Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Final review in EU Film Showcase

The final film I saw in the European Union Film Showcase was I Am Not Your Friend from Hungary, which I was highly anticipating, because I saw director György Pálfi's Taxidermia at the 2007 festival, and was very impressed by its blend of grotesque imagery and emotional depth. Palfi's new offering is far less graphic but just as emotionally intense. It revolves around several residents of Budapest and their deceitful, manipulative relationships with each other. In a bar, a woman, Rita, tells bartender Sophie that she is planning to divorce her husband, but doesn't know that Sophie has been having an affair with the husband she is about to leave, an affair which the husband, Andras, treated as almost a joke, letting his friend Mark (who turned out to be Sophie's husband), listen in on her telephone seductions of Andras. Mark is also having an affair with his employee Sara, who has been cheating on her boyfriend, and it goes on like this. Every relationship is shrouded in lies and weighed with infidelity and distrust. There are no clear cut heroes and villains, everyone gets hurt and hurts others. The film is preceded by a short documentary set in a kindergarten classroom, where the children, with typical fickleness, switch who they call friends and leave others out of their groups. The short is meant to illustrate how early we use relationships to manipulate each other, but at least the kindergarteners are honest about who they like and dislike at the moment, where the adults in the feature take to lying and manipulating. Although they are the "grownups," they can't be honest about what they want with each other, and may not even know what they want.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Two more from the EU Film Showcase

Over the weekend I saw two documentaries in the European Union Film Showcase. The first, Citizen Havel from Czech Republic, was a look at the political life of former Czech president Vaclav Havel. Although I know very little about Havel and his policies, I very much enjoyed the film. It provided a look at political meetings and strategy rarely seen in the public media. Havel was seen meeting with his advisers about conflicts with the Czech premier (in the Czech Republic, the president is elected by the Parliament, not directly by the people), preparing for speeches with advisers telling him how to stand and his wife checking his suit for dandruff, and discussing upcoming meetings with other leaders. Two highlights include a trip to a Prague jazz club with former US president Bill Clinton, where Havel presented Clinton with a custom-made saxophone, and Havel attending a Rolling Stones concert and later inviting the band to the Presidential Palace. The film offers an unparalleled look inside the structuring of a new nation, and the triumphs and trials of its leadership. Havel even gives a glimpse into his private life, and, in an emotionally charged interlude, shows him looking out onto the Palace grounds at the state funeral for his late wife. After he remarries (which is also shown), he recounts the 30+ years of his first marriage. The portrait of Havel is multidimensional, private and public lives, achievements and setbacks. The only downside is that the film offers little history of the Czech republic or background on its government, which could leave some viewers lost among the policy discussions. Clarity issues aside, the viewer gains an unprecedented look inside the life of a world leader.
The other documentary was Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a look at the legendary French filmmaker's abandoned project Inferno. Film restorer Serge Bromberg collected Clouzot's footage and shows it with readings from the script (the sound had disappeared from the decades-old footage) and interviews with crew members, trying to restructure the film and determine why the project didn't make it. It's hard to tell whether Clouzot's intended film Inferno would have been any good. With odd dream sequences that took a lot of technological wrangling, and Clouzot's obsession with getting the scenes exactly right, it was a highly ambitious endeavor, and a few of the crew members interviewed suggest that it was this over-ambition that led to the project's demise. As a look in the creative process of the renowned director, however, Bromberg's film is invaluable. Through behind the scenes footage and interviews, Clouzot's film-making techniques are revealed, including his preproduction storyboards that also used color coding to indicate the moods and emotions of the characters in the particular scene. The crew also reveal that Clouzot was particularly invested in Inferno, spending hours and hours trying to create the perfect scenes. Clouzot, called the French Hitchcock, was equally demanding on his actors, up to the point where his lead actor left the project midway through. The crew interviews alternately suggest that the actor had contracted a rare illness or that he had just had enough of Clouzot and his demands. Though the film itself was never made, Bromberg used the dead project to create a masterwork of his own, a look into the film-making process and a profile of one of film's most renowned artists in one of his less renowned periods.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Crime hysteria

Monday night I saw another offering in the European Union Film Showcase at AFI, a Danish film called Deliver Us From Evil. While some of the techniques used were questionable, like the portentous music and images of gathering storm clouds between scenes, and the odd presence of a strangely dressed narrator at the beginning and end, it told a strong story of how people can lose their heads in the quest for vengeance. Lars, a shiftless truck driver with a far more successful brother, runs someone over while on the job, hides the body and other evidence, and plants more evidence on a Bosnian immigrant, who is later besieged by the dead woman's husband, who is also Lars' boss, and other employees who get caught up in the exciting prospect of violence against a supposedly violent offender, although all evidence, and the scene itself, indicate that the woman's death was an accident. While the film is at times a bit too ambitious in attempting to explore multiple issues of class and race (and a rape scene with ensuing battle at the end that is totally superfluous), the illustration of how crazy people can become in pursuing justice is a powerful one. In the climax, the husband, with his employees, has tracked the Bosnian, Alain, to the home of Lars' far more successful brother Johannes, a friend of Alain's who has decided to protect him from the mob. But, as Johannes' wife notices, he becomes just as zealous and violent in his struggle as the mob outside, using a nail gun to staple the arm of an intruder to the door. Johannes himself says that he wants to show up the "proletariats" outside. Ingvar (may not be the exact name), the grieving widower, has an assistant who ultimately refuses to get the bullets for Ingvar to reload his shotgun after shooting into Johannes' house, a doctor Johannes had brought in to examine Alain and police responding to a call. At this point, Lars, shocked at the extremes to which Ingvar has gone, has confessed to running over Ingvar's wife, and Ingvar is unable to harm him. The scene of the angry mob searching ostensibly for justice but in reality to serve a base desire to harm a perceived enemy, recalls Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, where a retarded man wrongly accused of rape is chased and, though I don't remember exactly, is either killed or almost killed, and Fritz Lang's Fury, where an accused criminal (also innocent) is murdered by a mob that has surrounded the jail where he is being held.
This doesn't just happen in the movies. In a book I just read about Italy's still unsolved case of serial murder, the Monster of Florence killings, after a composite sketch is released of the suspected killer (seen by witnesses near the crime scenes), anyone who vaguely resembled the sketch was terrorized by angry citizens, their businesses suffered, and one man committed suicide as a result of the barrage of threats he received. This was hardly the only problem encountered in the Monster of Florence case; the litany of power struggles among officials, the refusals of investigators to admit fault in accusing ultimately innocent men of the crime, and the terror they inflicted on a journalist who dared to question the official path of the investigation, all of which led to the killer remaining free and unknown (though the terrorized journalist has a convincing theory as to the killer's identity) to this day, warrants its own post, which I will write at another time. I mention it here as an example of the kind of hysteria that can grip a community that has seen a crime wave or suffered any significant loss; they want to blame someone, and when their anxieties finally have a human face, they set upon that, whether or not an official investigation has been conducted and whether or not that person is guilty, and their fear and rage often turn violent. Common sense, logic and everything that separates humans from other animals, except a disturbing organization of brutality, disappears.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ft. Hood, respect and menstruation

Since I don't know all the details of the case, I'll keep the discussion of Ft. Hood brief until I read more. But I will say, for the moment, that I do not believe the shooting was an act of terrorism. Although the shooter had embraced a radical sect of Islam, it seems unlikely that the shooting was motivated by ideology, which is the definition of a terrorist attack. More likely, since the shooter was also dealing with personal issues, including possible mental problems, it's far more likely that he was another troubled man with violent, possibly psychotic tendencies that reached his breaking point. It's happened many, many times before, and will happen again, maybe on another military base.
On a related topic, I read a post on Facebook from a friend saying that he would defriend anyone who said that the military was unnecessary and never did anything for anyone. It received a flurry of comments denouncing "elitists," which I took to mean "liberals." While, as the title of my blog clearly indicates, I do not mind being called a liberal, but I do resent when liberals are called elitists. On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Jack told Liz that she needed to get in touch with the "heartland," where people are "kinder" and "simpler." A trip to a rural Georgia comedy club proved that the people in small towns can be total jerks as much as those in big cities. However, in big cities, since more people interact more often, the animosity comes to the surface more often in a more concentrated area. And while California, the bastion of liberal elites in the eyes of dogmatic conservatives, shot down the legalization of gay marriage, the very middle America state of Iowa has passed pro-gay marriage legislation. There are good and bad, liberal and conservative, people everywhere.
Where the military is concerned, I can vaguely recall a routine from the late great George Carlin where he is arguing against the automatic respect that those in certain positions, like police or military officials, have come to expect, which is encouraged by society. Carlin says that, for him to respect someone, they have to earn it through actions. I do not automatically give someone my respect just because they're wearing a uniform or served in a war. As the case of Steven Green in Iraq illustrates, there are soldiers in our military who abuse their power and enlist for entirely the wrong reasons. The recently executed Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammed served in the first Gulf War, Charles Whitman was a former Marine, and serial killer Arthur Shawcross served in Vietnam. There are respectable people, even heroes, who have served in the military, and, on the other side, I don't automatically hate someone who has been in the military. But just because someone enlisted in the army does not make them a hero, or even a decent person.
The second installment of my reviews of the European Union Film Showcase: Slovakian documentary The Moon Inside You, which examines the myths and perceptions surrounding menstruation. In interviews with pubescent girls and boys, the stuttering comments of squeamish men, psychologists, gynecologists, and the incoherent babble of New Agey types, the director examines views of the natural, but hidden, phenomenon. The point made frequently, which got to me too, is that even modern women do not talk about their menstrual cycles, and, for many women who grew up in more traditional families, it became shameful as a result, making the mere fact of openly creating a film about it a brave act. While the film could have gone into more depth, particularly in examining the ways that governments and social scientists have tried to impede the progress of women by publishing "studies" that the hormones of the menstrual cycle deter women from fully functioning in the workplace. One of the more illuminating, and disturbing, interviews was with a (male) Brazilian doctor who has given women implants to stop them from having periods, and calls menstruation "unnatural" because it's so painful. It recalls the organic fetishists who seem to think that anything "natural" is automatically good, although this is not at all true, considering all the poisonous substances that occur naturally in plants (the cyanide in apple cores is an excellent example). Luckily, the director of the film was available for questions after the showing, and she mentioned that the implants offered by this doctor have been under investigation for causing severe health problems. The symptoms connected to menstruation can be so severe and so shameful that women are willing to have an experimental object implanted inside them to keep it from happening. On the other side, there were psychologists from Australia who advocated embracing the natural rhythms of the body, and, while a bit New Agey for my tastes, it still seemed more reasonable than implants to prevent the very natural, though annoying, process of menstruation. The director told the audience that, because of the topic, she's had trouble finding distributors, particularly in squeamish America, although an American education foundation has expressed interest. The element that put of American public television was a comment by a Spanish gynecologist that masturbation can relieve menstrual cramps (which, through research and personal experience, I've discovered is true except in extreme cases). The most illuminating part of the film was a discussion with pubescent boys, describing their impressions of a woman's period, mostly describing how awful and creepy it sounds, a view which, unfortunately, does not change as boys get older. Although I thought the images of blood that pepper the film were a bit much while watching, an audience member made the point that we see blood in action and horror movies and think nothing of it, but when images of blood are connected to a woman's reproductive process, we automatically recoil. Because menstruation is still considered a taboo, shameful subject. But hopefully a film like this one, where the subject is openly discussed, will trigger more discussion and thoughtful examination.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I realize that on my post about the Roman Polanski arrest that I may have come across as condoning his crimes. That was not my intent. I know full well that he raped an underage girl, fully conscious of what he was doing. My concern with the case being brought to trial after all these years is that it's not what the victim wants. She's a grown woman now, and wants to put it behind her. I am not defending Polanski's actions, from the rape to fleeing the country. But I hope the California courts keep the wishes of the victim in mind in their zealous quest for "justice."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

John Allen Muhammed executed tonight

Yes, Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammed was executed earlier tonight, and I was, as always, extremely dismayed at the sense of celebration I've seen from press releases and even among my friends. For the record, as I've stated many times before, I oppose the death penalty. I can't see that it's about anything but revenge. The most disturbing comment was a post on Facebook wishing that not only Muhammed but his accomplice Lee Malvo got the chair. The electric chair was a terribly cruel method of execution, and I've stated before how I feel about Malvo's involvement in the crimes. But, of course, I didn't support the death penalty for Muhammed either. All that happens is, as Camus wrote in his essay "Reflections on the Guillotine," is the barely cloaked sadism of the masses, relieved that the usually hidden part of their psyches finally has an outlet against a "bad" person, and the chance to revel in the thought of a now-dead criminal burning in hell, and wishing that he had a more painful death. There is something extremely troubling about otherwise decent human beings wishing pain and suffering on another human being, even if that person is a murderer. There is a very simple saying, but it's so true: two wrongs don't make a right.

A Serious Man review

A Serious Man, the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, is brilliant in many respects, such as the revelatory performance by Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead, which deeply deserves recognition come award season, and the Coens’ trademark quirky humor. What makes the film stand out is how it expertly blends broad comedy with biblical tragedy, causing the viewer to think that the two inevitably go together. Small in scope where the Coens’ other recent masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, was wide, it centers on the fall of one ordinary, self-described “serious” man.
Larry Gopnik, the protagonist, is cursed with an insufferable family; a bratty teenage daughter whose shrill whining fills the house the second he comes home, a pothead son in debt to a local bully who gets high before his bar mitzvah, a wife who reveals that she’s having an affair and, with the assistance of her new lover, forces Larry out of his house into a motel, and a brother who compulsively gambles and ends up getting arrested. Larry’s job as a physics professor doesn’t offer much comfort; there, he’s being bullied and bribed into changing a student’s failing grade by both the student and the student’s father, and has to jump through legislative hoops to get tenure. On top of all of this, he’s low on money (meaning he can’t afford a lawyer for his divorce), his neighbor is building over the property line, and his quest for spiritual enlightenment is more frustrating than enlightening. He is also plagued by nightmares, which form some of the more entertaining and disturbing dream sequences in recent film history.
Larry’s trips to three ineffectual rabbis form a frame in the middle of the story. The first is a young, inexperienced one who can only offer empty platitudes. The second, while more experienced, only offers an odd story (it must be seen to be believed) that has no relevance to Larry’s problems. On the trip to the third, most revered, rabbi, Larry has reached his breaking point. He is clearly exasperated as he begs the rabbi’s secretary for an appointment. She then walks into a book-filled office where the rabbi is sitting quietly. She shortly comes back, and tells the frustrated Larry, “The rabbi is busy.” When Larry shouts that he doesn’t look busy, the secretary, in the same deadpan voice, says, “He’s thinking.” The spiritual quest, which his soon-to-be ex-wife was convinced would help, comes up empty.
Larry’s story does not have a neat ending. A tornado approaches a school as a group of students, including Larry’s son, hides in the basement. At the same time, Larry receives a call from the doctor he saw for tests at the beginning of the film, and the doctor is clearly bearing bad news, but the screen fades to black before the news is revealed. There is no redemption in Larry’s suffering, as there was, of sorts, in the Biblical story of Job, whose story Larry’s symbolically resembles. Unlike Job, Larry finds no solace in faith, and, the viewer can infer from the grim voice of the doctor and the black tornado clouds overhead, will not gain back what he has lost.

In the first installment of a series during the European Union Film Showcase at the AFI Silver Theatre, a brief review of the Bulgarian film Zift. This film could best be described as an Eastern European homage to American film noir. The story centers around a thief who goes by the name Moth, just released from prison in Communist Bulgaria, and is told both forward and backward, in what happens after his release, and how he ended up in prison. While occasionally Moth's voice-overs lend too much exposition, and explain things that don't need to be explained, the film is a classic noir, full of twists, including the subtle but jarring ultimate twist at the end, and moody cinematography. The lead actor, whose name escapes me at the moment, is coolly charismatic and gives a stunning and nuanced performance, particularly while Moth, in the second half, is walking the streets after being poisoned by a former partner in crime. The bleakness of Communist-bloc Eastern Europe proves an excellent setting for a film noir.
While there is no way I will get to see every film in the showcase, or even every one I want to see (I unfortunately missed a very interesting-sounding Polish movie called Piggies this past weekend), I will mention the ones I do get to see here.