Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two New Links

My review of the Dutch melodrama Bride Flight is up on the Jewish Week website here.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival kicks off at the Walter Reade on June 16. My review of one of the films in the Festival, This Is My Land . . . Hebron, is also up on the site. It's a mark of how unusual my remit is at the newspaper that these are the latest films to get the Robinson stare.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?

The fascination that American culture has with farming comes close to defying rational explanation. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against farmers, I support legislation to protect the family farm and so on. It’s just that the ideological enshrinement of the ideal of the yeoman farmer as the heart and soul of America, an idea that goes back virtually to the country’s foundation, has been a pleasant myth for literally centuries. That said, it makes for wonderful opportunities for filmmakers with a strong pictorial bent, and if the only result of the apotheosis of farm life were movies like last year’s splendid Sweetgrass, I wouldn’t complain.

The reason all this leaps to mind at the moment is the theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives of a film that reminds me of Sweetgrass, the Thai documentary/drama Agrarian Utopia. Director and cinematographer Uruphong Raksasad is a son of farmers, and he brings that nearly in-born love of the land to his film. Except, of course, that the life of a small farmer in Thailand is even more parlous than it is in the United States. At the film’s outset, his protagonist Prayad is basically living like a homeless person in one of Thailand’s cities; land is so dear and so hard to acquire that he and another family merge their poverty to get through a season of rice farming by sharing one meager plot. The neighbors, who aren’t much better off, are as helpful and friendly as one can imagine, but there is very little they can do. By the time the film has ended, Prayad and his family are once more dispossessed, returning to the city where they hear the competing claims of the major political parties with grim dismay.

Raksasad is showing us subsistence farming at a level so low-tech that it probably isn’t too different from what the first agrarian communities must have been like when human began to shift out of the hunter-gatherer mode. The key difference is that in a globalized economy and a world of banks and loans, small-holders like Prayad have little chance. As he says at the outset of the film, “I’ve borrowed too much and have no way out.” And when his latest venture ends in failure, his only options are working for an eccentric neighbor with some interestingly progressive ideas about sustainability (that utterly baffle Prayad) or the city.

Raksasad shows us all of this with an eye for pastoral beauty that does, in fact, remind me of Sweetgrass, and a quiet, almost uninflected style that flows like the weather over the land. Agrarian Utopia is beautiful to look at, a highly intelligent piece of filmmaking, but devastating to contemplate, a bleak picture of what will happen to the emerging nations in the immediate future.

********

Elsewhere in the world, someone is laughing. And that’s a good thing, I think. At any rate, it gives stand-up comics something to do, and you know they’d make lousy farmers. Okay, that isn’t the usual choice of career path facing them, but for some people, the idea of doing stand-up comedy is in itself rather alien, as one learns from Just Like Us, a new documentary that played Tribeca last year and is finally receiving it’s theatrical release in NYC. Last year I wrote about the film:

[Joan] Rivers might not entirely recognize Ahmed Ahmed as one of her professional offspring. He’s an Egyptian-American comic and, now, a filmmaker whose first feature is a documentary Just Like Us, which chronicles a comedy tour of the Middle East he led about a year ago. He put together a multicultural roster of comedians, including both men and women from a bewildering array of ethnicities, for what would be the first comedy tour of the region and, in several of the countries included, a first-ever evening of stand-up comedy.

“Nobody has a concept of stand-up comedy in these countries,” he says early in the film. But all their cultures have humor in abundance.

And ground rules. Although surprisingly few topics prove to be out-of-bounds, especially in Beirut, where the rules are definitely not in play, for Dubai and Riyadh the performers are cautioned to “treat it like a Tonight Show setting.” That warning is observed for about fifteen minutes until Anglo-Iranian comic Omid Djalili responds to a shout of “Take it off” in Dubai with what appears to be ten solid minutes of jokes about male genitals.

The comics are for the most part quite good – Ahmed and Tommy Davidson make a particularly strong impressions – but they seem as committed to the idea of using comedy to breakdown stereotypes and barriers as to working these houses for big laughs. In the course of the film, we see the first woman comic to play Dubai and the first Saudi woman comic, who appears briefly in the Riyadh sequence. The film ends with Ahmed and several other Arab and Muslim comics working a club in New York, where a different but no less powerful set of stereotypes need to be challenged. “Comedy provides a dialogue for social change,” Ahmed says bluntly.

Just Like Us is a pleasant and decidedly well-intentioned film, although it tries to do rather too many things at once, giving us a comedy concert documentary, social commentary, some lovely autobiographical passages and some amusing touristy stuff, particularly in the Cairo sequence. It is unfortunate that, for obvious reasons, Ahmed couldn’t include a Jewish comic on this trip and entirely logical that Israel wasn’t on the itinerary, since there is no shortage of stand-up comedy there, but a second excursion rectifying those omissions would be a great subject for another film.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Another Assault on Documentary Filmmakers

You have got to hand it to the judges Dubya appointed. They really do the business or, more accurately, they do it for business. The latest example is really fascinating, with US Tax Court Judge Diane Kroupa striking a blow against the First Amendment by twisting the tax code to attack documentary filmmakers as hobbyists. You can find a quick-and-dirty summary of the case here. You can help filmmaker Lee Storey by purchasing a DVD of her film, Smile 'Til It Hurts at her website. And you can add your voice to battle at the International Documentary Association's website, where they have a page about their amicus brief in the case.

And if you are a documentary filmmaker, don't make movies about proto-fascist organizations like Moral Re-Armament, 'cause there are a lot more federal judges who were appointed by Bush, and I suspect they're looking for a reason to body-slam you.

Friday, June 03, 2011

That Godard Guy Is Back . . . .

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme played last fall’s New York Film Festival, where it sparked the usual Godardian storm of controversy, this time centering on whether the film is anti-Semitic. I didn’t think so when I saw it then, but was – and remain – reluctant to speak to the issue more directly because, as my review, which is below, said, my French isn’t good enough to be sure, and Godard chose to deliberately obfuscate matters with deliberately inadequate subtitles. I haven’t had a second chance to see the film, but until I see it again I’ll stand by what I wrote in the fall. Of course, you should go to the IFC Center and see the film and make up your own mind.

Jean-Luc Godard’s newest work Film Socialisme is something of an extended homage to Manoel de Oliveira’s 2003 effort, A Talking Picture. Both are set on cruise liners working their way through the Old World’s great cities. Each features wildly multilingual casts discoursing to one another in their own languages regardless of who they are addressing, and both films are meditations on the wreckage of the 20th century. Of course, this last subject has been Godard’s focus, even compulsion, for many years, and at 80 he is no better disposed towards the modern world than he was at, say, 60.

He’s also none too fond of his audiences, if the evidence of Film Socialisme is to be believed. On the one hand, it is the most dazzlingly beautiful film Godard has made in a long time, perhaps in his entire career, a film that utilizes every conceivable cinematic and video palette with a profusion of super-saturated colors, inky blacks, solarizations and other visual tricks. On the other, the film is a dizzying 97 minutes of seemingly disconnected events, including a long entr’acte set in a gas station owned by a couple of local French politicians who opt out of their campaign to support that of their teenage daughter. It’s the kind of Godardian garage whose denizens include a burro and a cheerful-looking llama. (Leave it to Godard to find a llama that takes direction.)

But most dismaying to almost any audience, “Film Socialisme” is a film with almost no subtitles.

By design.


Godard has created his own set of subtitles for the film, using what he calls “Navajo subtitling,” cryptic, two- and three-word titles that pick out key words — and some not so key ones at times — rather than translating the dialogue. When added to a typically mysterious Godard scenario in which a character named Goldberg may or may not be a) Jewish, b) a Nazi hiding out, c) an international financier, d) a former Stalinist agent or e) all or none of the above; a missing cache of gold, possibly stolen by the Comintern at the end of the Spanish civil war; a profusion of historians-plotters-passengers, the result is a kind of mental mayhem. My French just isn’t good enough to decipher the Goldberg subplot on a single viewing, so the most I can say is that it is of a piece with Godard’s Jew-obsession, his anti-Zionism and his deep concern with various resistances to fascism and racism.

What one takes away from Film Socialisme even without a knowledge of French, Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Russian and Hebrew — to name some of the languages on the soundtrack — is the realization that Jean-Luc Godard is still deeply in love with the powers of cinema, with Sergei Eisenstein and Manoel de Oliveira and Chris Marker and John Ford, all of whom are quoted visually, and he is still mordantly funny as a critic of the conspicuous and dangerous over-consumption that has driven the world economy since World War II.

Is it a great film? It’s sumptuous to look at and great fun, if you don’t mind the feeling that you’ve just stepped into an empty elevator shaft. Is it anti-Semitic? I don’t know. All I can say is that without a lot more French or non-Navajo subtitles, I can’t be sure.

Maybe that’s the point.

The only thing I will add to the debate on JLG and the Jews is that, as A.O. Scott notes his review in today’s New York Times, Godard does have a character say that “the Jews invented Hollywood.” Given that he has never completely renounced his love of American film, I’ll take that as a compliment, however backhand

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Puzzle Well Worth Solving

There is a wonderfully odd little moment in Natalia Smirnoff’s debut feature, Puzzle, currently playing at the IFC Center. The film’s protagonist, a 50-year-old housewife Maria (Maria Onetto) is on the telephone with one of the other characters. Smirnoff has her framed loosely in a medium shot, holding the phone and talking animatedly. She tells the unseen person on the other end of the phone that she needs to look up the answer to her interlocutor’s question; she walks out of frame, we can hear her faintly in an adjoining room but otherwise there is silence for several seconds, perhaps as many as 20 or 30, then she comes back into the frame and continues the conversation.

It’s a wonderfully casual moment that feels unscripted and unrehearsed, but lived in, and that underlines the great strength not only of Smirnoff’s delightful film, but of much of the Argentine New Wave of the past decade. Like the directors she has worked for – Pablo Trapero, Lucrecia Martel, Alejandro Agresti, among others – Smirnoff’s film emphasizes a splendid combination of spontaneity, economy of means and energy. One could add Daniel Burman, Diego Lerman and Martin Rejtman for their quirky sense of humor, slightly off-kilter rhythms and gift for understatement. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a country that has seen so much turbulence and insanity in the past fifty years . . . .

The premise of Puzzle is simple and at first glance unpromising. Having turned fifty at the outset of the film Maria is clearly the backbone of her family, the one who keeps the clocks ticking. Her husband and she seem to have a very loving relationship; their two college-age kids are amiable, if a trifle selfish, but one sense that is just a phase they will outgrow. But something is lacking. Among the many gifts she receives at the birthday party is a large jigsaw puzzle. Something about engages her and she sits down to assemble it. And she does so with remarkable alacrity. What can be done with this newly discovered talent? She answers a flier seeking a partner for puzzle contests and find herself working with a rather odd, reclusive man of wealth, Roberto (Arturo Goetz, a Burman regular).

One can easily imagine what an American filmmaker would make of this material today. We would have yet another treacly comedy-drama (i.e., a film that fails as both), with the tedious Sandra Bullock or some other supermarket-magazine bait finding her true vocation and – god help us – true love in the puzzle world. Happily, Smirnoff treats the material with a lovely balance of detachment and dry humor that allows it to breathe, and a formal elegance that fits the film’s title nicely. She shies away from unnecessary melodrama, but lets Maria's character explore possibilities in a very real sense. Puzzle is a charming film that never strains for feeling but finds it naturally in the everyday ordinariness of its characters. As a first feature it shows great promise but more important than that, it is a genuine low-key pleasure to watch.