough social network – stretching from New York City to London to Spain, where his family live - that it did not take long before he was identified and then looked after by people who know him. The film traces his initial medical evaluations, his reunion with friends and family, and his efforts to reconstruct his life. He does gradually fill in some missing pieces, though even 15 months later he has only patchy recall of his past. We never do learn of any obvious trigger for his fugue state. Apparently he had never before suffered from such an event. Reference is made to the fact that his mother had died, but that was several years earlier. No other major stressors were disclosed. There was no evidence of trauma or foul play surrounding the onset of the fugue. No so-called "secondary gain" factors emerged, i.e., there was no apperent reward to be gained, or scrape to be avoided, by a convenient (malingered) amnesia episode.
This was a very frustrating film for me. I kept waiting for psychiatric treatment to commence, since Doug’s amnesia was indisputably psychogenic in origin, or at least for more information on a plausible set of stressors to explain the timing and extent of his problem. Initial evaluation by a psychiatrist is mentioned early on, but treatment apparently never came; it certainly wasn't mentioned. So Bruce’s case was very much like a 19th Century case, where everyone agrees on the diagnosis and then just sits around waiting. Cost was certainly no object: Bruce and his family were well off people.
The only interesting aspect of the situation was that everybody agreed on Bruce’s largely favorable personality changes after the fugue. He showed a fresh sort of innocence, thoughtfulness, emotional openness and sensitivity, where before the event his friends saw him as brash, cynical, and a more flip wit. But these personality changes weren’t dwelt upon as much as I would have wanted. At film’s end, we see Bruce building a new, more relaxed life, with a new lover and a new career in the arts.
This film held my attention keenly because of my clinical interest, as I waited in suspense for the other shoe to drop: i.e., for resolution of the problem, or at least elucidation of the causes, as a consequence of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, or the use of amnesia-busting drugs, e.g., sodium amytal or pentobarbital interviews (the old “flack juice,” or “truth serum,” from World War II). Why weren’t any of these things tried? Outrageous. My partner, a non-clinician with no clinical peak or axe to grind, actually found this film boring: neither the protagonist nor his friends or family were especially interesting people to her. Bruce’s reunion with drinking buddies in London showed them to be especially dull. Grade: B- (04/06)
THE "UP" SERIES (35-Up, 42-Up, 49-Up) THEME: LIFESPAN STUDY OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. A documentary, 7 Up, was made for British TV in 1964. It featured segments on 14 seven year old British children. The intent was to follow up on them in ensuing years. The well known British film director Michael Apted did precisely this, and has made a new film about these children every seven years since the first (which he worked on but did not direct). It is a remarkable film achievement. As Roger Ebert says, this series is a noble use of the medium. I report on those I've seen (35- , 42- and 49-Up, so far). Grade (for the entire series): A+
35 UP (Michael Apted, UK, 1991). Homework - saw this one again in preparation for viewing 42 Up soon. Fourteen English 7 year olds - upper and working class, including just one black - were interviewed in 1963 for a British TV feature called 7 Up, then interviewed every 7 years since. Most impressive here is the high level of thoughtful, ariticulate self expression in the responses of almost everyone to Apted's rather clumsy, often unempathic questioning of them. Jackie, Lynn and Sue - working class kids - are especially wise as 35 year olds. The very much troubled Neil, isolated, on the dole and living in a remote village in the Shetland Islands, provides the most distressing story. (12/00)
42 UP (Michael Apted, UK, 2000). Latest chapter in the "Up" series. Of the 14 original participants in 7 Up, 11 were again interviewed for 42 Up. As a researcher for 7 Up, Apted's assignment had been to find and choose the kids. He then took over the project, directing 14 Up and all subsequent installments. As before, he focuses on one person at a time, including in the new film edited parts of their interviews through the entire series to create a brief composite, not really a biosketch, more a series of impressions about the character of that person, seen through the details of how they are living their lives over time. Each installment has an integrity - it can stand on its own - because each retells the whole story of each person, as if the viewer had not seen earlier versions (though it helps immensely: we "prepared" before seeing 42 Up by again viewing 35 Up a few months before, and also read a paperback book of 42 Up published in 1998).
Of course, as the amount of material on each person increases with time, it becomes more challenging to edit an episode. I thought Apted's group did especially well with this one. He employed more than ever a technique in which footage from earlier ages is accompanied by a contemporary, reflective voiceover, in which the subject comments on how some aspect of his or her life was back then. It works wonderfully. Symon, the only black participant, is back, remarried and much more content (he had declined to participate in 35 Up), while Charles, I think he was named, an upper class barrister who married into a well off Bulgarian family, and who participated in 35 Up only to increase Bulgaria's visibility in the West, he said, is now a Q.C. and refused to take part in 42 Up. Bruce the math teacher has married, and Neil, of all people, the deeply troubled man who had exiled himself to the Shetlands, is now back in London, serving as a reelected district councilman, and was a participant in Bruce's wedding. (05/01)
49 UP (Michael Apted, UK, 2005, 135 m.). The seventh film in the unique “Up Series” - documentaries made for Granada, the privately held British television corporation - that has followed a group of 14 ostensibly normal English subjects, from differing backgrounds, from age 7 to 49. A follow-up film has been issued every seven years since the first, released in 1964. This latest installment is the best to date. It is well organized, presenting one person's life at a time rather than skipping around among them. Nearing age 50, these people have become highly thoughtful and articulate; they’re all more interesting now than ever before. And the director, Michael Apted, has also vastly improved his skills at interviewing his subjects, which makes a great difference for the better. What impresses is how well nearly everyone has done in life.
The original thesis of the series is that kids grow up without much change from the way they were early on, a view put forward in the 16th Century Jesuit aphorism: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But the life trajectories of a number of these individuals belie that view, suggesting instead that people often do change in response to life circumstances, a view supported in several 20th Century accounts of human development across the lifespan (e.g., the work of the Harvard psychologist Robert White and his contemporary, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson).
The original thesis in the first film, 7 Up, also held that social class, or socioeconomic opportunity, had a controlling effect on development, a view that excludes the influence of both hereditary and learned aspects of individual psychological makeup and adaptation. I will have more to say about this film and the series in coming weeks. Roger Ebert lists the Up Series among his top ten film productions of all time, and has said that the series represents "…an inspired, almost noble, use of the film medium." I heartily agree. Grade: A+ (10//06)
THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (Mike Binder, US, 2005, 118 min.). THEMES: CONSEQUENCES OF A BROKEN HOME; "SUBURBAN" PSYCHODRAMAS;This seriously flawed story features one outstanding performance, by Kevin Costner, and another virtually as good, by Joan Allen, though her's is diminished in its impact because it is a more stereotyped role. These two are neighbors in an affluent Detroit suburb, where each is aimlessly attempting to dissolve their troubles in alcohol. Costner plays Denny Davies, a former major league baseball star and local legend who continues to make a living based on his past athletic exploits. He has a radio talk show and makes guest appearances for high fees. He’s alone (we are never told whether he’s divorced or has children). Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, who has been abandoned by her husband, left in sole charge of a large household and four teenage daughters. And she is pissed. Seriously angry. On edge at every turn. Alienating herself from her family with her daily round of drinks and explosions. This goes on for three years.
Denny is a nice guy, laid back, affable, able to laugh at himself, at life. He’s the emotional polar opposite of Terry, though he’s been attracted to her for a long while and makes moves to cozy up to her now that she’s alone. Partly he just wants to offer support. Partly, he says, he’s drawn to the liveliness in the Wolfmeyer household, which, either despite its emotional storms or because of them, feels more real to him than the forlorn emptiness of his own house, which is little more than a repository for empty beer bottles and cartons of baseballs and bats he autographs to help pay his bills. Terry resists Denny’s overtures for a long while but gradually yields.
Terry’s unquenchable fury and limited frustration tolerance are magnificently displayed by Ms. Allen. Still, without taking anything away from her work here, which, as usual, is excellent, it is fair to say that we have seen the unexpurgated anger of women deserted by their men a hundred times before ("Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," the playwright William Congreve said more than 200 years ago). There is nothing really new in this depiction. More about this later. Costner is superb in a more subtly nuanced, demanding and unusual role. On the one hand, he has known stardom, continues to make a living from it, and in fact prefers an easy life. But it is also true that he is troubled that he has not developed another career, a second act, and is ashamed to live off a reputation earned in bygone days. He doesn’t like being a has-been yet he knows no recourse. He tries to steer clear of baseball on his talk show, but the station owners insist this is what listeners want and threaten to cancel his program if he won’t comply.
Beyond the two star turns, this film contains nothing much to its credit: the photography, set design and other aspects are pedestrian. Costume and camera seem to converge on a considerable display of cleavage in the Wolfmeyer daughters, who show little else to commend them. Mike Binder, the director, likes to cast himself in his films. Here he plays Denny’s seriously sleazy producer, who is permitted to have an affair with buxom daughter Andy Wolfmeyer (Erika Christensen), who is half his age, under Terry’s nose. This bit requires a stupendous suspension of disbelief for everyone except, apparently, Mr. Binder. Still, his character provides a welcome bit of comic relief.
Binder also wrote the screenplay, and, judging by the lines he has youngest daughter Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood) speak near the end, it was his ambition to show us that anger can have a positive, transformative impact on a person. He wants us to know that anger, as the film’s title indicates, can have an upside. Trouble is, the structure of his story precludes any demonstration of this assertion. We don’t get to know Terry before her husband disappears. All we have to go on are her daughters’ claims that she used to be “sweet” and has “changed a lot.” Then, after a surprise development toward the end of the film suddenly takes much of the angry wind out of Terry’s emotional sails, we don’t get to see any resulting changes in her temperament, only a hint or two that things will be better. So, does she end up a permanently changed person or simply revert to being her old self? You can’t tell.
We know that anger can be turned to altruism: it is a common theme among people who emerge as dedicated workers in human rights, civil liberties and other humane causes. And, as Denny himself suggests, a hostile domestic environment may crackle with vitality when compared to a place devoid of other people. Anger is better, more real, than nothing, he says. No doubt. Yet people who harbor chronic anger toward ex-spouses often tend to become stuck in an emotional quagmire, unliberated by their fury, which tends to be self sustaining. It would be interesting to see a good film in which the opposite occurs. But you won’t find that here. Grade: B (07/05)
THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES (Eve Ensler & Joe Mantello, US, 2002). THEME: WOMEN'S ISSUES. Film produced for HBO of the fabulously successful stage production written and performed by Ensler. She interviewed 200 women about their thoughts concerning their vaginas (and their loves and lives), and built her script around this material. By turns hilarious, poignant, bold and tragic, this performance is absolutely riveting. Ensler is a prodigious talent: as interviewer, writer, actress, comedienne and social commentator. Grand entertainment. Grade: A- (10/02)
THE VANISHING (George Sluizer, Netherlands, 1988). THEME: OBSESSIVE CRIMINAL PSYCHOPATH; A Dutch woman disappears from a roadside gas station convenience store while she and her husband are vacationing in France. We glimpse the life of her abductor, a respectable, goateed middle class science teacher, who is also a husband and the father of two teenage daughters. We learn that the abductor considers himself a sociopath who can pursue a decent, good life only by carrying out some evil act at least once. He is guided for years by this epiphany, a vision of evil accomplishment that began after he jumped from a second story balcony as a youngster just because he was curious about the experience. In fact this man had tried unsuccessfully to abduct other women. The bereft husband of the lost woman obsessively pursues her for years, distributing posters about her throughout the part of France where she was last seen. After three years, the abductor arranges to meet the husband and promises to let him know her fate , but only if he consents to experience the same steps that his wife had experienced. The husband reluctantly but desperately agrees, with predictably tragic consequences. What a dummy he is. Grade: B (06/01)
VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh, UK, 2004). THEMES: FAMILY DYNAMICS, FAMILY RESPONSES TO STRESS, ILLEGAL ABORTION. SPOILER ALERT! Mike Leigh, like his fellow Brit filmmaker Ken Loach, has the heart of a social worker. Both are interested in dramatizing the difficulties of ordinary people in the context of societal influences that result in ironic, often agonizing predicaments. Leigh’s particular interest is families in tension. Secret and Lies (1995), for example, dealt with struggles about mixed race and identity for an adopted woman in a dysfunctional family. High Hopes (1989), one of Leigh’s best films, satirized Margaret Thatcher’s ideas, played out in the greed and self centeredness of relatives and neighbors of an aging, disgruntled old woman. Vera Drake is a superbly crafted movie that depicts the daily concerns and satisfactions of a working class family in central London, in 1950, a time when the psychological shadows of wartime economic deprivation, trauma and loss still darken people’s experience and shape their perspectives and even their conversation. The Drake family actually fares pretty well. Everyone’s employed. The head of the household is Stan (Phil Davis, who also starred in High Hopes), a congenial, solid fellow who has a comfortable job repairing cars in his brother’s shop; son Sid (Daniel Mays), a bit of a dandy, sells men’s clothing and chases girls; daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), homely as putty and exquisitely shy, tests light bulbs on an assembly line. They live in tiny quarters that boast no frills. It could feel dreary there but it does not, because everyone is made comfortable by the selfless, abiding good care provided by Vera (Imelda Staunton), Stan’s wife and the kids’ mum. Stan and Vera obviously appreciate each other and treat their children with knowing respect.
Vera, who’s about 50, is cheery, understated, tireless and kind. She lives to help others. She calls everyone “Dear” and has a word of support, a fresh “cuppa” tea, and some hands on assistance ready to offer for whatever problem needs attention. She extends herself without reservation to everyone: her family, her sickly mother, the invalid downstairs and his family, other neighbors. She invites the affectless, vaguely mournful bachelor Reg (Eddie Marsan) for dinner and thus, improbably, a romance of sorts ensues for Ethel and Reg. Vera works as a domestic in well off households.
She also has performed illegal abortions for the past 20 years. She would never use this term, of course. Nor does she see this activity as morally wrong. To her, aiding a poor woman who is pregnant out of wedlock or already burdened by too many children is no different than fixing a meal for an ailing neighbor or straightening up her mum’s apartment. It’s simply another instance of being helpful to someone in need. A friend, Lily, makes the arrangements, for women who cannot afford the costly services of a medically approved procedure (we see one such arrangement for the daughter of a rich woman whose house Vera cleans). Characteristically, Vera provides the service – a lye soap and water douche – without charging any fee. Unbeknownst to her, Lily does charge and pockets the money for herself.
Inevitably, a young woman develops a uterine infection after Vera’s ministrations, and nearly dies. As luck would have it, the girl’s mother, present at the procedure, knows Vera from years ago. The hospital reports the event and police pressure the mother into revealing Vera’s name. Arrest and a night in jail come on the worst possible day, when Ethel and Reg’s engagement is being celebrated. Ultimately, Vera is convicted and sent away to prison for 2 ½ years. The impact of these circumstances in the family plays out in various ways, all convincing. Stan, his brother, Ethel and Reg all rally without hesitation around Vera.
Reg is especially supportive. Referring to his own family, he says that too many children made life very hard. He stuns everyone when he breaks a leaden silence on Christmas Day to say, apparently in truth, that it is the best Christmas he has ever had. Sid finds his mother’s conduct morally reprehensible; he’s furious with her. In one of the film’s best scenes, Stan confronts Sid, admits his own anger, but demands that Sid honor his love for his mother by showing forgiveness. Sid, to his credit, comes around. The brother’s wife, Vera’s sister in law, a classic materialistic social climber, is also deeply disapproving and stays that way. She’s the only one who doesn’t show up for Vera’s trial. In the final scene, we see Stan, Sid, Ethel and Reg sitting around the dinner table, dispirited, mute, immobilized. We are struck by the terrible truth that Vera, in her steady, positive, quiet manner, had been the animating force in this family, and without her the others are emotionally numb and adrift.
This film succeeds in several ways. As a study of a family, it is impeccable. As an evocation of life for many British citizens in the years immediately following World War II, it feels authentic and believable. (Production design is excellent with a single, literally glaring exception: the cheese grater Vera uses to create lye soap shavings for douches is shiny bright, new off the shelf, not dull gray from use as it should be.) The story depicts several forms of injustice and inequality. There is, of course, the obvious and ever timely issue of unequal access to abortion based on economic advantage, the inevitable result when repressive antiabortion laws or rules hold sway. But the larger, more ironic injustice, one that has no easy answer, is that a truly good woman is punished for acts which were always well intentioned, afforded Vera no personal gain, and had nearly always produced beneficial results. Yet these same acts always carried the potential for harm, and possible death. These issues are depicted by Leigh without didacticism. There’s nothing preachy in this film, another strength.
Mike Leigh here, as he nearly always does in preparing to shoot a film, worked with his actors for several months collaboratively to develop the characters and final script. Though the performances of all the supporting players named above are splendid, this is Ms. Staunton’s film and she is wonderful. She is not well known for film roles but has enjoyed great success on the London stage, winning awards for roles in both dramatic and musical productions. She was judged Best Actress for her Vera Drake at the 2004 Venice Film Festival, where the movie was also honored as Best Film.
Grade: A- (10/04)
VILLAGE OF DREAMS (Yoichi Higashi, Japan, 1996). THEMES: CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES. Beautifully filmed memoir of childhood joys and sorrows shared by identical twin boys. Often hilarious, the stories are never forced and always ring true. (In Japanese) Grade: B+ (02/97)
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (Sofia Coppola, US, 2000). THEME: TEEN SUICIDE. SPOILER ALERT! This is a dramatically absorbing but clinically puzzling story of a family in which five teenage sisters kill themselves. Based on a much discussed 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is a fictional account set in a well off Michigan suburb in the 1970s. Cecille, at 13 the youngest of the Lisbon sisters, cuts her wrists. An attempt at therapy appears to fail. Her parents understandably are nervous and try to make nice for her. They throw a teen party in her honor. She excuses herself and jumps to her death off an upstairs balcony. The parents are deeply aggrieved, especially the mother (Kathleen Turner), who, utterly devastated, becomes painfully and obviously depressed. The father (James Woods), a mild mannered math teacher at the high school, becomes detached and preoccupied.
The surviving four sisters - ages 14 to 17 - seem after a while to carry on rather well, although the pall in the household remains. This pall is conveyed in a chilling manner by the use of subdued lighting, absence of animated activity, unkempt belongings and unwashed dishes, trees being condemned and cut down by the city. Months go by, and then, after one of the middle sisters, the sexually provocative Lux (Kirsten Dunst), stays out all night on a date, mother cracks down fanatically, viciously, and the entire family goes into an acute regressive, shadowy, isolated tailspin of bare existence, cut off from everyone. The daughters are even pulled out of school and kept under observation at home. After two weeks of this imprisonment, the sisters apparently successfully carry out a mutual suicide pact. The parents put the house on the market and drive away, never to be seen again.
Film critic Shawn Levy has accurately described this film as an "...eerie story of sexual awakening, despair, obsession and suicide..." but it is more than that. Like American Graffiti, it is also a story of the longing of adolescent boys for girls and for their own emergence as men. It is in fact one of a small group of male classmates from high school who narrates the tale, from the vantage point of mid adulthood, looking back. And in the telling, as well as the scenes at the time, it is as much a story of these emerging young men as it is anything else, as Roger Ebert has pointed out. And it is a certainly a story of a family, the Lisbons, a deeply repressive and conventional, Roman Catholic family, dominated by a powerful, brooding, controlling woman, who through the brutal force of her will is attempting to insulate her daughters from the perils of 1970s youth culture.
This family is the polar opposite of the family depicted in by Ang Lee in Ice Storm, whose members are spinning out of control as the adults outdo the kids in seeking sexual and other thrills. However, only her husband (Woods) is much controlled by this woman. Her daughters tend to go their own ways, although they are very close together, in fact, they seem curiously not to be integrated well into a community of their peers, preferring their own company even when not quarantined at home. First time writer-director Sofia Coppola has gotten a lot of things right in this film, including the sense of adolescent longings and angst, and, especially, the pervasive gloom of a family mired in a terrible tragedy, compounded by the depressive illness of its most influential member.
The clinical problems here are probably traceable more to Eugenides' novel than to Coppola's work (I haven’t read the book). There are curious messages here. Are we to believe that adolescent suicide is an enigma? That its causes typically cannot be discerned? That simply isn't true. Are we to think that repressive controlling parents cause children to suicide? That isn't true either. Religious families, however rigid, where parental concern may seem excessive and too strictly administered, are less likely to produce depressed and suicidal kids than the opposite, loosely structured, indifferent families where children are neglected or free to do as they please. Suicide here seems also to be associated with adolescent female mystery, with sexual allure, with secret pacts and hi jinks, even with a kind of denial of death (Cecille appears several times after her death).
This portrayal should be cause for alarm for Tipper Gore, NAMI, schools and other groups concerned with preventing adolescent suicide. It is true that parental depression predicts adolescent depression, and that a suicide in the family can have longlasting effects on the suicide risks for close relatives and friends. For more on this film, see my article titled "Teen Suicide." Grades: drama: B+; clinical authenticity: D (07/00)
VOICES FROM A LOCKED ROOM (Malcolm Clarke, UK, 1999). THEME: DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY (MULTIPLE PERSONALITY) DISORDER. Jeremy Northam is working too hard these days. Here he plays a man with multiple personality disorder - well two - music critic and composer - at odds with each other in a struggle to the death, literally, in a film set in 1930 London. Northam does well enough as the neurotic music critic Phillip Heseltine but he and the film begin to fall apart when he emerges as the elusive composer Peter Warlock, whose work has been furiously attacked by the critic up until then. It's all ends as a bore. The story is supposed to be true, but I find it unbelievable that a secondary personality could compose serious music of acclaimed stature. If true, I think the critic/composer must have worked at his two opposing roles more knowingly than is the case in true dissociative identity disorder. Grades: As drama: B; Clinical authenticity: D (07/00)
WALKING AND TALKING (Nicole Holofcener, UK/US/Germany, 1996). THEMES: ADULT GROWTH; HOW RELATIONSHIPS CHANGE AS PEOPLE’S PERSONALITIES ARE REFORMED OR REFINED; DELAYED COMING-OF-AGE. How about ”Talking and Talking”? Because there’s precious little walking and a long ton of talking in this nevertheless slick and often amusing 30-something date flick. Catherine Keener is arresting as Amelia, a perpetually unattached, neurotic, through-a-glass-darkly type. Her lifelong, cheery best girlfriend Laura (Anne Heche), is a psychotherapist-in-training. Laura is becoming less available these days because of an uptick in her relationship with Frank (Todd Field), and, indeed, soon they are planning their wedding.
This throws Amelia, who has long been dependent upon Laura to buck up her spirits when they sag. Amelia’s therapist (Joseph Siravo) has even given away her regular weekly appointment hour to a new client, after he and Amelia had previously agreed to a planned termination. Now Amelia has no one to turn to but a sensitive, witty, yet equally neurotic ex-boyfriend, Andrew (Liev Schreiber), and a nerdy, unhygienic but self confident sort of grown up kid who clerks at her favorite video store, Bill (Kevin Corrigan). Oh. Yes. Her aging cat has cancer and needs to go on chemo.
The film portrays a succession of antics that flow from these circumstances. The details aren’t important to recount. The film is a study of character, and it suggests (rightly) that some people don’t even begin to deal with coming-of-age, maturational issues until long after youth, and only then when they must. In the long run, some don't succeed and some do, growing up, moving on, freed somewhat at least from the shackles of unuseful childhood habits.
Brief scenes suggest the nature of several psychotherapy relationships: Laura treating two different patients, both men; and Amelia and her male therapist. Laura is shown to have intense sexual fantasies about coupling with one man she is treating. There is an age-old film formula that says: when a female therapist takes on a handsome male client, she must at some point try to fuck him. (Glen and Krin Gabbard have written in detail about this virtually invariable pattern in the 2nd edition of their book, “Psychiatry and the Cinema.”) This pattern was evident as early as 1945 in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, when therapist Ingrid Bergman falls in love with her dissociated patient, Gregory Peck
It is thus a welcome change of pace to find that Laura’s sexual fantasies stop there. She never makes a move to act them out with her client; she doesn’t act seductively. She is in fact troubled by the fantasies, thinks they are a sign that she is unfit to be a decent psychotherapist. Actually it’s more a sign of the opposite: that she has scruples and is inclined to evaluate the propriety of her own behavior, erring on the side of being overly self critical. Good qualities in a therapist, I'd say. Laura does seem utterly incapable of assessing a symptom reported by her other patient, who refers to little devils he sees crawling around him. You wonder who on earth is supervising her, if anyone.
The drama is well acted. Ms. Keener and Mr. Schreiber are wonderfully natural in their more nuanced performances, and the other players are adequate. Grade: B (12/04)
THE WAR ZONE (Tim Roth, UK, 2000). THEME: INCEST. SPOILER ALERT! The suffering of 17 year old Jessie (Lara Belmont) and, even more so, the sullen and relentless moral outrage of her kid brother, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), drive this sad family saga of incest set on the wild Devon coast of England. With Ray Winstone as the father and Tilda Swinton, looking very much post partum, as the mother. The film grabs us right off the bat, when a near tragedy leaves the family and audience badly shaken. Thus seized, we are then swept along by escalating family tensions, superb photography and haunting. Events unfold in which we become keenly aware that Jessie and her father are having sex. “Mum,” preoccupied by her new infant, the third child in the family, seems oblivious to this, but among the film’s many ambiguities one wonders how blind she really is (in real father-daughter incest cases, the mother often knows but pretends otherwise). But it’s clear that Tom knows and he is morosely enraged about it. As he quietly fumes and Jessie seems more and more in agony, a blowup in the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the household seems inevitable. Tom finally confronts his father, with definitive if disastrous results. His father’s blatant and indignant denials are entirely true to clinical reality.
To me the ending is ambiguous. When Tom closes the door of an old bunker and returns to Jessie's side, it is clear that their mutual love is, and will be, the abiding source of comfort for each of them, against the world. Many viewers also assume that this comfort will find expression in sexual union, if for no other reason than this: such an outcome is to be expected given the perverse home in which these kids have been raised. I see it differently. For Tom to have sex with Jessie would be to vitiate everything he believes in. Despite being raised in a house awash in too familiar sexuality, Tom can be seen as a puritan, a brooding, non-lustful moral force who stands resolutely opposed to what his father (and Jessie) have done. That force - Tom's force - is at the very core of this story.
This is not in my view a standard Freudian drama, but a far more elemental morality play. I think that the statement Tom makes by closing the bunker door at the end is this: 'It's over. No more unwanted penetration of our lives will occur here. It is done.' I see the bunker door as a chastity belt guarding both brother and sister from the outside world, not a privacy barrier for their sex. But, hey, a major aim of Roth's in the film, he says, is to avoid talk show glibness and pat answers in favor of presenting the subject matter in an appropriately ambiguous light, consistent with the depths of human nature. So, no one is likely to come up with the "right" black/white answer here or for some of the other enigmas in this film. With the aid of fine actors and others, Roth's directing debut is a huge success. One good measure of this is the debate the film generates. (Add: sometime after writing this review, I read the novella of the same name written by Alexander Stuart and adapted by him for the film. Guess what: Tom and Jessie get it on in the book.) Grade: A- (02/00)
WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (John Curran, US, 2004). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; INFIDELITY; RECONCILIATION. We Don’t Live is a savagely realistic account of marital disintegration and infidelity. Two marriages are on the line here, in a film that is well crafted by Mr. Curran and competently acted by a talented ensemble. Mark Ruffalo is Jack Linden, a college lit professor living in an older neighborhood of a small city. His best buddy is Hank Evans (Peter Krause from the HBO series, Six Feet Under), who teaches creative writing in the same department and struggles at his own novel. Their wives are also good friends: Terry Linden (Laura Dern) and Edith Evans (the incandescent Naomi Watts). The two couples seem inseparable, and this familiarity assumes more problematic dimensions when, after an evening of drinking, passes are made across marital boundaries. It isn’t long before coupling is occurring between Hank and Terry, Jack and Edith. It isn’t consensual wife swapping either.
Both marriages are marked by disaffection. Of course there must be a history to account for this, to illuminate or at least document the stepwise developments that have culminated in the transgressions that unfold here, but this background is not revealed to us. It is clear that Jack and Terry are very angry with each other, very embittered. It’s nothing new. Jack criticizes Terry’s laziness, sloppy housekeeping and overindulgence in wine. Terry sees that Jack is far more loving toward their two young children than toward her.
The Evans household is a different, more spare – no, sterile is the better term - sort of place, physically and emotionally. Hank manifests a towering indifference toward Edith, who is also indifferent toward Hank. Hank is never seen in contact with the couple’s preschool daughter. Hank is also passive aggressive. One day he comes on to a woman at school, a student in one of his classes, and she tacitly snubs him. Later, in class, after he offers a critique of her writing, noting how the piece started well, then sagged, she offers the excuse that her boyfriend and she had just broken up when she was in the middle of writing the story. Hank coldly replies that her personal life is irrelevant, it’s what’s on the page that matters.
As the two affairs heat up, it becomes clear that Hank would just as soon hand over responsibility for fulfilling Edith’s need for affection to Jack, freeing up Hank to write, flirt and generally goof off. As Hank confides to Jack, “it’s easier to live with a woman who feels loved.” No matter who’s providing that love, he might have added. And Edith seems to find this arrangement acceptable as well. Most likely it was different when the Evans’s were first together. Edith delivers the film’s best line to Jack as they lay on a blanket after sex in the country: “He (Hank) loved the person you’re having an affair with.” For the Lindens, on the other hand, the strains of infidelity erode their emotional controls.
In the end there seems to be hope that Jack has broken through his hostility to find renewed positive regard for Terry that comes closer to matching his devotion to his children. For the Evans’s there appears to be no hope at all, even an ambiguous final scene hinting that Edith might be contemplating suicide. Beyond these things, however, the film offers no ideas or insights to further define or explicate the pathos of these people.
The film - adapted from two Andre Dubus short stories, “Adultery” (1980) and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” (1984) - is far better than the average soap, but it is more a snapshot of disintegrating marriages than a source of any edification about them. Grade: B+ (12/04)
WEST BEIRUT (Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon/France, 1999). THEMES: ADOLESCENTS COMING OF AGE IN A CITY FULL OF WARFARE. A film about teenagers growing up amidst the chaos at the outbreak of the Lebanon war in the mid-1970s. Doueiri, a native of Beirut who's film training occurred in the US and who worked here as a cinematographer, makes his directing debut here in a film that often seems barely in control. Indeed, many scenes seem to tumble on emotionally, much as one often finds in Iranian films. But it works here, giving the sense of shock, frayed nerves and loss of control that any people must feel when peace turns overnight into war, when what was the security of their own living place is no longer safe. The director's younger brother, Rami, plays the sly and charming Tarek, and a non-actor, Mohamad Chamas, plays his chum, Chamas. Wonderful scenes show the two of them horsing around. Good turns also by the actors playing Tarek's parents (Joseph Bou Nassar and Carmen Lebbos). The film also gives a sense of life and custom among the people in this city. (In Arabic and French) Grade: B (04/00)
WEST 47th STREET (Bill Lichtenstein & June Peoples, US, 2001). THEME: COMMUNITY CARE FOR ADULTS WITH SEVERE, PERSISTENT MENTAL ILLNESS Verite style documentary follows four people with severe and persistent mental disorders as they struggle to establish stable niches in the community of Manhattan. They are enrollees at a well known community program for such people, Fountain House, headquartered in Hell’s Kitchen. Fountain House celebrated its 50th anniversary during filming, which took place between 1996 and 1999, the filmmakers accumulating in the process some 350 hours of material. The film has won several festival awards and debuted on PBS’s POV program on August 19, 2003. Grade: B+ (01/04)
WHALE RIDER (Niki Caro, New Zealand/Germany, 2003). THEME: ADOLESCENT GIRL COMING-OF-AGE STORY. Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is an aging tribal leader of a Maori community in a contemporary small coastal New Zealand village. He wants to pass his people's ancient knowledge on to the new generation. The myths he teaches are never coherently presented in this film. What is clear in an origin myth is that the founder rode a whale to the new land. It's equally clear that only men can land jobs as whale riders and chiefs. Women need not apply. Not even second born males. Thus Koro had hoped for a son or grandson to succeed him. But his elder son is a modernistic sculptor more comfortable in the city and abroad, where his work is highly regarded. His son - Koro’s only grandson - died shortly after birth along with his mother. A fraternal twin sister, Pai, survived and has been raised lovingly by Koro and his wife.
Now 12, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) feels a calling to become the chief Koro longs for, but Koro regards her pursuit of Maori knowledge as impudent nonsense, naturally, because Pai is a girl. Koro trains the young teen boys in the cultural traditions, and Pai counters by persuading her uncle to teach her the same rituals. But despite her devotion to learning, superior skills next to the woeful boys, and reverence for her grandfather, there seems to be nothing Pai can do to overcome Koro’s rejection of her as a proper person to succeed him. Unforeseen circumstances occur, however, that permit Pai to use her skills to advantage in a way that Koro can no longer deny. Magical realism operates here as well, but it's not too invasive. Both Paratene and Castle-Hughes give remarkably powerful performances. It is their contest of wills that provides the dramatic edge animating this film. Pai's character and conduct - the balance of her resourcefulness, restraint and respect for her elders - make this film especially worthwhile viewing for young teens and preteens. Grade: B (08/03)
WHAT ABOUT BOB? (Frank Oz, US, 1991). THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPY, TRANSFERENCE PROBLEMS; DEPENDENCY IN THERAPY; COMIC DEPICTION OF THERAPY PROBLEMS. Bill Murray is Bob Wiley, the psychiatric patient from Hell, who manipulates and ingratiates with everyone, even fakes suicide, in order to tag along on the family summer vacation of his new therapist, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). The humor is in the escalating battle between Murray and Dreyfuss, as each struggles to outwit, if not damage, the other. This is in essence a reprise of Dreyfuss' role in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, where his nemesis was Nick Nolte, portraying a manipulative sociopath. In both films Dreyfuss does pompous indignant rage with great skill - it's perhaps his only persona as a comedic actor. One (professionally) unconvincing aspect of this film is that the patient (Murray) has had only one brief visit with the therapist before the vacation occurs. Ordinarily, patients with severe personality disorders - the ones most likely to use any means to violate boundaries between patient and therapist - conduct themselves in this manner only after forming strong attachments to their therapists as a function of repeated contacts over time.
The more serious problem with the film is that Murray has all the charm of a water buffalo caught in a drought. To manipulate people as adroitly as this screenplay allows Murray to do requires the guile of a Nick Nolte, the seductiveness of a Johnny Depp (the patient in Don Juan DeMarco), or the raw authority of a Robert DeNiro (the patient in Analyze This). Murray has none of these qualities here. One keeps wondering how anyone could possibly tolerate him. Murray himself often seems incredulous, as if he's also thinking that he's getting away with far too much. It's no wonder when Dr. Marvin really goes bonkers - he's the only one with any sense of reality in this group. Still, there are enough honestly wrought laughs along the way to (barely) save this movie from the scrap heap of failed comedy. Grade: B-
WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW!? (What the <Bleep> Do We Know!?) (William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, US, 2004). THEMES: PERSONAL GROWTH, SELF-HELP, BRAIN FUNCTION AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR; QUANTUM PHYSICS AND CONSCIOUSNESS. Here’s a very busy inspirational film for personal growth seekers. It’s based on the premise that everything in the universe is mutable and uncertain, and, this being the case, there is always hope that change is possible. People around the northwest were piling in to see this film all spring, and are doing so nationwide now. And why not. We all long for hope, a vision of positive possibilities, especially in troubled times. (An additional reason for the film’s popularity here in Portland is that the location shots were all filmed here.) The film is an example of an increasingly popular film genre that has been called “narrative documentary” or “essay documentary.” It’s a filmmaking strategy in which a particular theme is approached from different angles, using different methods – here mixing an array of talking heads, animation sequences, and segments of a dramatized story.
Nearly a score of physicists, molecular biologists, health professionals, and spiritual commentators assault us, earnestly explaining the connections between deep science and everyday human experience. These talking heads chatter at breakneck newsbite speed to tell us how quantum physics proves that the world we call real is in fact just a series of possibilities of what’s real. This being the case, our convictions about our psychological reality, our presumed limitations, and our assumptions about other people and relationships are also just a few among many possibilities. Acceptance of a helpless victim role and addictive devotion to our pet beliefs thus make no sense. In fact our repetitive negative thoughts and feelings actually affect the microanatomy of our brains, creating a self-perpetuated, ever more ingrained set of expectations and behaviors. But we can choose and pursue other possibilities.
The drama concerns a woman (played by Marlee Matlin) who in the years since a failed marriage has been burdened by persistent negative habits of thought, resulting in poor self regard and caustic appraisals of men, resulting in unhappiness and isolation. But through acts of magical realism, she begins to behave in uncharacteristic ways, and gradually her most cherished if cynical assumptions are challenged. The animated parts are the best thing in the film. There are wonderful views of the labyrinthine jungle of neurons making up the brain, increasing and altering the connections among themselves in ever changing dynamisms as a result of experience. And there are lovable Disneyesque portrayals of chemical neurotransmitters, little anthropomorphic globules of red dopamine hotheads and other blue cool types prancing from site to site inside our heads. These parts are a lot of fun.
Thirty years ago, physicist Fritjof Capra wrote of the connections between quantum physics and consciousness in his underground best seller, The Tao of Physics. There’s nothing in this film that he didn’t cover as well or better way back then. In fact, there has been little progress on this theme in the intervening decades, and for good reason. The largely spurious comparison of issues of matter and energy in quantum physics with human experience is an example of the all-too-common falseness of reasoning based on analogy. The main connection between quantum physics and the study of consciousness is that a number of quantum physicists find themselves attracted to mysticism: the main links are the scientists themselves.
Furthermore, there is no need to complicate our efforts to understand human behavior by conflating them with the “noise” of abstract thinking from subatomic physics. It’s quite enough to digest the fact that experience does alter both brain chemistry and anatomy. There’s no doubt of that. This is the biological basis of the widely acknowledged fact that ingrained patterns of behavior, thought, emotional response, and addiction are so hard to alter. It is also true that when we risk new behaviors, when we combat the helpless tendency to repeat response patterns that are familiar, even if destructive, this can lead to positive change and personal growth. It may even, as the film suggests, change our brain anatomy.
Quantum physics need not be invoked to explain or fortify these notions, whether it’s true or not. To do so may bring the respectability of “hard science” to humanistic issues, but the price of this gloss may be to confuse many people, especially in the dizzying sort of presentation given in this film. (My partner, who is neither a scientist nor a psychologist, found the film edifying but tuned out all the talk by the physicists.) I especially enjoyed the comments of Candace Pert, a molecular biologist who discovered the opioid brain receptor for endorphins, and several of the health professionals. On the other hand, I was repelled by JZ Knight, who “channels” the spiritual entity “Ramtha,” a 35,000 year old citizen from Atlantis, no less. Knight is a woman who endlessly blathers stagy new-agey pop-mystical banalities but is just slick enough that she could probably sell oil to a Saudi.
So what we have here is a goulash of useful information, cliches, misrepresentations and plain malarkey, all thoroughly mixed, seductively packaged and difficult to sort out. Someone writitng to film critic Roger Ebert correctly called this nothing more than an infomercial for Knight's Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which will enlighten you too in exchange for a few dollars. For more details, see the film's website at www.whatthebleep.biz See also my article titled "Northwest Passages: Two Adventures in Personal Growth." Grade: C (04/04)
WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (Lasse Hallström, US, 1994). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: ADOLESCENT WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY; MORBID OBESITY; GOOD MODEL OF FAMILY MEMBER BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHERS; FAMILY CONFLICT. What isn’t eating Gilbert Grape? Here he is, pushing 30, in a dead end job (clerking in a mom and pop grocery), in a dead end rural town (it’s even named Endora), and head of a troubled family composed of his mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates), who probably weighs 400 pounds and hasn’t left the house in seven years, his 18 year old brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a severe developmental disability and wasn’t supposed to live this long, and a nasty kid sister who crosses him at every turn. Also breathing down his neck is a desperately horny older woman, Betty (Mary Steenburgen), who calls in for home grocery deliveries every few days in order to bed Gilbert while her husband’s at work.
Gilbert is nothing if not responsible. He bathes Arnie every night, has him hang out all day at the grocery while he works, patiently pulls him out of scrapes, like climbing to the top of the town water tower, which Arnie does with alarming regularity. Gilbert’s respectful to his mother, though in fact he is quietly furious that she’s let herself go in the years since his father hanged himself in the basement. He’s getting more and more annoyed with his life but sees no way out.
Enter the annual pilgrimage of a Silver Streak travel trailer club caravan that spends a few nights camping on the outskirts of the town on their way to Colorado. This year there’s a young woman, Becky (Juliette Lewis), traveling with her grandmother. Becky and Gilbert meet in town and take a shine to each other. This causes a series of tectonic events at Betty’s house, resulting in her husband’s death, presumably an accident though town gossips whisper about murder at Betty’s hand. At any rate, she splits with her two kids, leaving the romantic field open to Becky.
Bonnie also conveniently dies of heart failure after working her way upstairs to her bed for the first time in years, but not before her most triumphant scene, hoisting her corpulent self out of the house and down to the town jail to demand the release of her beloved Arnie after his latest water tower climb. Ms. Cates is the real deal, she’s no slim actress in a high tech fatty suit. I conducted clinical research studies with morbidly obese adults years ago and can attest that Bonnie's behavior and temperament ring absolutely true. She is passive much of the time but can be highly aggressive and demanding when the spirit moves, as in her jail encounter. Typical in cases like hers, she arranges for the world to come to her. She holds court, reigning from the throne of a loveseat in the living room, where she eats (the family carry the loaded dinner table in and place it down in front of her, then grab chairs to join the meal themselves), watches TV, smokes and sleeps. Utter physical passivity, but proudly so. And she eats like two horses, of course.
Leo Decaprio, on the other hand, not being blessed with a natural endowment of cerebral palsy, or whatever the cause of his disability, has to act the part instead. And he does so with impeccable chops. This is, I think, DeCaprio’s finest performance. He was 18, Arnie’s stated age, when the film was shot. He has mastered a dysarthric, nasal vocal style; somewhat poorly coordinated body movements with slightly athetoid accents; a distinct tendency toward perseveration (repeating the same words or gestures over and over); puppy dog like displays of affection; a garrulousness that lapses into social impropriety, and an inability to act in consort with the promises he makes. The totality and complexity of his performance is breathtaking. He must have spent hours and hours with someone suffering from a similar disorder to get the details right, and he never ever breaks character for a moment.
Did I mention yet that Gilbert's two sisters (the older one was a more sympathetic character, trapped like Gilbert with family burdens) found wonderful new places to go after Bonnie's death, so that all Gilbert and Arnie had to do was hang out until Becky and Grandma ventured back in the trailer caravan the following summer, when they would all be happily reunited. End of film.
Besides the amazing contributions of DeCaprio and Cates, Johnny Depp plays Gilbert with a proper balance of impassivity, pent up hostility and charm, and Juliette Lewis is her patented quirky self. With John C. Reilly, Kevin Tighe and Crispin Glover in effective supporting roles. The film was richly photographed by Ingmar Bergman’s longtime DP, Sven Nqqvist. The countryside and town are pleasant to obverse: the setting is the Hill Country of south central Texas.
The storyline is admittedly pat: how many Gilbert Grapes are let off the hook of excessive commitments in life by such convenient exits of so many burdensome people in the course of a few days? Still, there is much to appreciate, including a fair measure of humor, in this film. Many families like the Grape clan are out there, muddling along, helped to survive and even enjoy occasional moments of pleasure or satisfaction by the perseverence of one or more members who are strong enough to carry the others. This film celebrates such families, avoiding pathos or condescension. Grade: B+ (12/04)
WHERE’S MOLLY? (Jeff Daly, US, 2007, 75 m.). THEMES: FAMILIES WITH MEMBERS WHO HAVE DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES; "WAREHOUSING" OF PERSONS WITH D.D.s BEFORE THE 1970s. Heartwarming documentary about the reunion of a man, Jeff Daly, the filmmaker, with his kid sister, Molly, who had been sent away to an institution for the developmentally disabled and forgotten about for 47 years. Daly clearly establishes the common practice before the 1970s of warehousing severely retarded DD children. In his family, it was Mother who could not accept Molly as she was. And when arrangements were made to send her away at age 3, Jeff was not told in advance. In fact, the subject of Molly - her very existence - was a forbidden subject and remained so for decades, until Daly’s mother died in 2003. The film then shows us, step by step, how Daly probed and solved the mystery of Molly’s disappearance and reunited with her.
One of the problems for families seeking reconnection with DD relatives like Molly is that state laws and regulations in most states bar release of information on the basis of maintaining confidentiality. (The situation is similar to that of adoptees seeking reunion with their birth parents.) Daly and several other Oregon families have succeeded in having these regulations breached - modified in a manner that aids families while also maintaining some confidentiality safeguards for affected members - thanks to the leadership of Oregon state Senator Peter Courtney. The act he sponsored - which became known as “Molly’s Law” - has attracted inquiries from 12 more states interested in initiating similar legislation.
The screening I attended was a world premiere of this film, with both Molly and Sen. Courtney on hand, along with other state officials, affected families and members of ARC, the Association for Retarded Citizens. Mr. Daly is a professional documentarist, his career until now focused on news and sports films. Although it is a relatively short film (75 minutes), Where’s Molly? needs further editing in my opinion. For one thing, we see a bit too much repetitive footage of Mr. Daly himself, as a talking head. The latter part of the story includes some redundant material, going over the same ground about Mr. Daly discovering Molly more than enough. On the other hand, certain revelations, especially concerning the director’s father and brother, could benefit from more expanded coverage. For that matter, more footage of present day Molly herself, interacting with family and others, would be welcome. Grade: low B+ (02/07)
WHISKY (Juan Pablo Rebella & Pablo Stoll, Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/ Spain, 2004, 99 min.). THEME: A SOCIALLY ISOLATED MAN: IS HE SCHIZOID, AVOIDANT OR DEPRESSED? Droll, understated comedy that also works as an allegorical account of the general state of affairs in Uruguay these days. Jacobo Köller (Andres Pazos) runs a small, down at the heels sock factory in Montevideo. He’s an avoidant, depressive, aging bachelor who had taken care of his ailing mother for years until her recent death. Now it is time for her Matzeivah (ceremony at which a tombstone is placed on her grave), and Jacobo is obliged to invite his younger brother Herman (Jorge Bolani), who moved north years earlier to Brazil, where he has a wife and family and runs a highly successful sock factory. For reasons never made clear, Jacobo feels he must pretend to be recently married. He imposes on the long suffering Marta (Mirella Pascual), who is his forewoman at the sock factory, to act the role of his spouse.
Set against the mind-numbing routines of Jacobo and Marta’s dull lives, Herman arrives like a Spring breeze. He’s energetic, upbeat, full of corny jokes, even vaguely seductive toward Marta. At his insistence, the trio venture on hour east for a couple of days to the seaside resort of Piriapolis, on the so-called Uruguayan Riviera. Like the run down neighborhood, household and factory inhabited by Jacobo, Piriapolis has also seen better days. The threesome represent about half the audience at a pathetic nightclub where the lead singer is a 12 year old. The only other guests at the hotel seem to be a hick couple of honeymooners from the sticks. Near the end of his visit, Herman gives Jacobo an envelope of cash, guilt money to make up for never having helped care for their mother himself. He urges Jacobo to replace his out of date sock making machines. Jacobo instead tries to blow it all in the casino but instead wins big.
Not too many years ago Uruguay was a thriving, economically successful nation, but, not unlike Jacobo and his shabby factory, messy apartment and old car that won’t start, it’s a place that has fallen on hard times, while it’s larger neighbors – Argentina to the west and Brazil to the north (represented by Herman), have, relatively speaking, become vibrant economic giants. The film does portray this larger surround in which the characters work out their individual destinies. There’s more than a little humor along the way. “Whisky,” by the way, is what the photographers ask the somber Jacobo and Marta to say to evoke grins for their "wedding" picture, like our proverbial “cheese.” (This is one of 10 recent films from developing nations touring in the “Global Lens 2005” series.) (In Spanish) Grade: B (04/02/05)
WHITE OLEANDER (Peter Kosminsky, US, 2002). THEME: TEEN AGER ABUSED BY DYSFUNCTIONAL MOTHER AND SURROGATES. Sad psychodrama in which a 15 year old girl endures the misfortunes of living with a succession of three deeply troubled and trouble-causing women: her psychopathic mother, imprisoned for murdering her boyfriend, a foster mother who finds unique ways to combine fundamentalist religiosity, pathological jealousy and drinking, and a subsequent foster mother who suicides. Robin Wright Penn as the religious, pistol waving alcoholic is the only ray of amusement in this tedious potboiler. Grade: C- (08/03)
WHO AM I THIS TIME? (Jonathan Demme, US, 1982). THEME: SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER. Christopher Walken plays a morbidly shy man who is able to feel socially at ease only within the structured setting of playing a part in a stage play. To this end, he is an active participant in the local theater group. A new woman (Susan Sarandon) comes to town and gets a part in the company’s next play, opposite Walken’s character. She falls in love with this character, not knowing how different the real actor is. Very well done one-hour drama made for TV. Grade: B+ (04/98)
WIDE AWAKE (Alan Berliner, US, 2006, 80 m.). THEMES: SLEEP DISORDERS; INSOMNIA. The filmmaker has suffered from lifelong insomnia. He gets only two to four hours sleep most nights, and as a result he feels fatigued and irritable nearly all the time. On the other hand, this night owl does his most creative work while everyone else is asleep. So his insomnia pattern is highly reinforced by his proven noctural productivity. In any event, this film demonstrates his problem and calls upon the collective expertise of five well regarded sleep scientists to enlighten him and the viewer about the general problem of insomnia. Ther talking heads include sleep research pioneer William Dement, the late Leonid Kayumov, Mark Rosekind, Richard Simon and Arthur Spielman.
The film serves another purpose as well: to present the story of Berliner’s life, his autobiography, or at least parts of it. He covers everyone from his grandparents to his new infant son. We get to visit with his mother and his sister and see his baby pictures (as well as stills taken in 1984 when he was just getting rolling in filmmaking.
Berliner also shows off his very impressive collections of film clips, photos, sound effects, newspaper clippings, and found objects (a drawer full of wristwatch parts, for example). What we have here is an impassioned, driven, obsessive fellow, overworked by his own decree. Imaginative, fast paced visual sequences in this film demonstrate that Berliner is, among other talents, a first rate film editor, an astonishing master of montage.
I invited two internationally known sleep researchers – Robert Sack and Alfred Lewy - who happen to be good buddies and faculty colleagues of mine, to attend this screening with me. We spoke together over a beer after the film, which both of them thoroughly enjoyed. Dr. Sack, who created the sleep medicine program at my medical school, OHSU, is in fact eager to acquire a DVD copy of the film for use as an instructional aid.
Drs. Lewy and Sack both felt that the film was really more about Alan Berliner than about sleep disorders. For example, the doctors call attention to the fact that specific treatment options are alluded to in only hazy terms. The use of melatonin and bright light as treatments for delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), which is what Berliner suffers from, are not spelled out in any useful detail (e.g., melatonin dose and optimal timing; type, timing and duration of exposure of bright light).
All three of us (Lewy, Sack and I) also have our doubts about Mr. Berliner’s level of motivation for treatment, given the upside of his disorder, i.e., his record of nocturnal productivity. Anyone in such circumstances could hardly be faulted for having trepidations about correcting DSPS. Also, any behavioral pattern marked by such chronicity – 30 to 40 years perhaps in the case of Berliner’s insomnia – is difficult to change by any means.
Curiously, Dr. Sack notes, few “night owls” - or, for that matter, “morning larks” (those with the opposite disorder, Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome, people who wake up very early and go to sleep early as well) - seek treatment. Most somehow adapt themselves to their disorder, tailoring their lives accordingly, as Berliner has so obviously done. Clinically, Drs. Sack and Lewy tell me, there is an overlap between mood disorders and sleep phase disorders (though we saw or heard no evidence that depression is a problem for Berliner).
All-in-all I would say that this film (a) is highly entertaining, and (b) works fairly well on both the level of confessional narrative and as an introductory overview of the problem of deeply entrenched insomnia. The film was produced by HBO and will be shown on the HBO channel in May, 2007. Grade: B+ (12/06)
THE WIDOW OF SAINT-PIERRE (Patrice Leconte, France, 2001). THEMES: UNUSUAL LOVE TRIANGLE; ALTRUISTIC LOVE; REDEMPTION; ANTI-WAR AND ANTI-CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Leconte is fascinated by eccentric love stories, where the participants are gorgeous women drawn to offbeat men. In Widow, Leconte gives us another such tale, but much more besides. The story, based on fact, is set in 1850 on the bleak little island of St. Pierre, an isolated French outpost off Newfoundland. Jean (played by the incomparable Daniel Auteuil, who worked so well with Leconte in Girl on the Bridge) is an enigmatic, maverick French army captain in charge of the local garrison. His wife, Pauline, also known as "Madame La," short for Madame La Capitain (a starkly pale Juliette Binoche), is independent, resourceful, upper class, and not a little mysterious herself. They are obviously very much in love and trying to make the best of this dreadful assignment, to which Jean has presumably been banished because of his unruly tendencies. A murder occurs on the island and the confessed guilty man, Neel, a stooped, hulking fisherman (played by Emir Kusturica, the Serbian film director), is entrusted to Jean to be confined in the military fort over the winter, until a guillotine and executioner can be shipped in to mete out Neel's fate (by the way, the term “widow” in French is used as a nickname for a guillotine).
Pauline is taken with Neel immediately and in ways we cannot altogether fathom. She and Jean decide that Neel is harmless (he had commited the murder in a drunken haze, had an alcoholic blackout for the event, and was deeply remorseful at his trial) and give him the run of the place; he retires to his unlocked cell only at night. He becomes what Jean calls Pauline's "protegé." She teaches him to read, build a greenhouse and raise plants. She finds other work for him at homes of villagers and escorts him to these jobs. People begin to talk. "He's in her skirts," several say. Neel emerges as a local hero after he saves a woman's life and puts out a fire in the town's only tavern. In time no one wants to see him "topped" (the euphemism for beheading), especially after he and a local widow fall in love and marry. No one, that is, except the town fathers, law-and-order types who naturally are outraged to see a lowlife murderer elevated by popular adulation and equally furious to see this development encouraged, even sponsored, by La Capitain and his wife.
The acting challenges facing the three principals are formidable, for each role is richly layered with contradictory aspects, and all three bring off their turns brilliantly. Auteuil's character, the central figure in this drama, is vastly more complex than the others. Auteuil's subtle alterations in facial expression range through twinkle eyed lust, tenderness, humor, compassion, forbearance, defiance, steely resolve and grave dignity. His every instinct seems pacifistic, restrained, determinedly opposed to the use of force. He refuses to consider using his troops in a manner that even suggests that they might harm townsfolk, even as the town fathers, faced with an uprising if they carry out Neel's execution, wish that he would. Yet out for a gallop on his newly arrived black stallion, he cuts a figure of ramrod military correctness. He regards Pauline with crystal clear passionate love and a deep, unthreatened pleasure in supporting her desire to habilitate Neel into a solid citizen. His regard for Neel is more nuanced and mysterious. He has little to do with the man, though we gather that he must respect him. In fact Jean and Neel have much in common, each having placed himself in a precarious dilemma. "Madame La likes desperate cases, first her husband and now this murderer," a local citizen observes.
The film is gloriously photographed on location on small islands in the maritime provinces of eastern Canada. The costumes are excellent. The music is the only flaw: melodramatic, manipulative schmaltz that is absolutely cloying at times. The resolution of the story is an inevitable one, given the twin French passions for bureaucratic rectitude and for topping people. But that is really a subordinate matter, for this is a tale of three unusual personalities and the sentiments that bind them together in varying ways. Some critics felt something was lacking in the drama. It may be passion. Perhaps desperation forces passion underground or tempers it with caution, with reserve. I think Leconte is driving at passion here. But it is a different sort, one that has to do with adherence to certain ideals, not simply devotion to people. The passions of this film run differently. Neel passionately refuses to take advantage of Pauline's kindnesses, for this means putting her and her husband in peril. Jean is passionate about honoring Pauline's desires. Jean and Pauline draw courage from their own love to strike for something far more sweeping. The drama transcends a typical love story and in the end it is set against war and against capital punishment, and for freedom and human dignity. Perhaps it is love of these conditions that truly binds Jean and Pauline together. Grade: A (02/01)
WILBUR (WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF) (Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2004). THEMES; CHRONIC DEPRESSION & SUICIDAL IMPULSES. Scherfig seems bitten by the travel bug. Her earlier film, Italian for Beginners, a sweet little farce with a nice theological edge, concerned a handful of 30-something Danes who discover friendship and love while prepping to speak Italian before a journey to Venice. Now she has set a psychodrama in dreary Glasgow, of all places. Wilbur and Harbour are bachelor brothers. Their mother died after a prolonged illness when Wilbur was 5, and to this day he blames himself for her demise, not entirely without reason, it must be said.
Wilbur is chronically suicidal, though Harbour does his best to look after him. Their father died recently, leaving them his second-hand bookshop. Harbour meets Alice, who comes to sell books; they fall in love and marry. Alice has a grade school daughter, Mary, whom Wilbur dotes upon. Wilbur also dotes upon Alice a bit more than he should, a weakness that is encouraged by Alice, I might add. In time Harbour falls severely ill, further complicating relationships all around. This is a troublesome film. Scherfig doesn’t think to provide subtitles for Scotspeak, as dear, considerate Ken Loach would have done. The score is melodramatic - well, actually, schmaltzy is a better term.
What's more, the editing is sometimes helter skelter. The most egregious instance occurs when, following a series of scenes featuring some of Wilbur’s failed efforts at self annihilation, during which Alice and Harbour have just met, abruptly we switch to a new scene just in time to see this happy couple at their wedding celebration, sharing a table with a relaxed Wilbur, who seems to be in quite good spirits in the company of his date, a nurse from the hospital where Alice works. I thought the reels had been wrongly sequenced.
Then we have the problem of severely clichéd mismanagement of psychiatric themes. Jamie Sives, who plays Wilbur, is one part George Clooney, another part Robert Downey, Jr., and two parts Bud Cort. He’s fetching in a petulant, passively sexy, downcast boy-that-needs-rescuing sort of manner. And he’s an uncooperative, sullen pain in the ass when hospitalized on the Psychiatric Unit after trying to gas himself. All that is fair enough. What galls are the staff psychologist (Dr. Horst) and psychiatric nurse therapist (the sexually intrepid Moira), whom we meet at a group therapy session on the ward. Moira – whose hair style varies radically throughout the film, sometimes streaked and stringy, another time braided, and in the end beaded Native American fashion - is given moronic lines like this question she poses to Wilbur: “In a broad sociological sense, what would happen if we all went around killing ourselves?” To which Wilbur replies, “There’d be no more group therapy.” Ask a stupid question, and you get…
On another occasion Moira extols the virtues of whole grain rice over white rice, earnestly telling folks that, “Deep down, I think we all know this.” Moira can’t wait to lay Wilbur: she offers to put him up at her flat when he is being discharged from the ward, and later is only too happy to lick his ears when asked to do so. Dr. Horst smokes nonstop during group, but is otherwise impassive. On the other hand, Horst is quick to pull out a whiskey bottle and get tipsy with Harbour, who’s having trouble accepting the fact that he has a serious illness.
The good Dr. Horst also closets another of the ward nurses, Sophie, who had been a patient on the Psych. Unit herself several years earlier, when Dr. Horst was new on staff. Sophie tells him "You speak better English now. Maybe the fact that we couldn’t understand your English back when I was a patient is why [your words] helped." Good grief! This is anti-psychiatry at the dumbest level. The film ends with a major reversal of suicidal fortunes, to the accompaniment of a maudlin orchestral expulsion, heavy on the strings. Guess what? I didn’t much care for this flick. Grade: C+ (02/03)
WILBY WONDERFUL (Daniel MacIvor, Canada, 2004, 99 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: SUICIDAL CRISIS; STRESS OF STIGMA FOR HOMOSEXUALS;ADOLESCENT COMING OF AGE; ADOLESCENT DAUGHTER-MOTHER CONFLICT. This web-of-life drama with a dark comedic edge takes place in a small town on the fictional island of Wilby, somewhere off the coast of Nova Scotia. Here we get to know quite a few people, beginning with Dan Jarvis (James Allodi), a video store owner whose wife has just left him. His exquisite despair, agitation and dead serious suicidal impulses are occasioned not only by this loss but, more fundamentally, by the fact that he is being exposed, against his wishes, as a gay man, not a social status often sought in this tight little conservative village.
Jarvis's forced "outing" is part of a more sweeping attack on regular gatherings of homosexuals and drug users at a waterfront park. Turns out that developers are behind the exposes. They're almost drooling in anticipation of establishing a destination golf club with surrounding upscale houses on the now public park land, once they succeed in convincing the townsfolk that the only sure way to keep unsavory characters from corrupting their young people and way of life is to get rid of that park, i.e., by selling it to them, and for a song at that.
We also meet Buddy French (Paul Gross), a straight arrow local cop, and his tightly wound wife Carol (Sandra Oh), who has gotten herself into a chronic dither chasing brass rings in the world of real estate sales. Then there is Sandy Anderson (Rebecca Jenkins), the faded sex queen and mother of teenage daughter Emily (Ellen Page), whom Sandy worries will follow in her own pathetic footsteps.
Rounding out the group of major players in this drama are Wilby's Mayor, Brent Fisher (Maury Chaykin), whose porcine joviality seems overdone, perhaps to cover less seemly activities, and the pivotal character Duck MacDonald (Callum Keith Rennie), an Everyman clad perpetually in overalls, whose gentle manner and near omnipresence suggest that he's a sort of guardian angel placed among these humans to bail them out of trouble. In smaller roles, there's also Irene (Mary Ellen MacLean), a first rate gossip, and Buddy's police partner, Stan (played by the film's writer-director, Daniel McIvor), whose conduct is sometimes nefarious.
I take the trouble to mention all of these people because the film is really more a series of character sketches than a narrative, and because the acting is, with perhaps one exception, uniformly fine. For some viewers, the exception may be Sandra Oh's over-the-top frenzied behavior during much of the film, though certainly there are ambitious control freaks out there in the real world who carry on like she does. (Incidentally, the beauty of Ms. Oh's face is captured stunningly here by DP Rudolf Blahacek, especially in profile in a scene shot while she is driving.)
Some viewers might also wonder whether James Allodi's compulsive suicidal behavior as the deeply suffering Dan Jarvis is also over the top. He keeps making good faith efforts to end his life that are thwarted, sometimes in ways that make you laugh even when your intentions are otherwise. In this darkly funny depiction, MacIvor seems to have borrowed from the drollery of Bud Cort's habitual suicidal poses in Harold and Maude.
We viewers can also easily see the pain in Jarvis's face and wonder how so many of the town citizens can fail to notice or respond to him. Fact is that in real life this is common. Often people are either too self absorbed or otherwise preoccupied to see pain in others. Or if they do, they gloss over it because they are too busy or are reluctant to intrude, to mind another person's business.
The film offers a wonderful quote from Mark Twain, delivered by Buddy French to Mayor Fisher: "Golf: A good walk ruined." Wilby was produced not by Canada's National Film Board, the source of so many wonderful movies from that country, but jointly by the provincial film boards of Nova Scotia and Ontario. The location for the film is actually not an island at all, but rather the town of Shelburne, pop. 2,000, on the southwest coast of the Nova Scotian mainland.) Wilby is unlikely to get wide U. S. distribution, and that is unfortunate, because it's a little gem of a movie. Grade: B+ (11/05)
THE WINSLOW BOY (David Mamet, US/UK, 1999). THEME: FIGHTING OBSESSIVELY FOR A CHILD’S INTEGRITY, FAMILY HONOR AND ETHICAL PRINCIPLE; FAMILY CONFLICT; ADOLESCENT EXPERIENCE. Nigel Hawthorne heads a fine cast in Mamet's remake of the Terrence Rattigan play about middle class English manners in the period before WW I. Based on a true story of a school's false charges of forgery and theft against a 13 year old boy. The boy's family sacrifices nearly everything to clear his name in a spellbinding drama of barely contained passions. With Rebecca Pidgeon as the boy’s fiercely feminist older sister. Grade: A- (06/99)
THE WINTER GUEST (Alan Rickman, UK, 1997). THEMES: GRIEF; MOTHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT. This little known gem of a film concerns four couples on a frigid day in a small Scot town by a frozen sea: a daughter (Emma Thompson) and her aging mother (Thompson’s real-life mother, actress Phyllida Law); the daughter's teenage son and a young woman who fancies him; two 11 year old boys; and two old women whose main pastime is attending funerals. Thompson’s character has recently lost her husband and is in the throes of bereavement. Her ailing mother has little to offer emotionally, and the widowed daughter in turn is bitter and impatient with her mother.
Their largely failed efforts to comfort and aid one another - when it is painfully obvious that each wants so much to be loving but at the same time feels invaded and ill understood by the other's reciprocal efforts - underscore a compelling relationship that remains central throughout the film, while around these two women, the three other pairs of town characters dance in and out: the boys trying to inhabit their budding sexuality, the adolescent couple who are mutually attracted, and the two old women, who are quite amusing. The naturalness and simplicity of dialogue, the containment of feeling, the balanced attention to each character and especially to the encounters between them, an emphasis on the ways in which these people support one another, however imperfectly - all these features yield a story rich in relationship.
The setting helps: a winter storm encases the world in ice and silences it, and against this pale, silent, icy background the characters, all ordinary people really, burdened by the ordinary dilemmas life places before them, stand out in bold relief. There is a wonderful last scene of one of the boys seeking a kitten lost in mists out on the sea ice, whose friend shouts from shore, "...wait for me." The film conjures an enigmatic question: just who is the “winter guest?” Is it depression, the barrenness of grief and loss? The one who is lost but still among us in spirit? The spirit of yearning for renewal in us? The person we let in, in our despair, who helps us through? Grade: A- (04/98)
WIT (Mike Nichols, US, 2001). THEME: DEATH & DYING. Made for TV (HBO) drama in which Emma Thompson plays a flinty, uncompromising English professor who develops cancer. We are taken through her brutal course of chemotherapy, including Thompson’s retching and baldness, and her increasingly wan efforts to maintain her equanimity through arch, witty takes on events and characters in the hospital. In her final, agonizing days she must confront the disparity between her thirst for simple kindness from others and memories of her own intolerance toward her students over the years. It is a marvelous turn by one of our finest current actresses. Also excellent is Audra McDonald as a nurse who cares. Grade: B+ (07/02)
WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY (Dominik Moll, France, 2001). THEMES: SUPPRESSION; DARK OR SHADOW SIDE OF PERSONALITY; MULTIPLE PERSONALITY. SPOILER ALERT! Usually if one must strain to provide a particular post hoc interpretation of a film, in order to find value in it, this is a sign that the film probably isn't very good. But for me, in the case of Harry, interpretation is crucial to appreciation. There are two distinctive ways to consider this story, which opens on a freeway. 30-somethings Michel (Laurent Lucas) and Claire (Mathilde Seigner), with their three young daughters, are suffering their way across France toward their mountain retreat for a vacation. It is hot and humid, and their old station wagon lacks AC. This is every parent's memory of the car trip from Hell.
Stopping to calm himself at a roadside restroom, Michel is approached by Harry (Sergi Lopez), who says they were schoolmates 20 years ago. Michel has no recollections of Harry, even when prompted in several ways. Curiously, on the other hand, Harry has an almost preternaturally detailed knowledge of Michel. He can even quote verbatim a rather sinister poem that Michel once wrote for a high school magazine, a poem Michel had long forgotten. Harry is disappointed to learn that Michel gave up creative writing years ago. Harry is obtrusive, imposing, unctuous. He says he is traveling to Switzerland for a holiday with Plum (Sophie Guillemin), his sexy but dim girlfriend. But he is quite willing to reverse course and follow Michel and Claire to their mountain house. Michel and Claire are left with little choice except to reluctantly acquiesce, and after everyone arrives, drinks lead to an overnight stay.
Harry calls himself as a generous pragmatist, someone who sees a problem and solves it. He thinks Michel has a problem, well, several problems. Harry says he's rich and wants to help Michel, even offers him financial aid. Michel is too nice, Harry intones. He sacrifices himself for his family: for his aging and meddlesome parents (whose most recent infraction was to surprise Claire and Michel by having the bathroom in their country house redone in lurid fuschia tile and gold fixtures); for his spoiled brat daughters and spouse. Michel should forget teaching and go back to writing, Harry insists. He'll help make it possible. So he and Plum hang around, moving into a fancy nearby hotel but spending days and evenings at Michel and Claire's. Harry's main interest, besides helping Michel, is in pursuing as active a sex life with Plum as he can manage. Michel, for his part, is...nice. He tolerates Harry’s intrusions with grace, tries to keep Claire calm about the bathroom and an impending visit from his parents, tries to humor them when they arrive, entertain his kids, and, in his spare time, fix up the country house. The station wagon goes belly up, and Harry buys him a new monster red SUV (Michel calls it vulgar but is too nice to refuse it).
Gradually things go further and further awry. Harry's demeanor becomes more intense, sinister, emboldened. Michel becomes perturbed, tense, anxious, unable to sleep. Harry is especially angry after Michel's parents visit briefly, although they cause no particular affront. Late that night Harry slips away from his hotel, steals a van, lures the parents to drive out on a mountain road, and forces their car off a steep cliff to their deaths. That's just the beginning of the mayhem. Michel's brother Eric is next, and later Plum succumbs. Michel meanwhile spends a feverish night writing a new story, his first in 20 years. Finally, late one evening, Harry proposes to Michel that he will never be free to fully realize his talents and live life properly unless he rids himself of his wife and daughters. He hands Michel a knife, takes one himself, and says, "You do Claire and I'll do the kids, unless you want me to do all of them." That is the last straw. Michel plunges his knife into Harry's abdomen and he promptly dies. Michel puts his body down a well and fills it with dirt. He calms down, reconciles with Claire, and they drive off happily with the kids in the new SUV.
Except for the frictions engendered between Claire and Michel by Harry's visit, and Michel's unrest, all of these events proceed as if they were prosaic, everyday matters. Hyped as a Hitchcock/Chabrol style mystery, this film does have some of the mood, music, and methodical blandness of murder mysteries in that tradition. But there is one huge missing ingredient: suspense. I am very sensitive about thrillers. I couldn’t get into a motel shower with plastic curtains for years without anxiety after first viewing Psycho, and I’ve never been able to sit through an entire showing of The Shining. So when I say a film lacks suspense, you can take that to the bank. This is Hitchcock Lite, or perhaps a parodic approach to the genre, but in either case not very impressive when viewed as such.
But wait, here's another view, one first suggested to me by a film friend, Lola, what might be called a view for the Jung at heart. What if one were to consider "Harry" not as a real world character but rather as a representation of Michel's dark side, his shadow side, an unconscious alter ego who manifests the anger and frustration that Michel denies in himself in order to be a responsible husband and father, while forgoing his former dreams and abandoning his talents? The film starts with the steamy car trip, with one daughter kicking Michel's seat from behind while the other two scream. He's getting really pissed but being nice. He stops for a break to calm down and it is at that moment when "Harry" appears. That "Harry" is really an aspect of Michel would explain his knowing so much about Michel, while Michel's ignorance of "Harry" can be understood as the product of repression. As "Harry" gains ascendance, Michel becomes more disturbed. The murderous impulses deep within him begin to become manifest in conscious fantasies. He also becomes sexually disinhibited (with Plum).
Finally, when his own wife and children, and his entire chosen life, are threatened, he must somehow get the wicked genie back in the bottle. He "kills" "Harry," i.e., he is able once again to suppress, to split off from awareness, the impulses and feelings that had been welling up. They are pushed back down into the unconscious, symbolized by his “burying” "Harry" underground in the deep well. Perhaps the key to Michel regaining control is that he begins to write again, finally integrating this long suppressed and very important aspect of himself into his daily life as an adult for the first time. Viewed in this way, the film takes on much more gloss for me, seems more clever, more subtle, better art. (In French) Grade: B (02/01)
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1964). THEMES: SURREAL ALLEGORY ABOUT HUMAN EXISTENCE AND MARITAL PARTNERSHIPS. A scientist studying insects in coastal sand dunes finds himself trapped with a woman who lives alone in isolation from the village in a small shack at the bottom of a sand pit. Once ensconced there and brought back to health by the woman’s ministrations, he discovers the price of his good care: he cannot leave but must instead stay on indefinitely, doing the woman’s bidding. His efforts to sneak away are thwarted not only by the steep sands but by the villagers as well, who drive him back down into the pit. The film is made in black and white and has a luminous, other worldly quality. It is simple, poetic, minimal, brilliant. Teshigahara's surreal meditation seems to be about both human existence and domestic relations. It’s a tough take on both. The work was adapted from a novel by its author, Kobo Abe. (In Japanese) Grade: A+ (10/97)
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (John Cassavetes, US, 1974). THEMES; MANIA v. PERSONALITY DISORDER; FAMILY CONFLICT IN RESPONSE TO MENTAL ILLNESS. Gritty improvisational portrayals of a dysfunctional family on the edge of violent disruption in the wake of the mother’s psychiatric illness (which in turn is at least partly a response to the family’s disequilibrium in the first place). As Roger Ebert pointed out so well, these people love each other but haven’t a clue about how to express their love effectively. Gena Rowlands won awards as Mabel, the histrionic woman in the throes of a seeming manic episode. Nick (Peter Falk), her blue collar, just one of the guys spouse, is a well intentioned but limited man whose meager repertoire of coping skills quickly gives way to violent threats and actions in the face of his wife’s irrationality and the anxieties of their three young children. Nick’s mother (played by Cassavetes’s mother) adds to the craziness with her paroxysmal harangues and brooding air of general disapproval. This is a gruesome but believable account, full of fumbling, erratic, counterproductive reactions among the principals…very much the way such crises often unfold in reality. Grade: B (09/02)
THE WOODSMAN (Nicole Kassell, US, 2004, 87 min.). THEME: PEDOPHILIA. SPOILER ALERT! Probably the best fictional film yet made about pedophilia. Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a man just released from prison after serving a twelve year term for molesting young girls. Walter returns to Philadelphia, where he grew up, and tries to restart his life. He has some breaks: he’s offered a job at a lumberyard where his father had worked. Though his family have all severed ties, a brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), still befriends him. And Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Mr. Bacon’s wife), a hard edged woman at work, takes a liking to him. Walter is guarded, taciturn, keeps to himself, tries to steer clear of anything that looks like trouble. He’s intelligent enough, but a simple fellow. Doesn’t read or listen to music or seem to want to ever go anywhere. He enjoys a beer and watching a ball game on TV with Carlos now and then. He sees a psychotherapist weekly.
Oddly enough, he rents a small apartment across the street from a grade school. Odd in part that Walter would choose such a place, because it places temptation so close at hand. Even more odd that he would be permitted by his parole officer to situate himself so close to kids of an age that had attracted him earlier (girls 9 to 12). Indeed, about the only false note in this film is that we never see any sign that Walter is being supervised by a P.O. This doesn’t mean that the law is unobservant of Walter. Indeed, early on Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), a deceptively gentle police detective who can turn insulting and vicious in a millisecond, pays a call. A young girl has been attacked in the neighborhood. Lucas wants Walter to understand that he is constantly being watched, is automatically considered a potential suspect in any such crime, and that Lucas himself is absolutely certain that it is only a matter of time before Walter will molest another child, get busted, and go back to prison for life.
Walter spends a lot of his spare time just gazing out at the street and schoolgrounds. He begins to notice a man hanging around, watching and trying to engage in conversation with young boys. He sometimes carries a bag of candy and offers some to kids. Walter nicknames him “Candy,” and begins methodically to keep notes of his observations of Candy’s conduct. Meanwhile, he and Vickie become sexually involved. She likes him and pushes for him to share his secrets, which he finally does. She is naturally shocked, and Walter interprets her response as evidence that his problems are a deal breaker, so he defensively yells at her to leave.
At work Walter spurns some initial flirtation directed his way by the office secretary, Mary-Kay (Eve - Eve Jeffers, that is, the rap singer turned actress). She is not pleased with this, especially when she later sees Walter enjoying lunch chats with Vickie. Mary-Kay discovers the story of his conviction at some Website displaying criminal profiles, and she spreads the word around the yard that he’s a pedophile. Matters turn progressively ugly, to the point that Walter must leave the job. He attends his counseling appointments regularly, but the therapist is incredibly inept, utterly unable to convey any real empathy or interest in Walter. He wants to try to reconcile with his sister, but she refuses to see him and even has Carlos return a handsome cherrywood table that Walter had made as a wedding present to the couple years earlier.
It is in this context of multiple mounting stresses - troubles at work, isolation, more menacing visits from Sgt. Lucas, closeness and then failure with Vickie, worry that Candy will kidnap some little boy, and no one to turn to for help – that Walter allays his anxiety by once again experiencing obsessive desires for little girls (in the past he never hurt any of them, he tells Vickie at one point). He thinks about them. He watches them commuting on the bus. Such is his increasingly tenuous self control that he even manages to alienate the one person from his past who has remained loyal, Carlos, by asking if his brother-in-law ever has sexual feelings toward his nine year old daughter.
He begins to stalk one young girl in particular who always rides his bus. One day he follows her into a park, striking up conversation as she watches birds through binoculars. After quitting his job, and without Vickie to occupy him, he returns to the same park one day. The same young girl appears and they talk together on a bench. It is striking to see how Walter warms to her, opens himself, smiles with genuine, relaxed pleasure in her presence, something he cannot do with any adult. He invites her to sit on his lap. Her face clouds over and a tear or two appear, and she tells Walter that her father likes for her to sit in his lap at home. Walter asks whether that is pleasant for her, whether her father rubs his legs against her in an unusual manner. Her stricken glance and tears affirm for Walter that no doubt her father has used her as Walter himself used young girls in the past. She tells Walter she will sit on his lap if he really wants her to, but the revelation that her father's conduct has been emotionally hurtful to the girl registers with Walter. Perhaps for the first time, his self serving belief that he had never hurt the girls in the past is shattered. He kindly declines her offer and suggests that she should probably go on home.
Not much later, walking home, he sees Candy let a young boy out of his car, one that Candy had been cottoning up to near the school grounds days earlier. Walter attacks Candy from behind and beats him thoroughly. Next day Sgt. Lucas pays another visit. Almost offhandedly he mentions the attack on a man in the neighborhood. The man survived but with a skull fracture and claims he could not possibly identify his assailant. It turns out Candy was wanted for attacking a young boy in another state. Walter visits Vickie and they renew their relationship. Some weeks later Carlos arranges a brief visit for Walter with his sister. It doesn’t go well, but Vickie reassures him that these things take time. The film ends on this somewhat ambiguous yet also hopeful note.
This was a directing debut for Ms. Kassell, who collaborated with Steven Fechter to adapt his original work done for the stage. The film is very well crafted, neither lurid nor judgmental in tone, and the dialogue and flow seem highly cinematic, often a very difficult thing to achieve in adapted stage dramas. As noted by many reviewers, it was a brave act indeed for both Ms. Kassell and Mr. Bacon to take on a project addressing a theme that is so repugnant to most people. Mr. Bacon gives an extraordinary performance here, somehow conveying the many nuances of the problem of his character’s pedophilia. We can see that Walter’s compulsion to repeat acts that could be so ruinous to the young girls and to himself at times outstrips all reason and prudent judgment. We see too that these obsessions increase as the circumstances of Walter’s post-prison life unravel and stresses mount. The interest in the girls is thus partially a defense against anxiety.
But it’s not that simple. Walter appears to be fully capable of sustaining a sexual relationship with an adult woman: it’s not that he can only be aroused by youngsters. And yet he seems somehow more fulfilled, more relaxed, more emotionally open, safer, even delighted, when interacting with a nine year old than with Vickie or any other adult. Does this reflect sexual arousal? Is it a sign of immaturity that he feels more confidant relating to kids than to grownups? The complexity and mystery of his pedophilia is portrayed but never explained, and this is as it should be. There are no pat answers to such problems, no one-size-fits-all formula, only the fact that such patterns and impulses are not easy to overcome on a permanent basis, no matter what the stakes. Certainly the love of a caring partner can help. Having a competent psychotherapist would also help. Then there is the parole officer, absent entirely here, a figure who at best can be an influential supporter in the efforts of people like Walter to make good. Grade: A- (01/05)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina/France/Spain, 2007, 86 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: ADOLESCENT SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT; TRANSGENDER & BISEXUALITY; DISORDERS OF SEX DEVELOPMENT (FORMERLY, "INTERSEX" OR "HERMAPHRODITE"). Lucia Puenzo, heretofore mainly a television screenplay writer, wrote and directed this extraordinarily sensitive film about a teenager, Alex (Inés Efron), who suffers from a disorder of sex development (older terms for such conditions were ‘intersexed’ or ‘hermaphrodite’). She has genitalia of both sexes (which we do not see). To escape stigma, her parents have moved the family to a remote seaside town, where the father can pursue his work as a marine biologist, trying to save sea turtles from destruction by industrial fishermen. Things are sort of OK, except that Alex isn’t really happy. She’s a tomboy, basically. She loves working on biology projects with her father. She has a boyfriend but feels sufficiently ambivalent about him that she breaks his nose in a fight one day. Alex is taking feminizing hormones but is deeply confused about her gender preferences.
Alex’s Mom invites another family to spend the weekend. The father is a plastic surgeon who does sex change operations. Both Alex and her father Kraken (the always excellent Ricardo Darin, who appeared in Nine Queens, Son of the Bride, and The Aura) are taken aback by this development…neither seems at all prepared to face this possible course of action. Meanwhile, Alex, who has also indulged in petting with a younger girlfriend, takes a liking to Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky), the surgeon’s teen son, who has come along for the weekend with his parents. At one point Alex seduces Alvaro, an experience unlike any that either party had ever had or perhaps even thought about. Ms. Puenzo treats her subject and her actors with enormous respect. We see the full panoply of reactions: the surgeon’s indifference; the town rowdy boys’ scorn; Kraken’s loving concern; Alvaro’s bewilderment mixed with adoration. This film is a captivating tour de force. (In Spanish) Grade: A- (02/08)
Add: “XXY” refers to the abnormality in Klinefelters Syndrome, where the usual XY sex chromosome pattern that creates sexual males is upset by the addition of a second “X” chromosome, thus giving rise to a variety of ambiguous sexual presentations which can vary from feminine to masculine to mixtures. (Normally girls have the “XX” configuration).
YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO...) (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 2000). THEMES: MEMBERS OF A CONTEMPORARY MIDDLE CLASS FAMILY COPING WITH THEIR VARIOUS PROBLEMS; THE TENSION BETWEEN FAMILY PRIORITIES AND THOSE OF ITS INDIVIDUAL MEMBERS. This film is a rich treasure chest of reflections on the challenges of contemporary life. It is a study of the uncertainties of existence across the lifespan. The "star" of the film is a large, prosperous, middle class Taipei family. The intent here is not to view the family as some large unit of solidarity that jointly faces problems. Quite the contrary. "Yi Yi" means "one-one" or "individuality," and it is each individual family member's predicament that this film shares with us. Each person's situation is unique, principally because at different ages and stations in life it could not be otherwise.
For Yang Yang, age 8, life's uncertainties take a highly concrete form. We can only know half the truth, he asserts, because we can only see in front of us, never behind. He takes polaroid photos of the backs of people's heads to help them gain some knowledge of this unknown posterior half of reality. For Ting Ting, his 15 year old sister, uncertainty is about friendships and sexual flowering. For Min Min, their mother, it is a matter of spiritual quandary and the imminent loss of her mother, who lies in coma following a stroke. For Min Min's twentysomething brother, it is a rollercoaster ride through a new marriage, fatherhood and precarious finances. For Min Min's husband, NJ (Yang Yang and Ting Ting's father) it is the threat of career stagnation and financial ruin as his long time business partners, to whom he has been ever loyal, bungle decisions and manipulate his goodwill and integrity for their own dubious ends. And more, for as he faces loneliness with an unhappy wife, he is afforded a second chance to be with the woman he first loved years before. And then there is the grandmother, vibrant and important one day, at death's door the next. Whither Min Min and all of us will go.
The film stresses the very personal nature of the burdens each of us must bear in life, and, in this family at least, the issue of personal integrity looms large. Yang works ably with the large cast and many subdramas to craft an overall story that never loses the thread of its parts yet is larger for the way everything and everyone work harmoniously together. That requires consummate directorial skill. The film is long - 173 minutes. While there are a few spots that dragged in the last half, by and large the time is well used. Many small scenes are filmed in real time, allowing for the pauses, the quiet moments, that make these scenes meaningful and permit them to be recalled later. I have had recurring reflections of this film in the days that followed seeing it, far more than is typical after most films. Yang creates some spellbinding juxtapositions: intercut sequences occurring on the same evening, as Ting Ting walks hand in hand with a boy on their first date, while in another city her father, NJ, and his first love also walk hand in hand through a park, reminiscing about their time together as adolescents 30 years earlier. The next day NJ tells his old lover that he began to love her in grade school days, and next we cut to a scene where Yang Yang stands at poolside gazing, awestruck, at a young girl swimming. Wonderful connections.
An interesting foil character is Mr. Ota, a Tokyo entrepreneur, whom NJ meets to negotiate a business deal. Ota shares in common with NJ a sense of honor and integrity about business, and they get on well. Beyond that they differ enormously: Ota is everything NJ isn't, or, perhaps more accurately, doesn't allow himself to be. Ota is emotionally sensitive and intuitive, a fine musician, a relaxed storyteller who does card tricks and enjoys himself and other people. He is like NJ's alter ego. Ota balances NJ, this struggling fellow, and all his family, by suggesting that right alongside life's uncertainties and anxieties there are realms where one's footing can be more secure, where there is respite. These are the realms evoked by music, by games of magic, by times out for distraction and for simple fun. All of this has been missing in the ponderous, problem-burdened ambience of NJ's family life. These diversions may not solve problems, but they get us through the tough times, Ota's conduct suggests. This film is indeed a vast storehouse of useful reflections on the ways we approach daily life, for better and for worse. (In Mandarin) Grade: A (02/01)
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (Kenneth Lonergan, US, 2000). THEMES: LOVE RELATIONSHIPS; FAMILY DYNAMICS; PASTORAL COUNSELING. Offbeat domestic drama about a series of events that alter the life and relationships of a small town single mom, Sammy (Laura Linney), events provoked by her prodigal kid brotherTerry (Mark Ruffalo) after he shows up hoping for a loan to help out his troubled girlfriend. Terry is a maverick, quick to pick a fight or flaunt a rule, but he also is gorgeous and has a lot of grace, charm and spirit. He strikes up a close bond with his nephew, Rudy (Rory Culkin), Sammy's 8 year old son. Along the way Sammy must reappraise relationships with two men that are not right for her. Trying to help Sammy and Terry work things out is the local priest, Father Ron (played by the writer/director, Lonergan), who epitomizes the postmodern cleric turned psychotherapist and spiritual counselor. The film moves along at an evenly absorbing pace and is well photographed. The soundtrack imaginately combines classical cello pieces with Steve Earle and other country music. The acting is quite good. Linney, Lonergan and Culkin turn in fine roles. Linney has received much praise for her work here, but for me it is Ruffalo who has the pivotal role in this drama. He is the change agent who upsets the complacent but stagnant arrangements of Sammy's life. Ruffalo oozes charisma, fearlessness, and a canny honesty about other people. He charges the film with a gripping tension that creates fine drama. He reminds one of a young Marlon Brando. Grade: B (01/01)
YOUNG DR. FREUD (David Grubin, US, 2002). THEMES: EARLY DEVELOPMENT OF PSYCHOANALYSIS; FREUD’S LIFE FROM 1856 TO 1900. This straightforward documentary made for PBS traces Freud’s life from his origins to the publication in 1900 of his seminal work, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Old still photos are blended with clips of interviews with several contemporary psychoanalysts, one of Freud’s granddaughters, and one of his biographers. Actor Liev Schreiber gives voice to a number of quotes from Freud’s works. Familiar developments in Freud’s early career and thinking about the nature of hysteria and neuroses are reviewed, as are the development of Freud’s methods of free association and dream interpretation, but nothing is presented in sufficient depth to be very useful or edifying for anyone who knows little or nothing about these subjects to begin with. The only new things I learned concerned Freud’s father, a general failure of a man who arranged for the survival of his family primarily through handouts from relatives. This disappointing film would have been stronger had it explored the founding principles of psychoanalysis in greater and far more critical detail. This work is not to be confused with the 1976 Austrian documentary bearing the identical title, which I have not seen but which - in a "Village Voice" review of a 2000 screening in New York - sounds grittier, less deferential, and more interesting. Grade: C (11/02)
YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME (Keven McAlester, US, 2005, 88 min.). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; SACRIFICES FAMILY MAKE TO AID MENTALLY ILL LOVED ONES. When family members reach out to aid a severely mentally ill loved one, we want the outcome to be positive, like it is in Susan Smiley’s recent film about her mother, Out of the Shadow. Unfortunately, as families of the mentally ill know all too well, things don’t always work out that way, and that’s the story this documentary tells about a fallen 60s rock star, Roger “Roky” Erickson and his brother’s selfless efforts to rehabilitate him.
Erickson was briefly famous in the mid 60s for his powerful voice, command of rhythm guitar and musical compositions (his big hit carried the title of this film). He was the charismatic star of a band called the “13th Floor Elevators,” based in Roky’s hometown of Austin, Texas, a group famous for introducing “psychedelic rock.” To some degree, the film is a homage to Roky’s success in his early days: we see lots of footage of the band and Roky performing. As implied, everyone consumed various drugs in abundance, and Roky was busted in 1968 for possession and sent to a dreadful state mental hospital for 3½ years rather than prison, on a plea bargain. When he reemerged in the early 70s, he was not the same person, and over the next 25 years he gradually slipped into a severe, persistent schizophrenic disorder, which went for the most part untreated because his mother, a protective, guarded, not very rational person herself, shielded him from care.
The problem with this narrative is that it suggests that drug abuse, incarceration in a horrid public institution, or multiple electroconvulsive treatments (ECT) could have caused Roky Erickson's schizophrenic disorder. This is highly unlikely. He no doubt had a hereditary vulnerability to the disorder, although drugs, incarceration, or ECT could very well have acted as stressors to precipitate clinical signs of his disorder. (There is no evidence that he was psychotic before entering the hospital; the plea bargain was more of a legal ploy by his attorney, to avoid hard prison time.)
Roky Erickson by the late 1990s had become an unkempt, disorganized, delusional man with poor hygiene and bad teeth, holed up at his mother’s house. About 3 years ago, Roky’s youngest brother, Sumner, who had emancipated himself from the dysfunctional family, rising to become a highly successful tuba player in the Pittsburgh Symphony, decided to do something to help Roky, to seek a guardianship for him, against their mother’s wishes. (Earlier, Sumner apparently had also made a home next door, in Pittsburgh, for the men’s father, long gone from the family household in Texas.)
Sumner, having prevailed in the guardianship petition, takes Roky to Pittsburgh, makes a spacious room for him at his house, and arranges for extensive dental work and psychotherapy with Sumner’s own therapist, who is not a physician. (It isn't mentioned whether Sumner also arranged psychiatric care or antipsychotic medication.) But the care Sumner provides costs a fortune and, as a result, Roky certainly begins to look better physically. Whether he is better mentally is less clear. Near the end Roky is spending time principally in his room, where we see incipient signs of the same sort of disorganization and idiosyncratic collecting of stuff that had characterized Roky’s room back home. The film ends on this ambiguous note.
The filmmaker, Keven McAlester, was present at the screening. He told us that the expenses of caring for Roky eventually forced Sumner to sell his house. Roky was unhappy in Pittsburgh and insisted on returning to Austin. Sumner then resigned his position in the Symphony in order to accompany Roky back home and continue to look after him. Roky continues to be highly dysfunctional. (Recently, according to web sources, Sumner has organized a band - in which he plays guitar – that performs “Texas music,” as he puts it. We didn’t learn in the film or the Q & A what became of the men’s father.)
Sumner Erickson has more than fulfilled the Biblical dictum to be his brother’s keeper. I wish the film had been extended in time to cover the developments we learned about only in the post-film discussion. In that case, You’re Gonna Miss Me could have served as a powerful trigger for reflection and discussion about the risks and limits of self sacrifice on behalf of a mentally ill loved one. As it stands, the film ends in a manner that some viewers lacking a mental health professional's eye might wrongly infer as a positive outcome. Grade: B- (Seen at the 3rd AFI “Silverdocs” Festival) (06/05)