4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007, 113 m.). THEMES: SUPPORTIVE PEER RELATIONS; LIFE CRISIS; ILLEGAL ABORTION; DEPENDENT PERSONALITY. For roughly 24 hours, we share the tensions and uncertainty of two young women, students who are dorm roommates, as one of them, Gabita (Laura Vasilio), seeks an illicit abortion and the other, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, in an award winning turn), tries to help her. Though much has been made of a subtle political trope in this film (it is set in 1987 in the waning years of the Ceausescu regime), I found this theme too understated to be very noticeable. For me the film is primarily a study of character, of personality and adaptability, in the face of unaccustomed stress. Where Otilia is principled, dependable, resourceful and loyal, Gabita is self absorbed, deceitful, unreliable and dependent. Granted, Gabita is the one who is pregnant, but you’re struck by the sense that her helplessness cuts far deeper than her present exigency can explain. The other principals are also interesting studies: Viarel Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the steely abortionist, and Adi Radu (Alexandru Potocean), Otilia’s nebbisher boyfriend.
The two women remind me of the pair in Erick Zonca’s 1998 film, The Dreamlife of Angels, also about an outgoing, caring young woman (played by Elodie Bouchez) and an apartment mate who is self centered, mercurial, even suicidal (Natacha Regnier). A life lesson in both stories is that you can knock yourself out for someone else without influencing them to change one whit for the better. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, of course. You do the right thing. It’s just that you have to accept the limits of your influence as well as the limits of the other person's capacities. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and awards for best film and best director at the European Film Awards. (In Romanian). Grade: B+ (02/08)
16 YEARS OF ALCOHOL (Richard Jobson, UK, 2005, 102 min.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: ALCOHOLISM; ROOTS OF VIOLENCE IN FAMILY OF ORIGIN; AN AA MEETING. It is indicative of the paradoxical quality of this film, Jobson’s first feature as writer-director, that the title misleads. Yes, alcohol has a prominent place in the life of the protagonist, Frankie (Kevin McKidd), but it takes a back seat to serious fighting. Frankie is the leader of a small street gang in 1970s Edinburgh and gets his kicks by bashing up bartenders and, now and then, more unruly members of his own gang. When he swears to his lover that he will change his life and attends an AA meeting with her, he introduces himself not as an alcoholic but as “a violent man.”
This is a semi-autobiographical film. Jobson was himself a member of a large street gang in Edinburgh until he was asked to join a punk band, The Skids, in the late 1970s. He’s been a musical star, poet, model, screenwriter and producer in the years since. If this film’s styles (yes, that’s a plural) tug us in differing directions, it’s because Jobson tries too hard to make Alcohol express all of his creative impulses.
On the one hand, the film poses as a raw, slice-of-life, dead end story set in a working class Scot neighborhood. With its use of McKidd and Ewen Bremner, it makes us think for a moment or two of Trainspotting, or My Name is Joe, or Sweet Sixteen. The screenplay is formulaic. Young boy becomes disillusioned watching his father’s drunken philandering and his mother’s heartbreak. He grows up furious and untrusting, cannot shake the psychological manacles of his past, and comes to a bad end.
But set against the realism of this story are art house touches that seem like they’re derived from another movie, arranged according to a different aesthetic altogether. There are visuals of lush, lyrical intimacy. The close up partial faces of new lovers smiling or gazing with adoration (we may only see their mouths or eyes). The twinkling glitter of rich amber whisky as it’s poured into a faceted glass.
Then there are Frankie’s voiceovers: philosophical axioms sonorously intoned, like lyrics sung by Leonard Cohen. Hope is the medicine of people who lead difficult, unfulfilling lives, we learn in voiceovers toward the beginning and end of the film, and the more familiar one is with hope, the less effective it becomes. Stuff like that. Some of these utterances are banal. Others are well said and poetical enough. But they seem unintegrated with the story at hand. It’s not that they don’t sound the same themes. It’s that Frankie the man, inarticulate in the extreme, would appear to be incapable of delivering such poetic homilies in his disembodied form.
Among the supporting cast, only Susan Lynch, as Frankie’s lover Mary, and Lewis Macleod, as his father, hold one’s interest. Sean O’Hagen, writing in the Guardian Observer, puts the most favorable spin on Alcohol when he calls it “…a downbeat romantic elegy for a squandered life.” Grade: B- (05/05)
THE 24 HOUR WOMAN (Nancy Savoca, US, 1999). THEME: WOMEN’S WORKPLACE ISSUES. Nonstop noisy frenetic drivel just about sums up this fractious business about the difficulties for women who desire to maintain their professional careers while also growing a family. The plot idea was fair enough: “24 Hour Woman” is the title of a daily talk show slanted toward younger women. The film opens as the show's savvy producer, Grace Santos (Rosie Perez), discovers, to her surprise, that she is pregnant. Grace and her executive producer decide to use her situation to feature pregnancy in a daily segment on the show. So far so good. But the chaotic lunacy that erupts among all the characters is way overdone and ultimately sinks the project. Grade: C (08/99)
28 DAYS (Betty Thomas, US, 2000). THEMES: RESIDENTIAL TREATMENT FOR ALCOHOL PROBLEMS; BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER WITH DEPENDENT FEATURES. Sandra Bullock stars as Gwen, a thrill seeking alcoholic pill popper, who is sent to a residential chemical dependency program after a drunk driving accident. This send up of life in a substance abuse treatment program is by turns improbably corny, genuinely hilarious, and also, pardon the pun, sobering. Gwen's rapid progress is perhaps too good to be true. Still, beneath the hyperbole, the basic lessons of early recovery are all covered. With Steve Buscemi as the serious recovering program director and Azura Skye as Gwen's roommate, Andrea, a young, severely dependent borderline personality. Loudon Wainwright II provides the on ward music. See also my article titled "Good to the Last Drop." Grade: B (09/00)
101 REYKJAVIK (Baltasar Kormakur, Iceland, 2001). THEMES: LESBIAN COMEDY; GROWING UP (BETTER LATE THAN NEVER). Hlynur is an immature 30 year old living on the dole at his Mom's house. His main pursuits are booze, weed and women. His mom takes a lesbian lover (Victoria Abril) whom he impregnates while Mom's away. It's all too unsettling for Hlynur, whose choices are to destroy himself or get a life. Droll yet thoughtful comedy. (In Icelandic) Grade: B (02/01)
ABERDEEN (Hans Petter Moland, Norway/UK, 2001). THEMES: ALCOHOLISM; COCAINE DEPENDENCE; ADDICTIONS AND THE FAMILY; FATHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT. Study of family psychopathology. Road movie. Portrait of alcoholism and addiction. Study in human redemption and compassion. Aberdeen is all of these: a taut, spare film that combines good acting and filmcraft. Stellan Skarsgard is Tomas, the end-stage alcoholic father of Kaisa (Lena Headey) and long estranged common-law partner of Kaisa's mother, Helen (Charlotte Rampling). Helen summons the others to her bedside in Aberdeen, where she is dying of cancer. Kaisa is a London lawyer who is successful despite her major coke habit. Tomas now leads a besotted tavern dweller's existence in Oslo. (Tomas had raised Kaisa after Helen, realizing her own incompetence as a single parent, sent Kaisa off to Norway, and there are dark hints that he abused her.) We see little of Rampling, unfortunately, because this is the story of Kaisa and Tomas. The central plot consists of the struggle for Kaisa to escort her drunken father across northern Europe to Aberdeen for the reunion. It is a trip from Hell. But in the end circumstances arise which offer Tomas an opportunity to redeem himself. Love triumphs here over fear and self indulgence in a manner that is not maudlin but instead distinctly believable. Headey is terrific. Grade: B+ (01/02)
ABOUT A BOY (Paul & Chris Weitz, UK, 2002). THEMES: DEPRESSION & SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR IN THE MOTHER OF A 12 YEAR OLD; THE BURDEN OF A MENTALLY DISTRUBED SINGLE MOTHER ON A TEENAGE CHILD. A quirky romantic comedy set in contemporary London, the story actually is about 2 boys who come of age: one, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who is 12, and the other, Will (Hugh Grant), who is 38. Will is an empty man. He lives off royalties from an enormously popular hit Christmas song his father wrote in 1958, and does absolutely nothing but indulge himself in superficial pleasures and relationships. He hits upon the notion of pretending to be a single parent in order to date single moms. This brings him into contact with Fiona (Toni Collette) and her son Marcus. Fiona is prone to severe depression and suicidal impulses. Marcus, feeling utterly responsible for her welfare, is a desperate, self-sacrificing young man, ridiculed at school as a mama’s boy. He attaches himself to Will, begging him for attention and for help to save his life and Fiona’s. Grant tries in every way to dodge these entanglements until he meets the gorgeous and entrancing Rachel (Rachel Weisz) who also has a teenage son. Using Marcus to manipulate his way into Rachel’s affections, Will finds himself instead beginning to care more deeply about Rachel and Marcus, feelings that are new and bewildering to him. Things get sorted out eventually as befits romantic comedy. Collette is outstanding as the horridly depressed, lonely ex-hippie (Will once refers to her as a case of “granola suicide” in the making). Marcus is pretty clueless for a London schoolboy, but the burden he carries to keep his mom going makes his conduct believable – a fine acting turn by young Hoult. This is Grant’s best work ever. His gradual transformation from (a typical Grant role) cad to caring person is bumpy, painful, and convincing. Grade: B+ (01/03)
ABOUT SCHMIDT (Alexander Payne, US, 2002). THEME: COMPLICATED BEREAVEMENT AFTER A LONG MARRIAGE. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, in a stellar performance) arguably devoted more of himself to his employer, an Omaha insurance company, than to his wife and daughter combined. The story concerns Schmidt’s life over several months following retirement from his workaholic career as an insurance actuary, and then, almost immediately, the unexpected death of his wife of 42 years. He’s lost, pathetic. Never before capable of introspection, finally at age 66 it dawns on him for the first time how little he knew about his wife or knows about himself. He only begins now, in a fragmented, stuttering manner, to glimpse what love is; what it means to be a father; what it is to be generous of heart; and that he is needs the affection of others. This painful introduction to life’s basic lessons is unsought and unbidden: it befalls him; it is an unavoidable consequence of his lonely predicament. The tension between the desperation of this nearly empty man and the hints that he may be capable of something better, more ennobling, more humane – this is the core of the story. Kathy Bates is delicious as the aging seductive hippie mother of Schmidt’s daughter’s fiancé. There are delightful visual details (e.g., “retirment” is misspelled on a restaurant marquee where Schmidt’s departure from employment is being celebrated). The screenplay – by Payne and Jim Taylor – is extraordinary. There’s nothing preachy or sentimental here. Circumstances are often side-splittingly funny, yet Schmidt’s dilemma and reflections are serious business and they ring true. The film has movement: there is never a sag, never a false cut. See it. For more on this film, see my article, More Rooms in the House of Grief. Grade: A (01/03)
AFFLICTION (Paul Schrader, US, 1998). THEME: CHRONIC PTSD; EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ON SUBSEQUENT PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT. Like another recently filmed Russell Banks' story, The Sweet Hereafter, this film deals with the lasting effects of trauma on the human spirit, but the resemblance between these films ends there. This is a sad tale of how the sins of an abusive father are visited upon his son, who tries to love but becomes lost to rage. James Coburn and Nick Nolte are excellent as the father and son. When Wade (Nolte) says that he "feels like a whipped dog...one of these days I'm gonna bite back" he evokes a coda for the central passion of many adults who were severely mistreated as children. Equally though more subtlely portrayed is the dilemma of Rolf (Willem Dafoe), Wade's younger brother. When Rolf tells Wade he's not afflicted, Wade's ready retort is, "that's what you think." Later Rolf tells of his lasting affliction. "I was a careful child and I continue to be a careful adult," he says. Rolf avoided abuse by stealth, by not permitting himself to respond with any provocation of his alcoholic father. But the price of his indelible, pervasive caution is that in mid-adulthood he still is single, aloof, living an orderly life as a bachelor college professor. He never returned to his hometown, not until his mother's death. Apart from this family psychodrama, the film also features a murder, or was it an accident? Grade: B+ (2003)
AFTER INNOCENCE (Jessica Sanders, US, 2005, 95 m.). THEMES: FALSE CONVICTIONS FOR CAPITAL CRIMES; EXONERATION BASED ON DNA EVIDENCE; LIFE EXPERIENCES AFTER EXONERATION. Documentary about men who had been incarcerated, some for 20 years or more, awaiting certain execution on death row, in prisons across the country, men who subsequently have been exonerated after their convictions for capital crimes – like murder and rape – were overturned as a result of new, DNA-based evidence proving their innocence, chemical analyses that were either unavailable or not conducted at the time of their original trials. These conviction reversals are, almost without exception, the result of pro bono legal assistance and inspiration provided by the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center established in 1992 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, at Yeshiva University, in New York City.
The two founding lawyers of the clinic, Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, have waged a relentless and tireless battle to aid wrongly convicted men facing execution, in the process encouraging the development of similar clinics and legal efforts in 30 states. To date, 175 persons have been exonerated through these efforts. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan was so impressed by the likelihood of error in capital convictions that, shortly before leaving office early in 2003, he commuted the death sentences of all convicts awaiting execution in his state.
This film focuses on eight or nine affected men, exploring the events and circumstances that followed the demonstration of their innocence. We learn some shocking things. Exoneration brings no assistance to these men. For example, even the expungement of the conviction from the criminal justice record is not automatic. It must be applied for through a convoluted paper process. In one state, the exonerated individual must pay $6,000 in fees to gain an expungement. Whereas guilty felons placed on parole may be entitled to myriad services and sources of aid for things like education, employment and heath care, exonerated persons receive no such entitlements. No state has arranged a program to offer compensation to any of these people. In nearly every instance, they don’t even get an apology from the State for erroneously taking away their freedom for years upon years.
We also are reminded of bad things we already knew from exposés on PBS’s Frontline (April 11, 2002) and other programs, namely, that prosecutors and judges are often loath to accept the DNA evidence, insisting, if you can believe this, that because a case was tried fairly, i.e., the trial met acceptable prosecutorial and judicial standards, the convict should continue to be incarcerated and even executed, despite proof of innocence! In one man’s case that we follow throughout this film, prosecutors stalled for three years after DNA testing had proven that he was not the perpetrator, during which time the man remained in prison, before Innocence Project lawyers prevailed in bringing the DNA evidence to court and winning an acquittal. Interviewed for the film, one member of that prosecuting team justified the effort to keep the convict on death row on the basis that “the victim’s family needs closure.” But not every case reveals such perversely twisted sentiments. In a heartwarming example of the opposite reaction, we see a prosecutor embrace another newly released, exonerated man, apologizing for the hardship caused by his false conviction and incarceration.
We see in this film stories of success and failure after release of these men from prison. One gets a good job from a sympathetic truck repair shop owner. Another successfully pursues his dream of becoming a psychotherapist, first obtaining an A.A. degree, then his B.S. in Psychology. But others fail to find decent work, their records still blemished by unexpunged information regarding their false convictions. One man dies of a heart attack a few years after his release. A successful support group is formed in one locale, and we learn of various efforts now underway to seek compensation, though none has so far succeeded.
Some sobering comments on the problem of false conviction are offered by Barry Scheck and others along the way. The 175 exonerated persons (it was 150 when the movie wrapped, so that is the number Scheck cites in the film interview; the website for the Innocence Project - http://www.innocenceproject.org/ - now cites 175) represent just the tip of a huge iceberg. The various Innocence Projects around the country receive hundreds and hundreds of requests for aid, far more than they can even answer, much less take on. We are shown files drawers full of unopened envelopes, letters from convicts seeking the help of Scheck and Neufeld’s clinic. Scheck says that DNA analysis is possible in only about 10% of the cases they do review. In the other 90% of cases, materials on which DNA analysis can be performed were either absent, were rendered unusable because of botched evidence collection, have been destroyed or lost in the years since the trial.
Scheck also tells us that eyewitness reports constitute the sole evidence base for successful prosecution in 78% of capital crime convictions among persons now on death row. This despite the fact that a huge body of psychological research, conducted by experts like Elizabeth Loftus at the University of Washington (now professor at the University of California, Irvine), has demonstrated the frequent unreliability of such evidence. One exonerated man’s story, followed in this film, has, since his release, brought him into contact with the rape victim who erroneously identified him in a police lineup, the sole basis of his conviction. He and the woman that he did not rape have become friends, and they share a common goal of improving the evidence base relied upon by prosecutors.
Of crucial importance in this effort is the registration of the DNA findings - findings that have proven the innocence of men like those in this film - in the existing national DNA data base, so that, like fingerprint records, DNA records might help in the future identify perpetrators of past crimes. Shockingly, this has not been done in any of the cases presented in the movie, despite repeated requests made by Innocence Project lawyers. The reluctance of the criminal justice system to acknowledge error and embrace scientific methods that can reduce false convictions is egregious.
This film is extraordinary insofar as its subject - life in the community after exoneration - has not previously been explored in any depth, factual content is lucidly presented, the men featured are articulate, highly interesting individuals (almost all, for example, are remarkably free of hostility about their experiences), the talking heads are informative and kept to an essential minimum, and the photography, editing and continuity are first rate. Jessica Sanders makes her debut here as the (co)writer-director of a feature length documentary. It’s a splendid beginning. Grade: A- (04/06)
AFTER LIFE (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 1999). THEMES: REMINISCENCE; REDEMPTION; REGRET; LIVES FULL AND EMPTY; AFTERLIFE. Literally knocking on Heaven's door, 22 recently deceased persons find themselves initially assigned to rooms in a boarding house for a week. Interviews with the staff reveal that the purpose of their stay is to select a memory of one event in their lives that they wish to live within for eternity. Once selected, all other memories will be expunged. A truly awkward aspect of this film is the work of the staff, who must then literally recreate, that is stage, the event selected by each person and then make a video of the staging. Why? One old man who has led a dull life can think of no event he would wish to return to. The staff cart in 71 videos for him to review, one made for each year of his life. How? The staff is composed of deceased people who themselves had been unable to decide on a past life event to live within, at the time they arrived in Heaven. The struggles of some of these people are hard to follow. What fascinates in this film are the reactions of the new people as each confronts the task of selecting a memory. Kore-eda also made the excellent film, Maborosi, which also concerns death, and also bereavement and survivors carrying on. (In Japanese) Grade: B- (10/99)
AGNES OF GOD (Norman Jewison, US, 1985). THEME: PSYCHIATRIST AT WORK: BAD EXAMPLE. Meg Tilly is a novice nun discovered with a strangled newborn in her quarters at the convent. And she isn’t talking about it. Jane Fonda is a court-appointed psychiatrist brought in to wheedle some information out of this possibly insane young woman and solve the case. Anne Bancroft is an appropriately arch Mother Superior who wants to control everything and knows a whole lot more than she’s letting on. Fonda’s psychiatrist shows no trace of professional skill in this highly disappointing depiction of a psychiatrist at work. Her battle of wits with each of the other two women makes for fair drama, but there is a supernatural subplot that gets in the way. Grade: C (09/98)
AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (Nick Broomfield & Joan Churchill, UK/US, 2003). THEME: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY. This is the second film about highway prostitute Aileen (“Lee”) Wuornos made by British documentarist Broomfield, following his 1992 film, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, shot at the time of her trials in Florida for killing seven johns in a year (a film I have not seen). The new film incorporates segments of the earlier one with other interviews that fill in some details of Wuornos’s background, as well as footage of Wuornos over the 18 months before her execution in October, 2002. The material here is of heightened interest because this second documentary reached the big screen only shortly after Monster, Patty Jenkins’s dramatized version of Wuornos’s story, featuring the celebrated performance of Charlize Theron as Wuornos.
As David Denby pointed out when comparing Life and Death and Monster for The New Yorker, Monster is by far the more absorbing and revealing film, insofar as it seeks to delve below the surface of Wuornos’s notorious conduct, to construct or reconstruct a story of this unfortunate woman that succeeds in making her a more comprehensible, not to say sympathetic, character. Life and Death gives us reminiscences by several people who knew Wuornos as a youngster and her family. But these are bits and pieces. And while they are consistent with the more “interior” psychological account given in Monster, they lack the narrative cohesion of Jenkins’s screenplay. In Life and Death, Wuornos, toward the end of her 12 years of incarceration, 10 on death row, has an axe to grind and wants only to speak about one theme: who’s really to blame for her string of killings. More on that in a minute.
Life and Death might not have been made, had not Broomfield been subpoenaed to testify at an appeals hearing in which the competence of Wuornos’s original trial attorney was being challenged. Broomfield had 1992 footage that purported to show this attorney smoking copious quantities of marijuana in the hours prior to courtroom proceedings, and other footage suggesting the lawyer was attempting to pocket big money in return for granting interviews about the case. Later Wuornos told Broomfield (recorded clearly on film) that she had made up her original story of doing the killings in self defense, that in fact she had shot all the men in a calculated manner, and that her deepening Christian beliefs made it important to her to tell the truth before she died. This revelation appears to have had a transfixing effect on Broomfield.
Life and Death then narrows down to a contest of wills between Wuornos and Broomfield, each in pursuit of issues that bear on the question of responsibility for the killings. Broomfield is noted for inserting himself into the forefront of films he makes (not unlike documentarist/performance artist Michael Moore). His agenda is the self-defense issue, which he asks Wuornos about whenever he has an opportunity. Is it really true that her self-defense claim was spurious? That is what he comes back to again and again. And for good reason. Her testimony about events in the first shooting, which we see in courtroom footage, is deeply convincing (it is very much along the lines of the dramatized encounter in Monster).
For her part, Wuornos, over the year or so before her execution, has convinced herself that it was the police who were principally responsible for the killings. According to her theory, they had been watching her for months, knew almost immediately that she had killed the first man, then let her remain free to kill others, so her increasingly sensational story would pay off when police sold book and film rights. This extravagant idea has at least one strand of truth to support it: several police officers on her case did in fact attempt to sell her story for private gain, a fact that is covered in both documentaries. Wuornos eventually becomes enraged whenever Broomfield persists in bringing up the self-defense question, refusing to discuss it, breaking off their interviews. Broomfield at one point, very shortly before the execution, goes so far as to deceive Wuornos by pretending to turn off recording equipment while he persists in asking if she did or didn’t act in self-defense. She whispers that she did, but that this is not the important issue, which is the police conspiracy. She will no longer discuss the self-defense issue because it detracts from the role of the police, she implies.
This film is surely recommended viewing for anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by Monster. We can see how strikingly Theron was able to achieve a resemblance to Wuornos in looks and demeanor. On the other hand, Tyria, Wuornos’s lover, filmed in 1992, is older and more poised, not the immature ingenue depicted in Monster by Christina Ricci. A major difference is the chronology of events after Wuornos and her lover meet. It is a fact, affirmed in Life and Death, that Tyria and Lee were together for three years before the first killing occurred. In Monster, the first killing occurs just after the initial meetings of the couple, inviting the interpretation that Wuornos’s new love relationship influenced her homicidal behavior in some fundamental way. The self-defense issue in the end remains unresolved according to this film. Are we to believe the original courtroom testimony, the recanting 9 years later, or the affirmation of self defense candidly whispered when Wuornos thought she wasn’t being recorded?
Was Wuornos insane – psychotic - near the end of her life? Broomfield thinks so, and so do many viewers. The question would, of course, have had no bearing on her original conviction or sentencing, but apparently could affect the timing, at least, of her execution. An examination by a state appointed panel of three psychiatrists was hastily arranged near the end: after a 20 minute interview, they unanimously said she was sane. Of course the legal definition of sanity is simply that a person knows right from wrong, understands the charges and the terms of sentencing, that sort of thing. Clinically the issue is far more complex, less cut and dried. Even if her police conspiracy theory can be seen as a delusion, other aspects of Wuornos’ conduct and circumstances appear to belie this as part of a more pervasive psychotic disorder. Her hair trigger temper and great energy often do suggest a “mad woman” on camera, but what does this mean?
As my partner rightly puts it, Aileen Wuornos was “in a rage all her life,” and for good reason. She was the victim of terrible physical and emotional abuse, and her twisted, primitive personality developed in a manner consistent with such formative experiences: a pervasive tendency toward poorly modulated fury and a pattern of antisocial behavior. But she was not without conscience, and Life and Death very ably shows that the responsibility for the killings clearly weighed in upon her during her years on death row. She describes being alone, isolated, most of the time in prison. Many of the staff on death row, she claims, did not like her. These are conditions conducive to the development of idiosyncrasies in thinking. It isn’t hard to see how she might seize upon a police conspiracy theory as a means of assuaging her own guilt and channeling some of her anger. Having become enamored of this idea, she then demonstrates a keen rationality in wishing to dismiss further talk about self-defense, for that theme keeps the focus on her responsibility, not the culpability of the police. And, through it all, she demonstrates a highly realistic view of the virtual certainty that she will be executed. Wrathful, yes. Eccentric, to be sure. But Aileen Wuornos doesn’t seem crazy to me. Grade: B (04/04)
ALICE AND MARTIN (André Techiné, France, 2000). THEME: DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER WITH COMA AND TRANSIENT MEMORY LOSS.. Story of star-crossed lovers. Martin (Alexis Loret), an illegitimate child, moves to his father's house at age 10 but feels imprisoned there by the man's callousness. Ten years later Martin flees after pushing his father down stairs to his death. (The mother, the only witness, covers up the true events, saying it was an accidental fall.) Martin moves to Paris, where he meets Alice (Juliette Binoche), a more experienced woman eking out a living as a violinist, who shares an apartment with Martin's gay halfbrother. Martin and Alice become lovers, but when she becomes pregnant and reveals the fact to Martin, this news activates his suppressed guilt about killing his father, precipitating an dissociative disorder marked by sudden weakness, loss of consciousness and transient coma-like state, with weakness for awhile after regaining consciousness in a few hours and loss of memory for immediate events around the onset of unconsciousness.
Irritable, socially aloof, but physically stronger after a few weeks, he tells Alice the true story of his father's fate but this brings no relief. He insists that only by being tried for the killing can he find peace. He moves on to a psychiatric hospital and Alice does his bidding, going to his stepmother to persuade her to be a witness to the facts the day Martin pushed his father down the stairs. He turns himself in, and the film ends with him awaiting a sentence but now unburdened by guilt, feeling positive about the relationship to Alice and the as yet unborn baby. Alice of course is left pregnant, and without her man or much of a living. Binoche is convincing, given the premise that we know almost nothing about her background except that she apparently has never previously had a sustained love relationship. Perhaps this explains her poor choice in picking Martin. Loret is even more convincing, and about him and his background we learn a lot. The screenplay is long and heavy going but does have integrity. (In French) Grade: B (05/01)
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1999). THEMES: WOMEN’S ISSUES; TRANSGENDER ISSUES. Considered perhaps Almodovar's most serious work to date, this is, he says, a tribute to women, to actresses who play actresses, to men who would be women, to all who wish to be mothers, and so on. He brings together several great female players. The story centers on Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a former prostitute whose son dies early in the film, leading her from Madrid back to Barcelona where she encounters an old friend and transsexual prostitute Agrada (Antonia San Juan) and a great actress, Huma Roja (Marisa Paredes), among other women. Manuela's grief moves her to help first her old friend, then a young pregnant woman, Rosa (Penelope Cruz), then Roja. Everything as usual is highly colorful and full of wonderful gender-bending personalities in Almodovar's world. (In Spanish) Grade: B (01/00)
ALL THE REAL GIRLS (David Gordon Green, US, 2003). THEME: ACHIEVING MATURE RELATIONSHIPS (YOUNG ADULT COMING-OF-AGE). It's a pleasure to see an American film about coming-of-age and romance that much of the time feels fresh and real. The title is misleading and may turn aside an important audience for this film. As I see it, Real is as much a guyflick as a romantic comedy; in fact it has the best guy scenes and conversations I can recall in a U.S. film since Spring Forward. We meet a group of four or five young men in their early 20s who have always known each other. They live in a run down river town in North Carolina that had been prosperous before all the textile mills closed but one. These guys aren't going anywhere and have reached an age where they're just starting to worry about that, to feel vulnerable. Then Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the 18 year old kid sister of one of the guys, comes home to roost after 6 years away at boarding school. She proceeds to put some moves on her brother Tip's best buddy, Paul (Paul Schneider, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Paul has laid every woman in town he could get his paws on since he was 13. His own mother (Patricia Clarkson in one of her less memorable roles) at one point tells Paul that "...you're not careful, educated, honest or strong, and you don't have any faith."
But Noel spins Paul around, he becomes genuinely disoriented, and for the first time he feels something akin to honesty and inklings of love for this girl. The emergence of their connection feels valid. Meanwhile Tip (Shea Whigham), a rougher sort of rascal who knows Paul like the back of his own hand, is not at all happy that his kid sister is probably being shagged by the most notorious heartbreaker in town. But Tip's own jets get cooled when his girlfriend turns up pregnant, and, to his own great surprise, the thought of becoming a father actually opens Tip's heart more than a little. Noel also has some growing up to do, in the course of which she pulls some stunts that appear to torpedo her affair with Paul. A. O. Scott rightly calls Paul and Noel's "...a sweet, fumbling, inconclusive romance."
This film for the most part manages to steer clear of cliches, sitcom dialogue and the trite plot formulas. The lines often surprise and delight. The film is somewhat uneven. It moves briskly along for the first hour, inventive and feeling as real as life itself. The filmmakers seem to stray from their well conceived design for the following half hour, as they focus away from the guys and first glow of romance toward the problematic phase of Paul and Noel's relationship. The dialogue now becomes more prosaic, less inventive; time-lapse photography is employed at one point for no apparent reason, as if some Gus Van Sant footage had mistakenly turned up here; and a few scenes seem too cute and contrived (examples: Paul and Noel standing halfway down a lane in an empty bowling alley; Paul and a buddy driving his barely functioning old compact car in a hardtop auto race). But toward the end the ship is righted, picks up steam, and sails proudly into port with a rapid sequence of brief, humorous scenes reprising the main characters. Grades: drama: B, process of maturation in love relationships: A- (02/03)
ALL WINTER WITHOUT FIRE (Tout un hiver sans feu) (Greg Zglinski, Switzerland/others, 2004, 90 m.) THEMES: GRIEF, LOSS, REFUGEE DISLOCATION & ADAPTATION. Sensitively etched study of loss and dislocation in contemporary western Europe. The French actor Aurélien Recoing (Time Out) plays Jean, who comes from a long line of farmers. We meet him sometime after his life has been devastated after a fire in his barn in which his young daughter was trapped and died. As is so often the case in real life, this terrible loss has also torn his marriage apart, leaving Jean to suffer the dual loss of his wife and his child. Not only that, he cannot get a loan to rebuild the barn and replace his livestock, threatening to end his life work - and family tradition - as a farmer.
Through an old friend, Jean gains a job at a steel foundry in the city. It’s alien work to him, but he stoically adapts. He falls in with a group of displaced Albanian Kosavars who also work there, and is welcomed into their social circle. Vaguely romantic exchanges with a Kosavar woman (whose husband has gone missing for several years and, we can presume, is dead, even if she doesn’t recognize this) and the broader fellowship of the men he hangs out with, begin to rekindle Jean’s demoralized spirits. Meanwhile, Jean’s depressed wife Laure has been more-or-less appropriated by her sister Valerie, whose notion of being supportive consists of devaluing Jean while nuzzling up to her bereft sister in a manner suggestive of consummate possession, if not outright sexual desire.
At the end, we are given hope that Jean’s ownership of the farm will be sustained and that Laure may return to him. The film works at two levels: love and loss in an intensely personal form, and also, at a more conceptual level, the phenomenon of dislocation. The Kosavars obviously are dislocated refugees. Yet, ironically, Jean, though just a few kilometers from his farm, is also dislocated: a man removed from his family and forced by circumstances to assume an unfamiliar life in terms of place and work. The commonalities that bind these dislocated people together are portrayed in a manner that is instructive but not didactic. The directing debut for Switzerland's Greg Zglinski, this was one of the better films in the 2006 “Frames of Mind” Mental Health Film Festival in Vancouver, B.C. (In French and Albanian) Grade: B+ (05/06)
AMERICAN BEAUTY (Sam Mendes, US, 1999). THEMES: FAMILY CONFLICT; DEPRESSION; MID-LIFE CRISIS. SPOILER ALERT! Oh. Oh. Out in the suburbs there's trouble brewing once again in the contemporary American nuclear family. Maybe we should give films on this subject their own genre label. Similar to the "Western," we could call them "Suburbans" or, better, “Exurbans,” so as not to confuse them with GM’s huge SUVs. Possibly this genre was born in 1980, with Redford's "Ordinary People." Lately in this mold we've already had The Ice Storm, Happiness, The Truman Show and Steven Soderbergh’s unhinged take, Schizopolis.
Career doldrums. Self absorbtion. Boredom. Sex life in free fall. Adolescent children depressed, spoiled, estranged, sick of their parents' pretensions. Everyone's angry and their nerves are frayed. Then somebody gets hurt. Or gets free. Or both. And there you have it: the formula for a "Exurban."
That's what we have here, in American Beauty, but this film is better than the others I’ve mentioned. For one thing, there is a hyperreal quality to the film – meaning that elements in it are intentionally exaggerated, for dramatic, not comedic, effect. In part this effect is created visually. David Denby, in The New Yorker magazine, has written about the look of this film: "...the compositions are gleaming and hard-edged...but everything is a little too bright, too clear..."
Besides that, these people do things that are over the top and unexpected. One is thus set up to constantly wonder what on earth they might do next. It could be anything. And, as in the films of David Lynch or John Dahl, a tension is thus created in the viewer that persists even when the characters take no further unusual action at all. Besides providing suspense, and despite the desperate angst that drives the main protagonist, this film, unlike Ice Storm, also sounds a hopeful note, suggesting that beauty surrounds us, and that it is possible to change our stance in the world, if we will only imagine more clearly how lovely life could be. Cynics will say, "Stop and smell the coffee. Yeah. Right. So then, how come the guy has to die?” Still, in a film genre prone to exploiting negatives, I find the positive riffs in this film refreshing.
The big thing that sets this film apart from other recent Exurbans is the quality of the performances. In nearly every role the players convey a richness, complexity and tautness of character that is compelling and believable. Kevin Spacey has been rightly praised for his work in the central role as the husband, but very good turns are also contributed by Annette Bening (the wife), Thora Birch (the daughter), Mena Suvari (her best girlfriend), Wes Bentley (the daughter's boyfriend), Chris Cooper (his father) and Peter Gallagher (the wife's lover). Sam Mendes, an experienced British stage director, evokes these fine performances and scores a hit in his film directing debut here. Oscar winners here included Spacey (Best Actor), Mendes (Best Director) and the movie (Best Film). Grade: A- (10/99)
AMERICAN HISTORY X (Tony Kaye, US, 1998). THEMES: HATE CRIMES; VIOLENCE; MORALITY; CAPACITY FOR CHANGE. Edward Norton gives a dazzling performance as Derek, a young skinhead who murders 2 blacks and while in prison discovers a different point of view about racial and other moral matters. But his reforms come too late to save his family from further tragedy related to his earlier misdeeds. With many fine supporting roles, especially Edward Furlong as Derek’s kid brother Danny, Beverly d'Angelo as their mother, Doris, and Avery Brooks as a teacher, Bob Sweeney. Grade: B+ (04/99)
AMERICAN MOVIE (Chris Smith, US, 2000). THEME: OUTSIZE, DRIVEN CHARACTER. Hilarious documentary of a film being made by the outrageous Mark Borchardt of Milwaukee. Borchardt, 29, has been making short horror films since age 14 with the volunteer help of his family and friends. Now, rejecting the notion of spending his life working at a regular job for somebody else but desperately aware that he needs to make good soon if he wants to realize his dream of a career as a filmmaker, Borchardt begins "Northwestern," about people he knows whose lives revolve around drinking and independence from the fetters of the mainstream culture. Actually, we never learn much about "Northwestern," a project Mark must temporarily abandon until he raises some cash. This he attempts to do by finishing an earlier project, "Coven," which he thinks will take 2 weeks but in fact takes over 2 years. We get to know his friends (in particular, Mike Schank, a burnt out drugger who is also a fine musician [he does the music for this film] and natural deadpan comedian), his parents, and his Uncle Bill (who is named executive producer of "Coven" having finally given Mark $3K after endless shakedowns by Mark), among others. Borchardt is bright, quirky, loyal to his friends, a nonstop talker, but most of all, he is indefatigable in his pursuit of his dreams, and it is his tireless spirit which provides the underpinning for this film, on top of which the funny situations keep on popping up at every turn. Grade: B+ (01/00)
AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman, US, 2003). THEME: DEPRESSIVE PERSONALITY. In the 1960s we spoke of "depressive personalities" - people for whom a depressive orientation seemed woven into the very fabric of their character, rather than being a superimposed disease. For such folks, everyday frustrations assume epic proportions, because of a lack of stamina, limited coping skills, and a corresponding tendency to magnify all problems out of proportion. Self-defeating behavior results from pessimism and irritability, creating self fulfilling prophesies in a vicious cycle of misery.
Harvey Pekar appears to be a serious and illustrative case. Pekar is an underground comic book writer, and this film is a biopic about his life, or better, about his way of life. Pekar is about the glummest, most pessimistic, least socially attractive underdog that you’re likely to run into. He lives a barren existence, abandoned by two wives. He finds fleeting satisfaction when he discovers rare old jazz recordings at garage sales and can bargain the price down below a quarter. His major challenge is somehow persevering through dreary weekends of painful loneliness.
Pekar has a chance encounter with underground comic artist Robert Crumb in the 1970’s, shows Crumb some notes about his daily struggles to cope with life, and the two agree to create a new series of graphic novels entitled “American Splendor” – written by Pekar and illustrated by Crumb and several other alternative comic artists. The series catches on and paces a surge of new graphic novel comics in the 1980s, attracts Joyce Brabner, who becomes Pekar’s enduring domestic partner, and lands Pekar as a regular guest on the David Letterman show. But none of this adds much gold to the Pekar coffers or alters Pekar’s certainty that life will remain difficult. He sticks to his day job filing records at a VA hospital.
This film is a bold docudrama in which fictional representations of the central characters are often interposed with or depicted alongside the real people. Paul Giamatti (Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce) and Judah Friedlander (Pekar’s semi-autistic coworker, the porcine Toby Radloff) are astonishingly like the real life people they portray. We know this because we also meet these real people, and in some scenes see the real and fictional characters side by side. Thus the writer-directors vividly realize on film what the “American Splendor” comic series achieved in print: the transparent and accurate stories of real people. Fellow employees at the hospital were always eager to see if they made it into the next issue.
The film opens with a row of five boys trick-or-treating. The first four are in superhero costumes. Then there’s a young Harvey in his ordinary garb, just sullenly being himself. That is the heart of “American Splendor” comics and Pekar – a nerdy nobody as superhero, without trappings or any special powers, braving the tribulations of daily life, pushed to his limits in exaggerated mortal combat against the great dark forces of the world, like the old woman ahead of him who takes forever in the supermarket line. The filmmakers have captured these everyday trials and heroics perfectly. And they have done so while at the same time preserving the integrity of the graphic comic novel format. The opening credits, for example, are all ingeniously rendered as a series of comic picture/text boxes. Very nice work! (The film was the 2003 Sundance grand jury prize winner.) Grade: A- (08/03)
ANALYZE THIS (Harold Ramis, US, 1999). THEME: COMEDY ABOUT TRANSFERENCE/ COUNTERTRANSFERENCE IN PSYCHOTHERAPY A Mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro) develops acute symptoms of anxiety and depression, and makes offers that a psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) cannot refuse, to arrange treatment. Ethical and boundary breaches abound, but it is all in the service of over-the-top farce, so who can complain? With brief performances by a simpy Lisa Kudrow and a fiery Chazz Palmintieri. For more on this film, see my article, Beyond Outrage. Grade: B (06/99)
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (Jane Campion, New Zealand, 1991). THEME: PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITALIZATION. First rate dramatization of New Zealand writer Janet Frame's three-part autobiography. Part one traces her childhood and adolescence. It has a remarkable integrity; it may well be one of the most knowing and sensitive portrayals of children's experiences ever recorded on film. Part two covers the terrible years when Ms. Frame was endured lengthy public hospitalizations for mental illness, receiving countless ECT treatments, until the publication of her short stories and first novel, and a prize for the latter, altered the manner in which she was regarded by psychiatrists and led to her emancipation from the hospital, barely avoiding a leukotomy. This segment is also cohesive. Part three is less successful, tracing Frame's experiences abroad in Britain and Spain in her late 20s, and her eventual return to New Zealand after her father's death. Campion made a superb film, aided by a generally superior screenplay by Laura Jones, good photography by Stuart Dryburgh, help from Frame, fine acting from Kerry Fox, and great casting of the two youths who played Janet as a child and an adolescent. Grade: A- (01/02)
ANGELS IN AMERICA: I Millenium Approaches; II Perestroika (Mike Nichols, US, 2003). THEMES: IMPACT OF AIDS; DEATH & DYING. A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine shows a man chatting with the minister after a Sunday church service. “Oh, I know He works in mysterious ways,” the man says, “but if I worked that mysteriously I’d get fired.” The tone was more severe in Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner’s epic play, adapted by Mr. Kushner and directed by Mike Nichols for the small screen on HBO last year, and now available on 2 DVDs. When Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a gay man dying of AIDS in the mid 1980s, is given an opportunity to address a panel of Angels at the gates of Heaven, he discovers that a reactionary God became bored with man’s restless quest for progress and change, and vanished in disgust early in the last century, on the day of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, to be precise. Outraged by what he perceives as an act of such gross irresponsibility, Prior rails at the Angels, “If God shows up again, sue the Bastard for walking out!” Offered the choice between staying on in a comfortable if Godless Heaven and returning to a life dominated by suffering and uncertainty, Prior doesn’t hesitate: he chooses life over death because, as he says in a longish speech, where there’s life there’s hope.
That’s really what this six hour miniseries comes down to: yes the world’s a terrible, treacherous place; yes there is little evidence of peace or justice, or of the love that they engender; yes, our efforts to move forward may merely amount to what Prior terms “a kind of painful progress.” But it is life here on earth that counts and to this we must commit ourselves. No institution in our society goes unskewered here. Our world is branded as “terminal, crazy and mean.” After a meandering cavalcade through the deeply troubled human arenas of faith, religion, politics, love, hatred, sexuality, marriage, prejudice, poverty, privilege and illness in the midst of the Reagan years, we emerge confronting a spirituality that is both minimalist and earth-bound, not elaborate or Heaven-inspired. When the Angel of America (Emma Thompson, who received no awards for her turn here, although I think she deserved something just for being a good enough sport to take on such a ridiculous role) visits Prior, she embraces him in literally electrifying sexual union, making use of all 8 of her vaginas. Magical realism may lace this production lavishly, but make no mistake, we're talking a seriously corporeal spirituality here, nothing ethereal about it.
You probably know the history by now. In 1987, a group in San Francisco, the Eureka Theater, commissioned Kushner’s play about AIDS in the gay community. Part 1 (Millenium Approaches) debuted in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1991, then in London, before a Broadway debut in 1992 that won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Kushner. Part 2 (Perestroika) followed on Broadway in 1993. Literary critic Harold Bloom listed this play as one of the most important literary works of the 20 th century. The timing of the stage productions was fortuitous – around the fall of the USSR and Berlin Wall, and before the upturn in the U.S. economy and better drug strategies for AIDs. The timing of the HBO production is even more poignant: with AIDS now spreading across the world, and the excesses and hypocrisies of the present Bush Administration making the Reagan era seem in some respects like the good old days. Not to mention the apocalyptic miasma that has enshrouded us since 9/11: near the end of the final hour, we see a silhouette of the lower Manhattan skyline (it’s 1990), and there are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, rising ghostlike in fuzzy gray tones.
This miniseries, shot in New York City, except for the Heavenly scenes shot in Tivoli, Italy, teems with characters, subtexts and scenes, but it’s all pretty easy to follow. Prior’s gay partner of 4½ years, Louis (Ben Shenkman), a neurotic headtripper of Allenesque proportion, cannot face Prior’s illness and abandons him. Meanwhile, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a devout Mormon Republican lawyer, is involved in a disintegrating marriage to dependent, Valium-addicted Harper (Mary-Louise Parker). Joe is struggling to suppress his own longstanding homosexual yearnings. Joe is also a protégé of the notorious attorney Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), yes, the same malevolent shark who served as Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel and as a prosecutor at the Rosenberg espionage trial in the 1950s. He’s a nasty man who is proud of his base and unethical machinations. He hates Communists, liberals, racial minorities and gays, though he is a barely closeted homosexual himself and, as it turns out, is also dying of AIDS in 1985 (Cohn did indeed die of AIDS in 1986, claiming to the end that he had liver cancer, just as portrayed here). Joe abandons Harper, and has a brief affair with Louis, whom he has met at work).
Prior has visitations from ancestral ghosts (he’s from a family that has been important forever) and Angels. Wildly improbable as they may be, these visions ably serve several dramatic purposes. They provide grand spectacle, something that delights post-modern theater audiences, and that in fact is put in even finer form on the screen, thanks to CG technology and splendid production design by the veteran Stuart Wurtzel. These dazzling visitations also are as energizing for viewers as they are for Prior: they keep one awake and aroused amidst the pathos of life in these United States. Whether they also properly imbue the proceedings with the sense of millennial high stakes that Kushner wants is more open to argument.
There is a great deal of unevenness in this series. Some characters are better than others. Pacino and Kirk are fine. Mr. Shenkman is rather one-dimensional, too much the immature urban Jewish stereotype, and the fiercely Angelic Ms. Thompson (who also plays an AIDS nurse and a homeless person of indeterminate gender in a vacant lot in the Bronx) is, well, awefully feathery. Heterosexual marriage, represented by "the Pitts," takes quite a beating in the film; I cannot be sure if this is Kushner’s intention, or if it is at least partially the unintended consequence of faulty acting by Ms. Parker and, especially, the wooden Mr. Wilson. The dialogue is highly variable, almost as if written by a committee. There is a fair measure of humor to be found, though not a lot. Amidst the jargon of 1980s New York City, there are scenes that have the ring of Shakespeare, others of Thornton Wilder, still others of a more canny 18 th century wit, like the early Cocteau-inspired fantasy scene in which Harper and Prior discuss the limits of imagination. The introductory musical theme, featuring oboe, sounds very much like the music from the HBO Series, Six Feet Under. Small surprise, then, to find it was written by the same fellow, the prolific Thomas Newman.
I haven’t yet mentioned the two best characters in the series: Meryl Streep (who plays a Rabbi; an Angel; the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who visits Roy Cohn's deathbed; and Joe Pitt’s matter-of-fact , unflappable mother, Hannah – her lead role), and Jeffrey Wright, who reprises his Tony Award-winning stage roles in AIA: Perestroika (he plays the former drag queen Belize, an AIDS nurse, as well as lesser roles as Harper Pitt’s fantasy tour guide, Mr. Lies, and, briefly, an Angel). Hannah Pitt drops her widow's life in Salt Lake City and rushes to Brooklyn to attempt to rescue Joe and his marriage, both beyond repair, as it turns out. But she finds plenty to do taking care of Prior and others, and adds a bit of drollery as well. Belize, full of wisdom, wit and swish for every occasion, is even helpful to Roy Cohn, who offers only insults in return. Prior Walter may be a valiant fighter struggling against all odds to cling to life, but it is Hannah and Belize who are the tough, unsentimental, resourceful sorts that respond best to those around them in need. If humanity does move forward, as Prior hopes, these are the stalwarts we will need. Grade: A- (10/04)
ANGELS OF THE UNIVERSE (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland, 2001). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; SUICIDE; PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL; COMMUNITY CARE. SPOILER ALERT! This film opens with a riveting scene of four wild horses galloping through the ocean surf, and we learn through the voiceover by the film's protagonist, Paul, that his mother dreamt this scene while pregnant with him. Paul is now in his 20s. He and his working class parents live in multiunit housing. He doesn't work much, but creates weird surreal paintings, plays rock drums with his buddy Ragnwald, and fancies himself a poet. "I'm not human..." he says early on to his upper middle class girlfriend, Dagny, "...I'm the patch of blue sky in the fairy tale." His happiness is shattered when, under pressure from her parents, Dagny jilts Paul. This seems to trigger, as such events often will, Paul's descent into a schizophrenic illness from which he will not recover. This descent is stepwise, gradual, relentless and – from a clinical perspective - precisely, impeccably authentic (with a few exceptions to be discussed later).
First Paul withdraws socially, becomes increasingly irritable, and develops headaches. He lies in bed all day, without energy or purpose. This picture may seem like depression but it can be a typical pre-psychotic prodrome heralding an eventual acute schizophrenic episode, which is the case for Paul. He grows more tense and emotionally labile, unpredictably explosive or sad. He makes sexual overtures to a married neighbor woman. He begins to show signs of paranoia, expressing self-referential thinking (personalizing events or comments unrelated to oneself) and displaying predicate logic, a typical aspect of schizophrenic thinking disorder (his parents criticize the color of a house they pass on a Sunday drive, and, because his jacket is of a similar hue, he accuses them of criticizing him). He gets more paranoid, thinks he's being followed, and develops delusions of grandeur (Jesus tells him to create a new ark, for he is the last man on earth). He begins to alter his body, shaving his head, running for long jaunts. His rages increase. Then he is hospitalized.
Conditions on the ward are also strikingly realistic. It’s clean and tidy but bleak. We meet Oli, who plays guitar and sings (badly) and claims that he sends his compositions telepathically to the Beatles, never mind that it is years since they disbanded. We also meet Peter, who has a young child and who postures oddly in the manner of some chronic patients, and Victor, an intelligent, educated fellow who has strong, to some extent delusional, neo-Nazi leanings. Everyone sits around passively killing time by smoking one cigarette after another (smoking rates among schizophrenics top 90%; nicotine may actually normalize some aspects of brain neurotransmission). The ward doctor is kindly but questionably effective.
Paul is discharged after a long while (his hair fully grown out again). He returns to his parents' house. He moves slowly and doesn't say much (is this the result of drug effects? Post-psychotic depression? Schizophrenic apathy? Maybe some of each?) He stops his medications. The rages return. He runs off in the wintry night barefoot and is brought back to the hospital. The staff have to take him down after he starts hitting an attendant who has tried to take away Paul’s radio. Medications cause acute dystonia - he can't speak properly. He tells the doctor later that "NATO made me crazy - I was born on the same day Iceland joined NATO, you know." More sitting around bored in the dayroom with Oli, Peter and Victor, who are all back or perhaps never left. More cigarettes. Victor now has a pill rolling tremor, a side effect of antipsychotic medication. Then Peter suicides. Then Paul's successful old friend Ragnwald, who had become a dentist, also suicides, out of the blue. Once again "stabilized," Paul is discharged, this time to a "rehab home" - a high rise where he has a tiny room on the top floor (he ruefully observes that this is perhaps to be his greatest achievement - reaching the top floor of a rehab home). Life is bleak. He is robbed of his welfare money. Nothing changes. He says that there is a "...merciless onslaught to reality at the bottom of my dreams."
Good as it is, this depiction of mental illness isn't perfect. Fridriksson lapses into conventional hokey cinema imagery at least twice: he has Paul walk on water when he walks into the bay, while the policemen following him are waist deep; and he has Paul experience a vivid vision of his girlfriend as a luminous nude - more a hallucination befitting someone in a toxic delirium or an hysteric, not someone with schizophrenia. And he misses one cardinal symptom of the disorder - auditory hallucinations. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most authentic, unvarnished portrayal of the descent of a young adult into schizophrenic illness yet filmed in a dramatic fictional form. The bleakness of Paul's circumstances is common, and his particular fate, suicide, occurs often in persons with this problem, especially in the early years of the disease.
I believe that, if accurately portrayed, the signs of a mental illness (the actor’s embodiment of these signs in his or her conduct) and facts about the disorder and its treatment can be arranged by a skilled screenwriter to be profoundly dramatic without any misrepresentation or fanciful embellishment. I don't mean by this that there is no place in cinema for fantastic behavior, dreams or reveries. Of course these should be available to any storyteller. But in creating the fantastic - experiences that have no place as parts of mental illness - the filmmaker should be careful not to suggest that he or she is depicting a bona fide mental illness. Anyone can have a fantastic experience. But only the mentally ill can have certain persistent patterns of thinking, perceiving and behaving that mark their disorder. Paul's story is a case in point. I think, on the whole, that it is presented very realistically and arranged in a manner so as to be dramatically compelling.
A different question is whether the story of someone undergoing the process of a mental illness is, no matter how well told, in and of itself sufficient to make a successful feature length dramatic motion picture. For a more objective view on this issue, I canvassed several non-mental health professional film friends who saw the same screening of Angels. They were divided on this, the majority being only mildly impressed with the film (my partner and one or two others, on the other hand, found it spellbinding). It may be necessary to combine the mental illness aspect of a protagonist's story with something more to reach the threshold for effective drama. This, I think, was achieved splendidly in another film I saw a few days earlier, A Place Nearby, that focuses on a parent's anguish in caring for a mentally disturbed adult offspring and adds in a murder mystery subtext to boot. (In Icelandic) Grade: B- (02/01)
ANNA LUISE AND ANTON (Pünktchen und Anton) (Caroline Link, Germany, 1999). THEME: CHILDHOOD: COPING WITH ADVERSITY. Link made the excellent film, Beyond Silence, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film in 1998, about a girl with normal hearing who is torn between her role as the connection for her deaf parents to the larger world and her ambition to become a professional musician. Here Link has created a charming film about family life and the devotion of children to one another and to those they love. The German title is better, for this is the story of "Little Punk," the nickname everyone calls Luise, an endearing, enterprising but sad 10 year old girl whose wealthy parents are too busy for her, and her best friend, Anton, son of an ailing, poor, but lovingly devoted single mom. The film is full of fun, for instance, Anton's mom's hula hoop dance, Bertha the cook's burglar trapping, and the conga line dance done by P ü nktchen, Bertha and Laurence, the young French aupair. Great film for kids (except for the subtitles, unfortunately) because it emphasizes the importance of loyalty, devotion, loving relationships, fairness and honesty. (In German) Grade: B (02/00)
ANNIVERSARY PARTY (Jennifer Jason Leigh & Alan Cumming, US, 2001). THEMES: RELATIONSHIPS; FRIENDSHIPS; DRUGS: ECSTACY; NO CIGARETTE SMOKING IN FILM. Good friends Leigh and Cumming decided to make a film in which they and their Hollywood acting buddies could participate. It would be a party with all the action taking place on a single evening. They made up a rough storyline over many months and then had the cast improvise a lot of the details as they filmed. In the story they are a married couple who had separated for 5 months because of their differences and who have now come back together to celebrate their 6th anniversary, inviting all their friends to help them celebrate their reunion.
Joe (Cumming) is a British novelist with a bisexual past who is about to direct his first film (of one of his novels). Besides male and female (Jennifer Beals) former lovers, he invites Skye (Gwyneth Paltrow) a young rising star who will have the lead role in Joe's film, a role based on Sally (Leigh), when she was younger. Sally is an actress who is now a bit over the hill, and the awarding of a role representing her to a younger actress is both threatening and infuriating to her. She also is not doing well in her latest acting job. Sally also has invited someone not on the "A" list of old friends: the next door neighbor couple from Hell (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie) with whom she and Joe have been at war over Joe's dog's barking. Lawsuits have been threatened. Then there is Sally's current film director (John C. Reilly) and his neurotic new mom wife (Jane Adams), Sally's male film costar (Kevin Kline) and his real-life wife (Phoebe Cates), an old friend of Sally's. The couple's accountant (John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife (Parker Posey) help round out the action, along with Peter Sellars look-alike Michael Panes and a covey of bit players. It's quite a gang.
What threatens the film but is also its greatest strength is the mundane nature of the party. It's like any large party. This could be you and your friends. It's full of discontinuities...bits and pieces of conversation... banalities, humor, embarrassments...and it goes on and on, fueled through the night by everyone's dropping "Ecstasy." What's humdrum is that we learn nothing new from witnessing this group. What's nice is that the emotionally charged confrontations - and there are a few, once the Ecstasy takes hold - are balanced by some very heartfelt, simple, caring gestures among friends here. People are for the most part unpretentious, not gushy or showy or false. Also, notice that no one's smoking, except for an occasional joint, and after several rounds of champagne, everyone switches to bottles of Evian. It's a well done two hour slice of Hollywood celeb life, turn of century style...a contemporary seriocomic drama of manners, Hollywood style. Grade: B+ (07/01)
ANOTHER COUNTRY (Marek Kanievska, UK, 1984). THEME: GAY TEEN ISSUES. A young Rupert Everett is superb as a public school student in 1930s Britain in a role based loosely on the experience of Guy Burgess, who later spied for and defected to the USSR. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his play of the same name. The subject of homosexuality in public boarding schools of that era is treated with frankness and empathy. This film appeared just a year after John Schlesinger's An Englishman Abroad with Alan Bates as Guy Burgess, a short film account of a true encounter in Moscow between Burgess and the touring actress Coral Browne. Grade: B (07/00)
ANTWONE FISHER (Denzel Washington, US, 2002). THEMES: ADULT CONDUCT DISORDER RELATED TO CHILDHOOD ABANDONMENT, MISTREATMENT; PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK. Washington’s directing debut, this is the story of a disadvantaged but talented young African American man (well played by Derek Luke) who matures with the help of a psychiatrist (Washington) while serving in the Navy. The autobiographical screenplay was wrtten by Fisher, who was discovered working as a security guard at Sony Pictures. The film tells an emotionally moving story in a reasonable and interesting manner. Near the end, however, things unfortunately do spin out of control a bit, when a houseful of relatives and complete table of well prepared food dishes materialize on an hour’s notice to welcome Fisher, and, in the final scene, when the psychiatrist shares his personal issues with Fisher and thanks Fisher for helping him come to terms with his marital dilemma. Too pat, too sticky. Washington’s psychiatrist is a brooding yet kindly fellow, but he often crisscrosses the boundary between being a professional caregiver and a paternalistic friend. The best scenes concern the budding love relationship between Fisher and his girlfriend, Cheryl, played by Joy Bryant, who has an arresting screen charisma. Grade: B- (08/03)
THE APOSTLE (Robert Duvall, US, 1997). THEME: OUTSIZED, UNUSUAL PERSONALITY. Duvall successfully wrote and directed this showcase for his own considerable talent. This is the story of the adventures of a charismatic, passionate, forceful whirlwind of a southern fundamentalist tent preacher, a violent man driven by his love of Christ and women, among other appetites. With Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash and Miranda Richardson. Grade: B+ (02/98)
THE ART OF NEGATIVE THINKING (Kunsten å tenke negativt) (Bård Breien, Norway, 2006, 79 m.). THEMES: GROUP PSYCHOTHERAPY; MARATHONS; GROUPS FOR PHYSICALLY DISABLED & THEIR PARTNERS. A marathon group therapy session for physically handicapped patients and their partners serves as a tidy vehicle for exploring the passions that can bubble forth when people with major disabilities own up to their intense resentments and longings. Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have worked at close range with military veterans who had sustained serious spinal injuries that left them terribly crippled, and I can attest that the rage displayed in this film – especially by the two younger persons with quadriplegia and paraplegia, respectively – is as authentic as the air we breathe. The razor sharp, acidic character who exposes the illusions and masquerades of others is the enraged, impotent paraplegic, Geirr (Fridtjov Såheim), whose truth-telling function here is precisely like that of Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in Cuckoo’s Nest. This raw psychodrama may place too much healing value on angry catharsis, and it may unfairly demean the CBT methods and good intentions of the therapist, but it is riveting, incendiary stuff. (In Norwegian). Grade: B+ (02/08)
ARTICLE 99 (Howard Deutch, US, 1992). THEME: VA HEALTH CARE SYSTEM. Here is an ambitious effort to portray the problems we have always heard about in the Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare System, problems that have recently been accentuated and given greater media and political attention in the context of the Afghan and Iraq wars. The story in this film is built upon the indisputable scarcity of resources to take proper care of Veterans at one particular urban VA hospital. Lack of capacity to provide adequate care is taken for granted as a fact of life in the hospital, and a major subtext of the film consists of vignettes displaying the clever, sometimes humorous, lengths to which dedicated doctors on the surgery staff will go to see that patients get what they need (the surgery gang consists of Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Lea Thompson, chief surgeon Ray Liotta and new intern Kiefer Sutherland). Examples include “turfing” patients, shuttling them from ward to ward, that is, even assigning trumped up diagnoses to justify transfers, as a means of providing continuity of care rather than forced discharges, and bootlegging administratively forbidden surgical procedures for people who need them.
Another subtext is the mountainous bureaucracy, long waiting lines, brusque and officious staff, endless sea of paperwork and Catch-22 regulations that drive both patients and health care providers to distraction. “Shooter” Polaski (Leo Burmester), a dangerous hulk who suffers from Vietnam combat-related PTSD, gets a letter from the VA declaring him eligible for “…full and complete medical benefits. However, as your diagnosed condition cannot be specifically related to military service, treatment is not available at this time.” “Article 99” is cited as the authorizing regulation for this notice. Shooter’s response is to rev up his pickup truck and crash into the lobby of the hospital and down a corridor until it finally collides with something bigger. This gets Shooter exactly what he wanted in the first place, namely, care on the psych. unit, where he is looked after by a psychiatrist (Kathy Baker) who has left a lucrative practice in a private substance abuse program, in order to care for Vets.
Yet another subplot concerns a special reason for shortages in the surgery program at this hospital, the clandestine pirating of supplies and money away from patient care in order to fund a costly new surgical research program, a pet project of the unscrupulous hospital director (John Mahoney), himself a physician. When the surgery staff catch on to this scam, war breaks out in earnest between them and the director, a battle that culminates in a huge demonstration and media feeding frenzy in front of the hospital, orchestrated by a powerful patient ringleader, Luther (Keith David), a cool, hip, wheelchair bound, cell phone connected fellow who wears sunglasses at all hours and is decked out in medals and other baubles commemorating his past military experiences and accomplishments. Needless to say, Luther and the good guys win.
I worked in one capacity or another in three different VA facilities from 1959 to 2002, including 15 years as Chief of Psychiatry at a teaching and research-oriented (“academic”) VA hospital (one highly affiliated with a nearby medical school), so I have a decent vantage point from which to judge this movie. Though many details of the film are exaggerated, over-the-top, farcical stuff, following in the tradition of Robert Altman’s MASH and the more successful TV series that followed it, M*A*S*H, there is a crucial core of truth to this story in every one of its subplots.
With regard to scarcity of resources, first realize the enormity of the VA: last time I counted, there were about 170 facilities in the VA system. There has never been sufficient funding from Congress to assure uniformly high quality health care across this vast system. And it’s not run like many franchise operations, say McDonald’s for example, where you get pretty much the same food, or lack of it, anywhere you go. Despite recent efforts to achieve budget parity, there have always been and continue to be “have” VAs and “have nots.” The richer ones get that way because of the successful political influence of Congressional representatives, affiliated medical schools and Veterans organizations on behalf of that particular hospital.
Although VA bureaucratic regulations are staggering in their complexity, self contradictions and ever changing fine print, there is no “Article 99” - that’s a fiction invented for this movie. In fact it is a non sequitur. The only way a Vet can gain guaranteed “full and complete medical benefits” is if the VA judges this person to be suffering from one or more service-connected disabilities, i.e., some condition that was caused by, or began or worsened during, active military duty. Moreover, the total degree of disability from all service-connected conditions must exceed 50% in order to gain comprehensive health care benefits, which means care not only for service-connected problems but any other health care needed, just like in an HMO or at Kaiser. (Lesser extent of disability – under 50% - restricts guaranteed care to that specifically needed for the rated disability, not other health problems.)
So Shooter’s letter is nonsense. What does often occur is that Vets, convinced that their health problems and symptoms were caused by exposure to combat, toxic agents or other hazards when they were in military service, make claims to the VA that are denied. Sometimes these denials are entirely justified. False attribution of illness or disability to military duty usually occurs through honest but poorly informed conviction, or sometimes through a consciously fraudulent attempt to gain pension benefits and free health care. I’ve seen many examples of both.
But it is also true that the VA, like many private corporations, has a sordid track record of unjustified efforts to deny a connection between chronic illness and military duty hazards in order to save money or because of other biases. In the early 1980s, I was able to show that among the four independent VA disability “rating boards” operating in my area, the proportion of claims for combat-related PTSD that were approved varied from 4% by one rating board to nearly 50% by another! Differences obviously way beyond chance. What operated here was a variable of subjective bias among the members of these quasi-judicial review panels.
Whether a Vet who does not have any service connected disability can get health care at a VA facility depends on a host of factors, including how richly funded that particular hospital is, what kinds of care are needed, whether the Vet has other health insurance, and the Vet’s income level. But suffice it to say, many, many Vets find they are refused care or placed on interminable wait lists, and this makes people very angry.
You might think Shooter’s outrageous drive through the hospital in his pickup is pure fiction, but at my hospital, we once had a psychiatric outpatient who tried to crash a small airplane into our psych unit. Miraculously, he crashed in a garden just in front of the building, harming no one but himself. On another occasion, one of our psychologists was summoned to the top of a high water tower elsewhere in the city to “talk down” a desperate Vet needing care. Pretty dramatic stuff. Interestingly, events of this sort happened in the early years of our program, when funding was very threadbare. Later, in an era of greater staff resources and special treatment options, such events ceased.
Luther, by the way, is also the real deal: there’s a Luther or two in every VA patient population. I think of them as “career patients,” eccentric and often charismatic men whose fulfillment in life seems to have peaked during their years in the military, and who now derive their primary identity and self esteem from the prominent, colorful informal positions they create for themselves in the VA hospital milieu.
The scam to rip off patient care resources for research also rings true, sad to say. Shenanigans only a hair less larcenous have been customary in dozens of medical school-affiliated VA hospitals over the years. I myself diverted over $150,000 annually for many years to subsidize nationally prominent researchers on my patient care payroll. This gave our program prestige and gloss, locally and system-wide, helped attract high quality young recruits to our staff, and carried weight when we had to compete with other specialties for new patient care budget allocations. In the long run, patient care was enhanced by this strategy. Spending money to make money. That’s the way the game was played in many research-oriented VAs. Recent reform efforts have reduced, but not eliminated, such gaming.
There’s one key aspect where things don’t ring true. Regrettably, in most VA hospitals with strong academic missions, and allowing for many exceptions, it still must be said that often staff physicians tend to give only secondary priority to compassionate, empathic patient care. Sometimes senior physicians rotate from the medical school to supervise care on VA wards; they may have little sense of identification with the specific mission to serve Veterans. Both staff physicians and residents tend to see their VA patients as “cases” providing opportunities for practicing “procedures.” On surgical services, bedside care is often left to interns with the least training.
There is another group of health care professionals in ancillary services: nurses, social workers, psychologists, speech therapists, physical therapists, recreational therapists and so on. In my experience, a majority of staff in these ancillary services show high levels of idealism, empathy and dedication to patient care. The role of the top hospital managers in academic VA hospitals is to somehow navigate a course in which some balance is maintained between the missions of good patient care and research and training, always with an eye on the budget, which is never sufficient to accomplish everything everyone wants.
My problem with this film has to do with its dramatic aims and structure. On the one hand, it strives to be a social exposé film, on the other, an over-the-top comedy. In trying to have it both ways, I think its impact in both directions is muted. The film works better as social criticism. As for comedy, Ray Liotta is no Alan Alda, and Kathy Baker is no Loretta Swit or Sally Kellerman. A few supporting players in small roles are left to shoulder the humor load here: John C. McGinley, Keith David and Leo Burmester. The little love subplots - Liotta and Baker, Sutherland and Thompson – add nothing to the merriment. This is a decent effort, but it could have used more bite and more humor. Grades: drama: B-; portrayal of VA system problems: B+ (11/04)
AS GOOD AS IT GETS (James L. Brooks, US, 1997) THEMES: OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER; OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE PERSONALITY DISORDER. Jack Nicholson is the OCD patient. He’s quite convincing and realistic at first. His symptoms are realistic. But his heart is melted by the charms of a waitress (Helen Hunt) in a transformation that a person with OCPD would be incapable of achieving. Grades: (on dramatic grounds): B; (on clinical authenticity): C+ (02/98)
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (Niels Mueller, US, 2004, 95 min.). THEME: MAN WITH PARANOID PERSONALITY DISORDER, WITH OBSESSIONAL FEATURES, WHO DECOMPENSATES INTO A DELUSIONAL PARANOID PSYCHOTIC STATE. In truth, Samuel Byck was a 44 year old business man down on his luck when, in 1974, delusionally convinced that Richard Nixon was the cause of his personal problems, he attempted to hijack an airliner and have it flown into the White House to kill the President. He did kill two men and shot another in the airport before being shot himself and then ending his own life with a gunshot to the head. Now Sean Penn plays this tormented character (he’s named Samuel Bicke here) in a screen adaptation of the Byck story.
Bicke is living alone, long separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) though he wants to be with her again. He’s had a falling out with his brother Julius (Michael Wincott), who owns a tire business where Samuel used to work. Now he is selling office furniture. Whatever Samuel does, he can’t seem to measure up to what others want from him. His new boss Jack (Jack Thompson) keeps coaching him on salesmanship but to little avail. His only real source of emotional support is a longsuffering buddy Bonny (Don Cheadle) who tries to talk Samuel down when he’s feeling put upon.
And Samuel feels put upon just about every waking minute. Samuel can’t for the life of him see that he does anything wrong to deserve the hassles he feels everyone in his life gives him. He is full of anguish; his torment is palpable. He so much wants to succeed in business and win back his family. But like most people with paranoid personalities, and many who are obsessive by nature, he has little awareness of his own quirks and the effects of his behavior on others. He cannot see what we see. That he is intrusive and controlling with Marie; that he lacks restraint and any hint of tenderness or even empathy toward her. That he is devoid of the congeniality and self confidence of a successful salesman.
When things don’t go well, he blames others. He doesn’t want to blame his wife for their domestic troubles: he still has her placed high on a pedestal of idealization. So he blames the man she’s dating who drives a Cadillac. He’s one of those rich guys, Samuel concludes. It’s rich guys who have the power to cause trouble for little guys like himself, so goes Samuel’s thinking. Rich guys just take what they want. It’s the same at work. Samuel’s way of understanding Jack’s dissatisfaction with his poor sales performance is that Jack just wants to exploit him, turn him into a disingenuous puppet who’ll lie through his teeth just to sell something to some poor stiff so Jack can get rich.
As circumstances at work and with Marie deteriorate, Samuel becomes more desperate. He seizes upon a farfetched idea for a new tire business and applies for a federal small business loan. He orders an inventory of tires on his brother’s account, without permission, and has them sent to Bonny’s auto repair shop. And then everything comes tumbling down around him. He loses his job (he provokes the boss into firing him). Marie has him served with divorce papers. His loan is denied. Bonny is temporarily jailed for receiving stolen goods (the tires). Samuel’s brother disowns him. It’s simply too much for this precariously balanced man to bear, and he goes bonkers. He decides that the federal loan was denied because his intended business partner is black: it’s a case of racism, pure and simple.
And who’s behind all the shenanigans of the rich, the powerful, the racists? Why, Richard Nixon, of course.
So in the film’s waning moments, we see Bicke’s pathetic attempt to hijack an airliner, ending in the grievous shootings reenacted here from the original Byck scenario. (Byck, incidentally, had been hospitalized once in the past for psychiatric treatment. Penn’s long taped rant to Leonard Bernstein in the film was illustrative of similar activities by Byck that went on for over two years before the shootings. Byck sent rants to Jonas Salk and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, as well as Mr. Bernstein.)
I think this is the very best dramatization of the plight of a person with a paranoid personality disorder I’ve seen enacted on film. Mueller and Penn manage to avoid a one-dimensional profile of the central character. Penn’s Samuel Bicke is neither a monstrous predator nor a sentimental victim. He is not callous or calculating. He is human. We can clearly see his suffering, his torment. He’s really quite an innocent, as paranoid people often are. He’s baffled by the mystery of his own misery.
We can see with equal clarity the central flaw in Samuel’s character of externalizing blame, of projecting the causes of his suffering onto others, the people to whom he accords the power that is the opposite of the weakness he experiences in himself. Personal strength comes though self knowledge. If you are blind to your own foibles, how can you contain or temper them, or turn them to any advantage? Tibetan Buddhist teachers describe the unenlightened man as a headless horseman in full gallop mode. That’s what Penn gives in his portrayal of Samuel Bicke.
I Shot Andy Warhol is another film in which a person with a paranoid personality decompensates into a homicidal psychotic state. That too is a story based on fact, and Lili Taylor is chillingly effective in playing the paranoid woman, Valerie Solanas. The supporting cast here in Assassination - Ms. Watts, Cheadle, Thompson, Wincott and Nick Searcy, a longsuffering federal loan officer – are uniformly fine. This was a directing debut for Mueller. Grades: overall drama, B; clinical authenticity of Penn’s performance: A- (05/05)
ASSISTED LIVING (Elliot Greenebaum, US, 2005, 78 min.). THEMES: GERIATRICS: LIFE IN NURSING HOMES AND ASSISTED LIVING FACILITIES; MARIJUANA DEPENDENCE (TODD THE ORDERLY). This quirky, unsettling little film concerns the daily life of elderly residents and staff in an assisted living facility. The tone weaves back and forth between understated comic drollery and a more somber evocation of the preoccupations and humdrum existence of everyone who lives and works there. The central character is a young man in his late 20s, a pot smoking rumpled slacker named Todd (Michael Bonsignore), who functions as a janitor and orderly when not being called on the carpet by the administrator for absenteeism and being late for work. (The administrator himself is no rose, swigging shots of whiskey amidst office business.)
Forever in need of a shower and shave, Todd seems incapable of engaging genuinely with anybody except the charge nurse’s little daughter, who’s always around. He even lets the facility’s pet Golden Retriever escape, a gesture of dubious merit for the welfare of either the dog or anyone else. And yet he finds himself unable to resist responding - always reluctantly and with no real hint of enthusiasm - to the emotional neediness of the residents. When old folks ask him about the Hereafter, Todd has them dial up Heaven on the phone, then answers their calls from another room, where he tells one woman that she can be with both her deceased husbands in Heaven, or simply pick the one she prefers, and that there is plenty of sex but no concern about bodies.
Another resident, Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), develops a special fondness for Todd as a surrogate for her son, who’s gone to Australia to live. She now and then confuses their identities. Using the old surefire telephone trick, Todd pretends to answer her calls to Australia, and later frees her from an observation ward for an unauthorized breath of fresh air outdoors. But, again, it’s not at all clear that the blank faced Todd has any real empathy for the woman. It seems more a matter of following whatever impulse will decompress a momentary, emotionally awkward situation. We are left to wonder about the extent of similar motives in determining how elders are generally cared for in institutions.
First time filmmaker Elliot Greenebaum started shooting this movie in 2001 at age 22, at a nursing home in his native Kentucky, using the staff and nursing home patients as extras alongside his actors. The effect is to make his film seem very much like a documentary. The home, run by the Masons, is a well appointed place: clean, airy, brightly lit up, full of activities. An especially useful device is Greenebaum’s close up filming of the aged, typically bejeweled hands of the residents as they wash, apply makeup or play Bingo.
While not a great movie, Assisted Living does have impact. One leaves the theater pensively, pondering the gravity of growing old and winding up living in such a place, where Heaven is only a local phone call away and one’s own arthritic hands are often the most reliable companions. Grade: B (05/05)
AUTISM: THE MUSICAL (Tricia Regan, US, 2007, 93 min.). THEME: AUTISM. At a private school for autistic children in Los Angeles, one of the mothers undertakes the direction of a student musical production which she labels the “Miracle Project.” We follow five kids, who vary in age, speech, motor behavior and sociability, and their parents through several months of rehearsals and then see part of the actual show. The school scene is fairly chaotic. Some of the parents are pretty volatile as well. (Musician Stephen Stills is one of the fathers and is well behaved.) The chaos is accentuated by the style of the editing, which often features a barrage of very brief cuts among several scenes and camera angles. There’s a decent idea behind this frenetic film, i.e., to humanize autistic kids and their families, but it could have been better realized. (A grant will provide for another Miracle Project production at the school next year.) Grade: B (01/08)
AUTUMN SPRING (Babí léto) (Vladimir Michálek, Czech Republic, 2001, 95 m.) SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: AGING IN PLACE; RELATIONSHIPS IN OLD AGE: MARITAL, INTERGENERATIONAL; FRIENDSHIP. Superb drama with delicious comedic touches concerning the challenges of aging. Franda and Emilie (played brilliantly by Vlastimil Brodsky and Stella Zazvokova) are in their late 70s. Franda is a rogue, a retired actor who spends his time with another retired actor friend pulling various cons for fun (they visit a lavish estate that is on sale, for example, masquerading as a wealthy retired opera star and his manager). These adventures require money, which Franda pilfers from Emilie's carefully managed household accounts, then lying about it, all of which drives Emelie wild. At one point, their son wants to move his ex-wife and their kids into the old couple’s apartment, which requires that they give it up and move to an old people’s domicile. Franda won’t hear of it and engages his buddy in a stunt in which they feign Franda’s death, presumably caused by the stress of the impending move.
That prank pushes Emilie one step too far. She files for divorce, but in a touching courtroom scene, it becomes clear that after 44 years together, Emilie and Franda still do love one another. Franda as usual vows to mend his ways and, for the first time, he does, giving up smoking, alcohol and his fraudulent adventures. The effect of Franda’s reformed behavior on Emilie is surprisingly negative. She misses the zestful old rogue and laments the dull partner Franda has become. An altogether charming tale, full of wisdom about the manner in which long married people accommodate to one another’s foibles and find that it is not always a good thing to get the changes in a partner that you've wished for.
This was the last role for Mr. Brodsky, after a long career (he starred in the Czech classics, Closely Watched Trains and Jacob the Liar). The director previously made the excellent films, Forgotten Light and Sekal Has to Die. (In Czech) Grade: A- (08/06)
AUTUMN SUN (Sol de onoño) (Eduardo Mignogna, Argentina, 1996). THEME: NEW LOVE IN OLD AGE. Clara (the beguiling actress Norma Aleandro) and Raul (Federico Luppi) come together under contrived circumstances and proceed, against expectations, to fall in love. This story of love blossoming in later life tenderly discloses the special nuances of love and aging: the loneliness, risks, misgivings, impulses to seize fleeting opportunities, and the transformations. (In Spanish) Grade: B (03/97)
AVALON (Barry Levinson, US, 1992). THEMES: CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCE; FAMILY DYNAMICS; INTERGENERATIONAL CONFLICTS. Levinson's semi-autobiographical account of childhood in a Baltimore family dominated by the grandfather, Sam Krichinsky (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his brothers, Russian Jews who immigrated early in the 20th Century to make a better life here. This is a highly nostalgic film, full of clichés about immigrant families and the succeeding generations. But the film finds strength and authenticity in the reflections given here (clichés, after all, could not become what they are except as frequently bidden, time honored facets of some reality). Rough patches, family conflicts and the petty annoyances of daily life are honored, not just the good times. Mueller-Stahl, Joan Plowright (as his wife, Eva), Aidan Quinn (as his son), Elizabeth Perkins (the daughter in law), and Kevin Pollak (cousin Izzy) all contribute fine work here. Grade: A- (09/02)
THE AVIATOR (Martin Scorsese, US, 2004, Miramax, 169 min.). THEMES: OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER; PERSONALITY DISORDER WITH PARANOID, OBSESSIONAL, NARCISSISTIC AND SCHIZOID FEATURES; PARANOID PSYCHOSIS. This new biopic about Howard Hughes is at once a vivid portrait of one of America’s most enigmatic 20th century public figures and also a frustratingly superficial probe into the character of this strange man. It’s not a matter of material being unavailable to the filmmakers, material that could have given more depth to a portrayal of Hughes’s personality and motivations. (See my addendum to this review for illustrative facts that help illuminate the man.)
I think it is more that Mr. Scorsese is not partial to psychologizing about his characters, attempting to portray “interior” information about what makes somebody tick, or even going deeply into childhood experience or family roots for this purpose. (He gives us just one such image, a recurring one: a five year old Hughes is being bathed by his mother, who coos to him about how the world is a hazardous place.) Scorsese has certainly had an abiding interest in outsized, eccentric and disturbed personalities (think of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ,and Bringing Out the Dead). But he has a perspective about the uses of film, this most visual of all storytelling media. He has always been primarily interested in photographable surfaces, intent upon showing us the conduct, the actions that emanate from a character’s personality, and leaving it at that, very much in the Hollywood filmmaking tradition.
This film focuses on a 20 year period of Hughes’s life, from about age 22 to 42 (1927-1947). It begins two years after he moved from Texas to Los Angeles to make movies. As the film opens Hughes, played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, is directing his epic aviation flick, Hell’s Angels, about British fighter pilots going up against the Germans in World War I. The film ends with Hughes’s own post-World War II battles before a senate committee investigating his disposal of government funds contracted for military aircraft production, and his ever so short flight of the “Spruce Goose."
Along the way we are made privy to his restive romantic relations with Catharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and, later, Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale); his daringly innovative, hands-on involvement in the development of new aircraft designs, working with people like Glenn “Odie” Odekirk (Matt Ross); his often reckless financial wheeling and dealing, implemented by his faithful business manager, Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly); and his more shrewd battle of wits with rival airline executive Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and Trippe’s conspiratorial political chum, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). These relationships are all well acted and absorbing.
We do learn some important things about Hughes’s personality. The film shows us quite convincingly that he was a visionary who would sacrifice endless time, energy, money, relationships, personal safety and even other people’s lives in the effort to fulfill his visions, which always concerned one or the other of his two great passions: aircraft design and filmmaking. Mr. DiCaprio also demonstrates quite credibly that Hughes was a severely disturbed, deeply neurotic individual who was susceptible to psychotic episodes. We see that he was not warmhearted, but rather an emotionally cool, often aloof, always self-centered person.
His obsessive compulsive symptoms, such as ritual hand washing, muttering some phrase over and over, and phobic responses to clutter, were apparent already in those years of Hughes’s young adulthood, and we witness his bizarre behavior, probably a paranoid psychotic episode, when he isolated himself for weeks on end, in 1947 or shortly before. The film’s scene sequence suggests that Hughes pulled himself together, i.e., was able to suppress and end his psychotic episode, in response to the challenge of the Senate hearings before which he was subpoenaed to testify. While I do not know if this sequence is factually accurate, I have certainly seen clinical situations in which patients suffering from acute psychosis experienced complete cessation of delusional and hallucinatory symptoms in response to a realistic stressor requiring their full attention and coping capacity, e.g., the sudden need for surgery.
Leonardo DiCaprio ably captures the complex, mercurial nuances of Hughes’s fragmented personality. He can show the strain, the chilling aloofness, the gritty determination, the shrewd capacity for thrust and parry, the social anxiety, the momentary joy of success, the domineering, imperial manner of demanding that others do his bidding. It’s all there, all believable. The only bothersome thing is DiCaprio’s voice. The slight Texas drawl is fine. It’s the youthful timbre that bothered me. Maybe Hughes had such a boyish voice, maybe not. It does distract somewhat from the gravitas of Hughes’s several personas. It is a constant reminder that Hughes is being played by a young actor. The other players are adequate or better, especially Blanchett, Reilly, Alda and Ross.
This may not be a great film but it a thoroughly absorbing entertainment that, as far as it goes, depicts and also celebrates one of the most unusual characters of our times. Grade: B+ (12/28/04)
Add: Here are some things you won’t discover or understand very well watching The Aviator. Howard Robard Hughes Jr. - known as Sonny - was born in the oil town of Humble, Texas on September 24, 1905. He died on April 5, 1976, at the age of 71, of apparent heart failure on an airplane carrying him from Acapulco to Houston to seek medical treatment. X-rays taken during the autopsy showed fragments of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms.
His father was the outlaw wildcatter Howard (Bo) Robard Hughes; his mother, the neurotic Dallas heiress Allene Gano. Hughes himself would always be half outlaw - defying justice – and half fragile – a self-centered neurasthenic. Two men who helped shape his character were his grandfather, the monomaniac Iowa Judge Felix Hughes, and his brilliant Jekyll-and-Hyde uncle, the celebrated best-selling novelist and Broadway playwright Rupert Hughes, who also wrote screenplays for MGM.
Howard Hughes Jr. was arguably the most secretive, unconventional and self-destructive man ever to win fame in Southern California’s two glamour industries - movies and aviation. He grew up an indifferent student with a liking for mathematics, flying and things mechanical. He audited math and engineering classes at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and later at the Rice Institute of Technology in Houston. Orphaned in 1924, the 18-year-old Hughes took control of his father’s tool company, an estate valued at almost $900,000. Although shy and retiring, Hughes became enamored with the motion picture industry and moved to Los Angeles in 1925. He financed three films of varying quality before undertaking Hell’s Angels.
As an aviator, he once held every speed record of consequence and was hailed as the world’s greatest flyer. Howard Hughes’ greatest legacy to Southern California is the family of Hughes companies founded during his lifetime. Based in Westchester, west of central Los Angeles, Hughes Space and Communications is today the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial satellites - the designer and builder of the world’s first synchronous communications satellite, Syncom, and the producer of nearly 40% of the satellites now in commercial service. Hughes Electronics is owned by General Motors. Hughes Aircraft merged with Raytheon Company in 1998 and is now called Raytheon Systems Co. Prior to the merger Hughes Aircraft was a world leader in high technology systems for scientific, military and global applications.
Throughout his Hollywood years, Hughes maintained his passion for flying. In 1934 he won his first speed title flying a converted Boeing pursuit plane 185 miles per hour. He and a young Caltech engineer, Dick Palmer, then built a plane called the H-1 (featuring a unique retractable landing gear), which Hughes piloted to a new speed record of 352 mph near Santa Ana, California. This was in 1935, the year that Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company as a division within Hughes Tool Company, operating out of a hangar in Burbank, California.
From about 1944 on, Hughes began exhibiting alarming behavior and a phobia of germs, which led to a mental breakdown. His fear of germs was made worse by a drug habit that included both Codeine and later Valium; the codeine had first been prescribed to alleviate pain from injuries incurred in the XF-11 plane crash several years earlier. The germ obsession began in his youth (due in large part to an overly protective mother) and steadily heightened throughout his adulthood. Even as early as the 1940s he required all those who came in contact with the same things that he touched to wear white gloves. His servants had to handle everything with tissues. In 1958 he apparently suffered a second mental breakdown. Of his days living at the Beverly Hills Hotel, biographers D. L. Bartlett and J. B. Steele (in their 1979 book, “Empire: the Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes”) write that: "Hughes spent almost all his time sitting naked in [his white leather chair] in the center of the living room – an area he called the ‘germ free zone’ – his long legs stretched out on the matching ottoman facing a movie screen, watching one motion picture after another.”
Hughes’ behavior became increasingly irrational; he lived the life of a drug addicted, bed-ridden hermit. Although Hughes managed to attend to business and had many periods of lucidity, his physical health had turned precarious. In 1973 he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. A member of his 1938 around-the-world flight crew represented him, calling him "…a modest, retiring, lonely genius; often misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented and libeled by malicious associates and greedy little men."
In his final years he abruptly moved his residence from one place to another – the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Canada, England, Las Vegas, and Mexico - arriving at each new destination unnoticed, taking elaborate precautions to ensure absolute privacy in a luxury hotel, and rarely being seen by anyone except a few male aides. Often working for days without sleep in a black-curtained room, he became emaciated and deranged from the effects of a meager diet and an excess of drugs. A doctor who examined him in 1973 likened his condition to prisoners he had seen in Japanese prison camps during World War II. Hughes spent the final chapter of his life in Mexico – a mentally ill recluse, wasted in body, incoherent in thought, alone in the world except for his doctors and bodyguards. ---This information was adapted from a longer bio sketch prepared in 2002 and posted on the WebSand website at: http://www.allsands.com (click on Entertainment/ People, then, under “miscellaneous” click on “Howard Hughes – biography.”)
AWAY FROM HER (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2006, 110 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: ALZHEIMER’S DEMENTIA; IMPACT OF DEMENTIA ON NON-AFFLICTED SPOUSES. Canadian actor Sarah Polley makes a feature writer-director debut of sorts here (she had previously created several shorts and one largely unnoticed feature), with a film about the adaptation of older adults to the development of Alzheimer’s dementia, based on a story by Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”
The story involves two older couples, each with a dementing spouse. The afflicted persons, Fiona (Julie Christie) and Aubrey (Michael Murphy) have taken up residence in the same assisted living facility and become deeply attached to one another. Their respective spouses, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Marian (Olympia Dukakis), both vexed and lonely, meet outside the facility and strike up an intimate relationship of mutual comfort and convenience.
The dramatic elements in the film derive from these simple facts: the tensions, denial, sadness and even jealousies that debilitate the spouses whose loved ones are ill; and the coping efforts made by everyone to survive, to combat isolation, to somehow get through the pathetic, heart rending realities that dementia visits upon married couples and families, suffering that is unavoidable for the afflicted and non-afflicted alike.
From a clinical point of view, the film is a decidedly mixed bag: in several respects highly authentic and, in others, frustratingly inaccurate. Let’s start with the positives. All four principal actors are superb. Ms. Christie, a relatively “cool” actress, given to emotionally understated performances, is quite able to represent the subdued affectivity often associated with early Alzheimers in a more convincing fashion than could more emotionally “warm” actors like Gena Rowlands in Notebook or Dame Judi Dench in Iris. Michael Murphy’s Aubrey is even better, though it is a smaller supporting role. Aubrey has a more advanced case of dementia: call it the middle stage of Alzheimers, if you will. He has a vacant stare most of the time, has lost speech, tends toward immobility and, partly as a consequence, considerable motor stiffness. The picture is clinically perfect for this stage of the disease.
Mr. Pinsent and Ms. Dukakis portray differing yet entirely believable non-afflicted spouses. Pinsent’s Grant is by turns gravely worried about his wife, bereft and lonely when he is separated from her, and given to denial of her illness: all common responses of loved ones in the earlier stages. Ms. Dukakis's Marian is more the realist, accepting of the finality of the disease and the fact that Aubrey will never again be her husband in any real sense of that term. Of course she has logged more years of suffering, witnessing her husband’s further decline, and this longer exposure almost inevitably leads the healthy spouse eventually to abandon any illusions about the disease.
Some viewers might doubt the realism of Fiona’s immediate, affectionate and nearly total attachment to Aubrey in the care facility, but I can assure you that such attachments are not uncommon and often valuable, a coping strategy that can be an immense source of security and an antidote to isolation for the afflicted “couple,” though not infrequently a cause of concern and conflict for family and staff alike. When Marian removes Aubrey from the care facility, Fiona's depressive response is entirely convincing and predictable. And when the nursing aid Kristy (Kristen Thomson) tells Grant that he should expect Fiona’s condition to fluctuate a lot from day to day, she’s correct.
Then we get to the negatives. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Fiona’s placement in residential care (assisted living) is justified. Fiona reads books about Alzheimers and takes the initiative to seek her own placement. Grant is opposed to this: he wants her to remain at home. This inverts the far more common situation. Most people with early Alzheimers – even the brightest and most insightful, [I’ve encountered university English professors, even Oxford dons, with the disorder] – don’t acknowledge that they are ill, have no interest in reading about Alzheimers, and are vehement in protesting their placement outside the home in residential care. Their healthy spouses feel the same way: the last thing they want is to give up personally caring for their beloved partner. They do so typically only when their spouse’s abnormal behaviors exceed their capacity to cope, usually after a period of many months to years of struggling to manage things at home.
On the contrary in this movie, we see Fiona generally behaving quite acceptably. Yes, she shows marked memory loss and spatial disorientation. She puts the washed frying pan in the refrigerator. She wanders away once and is unaccounted for for many hours. But she shows no signs of psychotic, aggressive, agitated or depressive behaviors, and doesn’t get into any truly dangerous scrapes. Her social skills remain more than adequate, typical in the first stages of the illness. Grant seems quite capable of managing things with Fiona at home and prefers this course to continue. Institutionalizing her at this point rings entirely false here.
It is also clinically wrong that, given her generally favorable level of functioning, Fiona should have so much difficulty recognizing Grant when he comes to visit after the first month she is in care. Even if she cannot recall his name, she should still easily be able to acknowledge that he is her spouse, or at least a familiar loved one, and react accordingly.
For that matter, the policy of the assisted living facility (in this film) that prohibits any visitation by loved ones in the first month after placement is way off the mark. That’s SOP for residential addictions treatment, but everyone who knows anything about dementia acknowledges the importance of sustaining the familiar when a major move occurs: arranging for favorite articles of clothing, family photos, prints from home hung on the walls, other mementos, and, especially, visitation by loved ones, from the getgo, to provide continuity and ease the inevitable apprehension in circumstances of abrupt change that is experienced by the afflicted individual.
I scrutinized the end credits in vain looking for a credit for any professional geriatric mental health or dementia consultant or agency. Regrettably, the lack of such input shows here. Of course filmmakers are under no obligation to make their productions clinically authentic. But there is no reason not to do so either. For example, insertion of a few fleeting scenes together lasting less than five minutes - a fire on a neglected stove burner; a weary, haggard Grant after spending a night searching for a wandering Fiona on yet another of those escapades, or Grant simply telling a doctor about such - could have established Fiona's need for assisted living. It’s rather like my partner’s pet peeve. She was a prodigious violist in adolescence, and she almost leaps screaming from her seat in films that show simulated and flagrantly unrealistic violin playing in a movie, when it would have been so easy and inexpensive to shoot and intercut a little close up footage of a real player. Oh, well.
Dramatically, this film is interesting, but clinically it falls far short of my gold standard, Bille August’s 2002 Swedish film, A Song for Martin, about a dementing symphony composer/conductor and his devoted spouse. Grade: B+ (01/07)
BACK FROM MADNESS: The Struggle for Sanity (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, US, 1996/2003, 53 min.). THEMES: SEVERE MENTAL ILLNESS; CARE IN THE COMMUNITY; BIPOLAR DISORDER; DEPRESSION; OCD; PSYCHOSURGERY (CINGULOTOMY) FOR OCD; ECT. A documentary film from the Erich Lindemann (Psychiatric) Center at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, tracing the course of four severely mentally ill persons whom we meet in the hospital before their return to the community. Their stories are told largely by themselves in serial interviews.
Todd is 25, a homeless person from the Midwest, has bipolar disorder and rejects treatment for his current manic (or possibly mixed) episode. Naomi, a 23 year old student from New York City, is hounded by auditory hallucinations, as she suffers from a psychotic disorder (her mother has schizophrenia, her father and brother, bipolar disorder). She’s taking clozapine (Clozaril®).
Glen, 53, a wedding photographer from Seattle, suffers from severe OCD, with crippling handwashing rituals and other symptoms that prevent him from working. He has come to Boston for a cingulotomy, a stereotactic brain operation that might reduce or eliminate his symptoms. Eric, 27, is a classical musician with chronic depression, recently suicidal, receiving ECT. Things unfold quite differently for these four patients.
After a course of 11 ECT treatments over 1 month, Eric’s two-year entrenched depression suddenly lifts, and he describes himself as “miraculously better.” He did experience some reversible memory loss and confusion after the ECT that persisted for weeks, interfering with his viola practice. Naomi becomes catatonic on clozapine. Switched to valproate (Depakote®) and risperidone (Risperdal®), she then experiences sustained improvement: no more auditory hallucinations, and she now has a boyfriend.
Todd drifts down to Florida, then to Minnesota, where he is jailed after smashing windows and making harassing phone calls. He’s now taking lithium carbonate, is calmer, and says he knows he needs this medication. Glen’s OCD, sadly, is no better 18 months after cingulotomy, though his wife says the skin lesions on his hands, a result of his continual handwashing, are improved.
Four months after ECT, Eric is playing viola again, performing with a string ensemble, and 6 months after that there is still no evidence of a depressive relapse. Two years after surgery, Glen is working again some as a photographer, but he continues to be plagued by handwashing rituals. Naomi has remained stable, even after she and her boyfriend broke up. Todd has been living in a homeless shelter and recently was jailed again.
To its credit, this film emphasizes the broad variety of psychiatric problems that can become severe and persistent, the difficulties of discovering and sustaining effective treatment, and the importance of adherence - of collaboration – between the patient and mental health care providers to achieve improvement and stability. The film is also honest in showing that, like other branches of medicine, psychiatry has its share of both treatment successes and failures. It is also remarkable that no scenes in this film have been reenacted.
The major weakness of the film is that it takes up so many patients, problems and issues that, given a tight 53 minutes to cover everything, it spreads itself too thin, often becoming entrapped in superficiality. (Contrast this with Susan Smiley’s recent documentary about her schizophrenic mother, Out of the Shadow. Focusing on one patient, nearly every aspect of her illness and resulting social predicaments is explored in a nuanced manner in 67 minutes.)
Regrettably, intercuts of archival footage showing psychotic behavior, lobotomy and ECT in earlier eras take up precious time to provide gratuitously sensational scenes, just the sort of images that tend to reinforce negative stereotypes of psychiatric care. A vivid picture of past shoddy treatments is worth a thousand words about how we've improved things since then.
Moreover, the film’s title is melodramatic and misleading, insofar as only two of the patients could be called “mad” or “insane” in the sense in which such terms are most commonly used, and only two come “back” – i.e., achieve major improvement from their illnesses.
Eric, Naomi and Todd have stories and illnesses that are common, and thus they are apt representatives of the persistently mentally ill. Glen, however, represents only a fraction of people that suffer from OCD, i.e., those who do not respond to more conventional treatments, and the use of cingulotomy is sufficiently uncommon that it seems an odd choice to even include him in this film.
The producer-director, Dr. Rosenberg, who also provides occasional voiceover narration, brings a rarified expertise to his work. He is a practicing psychiatrist in New York City and also an experienced documentary filmmaker, having produced several films on mental health issues. Thus the shortcomings of this film are all the more surprising. I am pleased to tell you that since Back from Madness, he has created another film for the same HBO series, Drinking Apart: Families Under the Influence, about family treatment for addictions, that is better.
(Dr. Rosenberg made this film for the HBO/America Undercover Series. It first aired in 1996, and is now available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences, Princeton NJ - on line at: http://www.films.com/.) Grade: B (10/05)
BAD TIMING (Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1980, 123 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER; SEXUAL OBSESSION/ADDICTION. A psychodrama of sexual obsession and emotional upheaval set in Vienna during the cold war. Art Garfunkel is cast as Alex Linden, an American psychoanalyst lecturing at a Viennese university and covertly working for the American government to profile spies. He meets Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), and the two strike up an erratic, stormy affair. She has a spouse, Stefan Vagnic (Denholm Elliott), who lives next door in Czechoslovakia, and who may be a spy. Milena still crosses the border to visit him regularly.
Nicolas Roeg is a pioneer in the artful use of flashbacks as a device to tell stories in surprising ways. This film begins in the present, with Milena in a coma induced by a suicidal alcohol/drug overdose and Alex attending her in hospital. There we meet a Viennese police detective, Inspector Netusil (a young, long haired Harvey Keitel), who is suspicious of Alex, whose oddly uncooperative behavior only spurs Netusil on. Then we go back in time to see how Milena and Alex met, and we follow their roller coaster affair, these scenes interspersed with flash forward brief cuts of doctors attending to the comatose Milena back in the present.
It becomes ever more clear that Alex and Milena are both psychologically disturbed individuals, perhaps even drawn to each other for this reason. The destiny of their relationship is such that Milena’s suicide attempt and Alex’s behavior in relation to this event seem almost foreordained. The story is absorbing and suspenseful, even as one finds it difficult to identify with these people. Alex, a rather boring chap, seems to want Milena to be a person other than herself, which drives Milena into rages. Then they make up, and the cycle repeats itself.
Ms. Russell's portrayal fits very nicely with the picture of borderline personality. She resists acting in a manner that Alex seems to want, but then gives in, fearful of losing him if she does not go along. She is promiscuous. She uses alcohol and drugs. She is capable of making a several suicide attempt when her relationship with Alex seems doomed. Most consistent with the diagnosis of BPD is her inability to maodulate affect, especially anger. Grade: B+ (01/31/08)
THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE (Rebecca Miller, US, 2005, 111 min.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: DEATH & DYING; OVER-DEPENDENCE AND EXCLUSIVITY IN A FATHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP. FAILURE OF A FATHER AND DAUGHTER TO COME FRANKLY TO TERMS ABOUT HIS IMPENDING DEATH AND HER FUTURE (FOR EXAMPLE, HER ASSERTION THAT SHE WILL SUICIDE WHEN HE DIES). Jack Slavin (Daniel Day-Lewis) helped start a commune in the late 60s on a strikingly beautiful little island on the Atlantic seaboard (the actual locale is just off Prince Edward Island, the smallest of eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces). Now Jack’s the only one still living there, in a stunning so-called underground house built into a natural hillside for maximum insulation on the windward side. Well, he’s not entirely alone, for his late teen daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) is still with him. But Jack is dying of heart disease, and he’s plagued by questions like how will he and Rose manage when he becomes more debilitated? What will become of Rose after he dies? His utopian dreams are dying too. A developer is erecting tacky houses on top of once prime wetlands just a stone’s throw away. This sort of thing still can get Jack’s juices flowing just enough that one morning he fires his shotgun over the building crew’s heads, scattering them. But Jack knows it’s a losing cause. Rose troubles Jack further now by telling him that she plans to die when he does. What to do?
Jack desperately reaches out to Kathleen (Catherine Keener), a woman in town whose bed he has sometimes shared in recent months. He offers her money to move in with him and Rose, to help him manage. She agrees, though this means moving her two late teen sons in as well. Jack is running sufficiently scared by this point that his judgment is out the window. He makes no effort whatsoever to prepare Rose for the immigration of Kathleen, chubby Rodney, the would be hair stylist (Ryan McDonald), and sullen, trouble seeking Thadius (Paul Dano). They simply arrive, U-Haul trailer and all, and Jack tells Rose it’s “an experiment.” She is furious, feels betrayed by this invasion of her relationship with Jack and the violation of the tranquility they have shared for years (Rose hasn’t even attended school since she was 11).
The experiment leaves much to be desired. Rodney is a dear, but his obvious enchantment with Rose isn’t enough to compensate for Thadius’s provocations and the mere presence of a woman who has come between Rose and her beloved Dad. Things end badly when Thadius, injured in a fall, is rushed off to the hospital. Kathleen belts Rose across the face, blaming her for the horrid time everyone has had since she and the boys arrived. Rose tells Jack she won’t enter the house again until these people leave. Jack capitulates.
There are some final rounds between Jack and Marty the developer (Beau Bridges), and there is a resolution of Jack and Rose’s plight. Jack comes to understand how incestuous their ties have become, even if never consummated as such. We can leave the details aside. Suffice it to say that Rose does live on. Though we don't need it, we are assured of this in a gratuitous little glimpse of her living in a commune in Connecticut that follows a “Two Years Later” still at the end. We never do get any follow-up about Kathleen and her sons. They seem to have served their dramatic purpose by provoking Rose to come of age.
This film is unsatisfying despite good turns by Mr. Day-Lewis and, especially, Ms. Belle. It begins well but tends to unravel in the middle, when Kathleen and her sons take up residence. For one thing, Ms. Keener, whose work I usually find refreshing, seems somehow stale here, disengaged, not in touch with the camera or the other actors. For another, there is an egregiously arbitrary point near the end, when Jack appears to impulsively abandon his ideals, agreeing to sell his land at a low price to the developer, just hours after Jack had bulldozed over one of the new houses. Why? There is no good reason presented for him to do a 180 like this.
Finally, the film is frustrating psychologically. The failure of Rose and Jack to address their mutual fears of what lies ahead, when Jack will fail and finally die, is obvious. Instead, for the most part they both simply act out irrationally, fail to connect meaningfully with one another, avoid each other because it’s too painful to do otherwise, pretend things are status quo when they aren’t. Yes, this does happen often in real life. But it doesn’t make for much of a film because it offers us nothing new to learn. Overall grade: C; portrayal of pathological relationship between father and daughter: A- (01/05)
BAMBOOZLED (Spike Lee, US, 2000, 135 min.). Here is one of Spike Lee’s most emboldened, biting and polarizing films, a take-no-prisoners satire about the degradations African-Americans have suffered in the world of entertainment, suffering that has in fact not yet abated to the present day. Lee quotes Malcolm X in production notes for this film to the effect that Malcolm used the term bamboozlers to define all whites and their impact on blacks. Lee wants to use the term here to refer to media execs – black and white alike – who depict blacks in film, on TV and elsewhere in terms of the traditional condescending and vicious stereotypes we all know. Here Lee reaches back to the traditional blackface minstrel as an icon that can epitomize and illustrate this process.
Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a savvy, smooth talking, Harvard educated TV producer being bullied by his white boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) to come up with a new hit series. Dunwitty chides the much affected Delacroix (his original name was Peerless Dothan) that his last creations had been too conservative, that blacks molded like white middle class folks were too unfunny to attract market share anymore. Delacroix, running mad and scared, comes up with a far-fetched concept based on minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, and other old black stereotype entertainer roles. With the help of his assistant producer, Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), he picks up two black buskers who hang outside the TV headquarters every day - a tap dancer, Manray (Savion Glover), and his fast talking, hat passing buddy, Womack (Tommy Davidson) – and turns them into the central characters of a pilot episode for a new series. Pierre draws some inspiration for the new show from the stand up comedy of his father, Junebug (Paul Mooney), who plays to small audiences in black clubs, mainly in the south.
Pierre pulls out all the stops. He has the two street guys appear in blackface and act like dumb Negroes from the past. He renames Manray, “Mantan,” and Womack becomes “Sleep ’n’ Eat.” It’s "Mantan--The New Millennium Minstrel Show." At the start of the show the two step onto the stage through the huge lips of a widely opened pasteboard black man’s mouth. There are step-and-fetchit style jokes, a song & dance group called The Pickaninnies, and a band named the Alabama Porch Monkeys, performing on an old south style gallery in front of a shanty. To everyone’s surprise, including Pierre’s, the pilot is enthusiastically endorsed by the corporate brass and the series goes into full production overnight.
The show proves to be a bigger hit than even the suits had expected. And as the weeks and episodes roll on, Pierre spares nothing in creating one demeaning, obscene spectacle after another. At one show, the live audience members all must come in blackface themselves and several are exhorted to declare on the air why they should rightly be called “Niggers.”
Many blacks are naturally outraged: the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer Johnnie Cochran, playing themselves, are among celebs recruited by Lee to denounce the series. Sloan’s kid brother Julius (Mos Def) is a member of a gun toting gang, the Mau Maus, operating on the edges of terrorism, who are particularly offended by the show. Julius (he calls this his plantation name, and has instead adopted a new one: Big Blak Africa) argues with his sister about her association with the show. Matters escalate. The whole enterprise ends in disaster. People die. Lives are ruined.
In short, although its trappings may be more flamboyant and provocative than most of his other films, Bamboozled is a typical Spike Lee morality tale, like Do the Right Thing or Clockers. The lesson served up is the same one George Orwell tried to teach us about politics in “Animal Farm.” When the animals start walking on their hind legs like the farmers, watch out. Psychoanalysts call it “identification with the aggressor.” Traumatologists refer to it as “Stockholm Syndrome.” Liberals perceive it as “working within the system.” Everyone else knows it as “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” Pierre has indeed become a bamboozler.
Critics are divided about this film. Those in favor think Lee’s hit the mark in emphasizing how black stereotypes are exploited in the media, even by influential blacks. Those opposed view Lee as unreasonable, given the recent successes of blacks in the entertainment business, and in the increasingly humanistic and variegated portrayals of blacks in film and on TV. If high achieving blacks join the corporate ranks and walk on their hind legs like influential whites, isn’t this the pinnacle of success? Doesn’t this fulfill Dr. King’s dream?
And yet echoes of the past remain with us. White middle class kids are mesmerized by gangsta rap artists just like their grandparents were by blackface minstrel shows. Check out James Toback’s film, Black and White, for a good look at this hero worship. For that matter we have the divide between assimilation and separatism embodied not only in the world of entertainment but in education too, in the form of the Ebonics controversy. Is there really any difference between advocating Ebonics as a legitimate language; supporting gangsta rap and dress codes that include wool winter caps and long parkas in mid-summer along with trousers that mysteriously stay in place about six inches above guys’ knees; or pushing a TV minstrel show that exaggerates elements of traditional rural black underclass behaviors?
Leonard Pitts Jr., op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald, uses the film Bamboozled in a college class he teaches on pop culture, when he discusses black images in entertainment media. He was delighted when a student said, after seeing the film in class, that the rappers in it seemed, to her surprise, “ignorant.” “I find myself wondering how black culture…ever came to this,” Pitts wrote in a recent column, “…[when] two petty thugs [rival rappers 50 Cent and The Game] with a reported 14 bullet wounds between them can get rich off stereotypes that would make Sambo blush?” I wonder if Spike Lee would also see these two as more Bamboozlers.
Fine performances are given here by Wayans, Pinkett-Smith, Davidson, Mooney and Def. As is nearly always the case in Lee’s films, the mise-en-scene and uses of color visuals are marvelous. One of the production’s finest visual sequences occurs during the end credits, shown in front of a fascinating collection of kitsch blackface-inspired objects, from shuffle-footed puppets to cast iron figurines. This sequence reminds us of Lee’s earlier montage of black & white clips from many of the old films stereotyping blacks, from Birth of a Nation to Al Jolson, to Rochester, Jack Benny’s butler, and so on.
These figurines at the end also nicely reprise the gift given earlier in the film by Sloan to Pierre after his new show’s first flushes of success: a cast iron blackface figure bank: you put a coin in its outstretched hand, then pull a lever: the coin goes into its open mouth and its eyes roll back. If you buy Lee’s premise, this little “coon” coin bank is a perfect and powerful image of what had become of Pierre, a black man making his living by degrading himself and his race. Grade: B+ (04/05)
THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Denys Arcand, Canada/France, 2003). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; FRIENDSHIP IN OLD AGE. Remy (Remy Girard) is a late middle aged man dying of cancer in a miserably crowded hospital in Montreal. A radical socialist college history professor and lifelong womanizer, this rascal has been smart and randy enough, sufficiently full of joie de vivre, that he has attracted an enduring and adoring retinue of former lovers and cronies. Even his ex-wife, Louise, remains devoted to him. But he has earned the enmity of his son, Sebastien (Stephane Roussaeu), a securities trader in London whose lifestyle is at odds with everything the old man holds dear. Mom calls Sebastien home (his sister is abroad, crewing a sailboat on the high seas, but she sends video messages by satellite). After a furious and all too typical bedside row between the men, Sebastien calms down and, out of respect for his mother’s wishes, decides to do his duty.
Sebastien's a wheeler dealer who knows how to arrange things. He bribes hospital people into setting up spacious private quarters for Dad (big enough to accomodate meals for 10), then prevails on Dad’s old friends to come for extended visits. He even arranges for the junkie daughter of one of Dad’s old lovers, Diane, to provide heroin for pain relief. Thus ensues a sort of moveable feast, a round of partying and animated conversation among these folks, over several days at the hospital and then, toward the end, at a lakeside country house. The film's title refers to a number of things, but the events of 9/11 first and foremost. Remy and his old academic buddies speak of all the “-isms” they’ve embraced and later discarded in their unsuccessful quests for a social philosophy that will bring an end to exploitation and killing in the world. Remy points out that even at 200 million, the 20th century lagged behind some others in deaths perpetrated by wars and purges. The decline of the Canadian health care system (and its juxtaposition alongside classier care for the right price in the U.S.), the inroads of heroin addiction, and the predators of the business world, personified by Sebastien the “risk investment manager,” are other barbarities of the times, not to mention cancer. The list of invaders goes on and on.
But all the chat takes a back seat to the simple comeraderie of old friends, people comfortable enough together to tell the truth and laugh, people who care enough about Remy and each other to suddenly take a major slice of time from their lives to be together. Sebastien undergoes some significant changes in the process of arranging and attending these proceedings. He comes to realize his love for his father, and this is requited in their latter exchanges. He also begins to question his glamorous London life, complete with gorgeous fiancée. Toward the end his head seems to be turned by Nathalie, the junkie woman, who clearly has a crush on him. (Marie-Josee Croze as Nathalie received the award for Best Actress at Cannes. It’s a role well played, but hardly substantial enough to merit such an accolade. Arcand also won for Best Director.) The film ends with everyone at the lakeside, where there is a final bit of partying and saying goodbye before a lethal injection of heroin is accepted by Remy as his preferred exit strategy.
This movie is a sequel to Arcand's 1986 farce about sex, wit and manners, The Decline of the American Empire. Seven of the eight principals from that film appear here - same actors, same characters, all of them now about 17 years older, of course, and longer in the tooth. The same lakeside country house is used for the final scenes. This film is superior to the first, which was quite static, a film almost devoid of visual movement or visual narrative features, which were subordinated to the dialogue, a work that would have been far more effective performed on the stage than as a film. Here Arcand shows better mastery of the cinematic medium. There are visual developments. And the dialogue is less bloated, not so full of itself, not so much prattling on. These people have less need to show off their wits than when they were younger.
That said, this film is not free of difficulties. The problem with Invasions is that everything is way too pat. Remy hardly suffers: he's the ebullient host at his own pre-wake. Everybody who’s invited just suddenly is able to drop life and show up, seemingly for hours and days on end, despite the fact that most had drifted away from Remy in recent years. Nobody except Sebastien even seems to have any conflict with Remy, who’s been enough of a cad to have left an imprint of more ambivalence among the people in his past, if not outright enemies. In one nice touch, several former students who come to pay their respects are in fact bribed to do so by Sebastien. The film could have used more such ironies. Instead this film is what Roger Ebert refers to as every aging adult's implausible fantasy of dying a pleasant death. What we have here is the first “feel good” assisted suicide film. If you have not seen either of these films, or haven't seen the 1986 film in a long while, I do suggest that you watch Decline before you view Invasions. (In French) Grade: B (12/03)
BARBERSHOP (Tim Story, US, 2002). THEME: RACIAL ISSUES IN A BLACK URBAN NEIGHBORHOOD. A long day plays out in and around a south Chicago barbershop where a half dozen barbers (5 black, 1 white; 5 men, 1 woman) preside over a running conversation that is heavily skewed to sex, relationships, trouble with the law and politics, especially race politics. The shop's owner, Calvin (Ice Cube in a fine turn), inherited the shop from his father but can't make ends meet. Besides, he feels bored and has dreams of making it big doing something less mundane. So he sells the shop to a local shyster who later discloses his plans to turn it into a "gentlemen's club." Only after taking this decision does Calvin begin to see how important the shop is to his friends, his neighborhood and himself. As in any sitcom, everything works out favorably at the end. A subplot in which two doofuses try in vain to heist an ATM machine gets pretty tedious after the first 4 intercuts. The most arresting performance comes from Cedric the Entertainer as Eddie, senior barber in the shop. Eddie never has any customers but he does make the grandest speeches - always politically incorrect - concerning people like Rodney King (he deserved to get beat up for driving around LA drunk), O. J. Simpson (he obviously "did it,") and Rosa Parks (she just wanted to sit down). The humor and humanity shared among these people are endearing. A fun film. Grade: B+ (01/03)
THE BASKETBALL DIARIES (Scott Kalvert, US, 1995). THEME: ADOLESCENT HEROIN ADDICTION AND POLYSUBSTANCE ABUSE. Based on an autobiographical account by Jim Carroll, who was an outstanding basketball prospect at his Catholic high school in New York City, and a promising writer to boot. Drug abuse terminated his career as an athlete and nearly took his life, but his talent as a writer and performer was honed by his years of wretched junkiedom and the redemption he found writing novels, poetry and monologues that he performs still in his native city. This film covers the very short and very ugly period of Carroll’s addiction and decline, from about age 15 to 17, when he finally cleans up in prison. Like most junkie movies, this one isn’t pleasant to watch and it’s often just boring. There’s not much of a plot. It’s pretty much one destructive happening after another as Carroll (Leonardo DeCaprio) falls further and further from grace, severing ties along the way with school, friends and his mother. Clinically, there are no glitches: heroin addiction and withdrawal, and the street life associated with this addiction, are presented authentically. DeCaprio does a serviceable job as Carroll. Mark Wahlberg surprises here, with an uncharacteristically lively supporting turn as Carroll’s junkie sidekick, Mickey. Grade: B- (11/04)
BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 2000). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL JEALOUSY. Why do some people, not in the least insane, develop hostile, even homicidal, fixations concerning a particular individual? That is a conundrum in this adaptation of Melville's novel Billy Budd, relocated to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and concerning itself with the life of soldiers, in this case French Legionnaires. This film is primarily a meditation on the more noble, positive, subtly homoerotic, aspects of life among young soldiers, presented in a lyrical, poetic, at times surreal manner. The plot concerns a sergeant, second in command of the small unit, who becomes obsessed by a new recruit who is ostensibly a fine young soldier, offensive to no one. Yet the sergeant feels intensely threatened by this man, especially fearing that the new recruit will bring harm to the commanding officer, with whom the sergeant has had a long and close relationship. We aren't given any concrete motive and instead are left to imagine why this situation has emerged.
Thus the viewer is thrust into the same position as a mental health professional at the outset of work with a new patient: only the surface facts of the sergeant's feelings and behavior are known. We can only speculate about what lies behind this behavior. Does the sergeant simply fear that the commandant will come to favor the new man? If so, why this man and not some other among the group? Is the sergeant projecting his own (unacknowledged and unacceptable) hostility toward the commandant onto this new man? Images from this remarkable film continue to impress days later. The most vivid is a scene at the end, when the sergeant dances alone before a panel of small mirrors, in the disco where we've seen soldiers dancing often with local girls. He is dressed in black. The dance begins slowly, haltingly, but the tempo picks up, finally becoming frenetic and half crazed toward the end. It is a wild and sinister spectacle, a dance of death. Grade: B+ (12/02)
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Ron Howard, US, 2001). THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA. Very loose adaptation of Sylvia Nasar’s splendid biography of Nobel mathematician John Nash. Russell Crowe does a credible job of portraying Nash, before, during and after his long psychotic period. The screenwriters and Howard, on the other hand, not only mess with the facts of Nash’s life overly much, but represent some dimensions of schizophrenic experience very falsely while capturing the sense of reality of delusional convictions in a thoroughly engaging manner. Although Nash himself has enjoyed both honors for his work and a stable remission from his illness in recent years, the “feel good” quality of the story is way too Hollywood schmaltzy. For more on this film, see my article, "How Do You Film a Delusion?" Grades: (based on dramatic and cinema values): B-; (based on authenticity): B+ in some aspects, D in others. (01/02)
BEAUTIFUL THING (Hettie Macdonald, UK, 1995). THEME: ADOLESCENT GAY RELATIONSHIP. A gay coming of age story. Two adolescent boys, neighbors in a working class high rise project in southeast London, find one another. Jamie's mother Sandra is preoccupied with her boyfriend Tony and her ambition of managing a pub (she's a barmaid). Steve is mistreated physically by his nasty father and older brother. Leah is a wild West Indian neighbor girl who worships Mama Cass and plays her records at top decibel level at night. The work was adapted from a play by the playwright, Jonathan Harvey. It begins slowly and takes a while to build up interest. Then in the last quarter, once multiple conflicts have been established and Jamie and Steve's affair is consummated, everything is inexplicably changed or resolved improbably. Tony is banished by Sandra for no reason evident to the viewer, Leah, was strung out on drugs and suicidal the scene before, now seems to be getting on fine, and Jamie and Steve go public, hugging and mugging in the plaza at the projects, to Sandra’s apparent pleasure, though moments before she had been horrified by the notion that her son was gay. It would be a fairytale ending except that too much of the dramatic material built up during the film seems to be ignored at the end. What saves this film from the trash heap is the tenderness and tentativeness of the budding love affair between the boys, which is made entirely believable by the extraordinary work of the actors and director. Grades: drama: B-, depiction of teen gay relationship: A- (08/00)
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (Julian Schnabel, US, 2000). THEMES: GAY EXPERIENCE IN CUBA; AIDS. Based on a memoir by the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas that was published three years after his death, this film loosely traces the threads of his life from an impoverished childhood to happy days as a young college student when he can express himself freely as a writer and sexually, to the long and difficult period from the mid-1960s on, when he suffers the terrors of a regime that was horridly repressive toward gays and toward dissident writers and intellectuals. He came to NYC in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, and died of AIDS in 1990. He wrote of the freedom of his childhood and his love of nature. He tells of times just following the Revolution when there was more open expression for gays than at any time before or since. Spanish actor Javier Bardem is exquisite in the role of Arenas (and is said to resemble him). The film is marred by discontinuity of the story line (Schnabel, it is said, had little interest in such matters, preferring to capture the essence of Arenas in a series of disconnected vignettes, some real, some magical). What's worse, Schnabel decided to do nearly all the dialogue in English, and this was probably a mistake. It is difficult to understand some of the dialogue, especially a fair number of Mr. Bardem's lines. It would have been preferable to add subtitles (whether Bardem and others spoke Spanish or English). Still, the story provides many insights about Arenas and about Castro's shocking record of human rights violations against gays and writers, and Bardem's Arenas is splendid. Grade: B+ (01/01)
BEFORE SUNRISE (Richard Linklater, US, 1995).
BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, US, 2004). THEME: DEVELOPING MATURE LOVE RELATIONSHIPS. SPOILER ALERT! I had not previously seen the 1995 film, Before Sunrise, and am very glad I watched it just two hours before seeing its new sequel, Before Sunset. Linklater, the American director of Slackers and Waking Life, has created a couplet of quintessentially French-style romantic films: movies chock full of talk and nothing but talk between a man and a woman. In Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), in their early 20s, meet on a train and spend an afternoon and night together in Vienna before separately moving on again. Celine is beautiful and the more self assured. Jesse is gawky and self consciously smiley at first, then he gradually settles down, turns more tender, more thoughtful. They gab away the evening and night, covering all the ground one might expect of young, adventuresome, unburdened youngsters, high on the excitement of discovering each other and enjoying what they find. They ambivalate about making love, and planning to see each other again. They do agree to meet again in six months, at the same train station in Vienna.
Before Sunset begins nine years later, not in six months, and in Paris, not Vienna. Jesse has written a modest best selling romance about his night long ago with Celine, and is on a promo tour, speaking and signing at a little bookshop near Montmartre, where Celine shows up. They are once again instantly and easily charmed by one another and spend the afternoon together, before Jesse’s flight back to the U.S. Their brisk conversation takes up as if it had never ended. Jesse, it turns out, had returned to Vienna as planned. Celine had wished to do so, but her grandmother’s sudden death had prevented this, and she didn’t have information to contact Jesse. At 32, both these soulmates feel the limitations of their lives now, no longer basking in the illusions of possibilities without boundaries. Celine’s story gradually unfolds: she’s still single and increasingly aware that her romantic hopes were left behind with Jesse in Vienna all those years ago. It is much the same for him, though he is unsatisfactorily married and has a young son he adores. As the afternoon moves on, Jesse seems more and more settled being with Celine, and by the time he escorts her home to her apartment, it has become clear that he will not leave.
It is interesting to observe the development of these two people – I mean the two actors, who co-wrote the script with Mr. Linklater. Ethan Hawke seems unchanged by the years. He’s still a somewhat gawky kid, not much different than he was at 23. In both films he says lots of philosophical things that don’t quite jibe with his physical persona and gestures. Much of it feels pretentious. And he’s forever prone to following up his serious comments with jocularity (which actually suits him better, even as it accentuates the pretense of his earlier words). Ms. Delpy, on the other hand, seems to have grown up. Her performance is more variegated, more nuanced in the second film. I think, for example, of her imitation of Nina Simone in the final apartment scenes, a riff she could not have performed convincingly nine years earlier. She’s also quite moving while riding in the limo, when she flares in anger at Jesse, who at that moment she mistakenly sees as having everything she lacks in life.
The strength of both films is in the fly-on-the-wall view we get of the couple’s romantic encounters. These two people are utterly indifferent to us: they play only to and for each other, and that is the vital core of their drama. It matters not that we may think they are imperfect. They feel right to each other. Who does not relish the recollection of such unanticipated romantic encounters, those early moments together that were, and forever remain, pure magic? The first film played too long, the talk began to drag after the first hour. The new film is 25 minutes shorter and is the better for it. Grades: Sunrise: B; Sunset: B+ (10/04)
BENJAMIN SMOKE (Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen, US, 2000). THEMES: LIFE OF A GAY HUSTLER/MUSICIAN/JUNKIE; AIDS. This documentary is a memorial to Robert Dickerson, native Atlantan, known on the street simply as Benjamin. Benjamin was born in 1960 and died a day after his 39th birthday in 1999 of AIDS-related Hepatitis C. He was a gay hustler, crossdresser, and junkie, and also a musician, a singer, who was associated with several punk/blues/country bands that played modest local gigs in and around a poor Atlanta neighborhood called Cabbage Town; the last of these bands Benjamin played with before he died was called Smoke, hence the title. By the time the filmmakers encounter him, Benjamin is dying. The film is composed of interviews the directors filmed (in color), older black and white footage, quite amateurish, shot by others, presumably friends, and some stills. Benjamin was discovered, through CD material, by Patti Smith, who invited Smoke to open an Atlanta concert of hers. Smith also wrote a song inspired by Benjamin called "(Have You Seen) Death Dancing" which she reads near the end of the film; it is incredibly powerful. She also speaks of Benjamin's dignity.
He does come through in the interviews as dignified, and accepting of the life he has led. He even credits AIDs with bringing about a reconciliation with his mother (they grew so close near the end that when she was out of town for three months, he was surprised at how much he missed her..."I got really strung out on my mom" was the way he put it). There are several musical numbers by Smoke. The band itself is not good, but one would expect a lot to be revealed about Benjamin in the lyrics of the songs he has composed. His singing voice is reminiscent of Tom Waits's. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to make out the lyrics he sings...it's all garbled. Sophisticated electronic masking and enhancement, or else subtitles, were needed here, and it may be that the filmmakers lacked resources for either. A huge deficiency of the film. It is not pleasant to see Benjamin's emaciation near the end of his life. But it shows his wonderful pluckiness that he consented to be filmed under these circumstances, at times when he could do nothing but lie on a sofa as he talked. Grade: B (01/01)
BENNY & JOON (James Chechik, US, 1993). THEME: CONFLICTS FOR FAMILY CARETAKERS. In this whimsical, fluffy romantic comedy, two fellows get their girls. Benny (Aidan Quinn) is the older brother and caretaker of Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), who suffers from a serious but less than well defined mental disorder, possibly schizophrenia. She is reclusive and acts spooky from time to time, and she frustrates daytime hired caretakers when Benny’s at work so the turnover rate is high. Enter Sam (Johnny Depp), an illiterate but charming drifter who likes to do Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin physical comedy routines. He fills in first as Joon’s caretaker, and then nature takes its course. Meanwhile Benny is falling for a coffeeshop waitress (Julianne Moore before she commanded star billing) but feels too mired in his responsibilities to Joon to make a move.
Love eventually wraps up both relationships neatly, too neatly of course, but this film is not an example of psychological realism. However, it does, in a sweet, superficial sort of way, point out the problem for many families with a mentally ill member, where caretakers must forgo pursuit of personal goals in order to assure the wellbeing of the afflicted relative. The film also rightly suggests that caretakers can go too far, meeting their own needs indirectly by insisting on rigid roles of “sick one” and “caretaker.” Benny resist's the advice of Joon's psychiatrist (C.C.H. Pounder) that he place Joon in a foster home setting for the benefit of both. Both the psychiatrist's zeal here, and Benny's reticence, reflect common occurrences in efforts to solve caretaking problems. Grade: B- (12/02)
BENT (Sean Mathias, UK, 1998). THEME: PERSECUTION OF GAYS IN NAZI GERMANY. Story of the Nazi persecution of gay men. Clive Owen is Max, a man identified as gay and eventually sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he denies his gender orientation and manages to masquerade as a Jew, substituting a yellow badge for the pink one worn by gays. Neverthelesss, his sexual interests are aroused by Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), a fellow prisoner who wears his pink badge proudly. The whole ethos and movement of the film are predictably grim. With Ian McKellen (who earlier had played Max in the original stage production of this drama), Jude Law, and Mick Jagger in a slick cross-dressing cameo. Grade: B- (06/98)
BEST BOY (Ira Wohl, US, 1979). THEMES: DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED ADULTS: FAMILY DYNAMICS; SOLVING DEPENDENCY ISSUES. Poignant documentary about the late but successful emancipation of his 52 year old mentally retarded cousin, Phillip (“Philly”), lovingly filmed over three years by his cousin. Philly had lived with his parents all his life, except for a brief interlude at age 12, when he was institutionalized after suicidal behavior. The family were so shocked by the poor care he received that they took him home again. In the mid-1970s, observing that Philly’s mother, Pearl, and father, Max, were declining, and that Philly seemed capable of more independence than the doting Pearl permitted him, Ira Wohl set out with the dual purposes of influencing the family to let Philly move out more into the larger community while at the same time filming what Ira Wohl hoped would be Philly’s success in this movement. Philly did succeed. But along the way Max died. And only 8 months after Philly took a room in a community residential program for developmentally disabled adults, Pearl died as well, a terribly bittersweet ending. Powerful film that deals leisurely and thoroughly with its subject. See also my article titled "Searching for Community." Grade: B+ (06/03)
THE BEST OF YOUTH (La Meglio gioventù) (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003, 366 min). THEME: REFORMS IN CARE OF THE MENTALLY ILL IN ITALY IN THE 1970s. A long look (six hours) at the fictional middle class Carati family of Rome and their loved ones, set against the backdrop of larger events that affected Italy in the nearly 40 year span from 1966 to 2003. Along the way family members are involved or touched in various ways by the flooding of Florence in November, 1966, student riots of the late 60s and 70s, the rise of terrorist gangs like the Red Brigade, the economic crisis that shook the country around 1980, and Mafia killings of judges in Sicily in the early 90s.
The first part of the film (first three hours) also highlights the struggle to reform the care of Italy's mentally ill in the 1970s. The radical Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia is generally credited with leading the revolt against institutionalizing the mentally ill, ending in legislation in 1978 that forced eventual closure of many public mental hospitals. Basaglia, following the beliefs of people like Britain's J. K. Wing and Erving Goffman in the U.S., asserted that the major causes of chronic mental illness were social, and that institutionalization itself was perhaps the greatest cause of morbidity in its inmates.
Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio), one of the two Carati brothers who are the principal characters in this drama, is a young, idealistic psychiatrist, a character said to have been modelled after Basaglia. Kindly and restrained, he works for years with a severely traumatized, regressed woman, Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca), eventually accomplishing the goal of helping her to leave the hospital and find a place for herself in the community (the final realization of this goal, I should add, comes in the second 3-hour segment). The slow pace of her recovery, and her all but palpable fear of leaving the hospital, convey a realism not usually seen in fictional films that zealously advocate for reforms in care of the mentally ill in a more romanticized fashion.
In other scenes, Nicola is also depicted reassuring and preparing patients who testify at a trial, the prosecution of a psychiatrist who had repeatedly used electroshock and other procedures in a punitive manner. Nicola also is seen with police raiding a run down private facility where mentally ill residents are illegally chained to beds in conditions of deplorable hygiene.
Besides Mr. Lo Cascio, the series showcases several other younger Italian actors, most notably Alessio Boni, whose features evoke memories of Steve McQueen, as Nicola's brother Matteo, a brooding, mercurial, intellectually gifted college dropout who seeks to impose order on his own impetous and violent nature through a career in the national police.
The first 3-hour segment of the film is more engaging than the second. Not only is the theme of reform in psychiatric care depicted here, but in general there is more dramatic movement and coherence. The latter part suffers after two of the more entertaining characters - Angelo, the father of the Carati family, played by Andrea Tidona, and, later, Matteo - drop out. Still, the quality of the film justifies the time required to take it all in. (In Italian) Grade: B+ overall; A- for psychiatric reform subtext. (05/05)
BEYOND SILENCE (Caroline Link, Germany, 1997). THEME: COMING-OF-AGE FOR A YOUNG GIRL WHO HAS BEEN THE LINK BETWEEN HER DEAF MUTE PARENTS AND THE LARGER WORLD. DOES SHE SACRIFICE HER OWN NEEDS TO STAY WITH THEM OR PROCEED TO FIND HER OWN LIFE PATH? Coming of age story of Lara, who is played early in the film by a child actress and later, after she reaches adolescence, by the entrancing actress Sophie Testud. Lara has normal hearing but lives with two deaf parents. Inspired by her aunt, a gifted clarinetist, she also pursues this instrument, which turns out to be the catalyst for her move toward independence. The film offers quite astonishing insights about the responsibility that can fall upon a child in such circumstances; she is in so many respects a bridge between her parents and the hearing world, and they cling to the status quo like a lifeline. This situation complicates Lara’s natural bent toward emancipation. All the main players are good: Lara’s parents and her aunt and uncle. But an overdrawn melodramatic quality seeps through too often in this film, and the way her father is involved at the end is, regrettably, one of its few unbelievable scenes. Grand prize winner at the Vancouver and Tokyo Film Festivals; short listed for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1998. (In German) Grade: B+ (08/99)
BEYOND THERAPY (Robert Altman, US, 1987). THEMES: COMEDY: SENDUP OF PSYCHOTHERAPY (PATIENTS & THERAPISTS) AND COMEDIC POKES AT NEARLY ALL GENDER ORIENTATIONS: HETERO, GAY & BI. This madcap screwball comedy follows a scorched earth, take-no-prisoners approach in lampooning such matters as: the excessive consumption of therapy by urbanites; the vanities, eccentricities and ethical violations of therapists; the neurotic, self-serving antics of everyone in general; all gender orientations from hetero- to gay to bisexual; and the French, thrown in for good measure. The plot isn’t worth mentioning. The nonstop, rapid fire, over-the-top nonsense assures a steady froth of merriment, and could only be considered anti-psychiatry or anti-therapy by the worst scolds among us. The therapists are Glenda Jackson (a New Agey therapist with a penchant for forgetting which client goes with which set of problems) and Tom Conti (who tries to pass as Italian in his never ending attempts to bed female clients). Among others, the patients include Jeff Goldblum as a bisexual fellow in love with characters played by Christopher Guest and Julie Hagerty. Grade: B (11/04)
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Joel Coen, US, 1997). THEMES: MALE FRIENDSHIPS (GUYFLICK); SLACKER WITH ALCOHOL & MARIJUANA DEPENDENCE; POST VIETNAM COMBAT VIOLENT TEMPERAMENT. On second viewing this Coen Brothers comedy is better than the first time. Chock full of funny happenings among the eccentric characters played by Jeff Bridges (Jeff Lebowski, "The Dude," a 40ish slacker/stoner/bowler), his sidekick Walter (John Goodman), a hair-trigger volatile Vietnam veteran who packs a gun ("The issue is...Am I Wrong?"), their bowling buddy (Steve Buscemi) and a host of characters they encounter along the way (including Julianne Moore, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, and John Turturro as Jesus, a Hispanic pedophilic bowler who wears a lavender jumpsuit). There's a plot with bad guys, but it is incidental. Grade: A- (09/03)
BILLY ELLIOT (Stephen Daldry, UK, 2000). THEMES: COMING-OF-AGE; FAMILY COHESION & SUPPORT. Billy (Jamie Bell), an early adolescent in the northeast English coastal city of Durham, wants to become a ballet dancer. This is not exactly OK with his father (Gary Lewis) and his thuggish older brother, both rough and tumble coal miners, and Billy is forbidden dance lessons. The action is set in 1984, when the miners are trying to hold on in a huge and prolonged nationwide strike that will in fact be broken eventually (by the Thatcher government, in a final showdown that spelled the end of traditional trade unionism in the UK). So Dad and big bro are out of work, fighting on the picket lines, and worried about the future, while everyone in the family - Billy and his dementing grandmother included - is bereaved after the death of Billy's mother only a couple of years earlier. Still, Billy perseveres, sneaking dance practice with his teacher (Julie Walters) who thinks he may be good enough to win acceptance at the Royal Ballet school.
Eventually Dad finds out what's been going on, but proves sensible and loving enough to go along with idea, even accompanying Billy to London for his audition. Needless to say in this feel good movie, Billy is accepted and moves to London to train. This story has every opportunity to be pulled down into a swamp of sentimentality but miraculously that doesn't happen. It's terrific! The main reason is Bell, who is the consummate 14 year old, by turns bold or shy, inarticulate or poetic, awkward or graceful. His physicality is astonishing, from finding the right facial expression at the right moment to his dancing; the kid can boogie! It also helps that the union strife and the scorn which Billy's dancing provokes in Dad and brother are not prolonged or overly done, which would have made for a relentless sort of tedium. Instead the focus nearly always stays on Bell, and Bell delivers big time. Grade: B+ (11/00)
BIRD (Clint Eastwood, US, 1988). THEMES: ALCOHOLISM AND HEROIN ADDICTION BRING DOWN AN ENORMOUS JAZZ TALENT With equal measures of devotion and realism, Clint Eastwood produced this biopic of the sad, chaotic, voracious life of Charlie “Bird” Parker, the best alto saxophone player and one of most brilliant improvisers in jazz history. The film opens with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prophetic, self justifying line, penned shortly before he died, “There are no second acts in American lives.” What nonsense. America, of all places, was built on the premise of opportunity for reinvention. Many Americans have second acts and more if they live long enough (Jimmy Carter springs to mind, and how about Eastwood himself?). But it’s surely true that there isn’t time for a second act if you die young. And there’s nothing like severe alcoholism to beckon death. Fitzgerald was dead by 44, and Charlie Parker by 34, both from the consequences of alcohol dependence.
Bird’s story is one of towering appetites, not only for booze and music, but also for food, and women, and heroin, to which he was addicted for his entire adult life. Crippled by his excesses, and resulting depression, cirrhosis, bleeding peptic ulcers and a bad heart, Parker’s extraordinary talent - like Fitzgerald’s - soared like a meteor through the skies, visible to all, only to fade and die, far too soon. When he was 16, Eastwood, who is also a musician, composer (he just wrote the score for Mystic River) and jazz aficionado, saw Bird perform in Oakland, in 1946, at his best. Nine years later, by the time Eastwood was getting his first bit parts in the movies, Bird was dead. This film tells the story.
This is a complex and difficult film to watch. I must confess that I experience a certain unavoidable sense of tedium watching films about junkies. “Junkie narratives” are sufficiently stereotypical that to some degree I've come to dread watching them unfold. Sometimes it’s because junkies, like clams, lay around so much and accomplish so little of value (Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting, High Art, and Requiem for a Dream all come to mind). That wasn’t true of Bird, but like most addicts he does lay waste to life, creating oceans of pain for himself and others in the process. And you know from the getgo that all his junkie stuff will be coming at you.
Forest Whitaker was a rising young talent when Eastwood gave him this chance to carry a film for the first time. Whitaker maintains a melancholy sweetness that apparently mirrors Bird’s true temperament. His greatest love, Chan Richardson (she became Chan Parker after they got together, though they never married), said Bird was the strongest man she ever knew, and Whitaker conveys this too, as much through his football player’s body as otherwise. He also very ably enacts states of intoxication, withdrawal and sickness, Parker’s most steady companions. A pleasant surprise is the acting of Diane Venora as Chan. She is so multifaceted: by turns arresting and tender, tough and longsuffering. She cherishes Bird’s talent and is far more protective of it than Parker himself ever was. Why hasn’t Venora starred in films more often? The real Chan Parker was an important collaborator in making this film. Despite fine acting by the two principals and several others, this isn’t a top notch film: it’s too long, too choppy, sometimes too confusing. But in other ways, especially for music lovers, this film succeeds where others about musicians often fail: in both sound and visuals it gets the music right. Grade: B (A for jazz lovers) (01/04)
BIRDY (Alan Parker, US, 1984). THEME: CHRONIC SCHIZOPHRENIA FOLLOWING MILITARY COMBAT. It is well known that the rigors of military duty – not only combat but even the stresses of basic training in peacetime – can serve as a trigger for onset of schizophrenia in predisposed persons. That is probably the best way to understand what has become of the central character in this poignant story. “Birdy” (Matthew Modine) was always a strange kid, socially awkward, obsessed with birds, even to a degree identifying himself as a bird, wanting to fly, and so on. He and his quite normal best friend Al (Nicholas Cage) eventually go off to battle in Vietnam, where both are damaged – Al physically, Birdy mentally. He becomes catatonic, is hospitalized in an Army unit, ultimately becomes a backward patient in a state hospital. Modine defines his mentally ill character with grim realism. Some may wonder if his state is an example of chronic PTSD. The effects of combat stress at first, on the battlefield, may have operated much as is the case for acute PTSD. But Birdy has crossed the line from longstanding PTSD symptoms into chronic psychosis. Most authorities would agree that he was predisposed to schizophrenia, as shown by his premorbid eccentricity. Grade: B+ (1994)
BLACK AND WHITE (James Toback, US, 2000). THEME: RACE: THE BLACK/WHITE DIVIDE: MUTUAL ATTRACTION. This film explores the mutual attractions between young New York City black hip hop musicians and the white upper middle class kids who idolize them. The film is a mess in many ways, like a Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson multi-charactered, multi-storied, too-full film gone wild. There are things here that are unnecessary and distracting. Why, for example, include a character like Terry (Robert Downey Jr.), who plays the husband of documentary filmmaker Sam (Brooke Shields), but who is nonetheless screamingly gay, hitting indiscriminately on every guy he sees? But put those problems aside. For also at work here is a compelling story of an important social phenomenon... hero worship by well off white kids of black rappers and their culture, and the corresponding interest in these kids and the culture of white moneyed upscale life which at least some of the blacks perceive as a desirable alternative, or at least a ticket out of the ghetto.
Ben Stiller, as an undercover police detective, delivers one of his better roles here. Bijou Phillips is excellent as Charlie, a young white girl, a sort of ringleader of the groupies who buzz around the rappers. Same for Willam Lee scott as Will, son of the NYC district attorney, who will do anything to gain the adulation of the rappers. Most of the leading black players are hip hop musicians, not actors. Oli (Power) Grant - producer for the rap group Wu-Tang Clan - is Rich Bower, gangster leader of the black contingent. Raexwon of Wu-Tang Clan is Cigar, his chubby buddy who constantly composes rap lyrics. New York Knicks star guard Allan Houston plays Dean, a corruptible local basketball hero. Mike Tyson (yes, the graceless boxer) plays himself, and actually adds an interesting dimension to several scenes. Toback did not script dialogue for the black actors, merely suggested situations and let them talk naturally. (Nor did he tell Tyson ahead that he would direct Downey to come on to him, so that Tyson's sudden violent reaction was as spontaneous as it was dangerous...a very reckless move by Toback). The photography (by David Ferrara) is stunning...the camera moves forward into every scene and is rarely stationary...it gives the entire film a sense of constant restless flow. The rapper sound track is fabulous. Definitely an important, if messy, film. Grade: B (10/00)
THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS (Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Ang) (Auraeus Solito, Philippines, 2005, 100 m.). THEME: ADVENTURES OF A TRANSGENDER BOY. A touching, delightful film, its story centering around Maxi (Nathan Lopez), a beguiling 12 year old boy who wants to be a girl (and feels he already is one), and his various flirtations, including an unlikely one with a rookie cop on the neighborhood beat. Maxi’s Dad and two older brothers are criminal lowlifes capable of very bad deeds, including murder, but they are entirely devoted to Maxi, who cooks and keeps house for them (Mom had died a few years before). The feeling is mutual: as Maxi says, there may be a lot of crooked people around, but he’s only got one Dad.
The film is chock full of arresting street scenes in metropolitan Manila, and intriguing tensions among the principals. It is most refreshing to see loving, tender feelings binding a marginal family together, rather than the usual melodramatic dysphoria that infects, but does not adequately inform, many movies about the underclass. Blossoming is an exotic, spellbinding, rich bouquet of a film. It won several awards at the Berlin and Cinemalaya Film Festivals, among others, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Award this year at Sundance. (In Filipino, Tagalog & English) Grade: A- (11/06)
BLOW (Ted Demme, US, 2001). THEME: HISTORY OF 1970s COCAINE CONNECTION BETWEEN PABLO ESCOBAR’S COLOMBIAN SOURCES AND THE U.S. Biopic about the life and times of George Jung, who established the first American distribution network for Colombian cocaine, in the 1970s. Ultimately he was convicted and incarcerated in a federal prison, where he remains today. The screenplay is based on a book about Jung and his activities by Bruce Porter. Johnny Depp stars as Jung, with Spanish actress Penelope Cruz and German actress Franka Potente as his love interests. Unfortunately, from a dramatic point of view, the movie is utterly lifeless and boring, a drudge to sit through. But you will get at least one version of the true story. It’s a terrible irony that the director, the nephew of filmmaker Jonathan Demme, died at age 39 just a few months after this film (his first) opened, of an accidental coronary thrombosis induced by cocaine. Grades: drama C-; authentic story: B+ (11/04)
BLUE DINER (Jan Egleson, US, 2000). THEMES: CONVERSION DISORDER. Curious story about Latinos set in present day Boston. Elena (Lisa Vidal), a young woman who sells mortuary services and caskets to other Latinos, is pursued by Tito (Jose Yenque), a Cuban coffin maker, but she prefers the Anglo son of the mortuary owner. So does her mother, Meche (Miriam Colon), who came from Puerto Rico years earlier hoping to make a better life here for her daughter. She is self sacrifice incarnate. Tito is a dreamer who fancies himself an artist. He offers adoration and poverty, while the mortuary heir offers stability and upward mobility.
Along the way Elena suffers what is presented to be a small stroke affecting the speech area of her brain, so she can no longer speak or understand Spanish, her first language. Except under conditions of emotional provocation, when she briefly has full return of her fluent Spanish. If that all sounds more like hysteria than a stroke, you’re right. Organic lesions of the brain that affect language tend to impair more recently acquired, secondary languages more than the primary language. And language mastery does not switch on and off like the lights.
This corruption of fact bothered me far more than it might a lay person. In any event, this neuropsychiatric misadventure serves to trip up Elena’s resolve about many issues and certainly alters her POV about her love life. What saves this film from being a simple soap are the main players: the energetic Ms. Vidal in the lead role, Yenque, who captivates as Tito, William Marquez as Pepo, owner of the eponymous diner, and Ms. Colon as Elena’s mother. They are warm, genuine, “real” people. (In Spanish & English) Grade: B- (09/03)
BLUE SKY (Tony Richardson, US, 1994). THEME: "CLUSTER B" (BORDERLINE) PERSONALITY DISORDER. There is a certain female role featuring a lifelong pattern of extreme emotional instability that has been done to perfection by several fine actresses over the years. The role most strongly suggests what in the psychiatric trade we refer to as a “Cluster B” personality disorder: one that displays a mixture of remarkable self centeredness and self absorbtion, volatile mood swings, emotional overreaction to life’s hassles, outrageous and dramatic behavior, promiscuity or at least seductiveness, and dependency. Often such women (it is uncommon for men to show this pattern) are labeled as having a “borderline” personality, an odd and unfortunate term derived from various clinical observations that their behavior sometimes can border on normal (periods when the person appears entirely free of psychopathology) or, in some cases, even border on psychosis now and then (during brief psychotic episodes in response to stress). The British term for this disorder, "emotionally unstable personality," seems more apt. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between this personality disorder and bipolar mood disorder, or the effects of substance abuse. To complicate things even more, all three can coexist in the same individual.
Gena Rowlands played such a role convincingly in John Cassavetes’s 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence, and Valeria Golino gave a turn quite as powerful as Rowlands’s in the recent Italian film, Respiro. In both of these performances, it is easy to view the emotional ups and downs these women suffer as episodes in a highly unstable bipolar disorder, rather than a personality disorder: but either diagnosis is a possibility. Here, in Blue Sky, a film set in the 1950s, Jessica Lange gives a splendid performance that unequivocally portrays a woman with a severe personality disorder of the sort I have described. Lange is Carly Marshall, wife of an Army major, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), who specializes in monitoring the radiation hazards at nuclear bomb test sites. His assignment in Hawaii ends when Carly’s escapades embarrass the top brass at the base once too often. It isn’t the first time this has happened. Nor the last. At their new post in Alabama, Carly flies into a rage right away at the squalor of the place. Later she flies into the arms of the sleaze ball base commander (Powers Boothe), scandalizing everybody in sight, including the her two teen daughters. Hank’s career, not to mention the Marshall marriage, is threatened when he refuses to join in a coverup of radiation exposure during a bomb test in the Nevada desert. Things get pretty far fetched near the end, but love appears, tentatively if improbably, to prevail.
This was the final film directed by Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and clearly not among his best films. But the lead roles are fine. Jones is entirely believable as the steady, longsuffering Hank, and Amy Locane is also good as the couple's peacenik older daughter, Alex. Boothe plays the base commander with hamhanded melodrama that doesn’t wash at all: he should have left the overacting to Lange, who does it so brilliantly. One wonders to what extend these actresses – Rowlands, Lange, Golino – are playing themselves in these complex and ever so convincing turns. Grades: Story: C+; lead portrayals: A- (06/04)
BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, US, 1986). THEMES: ANGST, PARANOIA AND CRIME BELOW THE SURFACE OF AN ORDINARY SMALL TOWN; SEXUAL SADOMASOCHISM. Vintage David Lynch: a film that is stylized, enigmatic, filled with grotesqueries and hints of deep, dark - if not supernatural - forces at work in motivating people’s behavior. Jeff (Kyle MacLachlan), a kindly young man, returns to his hometown to help out after his father is hospitalized, having broken his neck in a quirky home accident when he trips over a garden hose. Walking home through a field, Jeff finds a severed human ear and takes it to a police detective who is a family neighbor. But Jeff is a victim of his own curiosity and cannot resist trying to solve the mystery of this ear on his own, or at least only with the help of Sandy (Laura Dern), the detective’s daughter, also an innocent. Jeff’s sleuthing leads him into a labyrinthine adventure in which he discovers a sordid, frightening underworld churning beneath the surface of his town, full of odd people and happenings he would never have imagined.
There is Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), who sings torch songs at a local tavern. The ear may belong to her husband, who seems to have disappeared along with their young son. Dorothy is a desperate woman who clings to Jeff like a security blanket. She also likes her sex rough and is able to provoke Jeff to belt her once or twice in the face as they make love. Jeff is horrified at his own aggressive behavior. Then there’s Frank (Dennis Hopper), a truly nasty criminal psychopath, who may have kidnapped Dorothy’s family and demands kinky sex with her himself, aided by some drug he inhales via a medical mask. Frank and his gang appear to be mixed up in some major drug dealing, and one of their conspirators turns out to be the partner of the detective Jeff has confided in. Things get more and more dicey all around, and Jeff’s life is very much in danger until matters are finally resolved with all of the good guys intact. This is strange stuff, but it does powerfully induce in the viewer an unsettling sense of fear and suspicion. And Lynch seems to be saying that there are dark forces deep within all of us that can rise to the surface when the right circumstances prevail. Grade: B (01/05)
BLUEBIRD (Mijke de Jong, Netherlands, 2004, 77 min.). THEMES: ADOLESCENT COMING OF AGE; BULLYING. A few minutes into this delightful film, my partner whispered, “Merel doesn’t waste a second.” That’s right, she doesn’t, and neither does this outstandingly well crafted coming-of-age film about a precocious and ambitious 12 year old girl living in Rotterdam. Merel (young Elske Rotteveel, performing one of the top turns by an actress in this festival) would be quick to correct my last statement, pointing out that she is in fact 12 ½ years old, not 12. Merel zooms on her skateboard to barely catch the morning train, reads Roald Dahl on the trip to school, aces the oral discussions in her classes, dashes off after school to fetch her kid brother Kasper and wheel him home (he’s a Thalidomide child without hands or forearms, unable to walk), then on to her high diving lesson at the swim club, or to the next rehearsal for the musical “Turandot” that she’s in, then homework and snuggling up with Dad to watch TV for a minute, but only after she has bathed Kasper and lovingly acted out a story using little figurines to entertain him.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, Merel doesn’t appear to have a single peer friend. For another, she seems more than a little pushy in asserting her mastery of everything she attempts. When the lead singer in “Turandot” rehearses a solo, Merel - who naturally has memorized the lead part in addition to her own choruses - sings along and must be shushed by the drama coach. In class she’s quick to signal that she knows the answers and she’s always right, always.
She doesn’t act the snob or smarty pants: far from it. Her manner is entirely natural and unassuming. In fact she exudes a wondrous confidence and charm; she’s tender and loving toward her family. She is just so damnably competent that she’s irrepressible. And she’s so busy, her life is so full, that she hasn’t yet felt lonely, felt the need for friends. Her mindless diffidence and superior achievements begin to cost her big time with the other kids at school, as she becomes the target of escalating teases and worse. The story hurtles along toward the climax and resolution of her social dilemma, reaching a conclusion that is fitting and believable. Splendid supporting turns are contributed by Kees Scholten as Kasper, and by a male actor named Anne Buurma, who befriends Merel on the train and nicknames her "Bluebird." Don’t for a second be put off by the fact that this little gem was made for TV. You won’t see a better C-o-A story for some time to come. This movie should be required viewing in every middle school in America. (In Dutch, English & French) Grade: A- (02/06)
BOILER ROOM (Ben Younger, US, 2000). THEMES: CORRUPTION IN STOCK SALES SCAM; FATHER-SON RELATIONSHIP. A sleeper. Entirely unheralded, this fierce and absorbing drama is about life surrounding an illegal scam stock brokerage operating out of an office building in Long Island City, an hour from Wall Street. What we have is Glengarry Glen Ross with gallons of testosterone and a battalion of lying young con men set to a hot and booming rapper sound track. The owner of the scam operation, the oldest guy at the firm at about age 30, floats phony IPOs, hyped over the phone by maverick kids dying to make their first million. The shares they sell are actually the ones owned by the boss and a few of his rich friends, whose money supports the stock price until the suckers being hustled on the phone buy enough of the shares to reap a big profit for the firm. Then the firm dumps its shares, pockets the profits except for enough to fuel the next scam, and the suckers take the loss when the stock price crashes. The firm pays the sales force commissions five times what the SEC allows, to assure a feeding frenzy of high pressure telesales efforts by the staff, using every unscrupulous tactic in the book. The SEC on site agent is in on the take.
Seth, a smart but shady young man who has been running an illegal casino (Giovanni Ribisi, a small Christopher Walken look alike) is desperate to gain the favor of his father, a NYC judge (Ron Rifkin), and thinks he's entering a legitimate brokerage when he signs on at the firm as a trainee. Seth is trained by Jim, the sales manager (Ben Affleck) and two red-hot senior brokers, Chris, who has some scruples (Vin Diesel, a shaven headed, gravel voiced fellow) and Greg, who has none (Nicky Katt, a suavely handsome dude). Seth does very well at the game but gradually figures out the illegal nature of the operation. Things go seriously wrong from there. This is a gripping and convincing film, except for an overly maudlin subplot involving a young couple who's marriage comes apart as a result of the husband's bad investments, after Seth cons him bigtime. Another subplot about the conflicted relationship between Seth and his father is marvelous. The principal actors - including Seth's love interest, Abby, the firm's receptionist (Nia Long) - are all uniformly excellent. Grade: B+ (01/01)
BOOGIE NIGHTS (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997). THEMES: THE WORLD OF THE L.A. PORN INDUSTRY; COCAINE ADDICTION. Burt Reynolds (Jack Horner) and Julianne Moore (Amber Waves) star as a porn film director and his wife and female porn star, in this movie-wthin-a-movie structure. Young Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) comes along, so to speak, with an organ of remarkable proportions, and Amber digs it. Horner, never one to sacrifice the opportunity for heightened income even at the modest expense of watching his wife screw young men, puts Eddie to work. But then Eddie, like so many others in the porn trade in the late 1970s and 80s, succumbs to a major league cocaine habit, with deleterious impact on his, er, performances. Brilliantly crafted film about a billion dollar entertainment business. With Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, and John C. Reilly lending fine support. Grade: B+ (10/97)
BOWFINGER (Frank Oz, US, 1999). THEME: PAYBACK FOR ANTIPSYCHIATRY: A SENDUP OF SCIENTOLOGY. Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a seedy, down-and-out, low budget filmmaker who will pull anything to succeed. The story concerns his attempt to make an action film starring the hot box office superstar, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). One small problem: Ramsey would never consent to working with the likes of Bowfinger. Not to worry, Bowfinger arranges to shoot all of Ramsey's scenes by having his camera hidden and his other actors poised to bump into Ramsey during the latter's normal activities. Ramsey doesn't realize he is being used in the film. The whole wonderfully silly mess is a fine send-up of clichéd Holloywood antics. Murphy shows his best stuff acting two distinctive roles as Ramsey and as his underachieving brother, Jif. Written fiendishly by Martin. With Heather Graham and Christine Baranski as the female leads, and cameos by Robert Downey, Jr., as an agent, and Terence Stamp as head of "Mind Head," a spoof of Scientology, where the members all wear paper dunce caps. Grade: B+ (05/00)
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (Michael Moore, US, 2002). THEMES: ADOLESCENT SPREE SHOOTING AT COLUMBINE HIGH; GUN CONTROL ISSUES. Since watching Michael Moore run Nike Chieftain Phil Knight to ground in his second feature-length film, The Big One, and reading his more recent book, “Stupid White Men,” I have been wondering whether Moore will always be content to carry on principally as an entertainer - a performance artist – whose shtick happens to be the superficial survey of social issues. Both of these works are way too lopsided in featuring comedian Moore at the center of things. In Big One, as in his earlier Roger and Me, Moore is the star: a swaggering, disheveled, baseball cap wearing Everyman from the American heartland, an idealistic mussed up 12 year old who got a lot bigger even if he didn’t exactly grow up, a large and quite humorous enfant terrible avec camera crew who delights in embarrassing corporate officials, or more often their PR underlings, on surprise visits to confront their sins against society in general and their workers in particular. He shoots in more directions in “Stupid White Men,” especially at George W. Bush and other politicians, but the middle third of that work sags badly as he shifts attention almost exclusively to his ample self. Will he ever elevate his game to create more penetrating documentary journalism? Does he have the skills? Is he convinced he can reach more people and get them thinking using his usual methods?
I must tell you that Bowling provides no easy answers to these questions. Here Moore uses the killing of several students at Columbine High School in the Denver suburb of Littleton by two of their schoolmates as a pretext for surveying the extraordinarily high rate of gun-related killings in the United States. Once again Moore is the central character, meandering about with his camera crew and others. He walks into K-Mart HQ and shames management into making a major policy shift: no longer will they sell ammunition for handguns and automatic weapons in their stores (K-Mart sold the ammo used by the student killers at Columbine).
Wherever he goes in this film – from K-Mart to Charlton Heston’s Beverly Hills home for some NRA talk (Moore is a lifetime member) – Moore is more polite this time around, and his trademark dramatic encounters with bigshots are largely replaced by more conventional interviewing of more ordinary folks (though I think his drop in on Heston had sort of a cheap shot quality). He disposes of a number of theories to account for our huge annual gun killing numbers, but he is terribly facile in this process. Example: he points out (correctly) that Canadian gun ownership is at least as high as in the U.S., but there were only 39 deaths by firearms there versus over 11,000 here. He raises the question about racial diversity as a factor, then hastily adds that the proportion of blacks and others of color in Canada is about the same as in America. Then he moves rapidly on, without considering that the immigrant black population of Jamaicans in Toronto hardly compares with the descendents of southern black slaves in the U.S.
Aided by a sobering interview with the Sheriff of Flint, Michigan, Moore exposes the problems created when a welfare-to-work single mom must commute by bus 2 ½ hours a day to work 70 hours/week at two minimum wage jobs 40 miles from home, and still can’t make rent. Evicted, she takes her 6 year old son to stay temporarily with an uncle who keeps a handgun on his coffee table. The boy takes the gun to school one morning and kills a classmate. This story, like the Canadian one, could have been pursued, but in these and other instances, Moore is content with a superficial nod in lieu of deeper investigation. He interviews virtually no one who can comment about the boys who perpetrated the Columbine killings (he repeatedly shows one young Littleton man wearing a Yankees pinstripe shirt while shooting pool in a tavern who didn’t know the killers and in fact has nothing of any substance to say about anything).
Moore does touch on one theme that struck me as very thoughtful if not original: the special sense of fear that seems to hound so many Americans. He shows an animated sequence suggesting that we have had a culture of fear from our earliest beginnings, and that slavery, i.e., the fear of black slave uprisings, has fed this fear for centuries, even now accounting for the tendency of whites to demonize blacks as dangerous. Members of a gun club in Michigan emphasize the need to protect their families. The media emphasize killings even as the homicide rates have fallen dramatically in recent years (“if it bleeds, it leads” being the rule of thumb for the TV evening news). Moore also demonstrates how public fear has been manipulated by the Bush Administration since 9/11. This is the best stuff in the movie. One wishes that Moore had honed in more on public fear and its manipulation, rather than skipping around among so many different issues.
Whatever merit there is in asserting that our gun culture is conducive to shooting sprees like Columbine, it can hardly be the whole answer. See Gus Van Sant’s lyrical, surreal film, Elephant, for an entirely different, less judgmental, less cocksure appraisal of Columbine, one that focuses on the kids, teachers and parents more.
I am shocked that apparently an outfit called the International Documentary Association has given this film an award as the “Best Documentary of All Time.” Good grief! What a slap in the face to people like Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, Marcel Ophuls, or such a towering individual work as Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski’s 1997 look at the Jews of the Lodz ghetto, The Photographer. Bowling is a second rate, somewhat sloppy, largely superficial work. Like all of Moore’s work, it contains some interesting ideas and it is entertaining. But it is no more than a 112 minute-long trigger film (no pun intended: trigger films are usually provocative little 5-10 minute movies shown beforehand to stimulate a group discussion). Is this all the intelligent examination of a critical social issue that the average American theater-going audience can stand? Poor us. Grade: B (01/03)
BOYS DON’T CRY (Kimberly Peirce, US, 1999). THEME: STRUGGLES FOR A PERSON WITH TRANSSEXUAL GENDER IDENTITY. Hilary Swank is by turns luminous, heroic, vulnerable, tragic and tender, as Brandon Teena, a young transsexual woman striving to pass as a man in, of all places, rural Nebraska. Her main love is Lana (Chloe Sevigny), who is perfect as an average 18 year old American girl in the early 90s. All the other supporting players are good in this dramatization of an actual hate crime story. Grade: B+ (01/00)
BOYS ON THE SIDE (Herbert Ross, US, 1995). THEME: WOMEN'S ISSUES; LESBIAN ISSUES; AIDS. Here's a "girlflick" with gender crossover appeal, simply because it's good: well acted, funny, believable. Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore hit the road together, trying to escape the drudgery and dead end circumstances of their lives in the east by beating it across the country to Tucson, Arizona. Whoopi is a worldly wise lesbian musician out of love and work. Her buddy Drew is a dingbat blonde who cast her lot with an abusive druggy and now wants out. They meet up with Parker, a thin, pasty skinned waif who turns out to be dying of AIDS. The film follows their adventures and the bonds that grow to link them as friends. All three principals are wonderful, especially Parker. First sign of acting ability I've seen out of Barrymore. Girlmusic sound track includes songs by Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, Sarah McLauchlan, and others. Grade: B (11/01)
BRAINDAMADJ’D…TAKE II (Paul Nadler, Canada, 2005, 52 m.). THEME: REHAB FROM TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY; ORGANIC AMNESTIC DISORDER. Ten years ago, Montrealer Paul Nadler was a world traveler and bon vivant who enjoyed extreme sports, attractive women, and a fast-paced career as a music video creator for Quebec’s MusiquePlus. Then one day he was found comatose beside a road in Egypt, left for dead after a beating or auto accident. In hospital he was given a 5% chance of survival, and deemed unlikely to ever recover from his T.B.I. - Traumatic Brain Injury. He was only 30. Seven weeks after the accident, Paul awoke from his coma - the first in a series of acts of defiance against doctors and therapists who said he'd never again see, talk, walk, socialize or lead anything resembling a normal life. In fact his family were advised to basically pull the plug and let him die.
Instead he has persevered, working with astonishing intensity and steadfastness to regain functions. He is left with a gait disturbance, serious memory impairment and other cognitive deficits that compromise his ability to sustain a social life. He’s lonely. But he has had sufficient genius to get this film of his ordeal made. The film is a revelation of the now better understood capacity of neural tissue to heal and, to a degree, regenerate itself, as well as a testament to the rewards of long, hard efforts in rehabilitation and the immense importance of social supports, in Nadler’s case, especially his mother’s faith in him. Nadler’s film debuted on Canadian TV (CBC) in March, 2006, and is making the festival rounds. Grade: B (05/06)
BREAD AND TULIPS (Silvio Soldini, Italy, 2001). THEME: MID-LIFE CRISIS: THE SEARCH FOR NEW LIFE & NEW LOVE. A laid back screwball comedy. Rosalba, a middle class, middle aged woman, gets separated from her family on a vacation bus tour and impulsively hitchhikes to Venice where she starts a new life. Licia Maglietta is delicious in the central role, and Bruno Ganz is gallant as Fernando, the fellow who sweeps her off her feet in Venice. (In Italian) Grade: B+ (01/01)
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (Neil Jordan, Ireland/UK, 2005, 135 m). THEME: TRANSGENDER PROTAGONIST. This spellbinding, tightly written, tightly wound, full speed ahead film is Neil Jordan’s best work by far since his 1992 hit, The Crying Game. And, interestingly, in this new film, Jordan returns to exactly the same intertwined themes that marked Crying Game: the armed struggle of Northern Irish Catholics against the British Crown and gender bending. Unlike the last minute revelations in Crying Game, however, here the protagonist’s transsexuality is placed front and center from the getgo.
Cillian Murphy gives a bravura performance as Patrick “Kitten” Braden, in a story set in the 60s and 70s. Murphy oozes sensual vitality and is a world class flirt, but he’s also genuinely kind and compassionate toward everybody. The story is divided into 35 brief, fast paced “chapters” following Kitten’s life over several years, first in a village near Belfast, later in London. The musical score, which is extraordinarily good, is an eclectic mix of everything from 40s pop tunes to Harry Nilsson and Van Morrison. Good supporting turns are provided by Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, Stephen Rea, Gavin Friday and Brendan Gleeson. My top rated narrative drama of 2005: grade A. (01/06)
BREAKING AWAY (Peter Yates, US, 1979). THEMES: COMING OF AGE; INTERGENERATIONAL (FATHER-SON) CONFLICT. A film set in the heartland, in Bloomington, Indiana, about rivalries between young "townies" and U. of Indiana students. It's also a coming of age story that turns around the tensions between a father and son. Dennis Christopher is quite winsome as David Stoller, a skinny young townie (they call them cutters here, in deference to the traditional blue collar work of stone cutting at the local quarries) who is a bike racing fanatic and longs to be as good as the world's leading cyclists, who are Italian. To that end he plays Italian opera records and tries to master the language. He hangs with his cutter buddies, all of whom are interesting (Dennis Quaid in one of his earliest roles, Daniel Stern as the affable, charming Cyril, and Jackie Earle Haley). One thing leads to another and we end up with the inevitable big race in which David tries to beat the bad kids and win the affections of his skeptical dad. It's pretty quirky stuff, reminiscent of coming of age films from Europe or Japan. With Paul Dooley as the difficult clueless father and Barbara Barrie as the more compassionate mother. Grade: B- (10/02)
BREAKING THE WAVES (Lars Von Trier, Denmark/others, 1996). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; IMPACT OF PHYSICAL DISABILITY ON MARRIAGE; SEXUAL ABUSE OF WOMAN. Subtitle: Watch out what you wish for; you may get it. The law of unintended consequences operates in Emily Watson’s feature film acting debut here, which is a stunner, as the longsuffering Bess McNeill, a villager in remote Scotland who falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a Danish North Sea oil rigger. When Jan goes off for a long tour on the rig, Bess prays that somehow he will return permanently. He
does, with a broken neck sustained in a rough storm at sea and a
quadriplegic body. Sex is now impossible, but Jan cajoles Bess into
taking lovers and reporting all the intimate details to him. She goes
on with this, deeply reluctant at first, later with more gusto after
she seizes upon the rationale that God must have this as a plan to
rehab her beloved Jan. Von Trier likes stories in which his heroines
are debased (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville). Grade: B (01/97)
THE BRIDGE (Eric Steel, UK/US, 2006, 93 min.). THEMES: SUICIDE; IMPACT OF SUICIDE ON LOVED ONES; ETHICS OF PHOTOJOURNALISM. The Bridge is the first documentary, to my knowledge, that films suicidal acts as they are occurring, in this case leaps from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge (GGB). Suicides from GGB leaps average 23 per year; 98% of leaps are fatal; and, popular beliefs to the contrary, 87% of those who jump are locals).The film’s director, Eric Steel, set up cameras with powerful zoom lenses on the ground at both ends of the bridge, and filmed every day during daylight hours for a year (calendar year 2004), focusing on “suspicious” individuals, persons the film crew suspected might be potential jumpers. Among the cues they used were: persons walking alone, a “hunched over” posture, listless or agitated behavior, or, when faces could be discerned, a “depressed expression.”
Of the 24 completed suicides that year (18 were men), most were captured on film while jumping, and footage of over half is shown in the movie. Witnesses are interviewed, as are surviving family members and friends, the latter painfully conveying their anguish, their varying efforts to cope with their loss and reconcile the event. They tell their own stories and those of their deceased loved ones, stories of struggles with depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse or losses. These accounts are in every instance poignant, compelling and highly instructive.
Several persons who completed suicides are introduced by name. Footage of them in the minutes before, and during, their jumps is interspersed with clips from interviews with loved ones. We see one such person, Gene Sprague, restlessly pacing along the bridge rail, often running his hands through his long, windblown black hair (he’s dressed entirely in black). Brief cuts of him are shown throughout the film, until his eventual leap near the end. We can’t be sure how long an elapsed interval (minutes? hours?) these cuts represent, or even if they were all filmed on one occasion. We do learn from loved ones that Sprague had been suicidal for years.
Oddly intercut with the suicide-related material are many, often long and breathtakingly beautiful, views of the GGB, from close and far away locations, of surfers and kitesurfers at play below the bridge, sailboats and larger ships moving under the bridge, sometimes in accelerated motion, seagulls flying, seals surfacing, fog rushing in and out of the bay, bridge maintenance men at work, close ups of tower structural details.
What is Steel up to? Is he attempting to create a trope for irony and tragedy: the bridge as grand, sublime architecture set against the grotesquery of the suicidal leaps? (One of our psychiatry residents coined the term ‘pornography of suicide’ to convey the impact of these graphic events.) To give the viewer respite from the horrors portrayed here? To suggest the possibly romantic allure of the bridge as a place for dying? (A grieving girlfriend of a man who jumped speaks of the ‘false romantic promise’ of the bridge, a promise that lasted ‘maybe two minutes and gained him no benefit.’)
The filming crew for Bridge consisted of Steel and 5 or more young amateurs recruited from ads on Craigslist. None had a background in mental health or filmmaking. They were taught how to use the equipment and had a single, two-hour training session with a suicide prevention hotline counselor. Whenever a camera operator saw a person they felt might be at serious risk for a jump, they were to use a walkie-talkie to notify the California Highway Patrol (CHP) bridge patrol team. But it is unclear whether the more inclusive group of all suspicious persons were to be reported to the CHP, or a more narrowly defined group of persons behaving with more obvious intent to jump.
A question of timing is also raised in the account of the first suicide to occur during filming. A camera operator, Sarah, describes filming this man for nine minutes before contacting Eric Steel at the other end of the bridge; Steel then called the CHP. Two minutes after Sarah’s call to Steel, the man jumped to his death. If she was so concerned, why did she wait nine minutes? Once she was more certain of the likelihood of a jump, why did she not call the CHP herself? Is it too much to ask of a minimally trained, inexperienced person to know when to act in such circumstances? What obligations does such a project impose on the filmmaker? Was there an inherent ‘conflict of interest’ for the crew, i.e., whether to stay behind the camera and get the shot or set the camera aside to bring aid to the person in peril? These unsettling questions go unanswered in the film.
Ethical issues do not end here. Steel is reported to have applied for permits to shoot the film without disclosing his intent to feature suicidal jumps. It is questionable whether he would have received permission had he not been disingenuous about the project.
There is also the issue of potential copycat suicides by persons at risk who might be influenced by the film. In fact, according to one report, after the film was first screened in April, 2006, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and a few days later at the San Francisco International Film Festival, in the following month there were 11 suicidal leaps from the GGB – nearly half the number occurring in an average year – compared with just 3 suicides in the month before the screenings.
Finally, by choosing amateurs (probably the only sort Steel could attract and afford for this year-long project) without any background to prepare them for confronting the chilling events they would be recording, he also ran the risk of traumatizing his young crew. Indeed, in the “making of” film, each crew member is interviewed a year after the shoot, and several attest to both immediate and long term distressing memories and thoughts about what was for most (not all) an emotional ordeal. More than one speaks of his experiences as ‘unforgettable.’
While some civic leaders have deplored this film, others have praised it, including survivors of intended bridge jumps and a number of local psychiatrists, several of whom staff the psychiatric emergency unit at the San Francisco General Hospital, the city’s major receiving station for suicidal persons. One particular enthusiast is psychiatrist Mel Blaustein, M.D., who served as an adviser for this film and who heads a task force advocating a protective barrier for the GGB. Blaustein, according to Rosenfeld, says that the film has influenced the board that oversees the bridge to fund a barrier feasibility study.
There can be little doubt that this film has powerful educational and public interest value. The question is whether these ends justify the means of making it. Whatever qualms one may have about Eric Steel’s judgment, his sincerity seems beyond question. When this film screened at the American Film Institute/’Silverdocs’ Festival in Silver Springs, Maryland, in June, 2006, Steel was seen in the lobby passing out suicide prevention brochures. Grades: A for unusual content and instructional value; C for inattention to ethical and safety issues. (03/08)
Add: Information presented here on the technical aspects of the film, crew selection and responses, training, and other procedures is included in a 20 minute “making of the film” extra on the DVD of “Bridge” that is now available. Some other background information came from (Information presented here on the technical aspects of the film, crew selection and responses, training, and other procedures is included in a 20 minute “making of the film” extra on the DVD of “Bridge” that is now available.) Other information came from an article by Jordan Rosenfeld in the Marin County (Calif.) weekly, Pacific Sun, October 20, 2006.
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (Martin Scorsese, US, 1999). THEME: POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. Nasty slice-of-urban-life stuff from Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who adapted a novel by Joe Connelly. Nicholas Cage is Frank, a stressed-out New York City ambulance paramedic who is haunted by flashbacks of a woman he once treated but whose life he could not save. The film is full of lurid episodes involving dopers, alcoholics, victims and perpetrators of violence, the mentally ill, and accident victims. John Goodman (whose even worse stress symptoms lead him to quit), Ving Rhames (who drinks to steady himself, as Frank does) and Tom Sizemore (a sadistic fellow who likes to beat up folks they are dispatched to help) play various paramedic partners who team up with Frank. All offer riveting turns, and Patricia Arquette is also quite good as the daughter of a man Frank has brought to the hospital who keeps on having cardiac arrests. Grade: B (02/04)
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee, US, 2005, 134 min.). THEME: GAY LOVE RELATIONSHIP. Heath Ledger offers one of the finest performances in memory by an actor in an American film as Ennis Del Mar, one of the two star-crossed lovers in this tragic tale of homosexual longing and desire, set in the wilds of the Wyoming high country grasslands. Ennis is paired up with Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a third rate rodeo cowboy, when the two sign on as sheepherders in the summer of 1963.
Their erotic hunger for one another emerges almost immediately after they settle into their routine with the herd in the high country. From their bear cub-like foreplay scuffles, to tender scenes of their kisses and embraces, to the serious throes of their intercourse, the mutual attraction and consummation of lovemaking of this couple are believable to the core.
After this summer of love, the men go their separate ways. They each eventually marry, have children, settle down. Ennis stays in a tiny mountain town in Wyoming, barely scraping by as a ranch hand and cattle drive herder. Jack drifts to Texas, rodeoing, where he pairs up with the daughter of a prosperous small town farm machinery dealer, who grudgingly takes Jack in as the lead salesman. Jack and Ennis meet once a year for a tryst, when Jack drives north and the two go off together on “fishing trips” to the high country where they first had met and discovered one another.
What makes Ledger’s role so memorable (I kept thinking of his Ennis and visualizing him for days afterward) is not so much his lovemaking, good as it is, but rather the immense complexity of the character he plays. Gruff, rough, moody, surly. A simple but passionate man. At some moments, explosive as a powderkeg. Nearly mute at other times in his inability to express the power of his feelings. Visibly trapped - cornered even - in his poverty. Tender and caring as a father and, to the extent he can muster, as a dutiful husband. Ennis’s excitement, his joy of anticipation, is palpable when the moment of Jack’s annual visit nears.
Gyllenhaal’s role is less complex though acted well enough. His Jack is a more garrulous, forthcoming fellow, who wears his needs and his feelings on his sleeve. Unlike Ennis, whose forbearance is huge, Jack does not easily suppress his impulse for homoerotic contacts. He visits male prostitutes in a Mexican border town and begins to strike up what hints to become a relationship with another married man in his Texas hometown. Jack’s inability to stifle his impulses proves in the long run to be his undoing.
The screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana was adapted from a short story by E. Annie Proulx. Canada stands in for Wyoming for the location shots. The photography, by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Fibra óptica, Amores perros, Frida, 8 Mile, 21 Grams), is sometimes stunning, in particular the sheep herding scenes early on. Director Ang Lee masters yet another film genre here (Westerns) and evokes fine performances not only from his lead actors but several excellent supporting performers, including Randy Quaid, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Willliams, Kate Mara, Graham Beckel, Roberta Maxwell and Peter McRobbie.
This film deserves a proper place among tragic American love classics such as Bonnie and Clyde, Casablanca, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, A Place in the Sun, West Side Story and Wild at Heart. Grade: A- (12/05)
BROKEN FLOWERS (Jim Jarmusch, US/France, 2005, 105 m.). THEMES: NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER; CHRONIC DEPRESSION (DYSTHYMIA). David Foster Wallace, in his massive novel about contemporary culture, 'Infinite Jest,' says that "...the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool...maybe the vestiges of Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui." I can think of no more fitting a description for Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature. Broken Flowers, the Grand Prix (runner up) award winner at Cannes this year, is a colossal drag of a movie. It features Bill Murray, film’s reigning deadpanmeister, as Don Johnston, an empty shell of a man who, at middle age, has nothing to show for his wastrel life except an expensively furnished but perpetually darkened house and plenty of money accrued when he sold a successful software business several years earlier.
Johnston is a heartbreaker, a guy who has plowed his way through countless failed relationships, and we can surmise that a broad streak of personal narcissism is the likely reason. The film opens as his latest squeeze Sherry (Julie Delpy of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset fame) is leaving him for good. (As we get to know Johnston better, the question of what could possibly have attracted this lovely young woman to him in the first place becomes more deeply puzzling.) Then he receives an anonymous letter, purportedly composed by an old lover, announcing that his heretofore unknown 19 year old son by her is at large, roving the country in search of him.
Don shares this piece of news with his next door neighbor and good buddy Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a Net addict who also fancies himself a hotdog amateur sleuth. Winston is immediately enthused about determining the source of the letter. Johnston was diddling so many women 20 years ago that he can only narrow the list of suspects down to 5. (Winston refers to Johnston as Don Juan more than once, so that we will be sure not to miss the clever similarity of names and MOs.) Johnston wants no part of solving this mystery, but Winston locates the women via the Internet and sets him up with an itinerary, including reservations; Don apathetically acquiesces.
This sets up the quirky road movie structure that forms most of the film. In order, he visits Laura (Sharon Stone), the horny widow of a race car driver; Dora (Frances Conroy), who’s making serious money with her husband selling McMansions; Carmen (Jessica Lange), a lawyer turned upscale animal communicator for pet owners with deep pockets; and Penny (Tilda Swinton), the rough partner of an even rougher rural white trash biker. The fifth old flame had died some years earlier: in his only tender moment, Johnston visits her grave and leaves flowers. He returns home clueless about the source of the letter. A young man does come along whom Johnston thinks may well be his son, but then…well, enough said.
In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character evinced varying moods in an emotionally complicated context with sublime subtlety, displaying a mastery of slight but telling facial microgestures that was truly stunning. In his last film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray’s more two dimensional, purely satiric character was much less interesting. Jarmusch has capitalized even less in employing Murray’s talent. Don Johnston is so devoid of substance, so anergic, so charmless and lacking in emotional tone or expression of any sort, that one wonders at first if he is simply suffering from major depression, verging on catatonia. Yet Winston and his family treat Don as if he is his customary self. And Don has no real trouble negotiating the rigors of Winston’s trip itinerary, even rising to the occasion offered by Laura. So one can only conclude that this is your standard, baseline Don Johnston.
Jim Jarmusch last made a good film in 1999, Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai (his 2003 release, Coffee and Cigarettes, was a decidedly uneven film pieced together from short segments, some 20 years old). The best thing in Broken Flowers are the softly cynical slices-of-contemporary-Americana depicted by the women and settings Johnston visits. Though admittedly cliched, these episodes are amusing nonetheless, oases of small pleasure in this otherwise arid film (and all the actresses offer acceptable cameo turns). But the movie is so claustrophobically focused on long takes of the gesturally challenged - that is to say immobile - Murray facial landscape that at the end you feel like you’ve just finished bicycling across Nevada. A more apt title for this film would be “From Here to Taciturnity.” Grade: B- (08/05)
BROTHERS (Brødre) (Susanne Bier, Denmark, 2005, 110m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: SURVIVOR GUILT; PTSD; CHANGES IN FAMILY DYNAMICS RELATED TO WAR. Among all military combatants who suffer psychologically from war-related trauma, those who suffer worst are the ones who survive while their closest buddies died, and those who perpetrate gratuitous violence, acts such as torture, killings unrelated to armed engagement with the enemy, and other desperate acts of self preservation. Susanne Bier’s new film explores this theme in possibly the most poignant manner I have seen on the screen, and that’s not all. She also shows us the severe upheavals wrought within a family, when a loved one, a soldier - first thought to be dead in action but later discovered alive - returns home, forever changed by his experiences.
Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) leads a squad of Danish soldiers deployed to peacekeeping efforts in post-war Afghanistan, leaving behind his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen, whose beauty runs glowingly deep); two young daughters (played with astonishing realism by Sarah Juel Werner and Rebecca Løgstrup); his misfit kid brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), recently released from prison after robbing a bank and assaulting a female employee, causing her to suffer PTSD symptoms for years afterward; and his parents. Almost immediately, his squad is sent out by helicopter to rescue a lost soldier and is shot down, plummeting into a lake. All aboard are assumed to have died. The family are informed and become absorbed in terrible grief. A funeral is held. Time passes.
These circumstances have a transformative effect on Jannik, moved by the loss of his brother to change his ways, especially by offering aid and comfort to Sarah and his nieces. The relationship is honorably conducted, though Sarah and Jannik have passing moments marked by hugs, and just once by a kiss.
Meanwhile, we learn that Michael in fact was the lone survivor of the crash, and hardly scratched at that. He is seized by guerilla warriors and placed in a crude cell, where he discovers the lost soldier, also held captive. Time passes. Michael witnesses another captured soldier’s execution. And then one day he is confronted with the need to make a horrifying choice to save himself. Regarding the outcome of this colossal moral dilemma, I will only say here that when the camp is subsequently liberated by friendly forces, Michael is the only survivor to be rescued and returns home. He tells no one what happened during his captivity.
But Michael is a shaken, changed man. He is out of sorts: morose, irritable, unaffectionate, suspicious and jealous toward Jannik, who has obviously done so much to aid Sarah. Matters only worsen, until Michael smashes up the kitchen that Jannik had finished for Sarah and threatens to kill her and the girls one night in a drunken rage. For this plus menacing the police who respond, he is imprisoned. At the end, Sarah visits Michael and tells him she will never see him again unless he tells her what happened to him in Afghanistan. He curls up in her lap and begins to cry in the film’s final scene.
This film is rich in several ways. The role shifts between the brothers are carefully constructed and played out, blacksheep Jannik emerging as the considerate, reliable one, while Michael moves in precisely the opposite direction. The acting, especially the contributions of Ms. Nielsen and the two child actors. The photography emphasizes close-ups of the players, sometimes only an eye that nearly fills the screen, aiding one’s sense of the interiority of their feelings. Ironic tension is skillfully built up while Michael is in Afghanistan by alternating scenes of him with scenes of the grieving family back home. The occasional long shots – gorgeous Afghan sunsets behind distant mountains juxtaposed with shots of Michael in his grim cell; the oily water surface where his helicopter crashed - are powerful.
The theme of PTSD (for Michael and for the woman attacked by Jannik, whom we never see) and manifestations of Michael’s survivor guilt are depicted here with impeccable clinical validity. About the woman, we learn that she has had nightmares and insomnia for three years since the attack, and that she is constantly obsessed with fears that Jannik will return to kill her. Michael’s demeanor is excruciatingly similar to many Vietnam veterans, who could not discuss their war experiences, seemed alienated and unable to assimilate, drank too much or used drugs to numb their psychic pain, and all too often were seized with rage that broke apart their families.
Such circumstances created a significant source of recurring domestic violence in this country in the 1970s and 80s, when spouses kept coming back despite their war-traumatized husbands’ episodic violence toward them. In this film, Sarah does the right thing at the end by refusing to rejoin her husband until he can somehow sort out the effects of what he did in Afghanistan.
This film, like Bier’s 2002 film Open Hearts, another story of suffering and changed relationships in the wake of trauma, is gutwrenching, not a film for everyone, certainly, but one that any professional who works with trauma survivors should see. Grade: B (In Danish) (07/05)
BUDDY (Morten Tyldum, Norway, 2004). THEMES: PANIC DISORDER WITH AGORAPHOBIA; A RARE NON-SMOKING FILM!) This amusing guy flick features three 20-something apartment mates and tells their stories of friendship, love, exploitation and fame. Kristoffer is 24; he’s a billboard hanger by trade, a magnet for women, and a digvid junkie – filming every moment of his life with his pals. His best friend and co-worker Geir is a sweetly mopey fellow still burdened by guilt over abandoning his steady girl when she got pregnant years ago. They move in with Stig Inge, a gentle, overweight man who suffers from severe agoraphobia. He makes his living constructing websites at home, and hasn’t set foot outside his apartment house/shopping mall complex in over two years (he develops acute panic attacks with hyperventilation when he does). Kristoffer inadvertently leaves some videocassettes behind at a TV studio. They depict mundane events and cornball stunts around the apartment featuring the three roomies. A variety show host happens to look at them and invites Kristoffer to do a “reality TV” segment made up of such material - called “Kristoffer’s Video Diary” - on his weekly show.
The material is a hit, bringing a wave of celebrity, privacy violations and conflicts that engulf the three buddies and several of their women friends. Everyone seems to be on the outs with each other now. Success has spoiled everything. How will this quirky romantic comedy end? Can Kris possibly get the right girl instead of the wrong one? Will Geir ever bond with his estranged young son? Is Stig Inge doomed to eternal exile in his apartment complex or will he finally wise up and get some treatment? Despite the sitcom nature of this material, the players are sufficiently endearing to make the flick worth watching. Besides, this film deserves our support for being the only known instance of a film about younger adults in which NO ONE SMOKES CIGARETTES!! (In Norwegian) Grade: B- (overall film quality); B+ (Stig Inge's portrayal of panic/agoraphobia) (02/04)
BUFFALO 66 (Vincent Gallo, US, 1998) THEME: AN UNLOVED NEUROTIC YET ANTISOCIAL SON RETURNS HOME. Vincent Gallo is a dazzling presence as Billy, the extremely edgy prodigal son who, after release from prison, returns home to Buffalo for a dreaded reunion with his parents, who are not pleasant people. He picks up a young woman (Christina Ricci) along the way and talks her into pretending to be his wife, so he will have something positive to show these cynical people, his Mom (Anjelica Huston), a fanatical Buffalo Bills (professional football) fan, and Dad (Ben Gazzara), a former pop singer. The young woman’s devotion saves Billy from disaster. Grade: B+ (02/99)
THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING (Sherman Alexie, US, 2002). THEME: CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE AMONG THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS. The writer of Smoke Signals directs a film that more than fulfills his vision of a poetic statement about contemporary Native American experience, and the pull between cultures. By turns funny, sad, and full of fury, it is rough and tumble and not without flaws, but also an ironic, inventive, powerful slam performance. Grade: B+ (01/02)
THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS (Patrick Stettner, US, 2001). THEMES: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY; WOMEN'S ISSUES. Stockard Channing stars as a successful businesswoman who has crashed the glass ceiling to become CEO of her company through a lot of tough dealing and self sacrifice. Julia Stiles plays a flunky for the firm. Both women are stuck overnight in a strange town when their flight is cancelled. Stiles proves to be a very convincing sociopath with serious power issues and a belly full of hostility toward everyone. She pretty fiendishly manipulates Channing's character and a man they are also stuck with at the hotel. Stiles' character is chilling and expertly done. Channing is also powerful as a generally principled, decent woman who still manages to get caught up in the "hate men" machinations and spell cast by Stiles's hateful character. Grade: B (12/01)
THE BUTCHER BOY (Neil Jordan, Ireland/US, 1998). THEME: PSYCHOTIC ILLNESS IN AN ADOLESCENT. SPOILER ALERT! Eamonn Owens was only 14 and new to film acting when cast for the demanding role of Francie, the boy who is the protagonist in this emotionally agonizing film. Francie suffers a very harsh home life, with a manic-depressive mother and alcoholic father. When his mother commits suicide and his best buddy is sent off to boarding school, Francie’s mental health deteriorates. (He had promised his mother he would never let her die.) He fixates on the Nugent family next door and becomes certain that these people have somehow arranged the sad fate of his family. Things get worse after Francie’s dad also dies. He’s paranoid and claims to be visited by “Our Lady” (Sinead O’Connor), a wondrous angel. Francie’s plight finally culminates in the bloody killing of the woman next door, and Francie is packed off to the mental hospital, there to find solace with his angelic visitor. Owens not only holds up well for this challenging role, he gives a star’s performance. Grade: B (05/98)
THE CAINE MUTINY (Edward Dmytryk, US, 1954). THEME: OBSESSIVE, PARANOID PERSONALITY. A marvelous WW II drama in which a tyrannical Naval officer becomes unhinged under stress at sea and must be relieved of command. Based on the novel by Herman Wouk. Bogart is absolutely clinically impeccable as the obsessive Captain Queeg. Rarely has there been a portrayal of these personality problems to match Bogart’s work here. Grade: A
CAMPFIRE (Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2004, 96 min.). THEME: STRUGGLE OF A WIDOW IN MIDDLE LIFE TO FIND A NEW LOVE RELATIONSHIP. Rachel (Michaela Eshet), an Israeli widow in her early 40s, desires to make a new life for herself and her two teenage daughters by joining a newly forming settlement in the West Bank. This film provides a good look at the process of how families are selected for such a settlement. Another subtext concerns Rachel's wary efforts to find a man she can love. A friend tries to matchmake for her. First Rachel dates Yossi (Moshe Ivgy), a kind, simple, empathic virginal man in his 40s, and, later, Moshe, a narcissistic, showy, well off singer and cantor. Reluctantly at first, Rachel gradually finds herself drawn to Yossi in what becomes a slow, tender and altogether delightful romance. Rachel’s search for love occurs in a household ripe with the sexual preoccupations of her daughters. Esti (Maya Maron) is about 18 and a sulking, hypercritical spitfire, making her way explosively toward independence with her soldier boyfriend in tow. Meanwhile her younger sister Tami is in the throes of flirtation and early sexual discovery. She is determined to be happy, resisting the insolent, confrontational fireworks her sister seems to revel in. Tami is played by Hani Furstenberg, an absolutely charming youngster who reminds me of what Liv Ullman might have looked like at 16. Indeed, all the actors perform well here. (In Hebrew) Grade B (02/05)
CANDY (Neil Armfield, Australia, 2006, 108 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEME: HEROIN ADDICTION. Here’s the all around best film about drug addicts since Gus Van Sant’s 1989 cult hit, Drugstore Cowboy. Specifically with reference to heroin addiction (the characters in Cowboy were polysubstance prescription drug addicts), Candy offers a far more representative and fully developed picture of that particular addiction than many of its predecessors, like Man With the Golden Arm, High Art, Requiem for a Dream or the recent film, Clean, and it holds its own when compared with Trainspotting and Pure, two of the all time best junkie films.
Though it’s a love story, Candy’s narrative arc is in fact the arc of addiction itself. Dan (Heath Ledger), an addicted slacker, meets and falls in love with Candy (Abbie Cornish), a beautiful artist, truly a vision of womanly perfection, candy for the eye and the heart, among other organs. I suppose Candy sees in Dan what some vulnerable women all too often find attractive: somebody to dote upon and look after, possibly rehabilitate, change into the man of her dreams. We then follow the couple through the bliss of early love, then marriage, then down the rabbit hole into ever more serious mutual addiction, for Candy almost begs to be initiated into heroin use early on.
Don’t get me wrong, though. This is no cut and dried clinical saga. It may resemble many heartbreaking case histories, but this story is well written and well acted; it’s got sturdy dramatic legs to stand on. Apart from being drop dead gorgeous, Ms. Cornish gives a highly skilled turn. She goes through so many poignant changes, ranging from naïf to drug addled vixen. Mr. Ledger, fresh off his astonishing performance in Brokeback Mountain, here gives us another troubled, morose character not unlike Brokeback’s Ennis or his earlier, smaller role as the suicidal Sonny in Monster’s Ball. Ledger needs to watch out lest he become typecast as an actor for depressive characterss. But he is so good at them! Aiding the proceedings is a splendid supporting turn by Geoffrey Rush as Casper the friendly dope maker, a chemistry professor who has turned his skills to perfecting designer opioids.
The ending is so similar to that in Drugstore Cowboy that I suspect a homage was planned. But that takes nothing away from the dramatic appropriateness of Candy’s wrap up. Mark this one down as one of the best psychflix ever made about addictions. Grade: A- (12//06)
CANVAS (Joseph Greco, US, 2006, 101 m.). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; IMPACT OF MENTAL ILLNESS ON THE FAMILY. SPOILER ALERT! This debut feature film by writer-director Joseph Greco dramatizes the impact of mental illness on the family. Mary Marino (Marcia Gay Harden) suffered the onset of a schizophrenic disorder in her early 40s, a couple years before the film’s story begins, and her illness has made life very difficult for her, her husband John (Joe Pantoliano), and their 10 year old son Chris (Devon Gearhart).
Ms. Harden is quite convincing. She gets the furtive, doubting look of a distrustful, paranoid patient. She has emotional displays that are by turns inappropriately silly, sad or enraged. She is capable of socially disruptive, even dangerous, behavior. She makes shadowy references to outside forces that may have wired the house and are spying on everyone. She worries obsessively about her son’s safety. She hears voices that cause her acute psychic pain, voices she can ward off or at least dampen by painting or running a water tap. She’s ambivalent about treatment and often noncompliant with medications. A particularly disruptive episode, one that causes commotion in the neighborhood, brings the police and Mary’s readmission to the state mental hospital for extended care. John and Chris must carry on without her, and they do.
What’s special about this film is it’s central focus not on Mary and her illness but on the impact she has on her family. In fact, the camera in Canvas is directed more to John and Chris than to Mary. John is a good but simple man who works with his hands, a foreman for a house building crew employed by a developer. He tries to do right by Mary and Chris, but his coping skills are limited and often sorely tested, and he can react blindly at times out of his frustration. The role of John, wonderfully managed by Pantoliano, is reminiscent of Peter Falk’s character Nick, the frantic, bumbling yet obviously caring husband of a psychotic woman, in John Cassavetes’ film, A Woman Under the Influence.
It’s good to see Pantoliano playing a sympathetic character for a change, not the usual nasty fellow we know from his Teddy in Memento or Ralphie Cifaretto in The Sopranos. Ten year old Devon Gearhart is a delight. He is highly photogenic: he could be Uma Thurman’s kid brother. He not only has charm, but conveys a remarkably broad range of emotional responses – joy, wonder, embarrassment, anger, sadness – that seem entirely natural and authentic.
We see and feel Chris’s extreme embarrassment when Mary rushes aboard a school bus to embrace him and reassure herself that he is safe. When Chris spends his birthday at an amusement park with friends, Mary arrives unannounced and uninvited with a birthday cake to crash the kids-only party. Chris takes abuse from his peers in the aftermath of such episodes: they taunt him about his crazy mother. He begins skipping classes as a result. Chris and John are both put to pain when Mary erupts in the waiting area of a restaurant, and on another occasion when she wildly dashes outdoors in a rainstorm and creates a flap.
There is a brief bedroom scene while Mary is home on pass from the hospital, when lovemaking is interrupted because Mary is frightened of her skin being exposed and must peek through the drapes to be sure no one outside is watching. It is subtly made clear that her preoccupations have stifled John’s arousal, and we can imagine this has happened before. We also share times of nostalgic reminiscence and bereavement, when Chris or John pauses, tearfully, to recall happier times with Mary, before her illness, and mourns the loss of the wife and mother they once knew.
Narrative films about persons suffering from severe mental illness tend to focus, more or less exclusively, on the dramatic conduct of the impaired individual. We see this in recent good movies about persons with schizophrenia, like Clean, Shaven and Spider. Even the popular movie, A Beautiful Mind, which does clearly present the subtext of John Nash’s wife’s travails in the wake of his schizophrenic illness, gives center stage to Nash and his symptoms, not his family. Benny and Joon, a fluffy romantic comedy about a psychotic woman, her caretaker brother, and an interloper who falls in love with Joon, does not deal honestly with the issue of mental illness, much less with the real toll the disorder so often takes on family members. Canvas does a better job of focusing on the family than any film I can recall since Cassavetes’ Woman Under, released over 30 years ago.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. John and Chris have cemented a mutually supportive relationship, while Mary is away in the hospital, by building a sailboat together, in part because John hopes to recapture the life he and Mary knew when they were young, a life that revolved around sailing (the film is set in a seaside town, Hollywood, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast north of Miami). By the time the boat is finished, and the fellows invite Mary to join them on its maiden voyage, she is still in the hospital and quite symptomatic, hearing voices and experiencing difficult mood swings. Mary does, however, muster enough insight to realize that if she accepts the invitation, her behavior could deteriorate and spoil the day for her loved ones. So she declines to go along.
The voyage is a huge success: we can feel and see the bonding that occurs between father and son. Mary’s decision was a good one. The next scene at first glance seems to show Mary with John and Chris aboard the boat, perhaps on another outing soon after the first. Instead, in an inspired sight gag, the boat is revealed to be resting atop a trailer being pulled around the hospital parking lot. Mary is obviously contented, relaxed, at peace. Her husband and son are close by and also happy. It is the picture of a normal family at play, and these final images conjure the impression that Mary has turned a positive corner on the road toward health.
The fact that the film has a happy, hopeful ending does not trouble me. It is perfectly plausible for a person suffering from schizophrenia to make significant strides toward regaining normal emotional experience and behavioral self control, with effective treatment. A splendid example of such an outcome can be seen in Out of the Shadow, Susan Smiley’s recent documentary account of her schizophrenic mother’s odyssey.
My concern is that viewers of Canvas who are uninformed about schizophrenia might leap to the conclusion that Mary has made great strides toward recovery in a very brief time, failing to consider that this may just be another transitory mood. Such viewers might also attribute her improvement to the loving, inclusive attitudes of her family, rather than to proper psychiatric treatment. (On first viewing I myself had such a take; I had to see the film a second time to gain critical perspective.)
Of course we know that good professional care and positive family support are not mutually exclusive influences for the better: they serve synergistically to aid recovery. The ambiguity at the end aside, Canvas offers a uniquely insightful, compassionate perspective about mental illness within the context of the family. It deepens our appreciation for families who must carry on their own lives while enduring heartaches and a great sense of loss when their afflicted loved ones undergo radical disruptions of their psychological integrity and capacity to return their love. Grade: B+ (01/07).
CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. (David Miller, US, 1963) THEME: ACUTE STRESS DISORDER. Robert Duvall has a small but well played role as a catatonic patient suffering from combat-induced acute PTSD. Otherwise the film is a farce of psychiatric treatment. Peck is unconvincing as a psychiatrist. Grade: C (9/98)
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, US, 2003). THEMES: PEDOPHILIA; FALSE MEMORY/FALSE TESTIMONY CONTROVERSIES; VICTIMIZATION; FAMILY DISINTEGRATION UNDER EXTREME STRESS. In this documentary film, Jarecki tells the story of Arnold and Jesse Friedman - a suburban New York high school teacher and his youngest son, who may or may not have molested young boys attending computer classes at their home in the 1980s - and of the long lasting consequences of that dark time for the Friedman family. Jarecki got to know the eldest son, David Friedman, while shooting a film about clowning in 2000. After interviewing him and his mother, Elaine, Jarecki suspected there were major family secrets and eventually discovered the story of Arnold and Jesse’s cases years earlier. David agreed to work with Jarecki to tell the Friedmans' story.
Jarecki and his editor, Richard Hankin, proceeded to weave a riveting and scrupulously nonjudgmental film, carefully and effectively mixing material from videotapes that David Friedman had made during the child abuse investigations with contemporary footage of interviews with family members, police, prosecutors and defense lawyers, several boys alleged to have been sexually molested, and the father of one. The resulting film is a powerful revelation about the vagaries of truth seeking and justice, set against the story of a family's disintegration under extreme stress. I have formed my opinions about these people and the question of Arnold and Jesse Friedman's guilt. You can reach your own conclusion. Jarecki was closer to these people than any viewer can be, and he says he isn’t sure. Any way you cut it though, this is a remarkable, brilliantly crafted documentary. For more on this film, see my article, "Friedmans Captured. Truth Still at Large." Grade: A (07/03)
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (Steven Spielberg, US, 2002). THEME: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER. Docudrama about a teenage con man, profiling the career of Frank Abagnale, Jr (played by Leonardo DeCaprio), based on his autobiographical account. In the 1960s, from age 17 to 19, Abagnale managed to pass himself off as a substitute school teacher, airline pilot and pediatrician, and he passed the Louisiana Bar exam after two weeks’ study, bankrolling his high lifestyle thorough an increasingly sophisticated skill at creating and passing bad checks. He was dogged for years by an FBI bank fraud specialist, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who finally caught him. Later, through Hanratty’s influence, Abagnale’s prison term was altered to allow him to work in the FBI central office with Hanratty’s team. In the following years, Abagnale has earned a fortune consulting with the FBI and the banking industry to prevent check fraud and apprehend criminals.
This film has problems. At 140 minutes, it is 30-45 minutes too long and drags badly in the middle. And DeCaprio once again shows that his finest acting occurred years ago as the developmentally disabled kid brother of Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Since then he’s really shown little talent. Here he displays his millimeter thin acting range once more: he can smirk or pout cutely. That’s it. On the positive side, the opening credits – using elongated, moving silhouettes - are original and captivating. Hanks is really quite good as the longsuffering and lonely Hanratty. So is Christopher Walken, as Frank’s father, a role that is arguably more demanding than the others, because Walken must convey a curious mix of straight guy and devious minor con man in his own right. There are also a couple of fine little scenes in which DeCaprio encounters his prospective father-in-law, Martin Sheen. Grade: B- (01/03)
THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE (Kasi Lemmons, US, 2001). THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA. Actor Samuel L. Jackson is supposed to be a man suffering from chronic schizophrenia who lives hermetically in a cave in a public park in an eastern city. He becomes the pivotal figure in efforts to solve a murder crime. He succeeds. Along the way he unrealistically sheds his shabby clothes for a dinner jacket and plays the piano flawlessly after years of shunning the instrument. If you can believe that, I've got some terrific view lots on the desert to sell you. The story is plodding and uneven. Nothing clever about it. The portrayal of schizophrenia here is poorly realized. Jackson's eccenctricity, shabby, soiled clothing and grooming, and hermetic isolation are right. His hallucinations - whispering shadowy sepia colored moths the size of people - are passable. But Jackson doesn't act schizophrenic. He shows none of the social awkwardness, the obliqueness or anxiety around people that one expects. Instead he is direct, confident, well spoken, effective, fiercely engaged in the world - all the things schizophrenics tend not to be but that Jackson characteristically brings to his roles. Neither he nor his director did their homework here. Grade: C- (08/01)
THE CELEBRATION (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998). THEME: LONG TERM EFFECTS OF FAMILY INCEST. A disenchanted, grieving son ruins his father's 60th birthday party by spilling the family secrets (incest, etc) to a crowd of 50. (In Danish) Grade: B (01/99)
CENTRAL STATION (Walter Salles, Brazil, 1998). THEMES: CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCE; SUPPORTIVE RELATIONSHIP: OLD WOMAN AND BOY WHO ARE STRANGERS. Fernanda Montenegro stars as a cynical retiree who earns side income writing letters for the illiterate that she never mails, until fate arranges for her to become the grudging protector of a cocky, bereft boy searching for his father. This savvy odd couple hold interest, but the film has an uneven pace and could be shorter. (In Portuguese) Grade: B (02/99)
CHARACTER (Mike Van Diem, Netherlands, 1997) THEME: FATHER-SON CONFLICT: HOW A MAN’S CHARACTER IS FORMED BY THE TYRANNICAL FORCE OF HIS FATHER’S HARSH PERSONALITY. A cringing youngster grows into a nasty man like his ruthless father. 1997 Oscar Winner for best foreign film. (In Dutch) Grade: A- (05/98)
CHILDREN OF CHABBANES (Lisa Gossels and Dean Wetherell, US, 1999). THEMES: COURAGEOUS MORAL BEHAVIOR DESPITE GREAT RISK; REMINISCENCE IN OLD AGE. Documentary about a non-sectarian colony in Vichy France that took in 400 Jewish children during WW II, including director Gossels's father, and lost only 6 to the Nazis (2 of whom also survived), thanks mainly to Felix Chevrier and the teachers who simply did what they thought was right. Crafted from interviews at a 1996 reunion. (In English and French) Grade: B+ (02/00)
CHILDREN OF NATURE (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland, 1991). THEMES: AUTONOMY IN OLD AGE; NEW RELATIONSHIPS IN OLD AGE. Fridriksson must be the heart and soul of Icelandic film: he directed the well done Cold Fever and Angels of the Universe and acted in the recent droll farce, 101 Reykjavik. This is his best work that I've seen: a story of the triumph of an aged couple who are determined to live out their last days on their own terms, not according to the dictates and strictures imposed by others. There is little dialogue. Visuals are employed with masterful narrative skill to move the story along, and the accompanying musical score has an astonishingly sacred quality. Fridriksson cannot resist adding an unnecessary touch of magical realism near the end (something he also indulged just a bit in Angels), but it cannot spoil this unforgettable film. (In Icelandic) Grade: A (04/02)
CLEAN (Olivier Assayas, Canada/France/UK, 2004, 111 m). THEME: HEROIN & POLYSUBSTANCE ADDICTIONS The fine Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung gives an arresting and altogether authentic portrayal of a woman, Emily Wang, who is so enmeshed in addiction that she cannot sustain the will to achieve her most heartfelt desire: to be reunited with her young son, Jay. When we first meet her, Emily, whose earlier Parisian TV singing career was eclipsed by her drug abuse, is a grim, hardened shell of the person she presumably once was. Soon after the film opens, her long time boyfriend and Jay’s father, Lee, a Canadian musician who had known some fame before his own heroin habit brought him down, dies of an overdose. Emily is implicated for having bought the drugs and serves a six month prison sentence. Jay was being cared for by Lee’s parents even before his death. When Emily is released, Lee’s father Albrecht (Nick Nolte) tells her it would be best for everyone if she did not visit her son for the next few years.
We then follow Emily to back to Paris, then on to London and San Francisco in her desperate, repeatedly failed efforts to straighten out her life. Toward the end Albrecht, who quite tenderly acknowledges the importance of the bond between mother and child, permits Emily, who is clean at the moment, and Jay to visit together. And when Albrecht offers further contacts, for the first time Emily breaks down in grief, a surge of deep feeling that is almost shocking to behold after watching her hardboiled, irritable behavior for nearly two hours. It is this show of softness that leaves us with some hope at the end that matters may work out all right for Emily. For her contribution here, Ms. Cheung won a Best Actress award at Cannes in 2004. (In English, French and Cantonese) Grades: drama B; portrayal of addictive behavior A. (06/06)
CLEAN AND SOBER (Glenn Gordon Caron, US, 1988). THEMES: COCAINE AND ALCOHOL ABUSE; DRUG REHABILITATION & COUNSELING. Michael Keaton is convincing as a smug, hyperactive bizz whiz who gets strung out on alcohol and cocaine. Morgan Freeman is equally believable as his "tough love" counselor. The film is good dramatically and clinically. For more on this film, see my article, "Good to the Last Drop." Grades: dramatic and cinema values): B+; clinical authenticity: A (12/97)
CLEAN, SHAVEN (Lodge H. Kerrigan, US, 1994). THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA. Peter Winter (Peter Greene) is a tormented schizophrenic man who is let out of a hospital despite suffering from extreme symptoms of nearly continuous auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and a highly fragmented, discontinuous sense of reality. His one steady goal is to find his young daughter, Nicole (Jennifer MacDonald), who has begun a new life as an adoptee, following the murder of her mother. Peter first visits his own mother, a taciturn, emotionally withholding woman who is not at all pleased to see him. Later he discovers his daughter’s whereabouts, when her adoptive mother brings Nicole to visit her grandmother (who is as chilly toward Nicole as she is toward Peter). Meanwhile, a police detective (Robert Albert), searching for a serial child killer, has concluded that Peter is his man. A fateful ending is set up when the detective encounters Peter with Nicole at an isolated beach.
There are serious flaws in this film: the screenplay is not well wrought and is too full of ambiguities, especially the entire serial child killing subplot. This is highly distracting. The acting is second rate, except for Greene’s and MacDonald’s performances. The film’s strength lies in Kerrigan’s insightful deployment of sound, setting and other effects to create the clinical realism of Peter’s schizophrenic experience. Peter’s intense, perpetual fear is palpable. Much of the film is shot in his car, where he has placed masking tape over the mirror, and newspaper over several windows, to fortify his privacy. The effect is an impacted atmosphere of paranoid insulation.
Peter’s hallucinated auditory experience – garbled voices, static and other noise, unaccompanied by any visual representations – is clinically valid. The voices and noise haunt him steadily. He tells Nicole he has had a radio device implanted in his head, with a transmitter in a fingernail. Earlier we had been exposed to his violent efforts to rid himself of these devices using scissors or a knife to gouge them out – forms of delusion-driven self-mutilation that are uncommon but not rare in persons suffering the throes of severe acute psychotic episodes. The use of tight close up camera angles - viewing Peter from just behind his back or in profile in his car - heighten the sense of claustrophobia, the extreme narrowing of Peter’s psychotic world. The setting - Miscou Island, in New Brunswick – adds further accents of wildness and isolation to the overall tone of the film.
It can be argued that the detective’s pursuit of Peter adds yet another source of paranoid fever to the film, though for me this conceit does not ring true. The fact that someone really is after Peter detracts from the power of his delusions. Other than this, Kerrigan can be congratulated for steering clear of the false visuals (realistically visualized imaginary friends and enemies) and other clinically implausible effects that Ron Howard used more recently in A Beautiful Mind.
Anyone – professional or lay viewer – might rightly wonder how Peter could be discharged from the hospital in such poor psychiatric condition. Of course that happens every day in most contemporary short stay hospital settings, because involuntary treatment laws in most states prohibit keeping patients against their will except in the most extreme circumstances of immediate potential for violence. But we are given the impression at the start of this film that Peter had been incarcerated in a more traditional mental hospital, the sort in which people stay for long periods before discharge, until they appear relatively free of symptoms, sometimes longer. Of course these large old facilities are typically short staffed, keen clinical observation of patients may be scarce, and patients not uncommonly can muster a façade of normality to win their freedom.
The depiction of Peter’s mother is also troublesome. Her grim withholding of affection for Peter and Nicole resurrects the spectre of the “schizophrenogenic mother” – a psychodynamic fiction popular in the 1950s and 60s that accused parents, especially mothers, of causing schizophrenia through self serving, unaffectionate regard for their children. This myth was laid to rest long ago, and it is a black mark against this film to see such a notion being recycled here. It does not dispel the power of this negative maternal portrayal when, from a distance, we see the mother crying as she hangs one of her son’s shirts on a clotheline near the end.
Clean, Shaven shares with David Cronenberg’s film, Spider, the distinction of offering the most believable portraits of highly symptomatic schizophrenic experience that have been brought to the big screen. I prefer Spider because the acting is uniformly first rate and the screenplay is superior. Both films pull the viewer into an exquisitely painful, odd, lonely, and ultimately unrewarding world, into experiences that many moviegoers would, no doubt, prefer to avoid. Grades: story: C+; portrayal of schizophrenia; A (06/04)
CLEOPATRA (Eduardo Mignogna, Argentina, 2004). THEME: OLDER ADULT MAN WITH ALCOHOLISM AND DEPRESSION. This film reunites Mignogna with Norma Aleandro, the delightful actress who starred in his ode to late life romance, Autumn Sun. It opens on a promising note: Cleo, a retired teacher (Ms. Aleandro), weary from propping up her depressed, alcoholic aging husband, tries to get a bit part in a TV program and in the process hooks up with Sandra, a young TV soap star, weary herself from being exploited by her manager/boyfriend. They like each other, and circumstances offer them a chance to get out of Buenos Aires for a long weekend vacation, free of the burdens their men had become. I thought, OK, maybe this will be a Latin style, intergenerational Thelma and Louise roadie.
Then Sandra impulsively chases after a guy who had given the women a ride, ditching Cleo, who decides not to go home but to strike out on her own instead. She phones her husband now and then as she moves along. So then I thought, OK, maybe this will be another Bread and Tulips - a late life woman’s metamorphosis flick. Turns out I set my sights way too high in each instance. Despite a generally winsome turn by Ms. Aleandro, whose shy but mischievous manner reminds me of Giulietta Masina, this film starts strong but comes more unhinged the further it goes. My first fat clue to troubles ahead should have been the audition scene early on: how could a mature 60 year old woman trained in theater and annealed by years of standup classroom teaching go mute and pee her pants when asked to speak a few lines to a couple of 20 something TV bozos? The screenplay – not Ms. Aleandro – dragged things downhill from there. (In Spanish) Grades: C (overall film quality); B+ (portrayal of the older adult man with alcoholism and depression) (02/04)
CLOCKERS (Spike Lee, US, 1995). THEME: COCAINE DISTRIBUTION AT THE STREET LEVEL. Cocaine distribution is illustrated in the story of young Strike Dunham (Mekhi Phifer in his feature debut), an ulcer plagued, morally challenged loser who directs a group of clockers – end of the food chain drug dealers who supply drugs on call round the clock, in a story set in Brooklyn. Strike is handled by mid-level drug distributor Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who orders Strike to “cap” (kill) a former clocker who had cheated Rodney, in order to earn a promotion, to rise above the clockers. The man is killed and everybody thinks Strike did the job, even homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel). This despite the fact that Strike’s older brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington) - a virtuous, hardworking married man with two kids and no record – turns himself in claiming he did the crime.
Whoever is the guilty party is never entirely settled, but that isn’t important. Nor is realism in production design (the park around the housing projects where the clockers operate is full of lovely plantings and free of any debris). Spike Lee isn’t all that interested in story or montage as such. These aspects are subordinated to another, deeper objective: the exploration of character and integrity in the racial divide of urban America. As in his earlier film, Do the Right Thing (a phrase mentioned in this film), he wants us to see how whites and blacks treat each other, and how blacks treat each other as well.
Hope, respect, self discipline and the struggle for a better life - and their opposites, hopelessness, disrespect, violence and the reach for a fast buck – these are the staples of the better Spike Lee films. Victor and a community cop, Andre (Keith David), are African Americans who are struggling against great and obvious odds to pull themselves and their loved ones up. Rocco Klein is a rough but fair cop whose desire to do proper justice is virtually incomprehensible to Strike, the troubled protagonist who is torn between doing the right thing and the wrong. A fine morality tale, based on Richard Price’s novel, with splendid turns by all the principals and supporting cast, which also includes John Turturro, Peewee Love, Regina Taylor, Tom Byrd and Michael Imperioli. Grade: B+ (09/04)
THE CLOCKMAKER (Bertrand Tavernier, France, 1973). THEMES: FATHER-SON RELATIONSHIP; DIFFICULT MORAL CHOICES; COMPASSION AND REDEMPTION. Tavernier's directorial debut film about a respectable man (Philippe Noiret) who is confronted with the news that his 18 year old son has committed a murder. He embarks on a painful quest of soul searching and conversations with old friends and the sympathetic police inspector on the case (Jean Rochefort). Out of his reflections about the estrangement that had developed between his son and himself comes a decision about a difficult moral choice: whether to honor his son's adamant wish not to fight the charges by introducing evidence that could acquit him but that could also - perhaps to the son's way of thinking (we are in fact never privy to his thinking) -in the process compromise the justice of his act and dishonor his lover. A stupendous morality tale, and a story of paternal redemption and compassion. (In French) Grade: A (06/99)
CLOSER (Mike Nichols, US, 2004). THEMES: THE NATURE AND LIMITS OF INTIMACY IN LOVE RELATIONSHIPS; INTIMACY VERSUS PRIVACY. SPOILER ALERT! This film is an inquiry into the darker side of love: distrust, sexual obsession, possessiveness, jealousy, betrayal and intrusiveness. In particular it is about the tenuous balance that exists, at best, between the conflicting human needs of intimacy and privacy. In love the boundary that separates two persons and serves to perpetuate the integrity of their individual personalities - their “selves” - gives way to the compelling urge to merge, for two people in love to become one. At what point does this process of merging dishonor the integrity – indeed, the sanctity - of the individual? What are the proper limits of closeness? This story asks such questions.
The setting is contemporary West End London. The cast is superbly talented and, as is nearly always the case in a Mike Nichols film, skillfully directed: Natalie Portman is Alice/Jane, a young American who earns her way waitressing or stripping and table dancing; Jude Law is Daniel, a failed novelist who write obits for a daily paper; Julia Roberts is Anna, a professional portrait photographer, and Clive Owen is Larry, a dermatologist who has just started up a Harley Street practice. The film opens in the past, though we don’t yet know that, when Daniel witnesses Alice struck down by a taxi (she was looking left instead of right, a risky error that newcomers to Britain sometimes learn the hard way). She’s just scraped up a bit. They get acquainted when he takes her to the ER and end up living together.
Perhaps two years go by, and we next see Daniel having his photo taken for the jacket of his first novel. He’s smitten with the photographer, Anna, who requites his feelings. A few nights later, Daniel amuses himself by pretending to be a woman on an Internet sex chat room and is linked up with Larry, who’s passing time while on call at a hospital. Daniel, presenting himself on line as Anna, agrees to meet Larry next day at the aquarium. By coincidence, Anna is visiting the aquarium and Larry approaches her. They begin an affair that rapidly leads to marriage, but even before they marry, Anna also begins an affair with Daniel, which she sustains after marrying Larry.
All this goes on for a year, at which point Daniel and Anna tell their respective partners about their affair and break off with them in order to be together. The abandoned partners are separately miserable. They meet once by chance: Larry wanders into a nightclub where Alice is dancing. They may or may not have a brief sexual tryst. Eventually Anna and Larry reconcile. Dan and Alice also get back together but briefly. Dan presses Alice unceasingly to divulge whether she had sex with Larry, and, when she says she did, to share all the details. Alice responds to these intrusive demands for intimate details by telling Dan she suddenly no longer loves him, it’s the end. She means it.
Regarding Anna’s long affair with Daniel, Larry, though hurt, is forgiving – he wants Anna back. And yet he behaves toward her in the same obsessively jealous, competitive, intrusive manner as Dan treated Alice about her possible one-night stand with Larry. Larry wants to know all the details of Anna’s lovemaking with Dan, even which locations in their house they used for sex. “Why, why, why must you do this to me,” Anna asks Larry. But she too seems forgiving, in the long run, her love does not appear to be mortally damaged by Larry’s bullying probes, unlike Alice’s loss of love for Dan.
The story is bold in declaring the differences between men and women in love, especially when in comes to sex. The men are both obsessed with issues of sexual performance and response. Neither can tolerate not knowing what exactly went on sexually between their beloved woman and the other man. Both men have no regard whatsoever for the woman’s right to privacy. It’s as if we haven’t moved an inch from primitive times: women are the sexual property of men. It’s analogous to buying an upscale used car and demanding to know every detail of the breakdown, repair and maintenance record. And men obsessively measure their sexuality in comparative terms. “Was he a better fuck than me? “ men demand to know. Women do not understand this male bent and are deeply (and understandably) offended by the interrogatory invasion of their personal memories and private experiences by inquisitive men. In its relentless, forced nature, these inquires are tantamount to rape.
The differences between the men and between the women are also intriguing, though they are etched less distinctively in the screenplay. Larry was cuckolded for a year and then jilted by Anna. Dan rejected Alice and then got squirrelly over a single sexual encounter she may have had with Larry. You might say, at least, that Larry thus had the greater grounds for sexual jealousy. His interrogations of Anna are not excusable because of this, but they are more understandable. Dan speaks of his own selfishness, and he’s clearly less mature than Larry. Late in the story, Larry tells Dan that he doesn’t understand compromise, while Larry and Anna do. When Dan further reveals his naivete, his superficiality, by saying that everyone is simply looking for happiness, Larry also challenges that notion. He says that may not be true of Anna, that she’s a depressive sort who may find confirmation for her negative outlook on life in a relationship that is not so full of happiness.
True or not, Anna tolerates Larry’s intrusiveness; it doesn’t extinguish her love. Alice, on the other hand, is younger, more innocent, more in love with an ideal of love, and thus more delicate, her love more fragile. Dan’s invasion of her privacy is a deal breaker for Alice. Dan, who had seemed the gentler of the two men, in fact has seriously miscalculated Alice’s fragility. The force of his intrusion into her soul shatters her ideal and that’s the end of love, snuffed out in an instant. Quick as a person with a borderline personality can switch from idealizing another to hatred and rejection.
Good as the ideas and acting are here, this film feels throughout more like a theatric production than a cinematic one. There’s lots of talk and not much motion. Dialogue, while full of meaning, is often formal, quick and smartly accomplished, too much so at times, unlike the sloppier syntax and more uneven pace of ordinary conversation among intimates. All of this should be unsurprising, since the screenplay is an adaptation of a stage production of the same title. And it was written by the playwright, Patrick Marber. His theatric production in London received the Olivier/BBC and London Critics Circle awards for best new play of 1997, and it has been performed in over 100 cities since then. For me, despite its flawed cinematic values, this film is quite outstanding, one of the best ever in exploring the question of finding the right distance in love: being not as close as possible but close enough. Grades: cinema values: B; acting: A; realization of themes on intimacy: A (12/04)
THE CLOSET (Francis Veber, France, 2001). THEMES: DEPRESSION AND SUICIDAL IMPULSES IN RESPONSE TO MULTIPLE STRESSES; WORKPLACE STRESSES; GAY ISSUES. Light comedy in which Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is a drab, undistinguished hack of an accountant, toiling away for 20 years in the office of a Paris condom factory. He's also depressed, still wounded by the divorce wrought by his former wife and the indifference of his adolescent son. He learns he will be fired and thinks of suicide. But he has a new neighbor (Michel Aumont) who used to be an industrial psychologist, and who is gay. This man suggests that Pignon let the rumor circulate at work that he himself is gay. This might save his job. It works, but with some unforeseen ramifications, which are the main concerns of the film. With Gerard Depardieu as Santini, a macho personnel officer who develops some tender feelings toward Pignon, Michele Laroque as Pignon's supervisor, and Jean Rochefort as the company CEO. Veber here employs a theme that was also central in his earlier film, Dinner Game, a Neil LaBute-like, cruel joke of manipulation of an unsuspecting victim; in Closet, it is Santini, the Depardieu character, who is badly teased by his colleagues at work. (In French) Grade: B (11/01)
COBB (Ron Shelton, US, 1994, 128 min.) THEME: PERSONALITY DISORDER IN FAMOUS PERSON: AGGRESSIVE, NARCISSISTIC AND ANTISOCIAL FEATURES. Biopic character study of Ty Cobb, one of baseball's most legendary superstars, based on material written by a sports journalist who interviewed him after his career had ended. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Cobb, who is portrayed here as a world class superjerk, or, to use clinical parlance, a man with a severely aggressive, narcissistic, even antisocial personality disorder, who ruthlessly promoted his own career and personal achievements, often at the expense of others. Two examples from the film: Cobb was not a team player, but rather had only scorn for his teammates. He also enjoyed spiking opposing players when running the bases. The film is long and drags. But Jones's portrayal is outstanding. Grade: B- (1996)
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2004) THEME: SMOKING AND ANTI-SMOKING. If you’re a dedicated Jarmusch groupie, this is an intimate film about actors and entertainers who are FOJ (friends of Jim) that is required viewing. Do not pass Go. Proceed immediately to the proper theatre. If you’re a celeb buff, the sort who reflexively reads People and US magazine, or the celeb column in your daily paper, you also don’t want to miss this movie. Watching the likes of Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits and the Wu Tang Clansmen, even if what they do is banal, stilted or plain silly, is ever so much better than viewing stills or just reading their names in boldface. What we’ve got are eleven rough little improvised skits that Jarmusch has filmed in black and white over the past 20 years, often involving whichever actors were shooting a feature film with him at the time. Several have been distributed before as shorts (see the imdb). They vary in length from about 3 to 15 minutes. Featuring one to three players, each is a sort of contrived conversation over coffee and cigarettes. The topics include caffeine Popsicles, Testla coils, genealogical revelations and Elvis is alive theories, among others. In the first skit, Waits and Iggy Pop enact a brilliant rationalization for ex-smokers to light up once again. The Wu Tang brothers are the only openly anti-smoking folks in the film, but in their skit with Murray, he puts in a heavy argument for glutinous vices, tobacco being foremost. Drama: C+; Smoking theme: B+ (05/04)
COLD FEVER (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland, 1995, 83 min.). THEMES: HONORING END OF LIFE RIITUALS; ADULT DEVELOPMENT: ALTERING ONE’S ATTITUDES TOWARD PARENTS. Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase) is a self centered, successful Tokyo bachelor businessman whose parents moved to Iceland years earlier and died there in an accident at a remote site seven years ago. Hirata never thinks of them and, as he admits late in the story, he never gave anything to them when they were alive. Now, in the middle of this particularly gloomy winter, Hirata’s grandfather insists that he go to Iceland to perform a traditional ceremony at the exact site of their death, a ceremony required by religious beliefs to set the spirits of his parents at peace once and for all. So Hirata grudgingly gives up a dream golfing vacation in Hawaii and instead finds himself flying toward Reykjavik. It’s the start of a road movie in which, belatedly, Hirata embarks on a coming-of-age adventure.
This is quirky stuff, reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s goofy movies about the Leningrad Cowboys. We set out with Hirata as he attempts to cross the frozen wastelands of rural Iceland. Along the way we meet a men’s chorus singing their hearts out in the rear of an open stake truck; an Anglo woman who “collects funerals” – that is, photographs, tape recordings and notes of funeral ceremonies around the world; an American couple of serious crooks (Lili Taylor is the woman); a taxi driver who abruptly stops in the middle of the trip to play the role of Joseph in a singing Nativity; and an old man who gets Hirata drunk, then next day leads him on horseback to the site of his parents’ deaths.
The story, production and direction are managed very effectively by Mr. Fridriksson, who is the soul and most prolific member of Iceland’s movie industry. At the age of 50, he has directed 13 films, produced more, written many screenplays, and done a bit of acting for good measure. He created the excellent 1991 film about aging and autonomy, Children of Nature, and the 2000 film about a young man who develops schizophrenia, Angels of the Universe. His only annoying habit is dabbling a bit in magical realism, and he does so here, when Hirata’s stalled car is miraculously brought to life by a Nordic beauty who magically appears and disappears. That aside, the film is a delight. Hirata learns about perseverance and devotion and giving something back to honor one’s forebears. We get to see not only a gaggle of funny characters but also a slice of Iceland far removed from the warm hearths of Reykjavik. And the musical soundtrack is first rate. (In English (mainly), Japanese, Icelandic and a smidge of German). Grade: A- (01/05)
COLD LIGHT (Kaldaljos) (Hilmar Oddsson, Iceland/Norway/UK/Germany, 2004, 93 min.).THEMES: PTSD & AVOIDANT PERSONALITY. Supernatural phenomena and magical realism are prominent in Icelandic folk traditions and in the films we get from that country. A combination of preternatural powers and flashbacks of traumatic events burdens the protagonist in this story, Grimur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson), a 30-something man whom we meet as he first enrolls in classes at an art school. He and Linda (Ruth Olafsdottir), one of his art instructors, develop a romantic relationship. When Linda becomes pregnant, Grimur’s torturous flashbacks of an avalanche that killed his family escalate and he pulls away from her, in the manner one commonly sees in so-called “avoidant” personalities: people who were traumatized in close relationships in the past and protect themselves from further loss or injury by steering clear of intimacy (“once burnt, twice shy” goes the old adage). The film is decently constructed and acted, but it moves slowly and fails to evoke much of a gut response despite its poignant themes. (In Icelandic) Grade: B- (02/05)
THE COLLECTOR OF BEDFORD STREET (Alice Elliott, US, 2002). THEME: ADULT WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIY. Short (35 minute) documentary about Larry Selman, a developmentally disabled 59 year old man living alone in Greenwich Village. After paying rent, utilities and othert basics, Larry sometimes has only $10 left from his monthly social security disability pension for his other needs. Yet he devotes his life to soliciting donations for others, like AIDS relief. He collects $3,000 - $4,000 a year for these causes, taking not a penny for himself. He also takes in stray cats and dogs, and the occasional homeless person. This latter activity brought him into considerable conflict with his neighbors, for some of the people Larry hosted proved to be thieves. One caused a flood by plugging up a running sink. Larry was threatened with eviction. He has also depended for many years on the almost daily assistance of his Uncle Murray, who prepares his meals and does his laundry. But Murray is now 81 and must call up Larry to find out what day it is.
In an astonishing act of community, Larry’s neighbors, most of them quite well off folks, have collaborated to create a trust to assure that Larry’s needs will be provided for in the future. This is a splendid story of open hearted reciprocity, between a very generous and special man and those who care about him. Best film on this subject since Ira Wohl's 1979 Best Boy. Larry here is more independent than Philly, the subject of Best Boy. One wonders whether the differences are more a matter of the differing approaches taken by the families in terms of cultivating their sons' capacities for independence. (Candidate for an Oscar for short documentaries). See also my article titled "Searching for Community." Grade: B+ (02/03)
THE COLOR OF PARADISE (Rang-e khoda) (Majid Majidi, Iran, 2000). THEME: CCHILDHOOD: OVERCOMING ADVERSITY (BLINDNESS); MORALITY TALE. SPOILER ALERT! The spellbinding story of Mahammad, a plucky blind youngster, and his ambivalent, self-pitying father. Set mainly in a small, remote village in a gorgeous mountainous area of Iran, the drama introduces us to people and customs far removed from contemporary Tehran. At the end of the term at a school for blind children in Tehran, Mahammad is the only one whose parents fail to come to take him home. Finally after a day or two his father makes a slinking appearance and tries to persuade the school authorities to keep his son. Failing this, he reluctantly leads Mahammad home. There we find Mahammad's loving grandmother and two doting slightly older sisters.
We learn that Mahammad's mother died not long before, perhaps a year or two, and that the father has his eye on someone to marry again in a nearby village. Father courts, asks for her hand, brings a dowry, and consent is given by the woman's family. He does not tell them about Mahammad, only about his daughters. He then arranges to take Mahammad to the home of a blind carpenter a distance away where he will live and learn a trade. Mahammad is bitterly saddened but accepts his fate and adapts there thanks to the kind understanding of his mentor. But the grandmother is furious with the arrangements, seeing them as self-serving to the father and detrimental to his son. She leaves home in a rainstorm, is found and brought back home by the father, but becomes ill and dies. The fianceé's family considers this a bad omen and backs out of the marriage contract.
At this point the storyline, thus far gripping and well organized, breaks down.The father returns to collect Mahammad (why?), then leads him through a wilderness we haven't seen before (where are they going?), finally crossing a bridge over a wild, raging river. Then the final, stupendously filmed and wildly dramatic scenes complete the film. The bridge collapses under the weight of the horse carrying Mahammad and both are swept away in the flood. Father, transfixed at first in the throes of his panic and ambivalence, simply watches from the side of the bridge. Finally he resolves matters and, in the first act of genuine love for the boy that we have seen, he dives into the maelstrom to attempt to rescue his son. As my partner put it, this is a fine morality tale. (In Farsi) Grade: B+ (12/00)
COMING HOME (Hal Ashby, US, 1978). THEMES: EFFECTS OF COMBAT AND INJURY ON SURVIVING MILITARY; IMPACT OF WAR ON FAMILY BACK HOME. SPOILER ALERT! The effects of the Vietnam War on combatants and their loved ones are explored in a realistic, intimate fashion in this fine film, which still holds up very well 23 years after it was made. Released the same year as The Deer Hunter, which explored similar issues in a surreal and more abstract manner. Jane Fonda is Sally, the prim middle class wife of Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a Marine captain who is ordered into combat in VN. Sally starts to volunteer at the local VA hospital, where she meets Luke Martin (Jon Voight), former star football player in her high school graduating class who, as a sargeant in the Marines in VN, was left a paraplegic by a shrapnel wound. Luke is embittered, volatile, reclusive, never wanting to leave the hospital. Gradually He and Sally fall in love.
Bob returns home after an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot injury and learns of Sally's affair through FBI surveillance information (Luke's activities were tracked after he created an antiwar protest by chaining himself to the gates of a Marine base). Already way out of sorts after his duty tour in country and disappointed that he did not return home a hero, Bob angrily confronts the couple, but ultimately suicides. There is also a compelling side story concerning Sally's friendship with another young woman (Penelope Milford) whose brother (Robert Carradine) is also a patient at the VA, suffering from a psychosis that began in VN. Voight, Fonda, Dern and Milford are all splendid. (Deer Hunter got the best picture Oscar in 1978, but Voight and Fonda won for acting. Too bad the Academy was so moved by spectacle; Coming Home is the better film.) Grade: A (01/02)
THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1974). THEME: PARANOID PERSONALITY DISORDER. Coppola’s extraordinary film about eavesdropping and the people who spy on others for a living is deceptively simple in structure, yet in fact it works with great precision on three different levels: simultaneously it’s a suspense thriller, a psychological character study, and a mirror of the paranoia that dominated American society at the time the film was made. Gene Hackman gives a masterful performance as Harry Caul, reputed to be the best freelance surveillance expert in the country. Harry is a private man, as scrupulously guarded in preventing others – even his girlfriend - from knowing anything about him as he is ingenious in devising methods to learn all he wants to know about the people he is assigned to spy on. Paradoxically, Harry is also an intensely religious man, a devout Roman Catholic who deplores profane use of Jesus’s name and agonizes over the fact that one of his previous surveillance jobs in New York directly led to the murders of a family. Now living in San Francisco, on a new assignment, he becomes concerned that the result of his surveillance this time may once again be the murder of the unsuspecting people, a couple apparently in love.
Harry’s been hired by the woman’s husband, a powerful, secretive figure (an uncredited cameo by Robert Duvall). A uniformly high level of suspense is sustained throughout, mainly by Hackman’s tightly wound demeanor and aided by a fine secondary performance by a menacing if youthful Harrison Ford, as the client’s gofer. The film begins with a scene, behind the opening credits, showing aerial views of Union Square, in which a mime moves teasingly among pedestrians; Harry and the couple he’s stalking are also walking here. The final scene shows Harry playing his saxophone in a torn up apartment. These beginning and ending scenes are unforgettable. The film debuted at the time of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. With the resurgence since 9/11 of threats to civil liberties inherent in the USA Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the newer technologies for surreptitious surveillance, this film regains a poignant relevance to present conditions in American society. If you haven’t seen this film in 25 years, or have never seen it, do so now! Grade: A- (01/04)
THE COOLER (Wayne Kramer, US, 2003). THEMES: GAMBLING; DEPRESSIVE PERSONALITY. William H. Macy plays Bernie Lootz, a born loser in this gambling movie cum love story. Bernie’s always had the Midas touch, in reverse. Everything he even gets close to turns out poorly. Years ago Nevada gambling casino owner Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) figured out Bernie’s special talent and retained him. Whenever some customer of Shelly’s develops a winning streak at the gaming tables, Bernie is assigned to amble over to watch, or maybe place a bet or two, or have an accompanying drink server bump him and make a little distracting mess. That’s all it takes to queer the luck of the guy who’s hot, to cool the mark, as they say.
Shelly is “old school” – he believes in such phenomena as coolers. And he’s a gangster, a heavy who uses bodyguards to soften people up. He’s been known to personally break the kneecaps of people who don’t repay big gambling debts, and in fact he broke Bernie’s knee once. Bernie says the limp and the pain are a reminder of his failure as a gambler, and that in a sense Shelly did him a great favor to implant such a permanent reminder.
But Shelly’s casino is on a downward slide. He hasn’t kept up with the times. All the other places on the strip are catering to families now and raking in the big bucks, while Shelly’s place is a more traditional low profile, hard core casino, catering to a serious betting crowd, eschewing kiddy rides and fake boating lakes, and featuring ancient musical acts. Shelly’s mob-related financial backers aren’t satisfied with his bottom line and he’s feeling the heat, the pressure to transform the casino. And this seriously pisses him off.
Bernie has nearly finished paying off his huge gambling debt to Shelly and is now making overtures of quitting in a few days, leaving town, for good. Shelly feels he can’t do without Bernie’s talent for cooling marks. Enter Natalie (Maria Bello), a server in the casino that Shelly pays extra to shadow Bernie and come on to him, to give Bernie a reason to stay in town and continue to work for Shelly.
What goes wrong with this plan is that to everyone’s surprise, Natalie finds herself genuinely falling in love with Bernie, and when their affair heats up, Bernie’s luck changes for the better. Suddenly he loses his Midas touch. Hot players get hotter when he comes around. This makes Shelly go ballistic. These three people - Bernie, Natalie and Shelly – are on a crash course. Somebody’s likely to be killed. Who will it be?
This is really a fine film. Mr. Kramer, who co-wrote the script, has a feel for the gaming environment and writes characters and dialogue with the appropriately rough, noir edge of the “old school” of casino operations. Alec Baldwin portrays the most intriguing character here: his Shelly is a nasty brute of a fellow who is at the same time oddly sentimental and loyal to his friends, in his own fashion. For Ms. Bello, the part of Natalie was a career making role (she’s found work in 9 films since Cooler, 6 of them in 2005). She’s not beautiful, but her face is arresting, featuring a number of unusual planes, and the photographers took full advantage. She has an erotic dazzle that makes one think of a younger Sharon Stone. The lovemaking scenes between Ms. Bello and Mr. Macy are among the most real, most sexy I’ve seen in a year or two.
As for Macy, it’s nice to see him in a role that permits him to break out of his old shoe melancholy into a sunnier, more lively persona. Didn’t know he had it in him. Perhaps the best thing about this film is how successfully it captures the ambiance of casino life. The feeling of the gaming room is everywhere. Nice work. Grade: B+ (01/05)
THE CORPORATION (Jennifer Abbott, & Mark Achbar, Canada, 2004). THEME: THE CONDUCT OF CORPORATIONS MEASURED BY THE DSM-IV CRITERIA FOR ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER. Fast paced, extensively researched, smartly composed and compellingly truthful documentary examination of the private corporation as a pathological institution, covering its birth, history, permutations, and its worldwide sociopolitical and environmental impact. This is definitely a movie on a mission - a film with an edge. Abbott and Achbar remind us that for over a century, corporations in our nation have enjoyed the highly protected status of “legal persons” under the 14th Amendment, which was intended to protect the rights of African Americans.
Using the criteria by which antisocial personalities are measured in individual persons, the film marshals data from "case histories" showing that corporations often qualify for this diagnosis. But the film also cautions that, unlike corporeal persons, corporate persons have "no soul to save and no body to incarcerate." Potential “psychotherapies” for curing the corporate "patient" are discussed. This model of corporation as analogous to an antisocial personality is based on an analysis by Dr. Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at the U. of British Columbia (UBC) and a consultant to the F.B.I.
Professor Hare is just one of an impressively large group of prominent and informed resource people interviewed in the film, among whom are Noam Chomsky, Ray Anderson (CEO of Interface, a large carpet manufacturer, who sees that no corporation is sustainable from a standpoint of maintaining human and natural resources), Charles Kernaghan (an activist who exposes sweatshop abuses – e.g., Wal-Mart and Kathy Lee Gifford clothing line; GAP), Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, journalists fired by Fox News for refusing to suppress their report on rBGH use in cows), and many others. Michael Moore, whose work I have criticized for featuring his self-serving performance art at the expense of ethical film journalism, comes off well here: his quite eloquent, serious remarks on the hazards to public welfare posed by corporations impressed me; I wish he would tone down his commercial efforts and present himself more often as he does here.
The guiding light for this film is script writer Joel Bakan, a Professor of Law at UBC and former Rhodes Scholar. His book on the subject was published in March, 2004: "The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power." Both directors are experienced in making documentaries, though it is Abbott’s first feature as director. She wrote an earlier documentary directed by Achbar, about transsexuality ( Two Brides and a Scalpel: Diary of a Lesbian Marriage ), that I have not seen. To learn more about the film, visit www.thecorporation.com. (In English & Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/04)
COSI (Mark Joffe, Australia, 1997) THEME: PSYCHIATRIC INPATIENTS PUT ON A PLAY; COMEDY. The head of the hospital hires a young theater professional to mount a dramatic production with the patients. Zany Barry Otto (Strictly Ballroom) plays a manic patient and opera buff who insists that instead the group should put on Mozart’s opera, “Cosi Fan Tutte.” It’s a power struggle in which the believably manic Otto cannot lose. Grade: B (05/98)
THE COUCH TRIP (Michael Ritchie, US, 1988, 97 m). THEMES: COMIC PORTRAYALS OF PSYCHIATRISTS; SEND UP OF POP-PSYCHOLOGY TALK SHOWS. Screwball comedy in which an antisocial patient (Dan Aykroyd) escapes from a mental hospital and impersonates his psychiatrist (an uncaring control freak) in order to make some money pinch hitting for still another psychiatrist (a nasty, narcissistic jerk) who is a pop-psychology advice dispensing radio talk show host.
Once on the air, Aykroyd’s character offers salacious comments and outrageous advice, and the show’s ratings skyrocket. Things turn sour when the two real psychiatrists meet at a conference, and Aykroyd’s new pal (Walter Matthau in a curly wig) threatens suicide. Aykroyd is funny enough; the trouble with this movie is that the portrayals of the psychiatrists are one-dimensional and negative. In fact every character lacks nuance. Comedies that satirize psychiatrists can be delightful, even insightful. Mediocre comedy like this unfortunately leaves an anti-psychiatry aftertaste. Grade: B- (8/06)
CROUPIER (Mike Hodges, UK, 2000). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL GAMBLING. Jack (Clive Owen), the son of a gambler in South Africa, was literally born in a casino and learned the croupier's art from hgis father. Jack tries to shed his past by moving to London where he aspires to become a novelist. He lives with Marion (Gina McKee), a former police detective who now is a department store detective, a rather straight woman whom he calls his "conscience." Strapped for cash and blocked in his writing, Jack reluctantly acquiesces when his father calls to say he's lined up a job for his son in a London gaming club. Back in the gambling atmosphere, Jack excels as a skilled croupier from his South Africa days. A highly principled professional, he nevertheless finds himself pulled irresistibly into the amoral, at times even ruthless, yet alluring life surrounding the work, violating the rules forbidding fraternization with staff or patrons, especially after he meets two provocative women, the mysterious gambler Jani (Alex Kingston), and the sexually bold Bella (Kate Hardie), another dealer.
He also begins to write again, this time about "Jake," an unprincipled croupier who seems more and more to represent Jack's darker side. It is Jack's internal struggle - between attempting to live up to a higher moral standard versus the lying and cheating style of the inveterate gambler (like his father) - that is the central story here, and it is well informed. External events, especially near the end, fit together less well, and make for a sort of helter skelter ending. The screenplay (by Paul Mayersberg) and the visuals are spellbinding...wonderful camera angles abound, and the result is an atmosphere thick with the tensions and false glitter of casino life, made more real here than in any film I can recall. For more on this and other films about gamblers, see my article, "Gamblers on Screen: Just a Few Worth Betting On." Grade: B+ (06/00)
CRUMB (Terry Zwigoff, US, 1995). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; SCHIZOTYPAL PERSONALITY. This absorbing documentary of the life of cartoonist Robert (“R”) Crumb affords an intimate if brief gaze into Crumb’s family, when we meet his chronically schizophrenic brother (who took his life shortly after this film was made) and Crumb’s highly dysfunctional mother. Meeting these people gives one some insight into the roots of Crumb’s own decidedly eccentric personality. But the film also demonstrates the profound possibilities of self-redemption when a very quirky person finds a means to put this eccentric bent to good use, as in Crumb’s art. Grade: A- (1995)
DANCE WITH A STRANGER (Mike Newell, UK, 1985). THEMES: ABUSE OF WOMEN BY MEN; NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY; MASOCHISM; ALCOHOLISM; CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Miranda Richardson's film debut as Ruth Ellis, in the fact-based story of a private club madame in love with an upper class alcoholic narcissist, David (Rupert Everett). Saved time and again by her devoted friend and would be lover, sleazy Desmond (Ian Holm), Ellis continues a downhill spiral of obsessive, masochistic love that ends when she shoots David outside a London pub. Good acting. Dull dialog. Set in the 1950s. Ellis was the last person executed for a capital crime in Great Britain. Grade: B- (10/99)
DANCER IN THE DARK (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2000). THEME: DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER. A truly strange film, Dancer combines elements of melodrama and musical theater. It was made in Europe by Europeans but the setting is rural Washington State, USA. An immigrant woman (Bjork, the Icelandic pop singer in her film debut) struggles to save money for an operation to save her son’s eyesight. She runs into nothing but trouble. Whenever things get really bad, she dissociates. And when she does, she is transported during her trances to a land of music – song and dance numbers to be exact, and here she finds temporary escape and safety. Bjork shows wonderful range here as an actress. Her naïf-like portrayal rings entirely true to the clinical stereotype of the sort of person likely to develop dissociative fugues. For more on this film, see my article, "Dance of Dissociation." Grades: (based on dramatic and cinema values): B-; (based on authenticity): A- (09/02)
DAS EXPERIMENT (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2002). THEMES: GROUP OR MOB PSYCHOLOGY; AUTHORITARIANISM. This film uses an idea from a 1971 Stanford social psychology experiment on obedience and the desire for control over others (Philip Zimbardo's famous study in which student volunteer "prison guards" tyrannized volunteer "prisoners," inducing high levels of psychic stress). 20 men are paid to take part in a 2-week study in which 12 will be prisoners and 8 their guards. Prisoners will follow rules. Guards will maintain order. But no violence is permissible. Things go quickly bad and keep getting worse. The film suggests that any group of "normal" guys will quickly resort to gruesome measures to maintain control once given the green light to assume positions of power over others. Several prisoners become acutely ill with stress reactions, and a lot happens that's much worse. One cannot help but become engrossed, wondering what excesses will unfold next, while at the same time this proves to be a monotonous, disappointing film. (In German) Grade: B- (10/02)
DAVID AND LISA (Frank Perry, US, 1962). THEMES: PSYCHOSIS; OCD; HOSPITAL TREATMENT. Skillful screen adaptation of psychiatrist Theodore Issac Rubin's story of two disturbed teenagers who help each other to recover, set in a private east coast psychiatric hospital. Keir Dullea is superb as David, a 17 year old struggling to avoid psychosis by using rigid, obsessive-compulsive defenses and a witheringly contemptuous attitude toward everyone. Janet Margolin is less convincing as Lisa, a 15 year old suffering from schizoaffective disorder. Howard da Silva is excellent as the psychiatrist: respectful, unhurried, plain talking, humble. Grade: B- (01/02)
DAYBREAK (om jag vänder mig om) (Bjorn Runge, Sweden, 2003, 108 min.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; RESPONSE TO LOSS OF OFFSPRING; RRESPONSE TO DIVORCE. This overheated psychodrama is so full of outrageous characters doing monstrous emotional violence to one another and themselves every minute that it almost borders on the comical, a viewer sentiment I’m sure the filmmakers did not intend. There are three groups of perpetrators, and the film editor, who must have stayed high on speed and coffee to get the job done, frenetically introduces us to them employing rapid intercuts that focus a minute or two on the miseries and histrionics of one group, then another, then the next, then back again, and so on. Not that any sensible viewer could care about the majority of these people, after the numbing overdose of sturmund drang they serve up here. But there are notable exceptions. Setting aside some innocent kids, several of the featured adults do act with integrity, or teach us something at least.
There’s Anders, the brick mason, a 24/7 workaholic whose wife and teenage daughter languish in his lack of attention to them. Anders takes on another moonlighting job, this time for an aging couple, Knut and Mona, who are crazed by grief: their daughter and granddaughter have estranged themselves and gone off to Nigeria, where their son-in-law hails from, and cut off all contact six months ago, may even be dead. They want Anders to set cement blocks in every window and exterior doorway space so they are invulnerable to thieves. They plan never to leave the house again. They’ve laid in enough supplies to last for 6 to 7 years. When these are gone, they will die. They appear to want to cut themselves off entirely from the world, but on the other hand they have a 40 inch plasma TV running 24 hours a day which they watch and listen to through earphones. Knut and Mona's strange lunacy eventually drives the basically decent Anders to reconsider the importance of his family, and he rushes away at daybreak to rejoin them.
Then we have Anita, a tough yet pathetic, foul mouthed soul who spouts a steady stream of f--- words, violent threats and imagery. She's become like a ticking bomb over the past 3 years, her rage overflowing, since Olof, her husband of 26 years, skipped off with his young physiotherapist, Petra. Olof managed to expropriate the house, furniture and most of the money, leaving Anita in a cheap apartment, forced to deal prescription sedatives in the parking lot to help make ends meet. Anita takes a taser gun in lieu of cash in a drug deal one evening, and shows up at the house she and Olof once shared, where Olof and Petra now live. Armed with the taser, she orders Petra to tie up Olof (with duct tape, naturally) and begins a nonstop harangue at both.
Petra, one of the few noble souls on display here, bravely reaffirms her unconditional love of Olof, but eventually, when Petra tries to run away, Anita zaps her with the taser, rendering her unconscious for the rest of the night, which Anita spends spewing forth her non-stop vitriol, dissipating the pent up venom that had been poisoning her. By daybreak she has wound down, mellowed, become surprisingly tender toward Olof, actually found some rapprochement with him. At least her vindictive energies have been spent, and she is able to take her leave softly.
The third story is far more conventional: it’s a classic case of love betrayed in upscale suburbia. Richard, a heart surgeon, is screwing around. His devoted wife - a woman who has dutifully abandoned her own career, made a good home, and raised two sons - is rewarded for these efforts with the news that Richard has been shagging Sofie, the wife in a couple who are their best friends. Richard has just dumped Sofie, but gets no credit for this from anyone, only Sofie’s anger, which comes blurting out one night along with Richard's wife's and Sophie’s husband’s resentments when the two couples meet over dinner and whole sordid story surfaces.
There’s one twist: Sofie’s husband Mats, who had discovered the affair months earlier, and Sofie, have meticulously planned their revenge, arranging for Richard to lose his job, have Mats appointed in his place, and then, when Richard must seek a job in another city and his house is placed on the market, Mats and Sofie, who have been openly envious of the place for years, secretly buy it through a blind lawyer. Richard and his wife may reconcile, but she suffered a nosebleed while shopping early in the movie, a matter never followed up, and, as any seasoned movie goer knows, chronic coughs and nosebleeds always portend serious health problems ahead.
So now it is daybreak: Anita is walking home to her apartment, Anders is driving his van home to spend a Sunday hanging out with his wife and daughter, and Richard’s wife and kids in one car are madly chasing after Richard in another. They all pass each other at the same intersection, and for a moment it looks like everyone might accidentally pile up, in a reversal of the "wow look at this stunning coincidence" plot sequence we’ve seen so often in recent films. But no, the film spares us this gratuity and just ends instead. It’s about time.
Maybe you will see more value in this movie than I did. The transformation of Anita overnight was stunning, but is likely to be only temporary. People who harbor such vast reservoirs of hatred aren’t amenable to a one night talking cure. A lesson in family values may have been discovered here by Anders, but it's hardly rocket science. Will he spend more than a day with his loving family before taking on the next nocturnal side project? As for the surgeon and his brood, we've been wallowing in destructive modern middle class domestic warfare at least since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s the basic stuff of a whole film subgenre I call “suburbans” (after “westerns”). What purpose does this recycled material serve? (In Swedish) Overall grade: C+; certain characters and domestic conflicts: B+ (02/05)
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (Blake Edwards, US, 1962) THEME: ALCOHOLISM. A now somewhat dated, long and melodramatic film about an alcoholic couple (Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, both Oscar nominees). There are factual flaws that betray a lack of attention to details. For example, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Lemmon's character and that of Jack Klugman, his sponsor, introduce themselves using their last names (never done), and the group does not respond, "Hello, (first name of speaker)!" In the hospital withdrawing from booze, Lemmon's character is viewed in a camisole in a padded cell throwing himself about in a potentially harmful manner. Yet there seem to be plenty of attendants on hand; he is finally given a shot to calm him. This was not the standard of care for DTs in 1962.
Apart from these few annoyances, the film does somberly and authentically depict many aspects of alcoholism: progression from heavy drinking through problem drinking to destructive, high dose alcoholic drinking; mutual reinforcement of drinking in a married couple, and, conversely, the problems arising when one partner seeks help and the other won't; vulnerability to relapse; attempts to make amends in the recovery process, and the resistance these efforts can encounter in loved ones who still feel angry. Filming in B&W adds to the solemnity of this tragic story. There’s a good turn by Charles Bickford as Remick's widowed father. See also my article titled “Good to the Last Drop.” Grades: drama: B-; depiction of alcoholism: B (12/99)
THE DAYTRIPPERS (Greg Mottola, US, 1996). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; SUPPORTIVE FAMILY RALLIES TO WRONGED SPOUSE. The D’Amicos live on Long Island, and Louis (Stanley Tucci) commutes to a publishing job in Manhattan. Eliza (Hope Davis), assumes her marriage to is rock solid until one day when she finds a love note to him from someone named Sandy. She calls her parents, and her mother (Anne Meara) mobilizes the whole family to drive into the city to confront Louis. It’s a funny road movie. Along for the ride are Eliza, her mom, her dad (Pat McNamara), her sis Jo (Parker Posey) and Jo’s boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber), a failing novelist and general font of wisdom. With Campbell Scott as Louis’s coworker. Grade: B- (04/97)
DECALOGUE (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1988). THEME: ETHICAL AND MORAL ISSUES IN CONTEMPORARY URBAN LIFE. The late Polish filmmaker's ambitious project for domestic TV: 10 one hour dramas, roughly corresponding to each of the Ten Commandments. The result is a masterpiece. The characters all live in a dreary modern high rise apartment complex in Warsaw, and occasionally characters from one segment reappear as incidental figures in another, though each story is constructed to stand alone. Although there is unevenness in the quality of the individual dramas, and they vary in style, almost all are powerful, suspenseful, quiet, well acted dramas, beautifully and patiently, if somewhat gloomily, photographed. Just one (episode 3) is poorly rendered, cryptic and unsatisfying. Here are some examples.
The theme for the first story is obviously linked with the Commandment, “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.” A science teacher has eschewed religion and believes entirely in what is measurable. His adoring young son follows in his beliefs. The two calculate one winter day that it is impossible for the ice over the lake near their apartment complex to break apart. On that basis the boy and some friends go to the lake one afternoon and, when the ice does break, they drown.
The fourth story, based on the Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” begins with Anka, a young woman, splashing water on a man, Michal, presumably her husband, to awaken him playfully. He returns the favor. It is an intimate series of scenes, and we are surprised to learn that they are in fact father and daughter, and seem to have a loving relationship. He leaves on a business trip for several days, and she is tempted to open a letter, the existence of which she has been aware of for years, marked to be opened only in case of her father's death. She does open this outer envelope finally, only to discover a sealed inner envelope addressed to her in her mother's handwriting (she had died when Anka was just an infant). When her father returns she confesses to him that she has opened the letter and learned that he is not her father. They have several drinks and each then confess their sexual attraction to one another over the years. She attempts to seduce him but he refuses. The next day their old equilibrium seems to be reestablished. She confesses that in fact she did not open the letter but had made up its contents. Together that evening they burn the unopened letter, but a fragment remains, which begins just like her made up story.
The final segment, based on the Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods,” is a black comedy. Two brothers inherit their father's stamp collection, the finest in Poland and worth a fortune. Torn between cashing in the collection and keeping it out of devotion to the memory of their father (who was incredibly miserly - giving the family nothing while hoarding money for stamps), the brothers embark on a series of misadventures culminating in theft of the collection by a conspiracy of other characters.
The same gaunt, sorrowful, sandy haired young man appears in wordless cameo roles in all but two episodes (he may appear in episodes 7 and 10 but I could not spot him even on a second viewing). One gets the feeling that perhaps he is a supernatural being, an ethereal, moral fair witness to the proceedings, an angel even, who ties nearly all the episodes together in some inchoate sense (he’s a student in an ethics lecture in episode 8). This series is one of the finest dramatic film achievements ever created for television. (In Polish) Grade: A (12/00, 01/01).
THE DEER HUNTER (Michael Cimino, US, 1978). THEMES: ANTIWAR FILM; PTSD. SPOILER ALERT! Twenty-three years on, this fine antiwar film is as poignantly moving as it was when first released, even if the flaws in the film stand out more now than they did in 1978, when our righteousness and nostalgia made us less analytical in responding to the best films of the times inspired by Vietnam (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now). Having just seen Apocalypse Now Redux, it is interesting to compare that film to this one, for what is similar, and what is not. They are both very long (Hunter is 183 minutes; the original Apocalypse was 153 min., and Redux adds 49 minutes to that). Both are rife with disjointed major scene shifts...the flow in both narratives is far from smooth. Each in its own way portrays the violent situation in SE Asia in extremely surreal terms and images. For Coppola, the surreal is embodied in the colony of death and violence presided over by the self-deified renegade Colonel Kurtz, a former poster boy for military virtues who has become corrupted by the war, possibly driven mad. Cimino chooses the metaphor of "Russian roulette" for conditions in Vietnam: his three army buddies lives' are permanently altered by their participation in the deadly game of chance that was the Vietnam war, two for the worse, the other for the better.
Here the two films part company. For Coppola the story, following Conrad, concerns the larger-than-life entwined fates of Kurtz and the war weary young captain dispatched to assassinate him. For Cimino the important story concerns how the war changed people. He begins by showing us the way folks were before the war: the camaraderie, the close ties, among friends - all descendants of Russian immigrants - in a little steel town in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. Nearly the first half of Deer Hunter is an account of this extended group of buddies and, secondarily, their loves, seen through the events of one long night and day spent together. We see how their small joys, drunken partying, and habitual petty gripes with one another bind them together, especially on this eve when three of them are about to leave for Vietnam, and one has just gotten married. This story is wonderful, almost sufficient material to make a whole film in itself.
Then the scene shifts abruptly to a firefight in a small hamlet in Vietnam, following which somehow the three buddies from Pennsylvania come together, all captured by the Viet Cong. From this point on their lives diverge horribly. Only their natural leader, Michael (Robert DeNiro), survives more-or-less intact. Michael in fact is transformed by the war from an unemotional, seemingly even callous, man into someone better, a man more capable of love as well as pain, and less capable of killing, than he had been beforehand. His buddies Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage), on the other hand, are not killed but are in important ways destroyed by the war.
The penultimate sequence in the film, when Michael returns to Saigon to search for Nick, is implausible and unnecessary, and detracts from the film. Nick's psychological demise could have been revealed effectively, for instance, by having him return to the US in his terrible state of emotional numbing and obsessive preoccupation with self destruction. Nick displays a severe case of chronic PTSD, although that diagnosis would not be recognized as such until several years after this film debuted. Another problem is that DeNiro is too old for the role of Michael. His age confuses the issue of his positive transformation, i.e., making it hard to sort out the effects of age from those of the war on his character development. Subsequent to the war, psychological research showed that the younger the recruit, the more likely that long lasting psychological damage would occur as a result of combat experiences in Vietnam.
Meryl Streep is convincing as a love interest of both Nick's and Michael's - she's all the better here for not sporting some exotic, overly intrusive foreign accent. The last scene is stupendous: the surviving old gang sitting around the table in their favorite tavern, after Nick's funeral, solemnly singing "God Bless America." This film won the "Best Picture" Oscar in 1978, but that arguably could have gone instead to Coming Home, another Vietnam antiwar film focusing on the impact of war on relationships back home. Grade: B+ (12/01)
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (Jeff Feuerzeig, US, 2005, 110 min.). THEMES: CREATIVITY AND MENTAL DISORDER; BIPOLAR DISORDER; ASPERGER'S SYNDROME. Biodoc about Daniel Johnston, a multitalented man, a compulsively prolific cartoon artist, song writer and performer, whose bipolar disorder and drug abuse led to episodes of severe mental illness and destructive behaviors, beginning in his early 20s, in the 1980s, that stifled his career for many years, until consistent psychiatric care and parental oversight effected a more stable course for him in the past few years. Now approaching age 45, Johnston has made a comeback of sorts, reaching a level of artistic self control and productivity that has swept him toward unprecedented recognition.
This film charts Johnston’s life and family, ingeniously assimilating materials made by Johnston himself as a kid and young adult - super 8 and video footage; cassette audiotapes; still photos – as well as contemporary video interviews and stills. By mid-adolescence he was holed up in the basement of his family’s home, staying up all hours, writing songs, drawing, making tapes almost nonstop. By his mid-20s he had run away to Austin, Texas, and made a splash on the pop music scene there. But within a year or two, abetted by lots of marijuana and LSD, he began a series of horrendous manic and depressive episodes that scuttled his career, even as he was beginning to receive recognition locally and on a national level.
For much of the next 15 years Johnston was hospitalized frequently after extremely dangerous manic episodes (he seriously injured one acquaintance with a lead pipe, and later interfered with control of his father’s small aircraft, leading to a crash landing that, luckily, both survived), zoned out on medications, and vegetating at the family home in Waller, Texas. But in the past few years his course has stabilized. He’s obese, the result of his mood stabilizing medications no doubt, and he’s no longer the flamboyant, zany free spirit that titillated and frightened so many of his followers in the past. But the film shows us that he is now in better control of his drawing and singing performances than he ever was years earlier. He has been helped immensely by his parents, Bill and Mabel, now in their early 80s, his agent and owner of a small recording company, Jeff Tartakov, and an Austin music journalist, Louis Black, all of whom have worked hard to help sustain and enhance Johnston’s reputation as a creative artist.
Their loyal efforts have been well rewarded. The film demonstrates the success of a show of Johnston’s more recent drawings at Gallery Zero One in Los Angeles, where over 90% of the works were sold to a single collector before the exhibition even opened. In 2003 Johnston sang before an audience in Sweden that obviously worshiped him. Cartoonist Matt Groening is a fan of Johnston’s. Tom Waits and Beck, among many others, have covered his songs. And just a few weeks ago (subsequent to the film) the Whitney Museum in Manhattan announced that Johnston’s works would be included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
With regard to psychiatric diagnosis, while his bipolar disorder is undeniable, that may not be all that's "wrong" with Daniel Johnston. For many years - from at least early adolescence until recently - there was a consistently driven, compulsive quality to his artistic acts (music, drawing, and filmmaking), a pattern that is unmistakably obvious in this film. He would often stay up all night working nonstop. Frenzied work jags certainly are a common feature of mania, but I believe in Johnston's case such a pattern of activity was not always linked with his manic states, at least that was not clearly apparent to me. I am reminded by this pattern of the feverish state of compulsive creative activity that typified Vincent Van Gogh's driven, constant drawing and painting during his last years, in Arles.
Neuropsychiatrists have had great sport over the years guessing what was wrong with Van Gogh. Many ideas - schizophrenia, lead or absinthe poisoning, alcoholic brain disease - are put to the lie for anybody who has examined Van Gogh's writing during that period, as I had the opportunity to do once, in 1987, when I visited a touring Van Gogh retrospective ("Van Gogh in Arles") at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. There I came upon a trove of letters on display, written by Van Gogh in a second language for him, English, to a patron in New York City. His command of the language was astonishingly refined and sophisticated, demonstrating a wide vocabulary and mastery of subtleties of grammar and syntax.
Therefore, Van Gogh's brain was functioning just fine in 1888-89, thank you; i.e., he did not have a dementing disorder, or other persisting "brain damage" in the ordinary sense of that term. Many believe that he had bipolar disease, and, indeed, that's highly likely, given his waxing-waning course of episodes of disordered behavior late in his life, which ended in a suicidal depression. His periodic grand mal seizures in that period were probably "rum fits" - caused by alcohol withdrawal. But several neurologists have also suggested that he suffered from another sort of seizure disorder, a more rare phenomenon marked by lengthy compulsive paroxysms of driven activity. This could possibly be the case for Daniel Johnston as well.
A far less exotic possibility is that he (as well as Van Gogh, for that matter) suffers from a form of autism, Asperger's Syndrome, marked by driven, prodigious, though often perseverative artistic productivity - in persons gifted with talent for the task - and major deficits in social graces and the capacity for intimate interpersonal relations. Thus there may be a parallel between Johnston's pattern and the compulsive nonstop output of outsider artists like Poland's Nikifor, depicted in the recent docudrama, My Nikifor, and Chicago's late Henry Darger, as shown in the film of his life, In the Realms of the Unreal.
This film also has striking parallels to another recent documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me, about a 60s Texas rocker, Roger “Roky” Erickson, whose mental health succumbed in the 70s to hereditary forces, drugs and the stresses of the pop musicians' life. But Erickson developed schizophrenia, a tougher disorder to contain without debilitating effects on key aptitudes. Nor did Erickson have the benefit of caring parents who welcomed and arranged decent psychiatric care from the getgo, as Johnston’s parents have done. Unlike Erickson, who does little in his daily life nowadays, despite the heroic efforts of a brother to rehabilitate him, Daniel Johnston has come back.
Yet, even in the best of circumstances, life is difficult for someone with severe bipolar disorder. I've already mentioned Johnston's obesity, almost certainly caused in part by his medications. And, just in December, he was hospitalized again, not for a mood episode but in delirium (acute confusional state) because of kidney failure. Accounts vary, but both lithium toxicity and infection have been mentioned in Web postings as the causes. Lithium is the most widely used and most effective mood stabilizing medication for bipolar disorder, but one of its relatively uncommon hazards is impairment of kidney function. Latest information on the Net is that Johnston has bounced back well: he's out of the hospital and working once again.
This film is very well crafted until near the end. Actually it seems as if the filmmakers really didn’t know how or when to end it. There are a half dozen moments in the last 20 minutes when they could have done. See more, including examples of Johnston's graphic art, at these websites: www.museumoflove.com and www.rejectedunknown.com/feature.htm. Grade: B+ (02/06)
DEVRAI - SACRED GROVE (Sumitra Bhave & Sunil Sukthankar, India, 2005, 117 min.). THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA IN (EAST) INDIA. According to Gayathri Ramprasad, a mental health advocate here in Oregon who is a native of Bangalore, this is the first narrative feature film on the theme of mental illness to ever achieve commercial distribution in India. It is the troubled story of Sheshshayee ("Shesh") Desai (Atul Kulkarni), a man with early promise who then failed to graduate from college or pursue medical studies, as he had intended. Shesh then develops paranoid schizophrenia, and now, when we works at all, he tends the family’s mango orchard in a small rural village.
Through flashbacks, we learn that as a child Shesh was jolly and playful, but in adolescence he gradually changed, becoming a loner with a penchant for mercurial mood swings who slowly slid into increasing eccentricity and, finally, following his mother’s death five years earlier, when he was 30, he became absorbed in a delusional life centered on his devotion to a sacred patch of woods near his village, what is known as a “devrai” or sacred grove.
Shesh comes to experience this grove as animate and a more compelling reality than his ordinary life, which is marked by estrangement from and fear of others, and a tendency toward irrational, irritable encounters with family members and strangers alike. Shesh develops a paranoid concern that others intend to destroy his beloved grove, a place he sees as offering a solution to all the “chaos” Shesh perceives in the ordinary world.
He also becomes fixated on Parvati, the wife of a family servant, whom, in his fantasies, he imbues with magical powers and the sensuous attractiveness of an enticing goddess. In Shesh’s mind, Parvati becomes his sacred lover, an inhabitant of the grove (like his mother after her death, Shesh believes) who gives a heart and human face to his devrai. Parvati seems to be a replacement for both Shesh’s mother and also for a younger cousin, Kalyani, for whom Shesh had developed an abiding infatuation while growing up.
We also follow the impact of Shesh’s progressively disturbed life on his family, as he grows ever more compromised by his illness. His odyssey culminates in a frank psychotic episode while visiting his sister Seena Gore (Sonali Kulkarni), five years his junior, and her scientist spouse Sudish (Tushar Dalvi) in the city. When Shesh erupts at a reception in the Gores’ home honoring Sudish for his recent promotion, Sudish becomes furious and remains impatient with Shesh thereafter. Seena is caught in the middle, trying to placate her husband while offering support and seeking professional aid for her brother.
To that end Shesh is admitted to a psychiatric facility where he and Seena encounter a sophisticated team headed by an older, kindly psychiatrist (played by Mohan Agashe). Shesh receives ECT and medications that suppress his erratic behaviors but do not eradicate his mystical, naturistic delusional system. Near the end Shesh returns from the city to his village, where he will be tended by Kalyani, who was recently divorced. While the Gores see this hopefully as an effective relocation, we can tell that Shesh remains seriously deluded, and that it will be only a matter of time until his next psychotic breakdown.
Mr. Kulkarni does an admirable job of portraying Shesh in a manner that is clinically authentic. His periodic monosyllabic utterances, angry, agitated outbursts, vocalization of auditory hallucinations, negativism, rhythmic mannerisms and movements, and avoidance of eye contact with others all are behaviors that ring true to his disorder. While taking medications and visiting a day treatment center at the hospital, Shesh tries to follow the advice of fellow patients, telling himself that his visions of Parvati are not real, are hallucinatory. This causes the vision to disappear, though only temporarily.
The film addresses most issues associated with severe and persistent mental illness. Questions of causation (faulty parenting versus chemical imbalance), proper treatment (institutionalization versus care in the community), developing the patient’s capacity to resist giving in to delusions and hallucinatory experience, and family involvement are all explored in some detail.
The problem with all this is that the messages are delivered in a heavily didactic manner, even preachy at times. The fundamental truths explained here are already well known to mental health professionals the world over, and known also to the more sophisticated lay audiences in developed nations that are likely to seek out foreign language films.
That said, I should hasten to add that this film will probably be highly edifying for lay audiences in India and possibly throughout the Indian diaspora, e.g., here in North America, in Britain, Europe and Down Under.
Besides its didactic tone, other weaknesses of the film are its length and confusing cast of female characters. At nearly two hours running time, the film would be stronger if edited down to 90 minutes or so. It took me about halfway into the film or longer before I was able to sort out Parvati, Kalyani and Seena (in the flashbacks when she was much younger). A plus is the photography, which is imaginative, with lovely use of saturated colors.
Devrai is a joint production of the Schizophrenia Awareness Society and the K. S. Vani Memorial Trust, Dhule, both in India. Support also came from the Maharashtra Seva Samiti Organization and from several sources in Canada: the Canadian International Development Agency, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, and the Wild Rose Foundation, also located in Alberta. (In Marathi) Grades: A- for clinical authenticity; C for overall dramatic and cinematic values. (12/05)
THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Robert Bresson, France, 1950). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; This was Bresson's third feature length film, made after Angels of Sin in 1943 and Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne in 1945 - both of which were made during the Nazi occupation, after Bresson had been interred as prisoner of war for 9 months in Germany. Diary is one of three films - along with A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959) - said by Anthony Lane to represent Bresson at his best, in the 1950s. (This and the other Bresson films mentioned here are part of a retrospective of 10 of his 11 feature length films brought together by James Quandt, of the Cinematheque Ontario, first shown in Toronto, later at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in early 1999.)
In this, his longest, film a young priest seems to have everything going against him: he is socially awkward and diffident; lacks the skills to manage his first assignment out of seminary, as parish priest in a small village church; he is morose and melancholy; virtually no one in the village takes well to him; and he is dying of stomach cancer. Nevertheless, he is able to transcend his dilemma and touch several lives, including an older priest from whom he often seeks advice, a young girl in his catechism class, and the wife of the leading citizen of the town, a countess who herself has suffered from depression for years since the death of her young son. The drama is poignant, rich, vivid. Bresson uses a camera in the most delicate manner. Often stationary, he lets the action come to the camera, and he also often uses sound out of view to complete the scene. A remarkable, completely accessible, though decidedly heavy dose of the human struggle to move from torment to grace. (In French) Grade: A (10/00)
DIVIDED WE FALL (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 2001). THEMES: COURAGE AND HAZARDS OF PROTECTING JEWS IN NAZI CONTROLLED EUROPE; THE PLACE OF HUMOR IN TRAGIC STORIES. Story set in a Bohemian (Czech) town during the Nazi occupation of WW II. Excellent and contrasting principal characters, each well developed by fine actors. A couple hides a Jewish fugitive they know, who escaped from a camp. Josef, the husband, is an unlikely hero, a malingerer who exagerates a gimpy gait to avoid conscription. The couple’s close friend, Horst, is part of the Nazi-controlled puppet government in the town. Main dramatic tension is provided by numerous close calls when Horst comes to visit, often rendered as comedic. Horst is a terrific character invention for sustaining the tragicomic atmosphere. His buffoonery is funny. But he is also a loose cannon. There is no predicting what he will do, whether his conduct and judgment will be motivated primarily by his loyalties to his old friends or to his new overlords. Nor can we ever be sure just how clever or perceptive he is. Thus Horst's presence assures constant tension. The story moves along at a brisk pace and is entirely absorbing. The photography and sets are excellent. This film raises again an issue that first surfaced in discussions of Roberto Begnini's film, Life is Beautiful. Is it morally and artistically defensible to poke fun at the Holocaust? I discuss this question further in an article, “Humor and the Holocaust.” This film passes the test for not dishonoring the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. It is a fine film, rich with interesting characters, humor and enough tension to make it believable. Grade: B+ (02/01)
DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE (Kim Longinotto & Ziba Mir-Hossieni, Iran, 1998). THEME: WOMENS ISSUES: LIMITS OF WOMENS RIGHTS IN IRAN. Despite poor quality 16 mm format, and awkward shooting and editing, this documentary still offers an extraordinary, candid look at proceedings in a contemporary Tehran domestic relations court. Lack of women's rights is glaringly depicted. What surprises is the eloquence of women pleading their cases. (In Farsi) Grade: film values: C; depiction of topic: A- (02/99)
DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee, US, 1989). THEME: CONFLICTS IN BLACK COMMUNITY AND BETWEEN BLACKS & WHITES. SPOILER ALERT! Arguably Lee’s best fictional work (his later biopic Malcolm X might be his masterpiece, though I'd still vote for Right Thing). This brilliantly crafted film captures the tensions along a one-block section of a nearly all black community in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district in the late 1980s. Perhaps most revealing are the fault lines we can see within the black community itself: older vs. younger; militant vs. tolerant; middle class work ethic vs. a layabout mentality.
Then there are the interfaces with non-blacks: the barely tolerated Korean couple who run a grocery and, at the center of the drama, an Italian pizza maker, Sal (Danny Aiello), and his two sons. Sal has run his shop on this block for 25 years and enjoys not only black business but a strong measure of goodwill as well. Sal takes no guff from anybody, but he’s also benevolent in his rough way, quick to give a dollar for beer money to Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the alcoholic elder statesman on the block, who sweeps Sal’s sidewalk, or another dollar to Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who suffers from cerebral palsy and sells photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X together, before their split over the question of black violence. Sal’s sons reflect different takes on the white-black divide: Pino (John Turturro) is anti-black and wants Sal to get out, to sell the pizzeria. Vito (Richard Edson) is like his dad and feels ties to this community.
For example, Vito likes Mookie (Lee), who works at the pizzeria and is a sort of go-between, an ambassador between blacks and whites. He’s also a link between the live-and-let-live world of the older black majority and the more militant younger men, and also between the blacks and the Hispanics, including his foul mouthed girlfriend (and mother of his son) Tina (Rosie Perez, making her film debut here). Hiphop radio dj Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson in one of three Lee film roles that helped establish his career) also strives to straddle the Hispanic-black divide. Things go awry when Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a young malcontent, criticizes Sal for having only pictures of whites on the wall (Italians specifically). He mobilizes another surly type, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and the two confront Sal, demanding that black photos be put up. This confrontation triggers the sad ending of the film, a major riot in which Raheem is killed by police and Sal’s pizzeria is trashed and torched. The film’s final frames are back-to-back quotes from MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, espousing their diametrically opposing views on the use of violence in the African-American quest for equality.
Among other things, this film is gorgeously photographed: there are wonderful uses of vivid color and numerous richly imagined scenes. It moves along well. The characters are without exception interesting. The criticisms seem even handed, if harsh. With Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, a grumpy Brechtian moral judge of everybody else’s conduct on the block, serenely ensconced on ethical high ground, observing the street action from a perch at her windowsill. She's especially tough on Da Mayor, her agemate, accusing him of dereliction of leadership in favor of alcohol. Mother Sister’s terrible, keening emotional breakdown at the end, as she stands in the street gazing at the fire raging in Sal's place, makes her the real barometer of this tragedy. To witness her loss of composure is a shocking moment.
Roger Ebert noted that “…the central fact of this film…is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” This film holds up very well 15 years after it was made. Grade: A- (08/04)
DON JUAN DEMARCO (Jeremy Leven, US, 1995) THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK; BIPOLAR I DISORDER(?); PSYCHIATRIST'S RELATIONSHIP WITH SPOUSE. Marlon Brando is a state hospital psychiatrist who takes on the case of a young man (Johnny Depp) who is quite energetic and boastful that he is a reincarnation of Don Juan. He knows just which buttons to push in Brando’s character, to manipulate his vulnerabilities in just the way a manic patient might do. For more on this film, see my article, "Beyond Outrage." Grade: B (9/98)
DOOR TO DOOR (Steven Schachter, US, 2001). THEME: MAN WITH CEREBRAL PALSY CREATES AN INDEPENDENT, SUCCESSFUL LIFE THROUGH FORCE OF WILL. William H. Macy’s amazing dramatization of the life and story of Portland’s own Watkins Man, Bill Porter. With Helen Mirren as Porter’s mother. Macy does an uncannily accurate turn, capturing Porter’s posture, movements, dysarthric voice and obstinate, fierce sense of independence. I know this because the real Bill Porter knocked at my door many times. Grade: B (11/02)
DOWNPOUR RESURFACING (Frances Nkara, US, 2003) THEMES: FAR-REACHING EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL TRAUMA ON ADULT PERSONALITY, AND RECOVERY WITH PSYCHOTHERAPY. This is a short (28 minutes) B & W experimental film about the life experiences of Robert K. Hall, a Northern California psychiatrist and poet, now in his late 60s. When he was 3 ½ or 4 years old, Hall was abducted and sexually molested for several days until rescued by family friends. He didn’t speak for a year afterwards. He repressed memories of his trauma and developed what he says was a “false personality” of serene normality.
At age 5 his mother became perhaps “psychotically depressed” (Hall’s term) and she began to beat him regularly with a leather belt, to help make him a better person, to get the evil out, to “purify me.” There were “a few” such punishment sessions. At 11, a 22 year old man, a hired hand working for Hall’s father, initiated sexual contact with Hall that went on for several years. Hall in fact became progressively more fond of and attached to this man, who was emotionally indifferent and ultimately rejecting. In the film Hall explains in a simple, lucid manner, how through psychotherapy he came to recover memories of his early trauma, then to understand and integrate the effects of this, the later sexual relationship in adolescence, and his family relationships on his personality, and the changes he has made.
The film is narrated by Dr. Hall, whom we meet and see as a talking head from time to time. He is a gentle, affable, well spoken fellow. Most of the time, as he tells us his story, the accompanying visuals are special ones created by Nkara to symbolically evoke or represent various emotional states and events Hall is describing. She uses dance and movement sequences, glimpses of a Japanese tea ceremony, reenactments of a young boy helping his mother do chores, and scenes of rain splashing on the rippling surface of a lake, among others. The overall effects are at once poetic and lyrical, transformative and edifying about the far reaching effects of childhood trauma and the possibilities for recovery from these effects. If only Dave, the sad protagonist in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, could have had such a beneficent fate. Screened at Sundance and LA Film Festivals in 2003. Won awards at New Jersey and Ann Arbor Film Festivals. Seen on January 28, 2004, on PBS/Independent Lens. Video available for purchase from Nkara Films, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Grade: A (01/04)
DREAM WITH THE FISHES (Finn Taylor, US, 1997). THEMES: INTERDEPENDENT SUPPORTIVE FRIENDSHIP;SUICIDAL IMPULSES; AIDS; VOYEURISM; SUBSTANCE ABUSE. Terry (David Arquette) is a world class nerd whose social life is limited to voyeurism. Nick (Brad Hunt) is a reckless young druggie who lives with one of the women Terry likes to spy on. Nick is dying of an unnamed disease, presumably AIDS. These are both desperate men, who meet on a bridge, where Terry is planning to jump. Two more unlikely mates could hardly be imagined, but this story of their quirky friendship and oddball efforts to help one another is captivating and paradoxically believable. Rough but wonderful, this debut film for Taylor, shown first at Sundance 97, is full of inventive, surprising turns that keep one in suspense. It is low budget, the sound has more echoes than a bad cell phone transmission, and the photography and editing are nothing to write home about, but the screenplay is ingenious and the acting of the two principals is splendid. Fine soundtrack features Greg Brown's "Sadness" - and the rentable VHS adds a music video at the end of Brown's number. Grade: B (12/00)
THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS (Erick Zonca, France, 1998). THEME: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. Story of two young women who seem at first to have much in common. But Isa (Elodie Bouchez ) proves to be open and cares about others, while Marie (Natacha Regnier) is self-absorbed, shy, explosive and self destructive, and their differences emerge ever more sharply as the story unfolds. Bouchez and Regnier were named as co-best actresses for these roles at Cannes. (In French) Grades: drama: B; borderline personality: A- (02/99)
THE DRESSER (Peter Yates, UK/US, 1983). THEME: INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP OF TWO OLDER MEN. Superb drama of two men who desperately need one another to go on in life. Set early in WW II, during Germany's bombing of Britain, "Sir" (Albert Finney) leads a traveling Shakespeare repertory troupe. He's an aging star, but is unraveling from the strains of age, illness, and having to make do with a les than desirable acting troupe, the war effort having conscripted away the best players. On the day of his 227th performance of Lear, he literally goes mad and is briefly hospitalized. But he signs out and returns to the theatre, where is longsuffering dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay) somehow bullies, cajols and flatters Sir into makeup and dress and out onto the stage, where he does his usual brilliant if rather melodramatic job. It is this complex interdependent relationship between Sir and Norman that comprises the drama of this film. And one cannot imagine a more perfect rendering of a relationship of two twisted, powerful but altogether different sorts of men. It is spellbinding and brilliant, sober drama, not the comedy of The Odd Couple. Fifteen years later, Courtenay and Finney made another fine film about two dissimilar but highly interdependent fellows, A Rather English Marriage. Grade: A (08/02)
DRINKING APART: Families Under the Influence (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, US, 2000, 71 min.). THEMES: ALCOHOLISM; SUBSTANCE ABUSE; IMPACT OF ADDICTION ON FAMILIES; FAMILY THERAPY; ADOLESCENT SUBSTANCE ABUSE; FAITH-BASED TREATMENT PROGRAMS. Psychiatrist-documentary filmmaker Ken Rosenberg turns his attention from persistent mental illness (Through Madness, Back From Madness) to addictions in this outstanding film made for the HBO/America Undercover series. As in the other films, his method is to introduce us to several patients (in this film it's three families), show us something about their treatment and the caregivers who treat them, and then follow their course for the next 18 months or so.
Dr. Rosenberg lets the families do most of the talking; in fact, in this film, there are no voiceovers. Families were selected from among those seeking help at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City, which treats families in crisis. We see parts of the intake interviews in each case, and glimpses of several subsequent therapy sessions. (As in all of his films, Dr. Rosenberg shoots spontaneous scenes throughout; none are based on reenactments.)
The families differ in makeup, no doubt by design. Sam and Toinette are African-American, perhaps in their early 40s. Both have spiraled downhill because of substance abuse: indeed, their five-year marriage has been conducted in a haze of intoxication. It has been a costly ride. Sam drank his way out of a Wall Street bond manager’s job; Toinette lost her career as a police officer. As we meet them, Toinette has just been released from an 11-month prison-based alcohol/drug rehab program, after conviction for felonies related to her drug and alcohol use. Sam, who has been caring for the couple's two young children, has been clean and sober for 4 months. Toinette and Sam have never known each other sober and feel like they are starting over, more or less as strangers.
Eric and Jillian are 30-ish, upwardly mobile, white middle class real estate salespeople who share a toney Manhattan apartment. They have in common with Sam and Toinette the fact that their relationship was built on a foundation of mutual alcohol excess. Their first date was at a bar, and for a year now they have lived together. They often drop $200 in an evening drinking at bars, and do this two or three times a week. Jillian "always" drinks to the point of blacking out. They bicker incessantly and often get to the office either late or not at all because of hangovers.
The third group consists of three people in the same household: Erica, a 17 year old Hispanic-American youth who is drinking a lot regularly, smoking “weed” and sometimes staying out all night on the streets with her girlfriends, her mother, a former heroin addict who is now securely clean and sober, and the mother’s boyfriend. (We catch glimpses of the grandmother and Amanda, Erica's older sister, both important in the family network but not engaged in the treatment.) The mother and boyfriend seem responsible, but mother and daughter are often locked in battles. Erica used to fret and plead with her mother, when she was addicted; now the roles are reversed.
One of the unexpected pleasures in this film is the window it provides into the operations of family therapy. Psychiatrist Peter Steinglass, Executive Director of the Ackerman Institute at the time this film was made, has had decades of experience working with families in which substance abuse is a central problem. We have the privilege of watching Steinglass and others on his “team” of therapists working with members of these three families: it is state-of-the-art therapy.
Over the next year and a half we follow the struggles experienced by these families. Sam and Toinette both experience relapses, and Toinette enters a faith-based residential program for three months. Sunday services at the rehab center’s sponsoring church feature a solid gospel choir and sermons that speak to the challenges of change for clients enrolled in the group-oriented, self help based rehab program. Later the couple ponder separating, but, at last contact, they are still together, though one can sense that their situations - individually and as a family - probably remain tenuous.
Eric and Jillian experience escalating emotional battles as early therapy sessions mobilize strong feelings. They drop out of therapy and soon thereafter break off their relationship, apparently for good. Eighteen months on, each of them is doing well though unattached. Jillian has reduced her alcohol consumption significantly. Eric has also cut down his drinking and, after dropping out nine years earlier, has returned to complete college, where, ironically, one of his jobs as a dorm supervisor is to enforce alcohol/drug use rules.
Erica leaves town and joins the Job Corps. After a bumpy course in the early months, she does eventually graduate, with a G.E.D., some computer skills, and a new capacity to smile. She reconciles with her mother and plans to go on to community college.
The structure and editing of this film are excellent. So is the photography, making allowances for the unavoidably grainy footage often shot at awkward angles during family therapy sessions, which were filmed by Dr. Rosenberg himself under difficult circumstances, he has told me. The musical score is terrific: some jazz from Joshua Redman, one or two contemporary pop numbers, and that gospel choir.
Dr. Rosenberg had as consultants some of the most prominent authorities in the field of substance abuse: Drs. Richard J. Frances, Mark Galanter and Robert Millman, as well as Dr. Steinglass. This is one of the best films I have seen – documentary or narrative – both in its portrayal of the impact of substance abuse on families and in its illumination of the process of family therapy.
(This film is now available from Films for the Humanities and Sciences, Princeton NJ - on line at: http://www.films.com/.) Grade: A (10/05)
DRUGSTORE COWBOY (Gus Van Sant, US, 1989). THEMES: OPIATE ADDICTION, DRUG DEPENDENCE. SPOILER ALERT! The opening credits come along slowly, lettered in blue. A pensive piano backs singer Abbey Lincoln quietly intoning, “...for all we know, we will never meet again…” And behind the credits, in shadowy surrounds, we see Matt Dillon’s face, gazing upward, his head nestled on a blue pillow as he speaks languidly. He’s reminiscing about heading up a gang of “dope fiends” – that’s what he calls them. Then he introduces each of the others to us, and there are brief cuts of them at play, hiding from the camera and each other behind the supports of an overhead roadway. Another place, a happier time perhaps. And only after this, feeling certain that Dillon’s character is floating somewhere on a heroin high, or something like it, are we confronted suddenly with the fact that he is lying in an ambulance, IVs running, wounded, speeding away in the night toward a hospital somewhere.
It’s an astonishing prelude to possibly the best drama ever made about junkies, or at least a certain breed of junkies, those who steal prescription narcotics and other drugs from pharmacies. Who prefer to shoot the real clean stuff, like the highly desirable “D” (Dilaudid), or morphine if they must. But there’s also cocaine, amphetamines, whatever else they can snatch or subsequently trade for. Bob Hughes (Dillon) has been stealing and shooting drugs all his life, he says. He’s been busted. Sent to prison. Now he’s 26. Married to Dianne (Kelly Lynch in a career breakout role for her); they’ve been together for years, since they started playing together at age 5. They’re training a new kid, Rick (James Le Gros), and his ditzy tagalong girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham). Nadine has a special little talent: she can simulate seizures really well, a noteworthy distraction to lure an unsuspecting pharmacist from behind the counter long enough for Bob to rifle through the drug drawers in back and get away.
Bob is addicted to drugs but possibly even more to the thrill of stealing. He has his aversions too. He avoids sex, and, for that matter, almost any affectionate contact with Dianne. During a prolonged wait for Bob to return after a drug heist, Dianne, worried it is taking so long, tells Rick, “Bob’s like a rabbit, in and out in no time – and that goes for more things than robbing a pharmacy.” Bob is also seriously superstitious. Nadine mentions wanting to get a dog, and Bob explodes, saying that the mere mention of the word ‘dog’ puts a 15 day hex on the gang, when it would be unsafe to steal. Turns out a pet dog Dianne and Bob once owned led police to their apartment and a bust, whereupon the cops had the dog euthanized. No one is permitted to leave a hat on a bed: that could produce years of bad luck, even a lifetime. This belief is never explained.
We are taken along on various adventures: drug heists, shooting up scenes, nasty encounters with police, like the search of the gang’s house that leaves everything destroyed, a troubled visit to Bob’s mother’s place. All these scenes are roughened: nothing happens neatly. There’s little glamour. Even the depiction of a few of Bob’s opiate-induced reveries convey that these are only brief narcotized moments in a life dominated by hustling and danger. When he’s on methylamphetamine, Bob is restless, jittery and all the more obsessive about drug heist plans. The others may be capable of some pleasure, but fun of any sort seems beyond Bob’s reach.
A narcotics detective named Gentry (James Remar) seems especially interested in busting Bob. And Gentry isn’t above sucker punching him in the gut a few times after a particular prank set up by Bob leads to another cop being shot by someone else. And yet we see later on that Gentry can also feel protective toward Bob, when he warns him that the other officer, now recovered, is planning revenge. We meet Bob’s mother (Grace Zabriskie): sarcastic, self protective, jaded by a thousand of Bob’s broken promises, ripoffs and failures as a son. And yet we also see that her love for him, while withered, is not dead.
With Gentry breathing hard after the cop shooting, certain Bob was behind the incident, Bob takes the gang on the road, in a car with a hole cut out in the floor to jettison drugs if police want to stop them. Drugs they will need to avoid withdrawal are bussed ahead in suitcases to various places along their planned route. They also rob drugstores along the way. And then one evening, Nadine, left alone in their motel room while the others go out to rob a hospital, shoots up a lethal overdose. She had left her leather hat on the bed. Spooked already by this coincidence, Bob’s apprehension registers off the charts when the motel fills up with uniformed officers arriving for a sheriffs’ convention.
After burying Nadine in the woods, Bob announces he is returning to the city; he wants to enter a 21-day methadone detox program and attempt to live the straight life. Dianne is shocked and refuses to go with him, asserting that she’s not capable of getting off junk. The scene shifts to Bob’s early recovery. We see him in therapy groups, where the people and the dialogue are altogether authentic, and starting an apprenticeship as a machinist’s assistant. He lives in a SRO in the skid road area of the city. Turning up there as a fellow resident is none other than William S. Burroughs, the high priest of junkiedom, in the role of Tom, a Catholic priest defrocked for heroin addiction years before. Bob and Tom go back to early days when Bob was an alter boy.
At the end Bob is confronted by opportunities to return to drugs and to Dianne. There’s a remarkable moment when she comes to visit. Bob tries to tell her about his recent straight experience. How it feels OK to have a job and a place to come home to. How there are certain days when he actually feels pretty good, in a manner he hadn’t known beofre. She listens for a little while but then, in a moment of supreme irony, she tells him that he’s crazy to be talking this way. And so he and Dianne part (she’s with Rick now), and Bob gives the bag of drugs Dianne has left for him to Tom. In the final scenes, Bob, still clean and sober, is shot by David (Max Perlich), a pesky junkie acquaintance who wants revenge for all the times Bob had humiliated him. This shooting takes us back to where we began, in the ambulance, Bob’s head at rest on a blue pillow, heading off into the night, hoping he will live.
Why is this one of the best ever films about opiate addiction? For one thing, it dashes the stereotype of the hedonistic addict. The hustling life of a typical junkie is a joyless life, a continual effort to stay one step ahead of withdrawal and the police. It takes a quart of effort to produce a thimble full of drug-wrought relaxation. Substitution of drugs for sex is a common phenomenon, partly a result of drug-induced suppression of libido. Major depression is also rampant among heroin addicts, occurring eventually in over 50%. Another point: it takes a clever mind to succeed in hustling; many opiate addicts are bright and skillful people, like Bob. That’s one reason that peer-run therapeutic communities succeed, and that many recovering addicts can become skillful counselors. The inversion of values Dianne demonstrates is another key characteristic of junkies: the hooked life is sensible, the straight life is crazy, Dianne says.
William Burroughs’s presence here, besides giving the film added cachet - a further imprimatur of authenticity, also reminds us of the enduring susceptibility of opiate addicts to relapse. I’ve worked with men currently addicted in their 60s who have been in and out of addiction and treatment for 40 years or more. Finally, no false or incorrect signs or symptoms of drug use are presented here. The only soft spot in this otherwise realistic film is the ease and rapidity of Bob’s early recovery. His steady, incremental success would be more likely to occur had he been placed on methadone maintenance rather than detox.
The screenplay, written by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, with additional uncredited dialogue supplied by Burroughs, is based on a novel by James Fogle, that I have not read. So I’m not sure where credit is due for the realism of the addiction themes in this film. Regarding cinematic values, credit Van Sant with drawing from his cast outstanding performances all around. The characters are conceived so that nobody is one dimensional, all good or all bad. Even small roles (Gentry, Bob’s mother) are skillfully nuanced. Van Sant adroitly arranges for Graham’s Nadine, an ingenue, to react directly and honestly, to remind us of what’s real from within the circle of the gang, by never catering to the illusions and pretenses that animate the other members. There are several natural, understated touches, like Bob’s genuflection, almost an afterthought, as he turns away from the spot where he has just buried Nadine. The repeated use of a few powerful musical numbers (the languorous “For All We Know” juxtaposed with the throbbing “The Israelites”) succeeds in defining the shifting moods and pace of the group.
For me, this one’s the gold standard for junkie movies, easily dusting such recent offerings as Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream and High Art. For more, see my article, "Junkie Epiphanies: East and West." Grade: A- (08/04)