AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

2/29/08

Resisting Paradise
2003
Director: Barbara Hammer
Cast: Marie-Ange Allibert Rodriguez, Marguerite Matisse, Henri Matisse

By Nancy Keefe Rhodes


It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. When filmmaker Barbara Hammer went to France in the spring of 1999 to Cassis, a few miles east of the port city of Marseilles, famous for its limestone cliffs and its wine, she intended to investigate the unique quality of light that had drawn painters to that region. For example, the painter Pierre Bonnard left Paris for good in 1910 for the southern coast, and Henri Matisse had moved south in 1917, settling near Nice. They carried on a lively correspondence into their later years – living until 1947 and 1954 respectively – about the light and landscape that so nurtured their palettes, and both refused to budge during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. We have all probably seen light a little differently since the Impressionists, whether we realize it or not. And for Hammer, this project would be a natural investigation. A painter once herself, she’s engaged in experiments with light, editing, format, film emulsions, and approaches to subject matter in 80-some videos and films over the last four decades. She even notes Matisse’s remark that cinema “has advantages” over painting.


Once there, Hammer discovered others had moved through Cassis and the southern coast during World War II besides painters hunting perfect light – refugees fleeing the Nazis, and resisters, both in the thousands. While Matisse painted, his estranged wife Amélie, his son Jean and his daughter Marguerite were part of the French Resistance. The Gestapo caught and tortured Marguerite, who drove to Paris three times a week with messages, and shipped her to Ravensbrück concentration camp.


As Hammer uncovered an aging network of survivors from those years – Lisa Fittko took Jewish refugees on foot through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, Marie-Ange Allibert Rodriguez supplied identity papers and food stamps from her City Hall office – another convergence de-railed her film plans.


In March 1999, NATO began bombing the break-away Serbian province of Kosovo, intending to drive out the Serbian police and paramilitaries engaged in atrocities against the majority Albanian population, the latest convulsion in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia that had stretched across the 1990s.


Every night in Cassis, Hammer says, she watched Kosovar refugees on French TV as they fled “ethnic cleansing.” When they streamed home again in June, revenge killings against the Serbs started, even as the UN tried to organize elections. So the film that Hammer finished in 2003 – and is bringing to Syracuse next week for two guest screenings – is not what she set out to make. Instead she decided to investigate these questions: What are our responsibilities during war? How can art exist during political crisis?


Convincingly gorgeous, Resisting Paradise captures what could so visually intoxicate Bonnard that he could “drown” in the landscape there. Hammer’s capacity to recreate this on-screen endows her questions with a power that carries this film well past the standard educational documentary. To address those questions, she creates a kind of dialogue between the painters, with snatches read from their correspondence, and “ordinary people,” made up of re-enactments, readings and voice-overs, archival footage, new interviews and footage that imagines the transformation of what’s seen to what’s painted.


The comparison is unsettling and challenging. Matisse writes to Bonnard that “a little painting no bigger than your hand sold for 100,000 francs – this is a golden age for artists!” His grandson follows, describing his mother’s torture (and it sounds like water-boarding to me). Lisa Fittko describes the seemingly failed escape and suicide by morphine tablets of philosopher Walter Benjamin, whom she guided to Spain’s border, where the Spanish police stopped his party and held them overnight in order to send them back. Forger of identity papers and food stamps Marie-Ange Rodriguez, who says she is “87 ½” and in fact died shortly after Hammer’s interview, recalls, “I was never afraid. Everyone knew and no one betrayed me, never, even those on the side of the Germans.”


That comparison also made some artists at Harvard, to whom she showed the film while it was still a work in progress, feel “attacked.” In order to soften Matisse, she added more footage of his grandchildren. Though Jacqueline Matisse Monnier and Claude Duthuit provide the details of their mother’s and grandmother’s treatment at the hands of the Gestapo, they also insist that Matisse – given his health – could do nothing other than he did.


Now we can hardly miss more synchronicity in Hammer’s bringing this film to Syracuse at this point. After years under UN administration, Kosovo finally declared independence on February 17th. Within days, 150, 000 Serbs protested in their capital’s streets, burned and looted foreign shops, and fire-bombed embassies of nations supporting Kosovo (ours included).


Hammer hasn’t been to Kosovo, but last May she was in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, where traveling in a car with Serbian plates meant hurled eggs and angry shouts. Speaking by phone on Monday from Woodstock, where she lives when not in Manhattan, Hammer said these events of recent weeks “really bring this full circle and may lead to a situation similar to 1999.”


Hammer visits Onondaga Community College in Syracuse on March 6th as the guest of the Reel World documentary series, part of Art Across Campus. Reel World brings indie documentaries with limited release to campus with screenings that welcome the wider community; this year’s Art Across Campus explores how artistic expression documents wartime experience. Faculty organizer Linda Herbert says Hammer’s vast body of work – experimental documentaries and queer cinema landmarks like Nitrate Kisses (1992) – and the start of Women’s History Month all make this “a perfect fit.”


Renting Hammer’s films is hard – netflix.com only offers History Lessons (2000), the third in her trilogy of experimental documentaries about lesbian and gay history (besides Nitrate Kisses, 1995’s Tender Fictions) – but Women Make Movies carries her earlier films, some are for sale on her website (barbarahammerfilms.com), and she’s considering other commercial DVD distribution. She’s also represented in the landmark WACK! international exhibition of 1970’s Feminist art, on view now until May at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, where she’ll speak on a panel of experimental filmmakers this Saturday.


Hammer has also just finished two films about the dying tradition of women deep-sea divers of the matriarchal Korean island of Jen-Ju Do. Like Resisting Paradise itself and My Babushka (2001), which documents her search for her Ukrainian roots, the two Jen-Ju Do films address concerns ranging wider than queer history. On Monday Hammer commented that Lover Other, her 2006 film about two women who were both artists and lovers and resisted the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey during World War II, is “really a coda” to Resisting Paradise, which had no lesbian or gay figures in it. “I went as far as I could go with lesbian history,” Hammer says. “I’m also an artist, a resister myself.”


A shorter version of this review appears in the 2/28/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

2/28/08

The Gates: HBO documentary

The Gates

Antonio Ferrera

Albert Maysles

 

HBO: The Gates:

"In 1979, the provocative artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude approached New York City officials with a proposal to create a temporary, large-scale work of art in Central Park.
The city turned them down. Twenty-four years and several administrations later, following dozens of high-concept, high-profile works of landscape art in numerous urban and rural locations around the globe, they finally got the city's approval to complete their vision. THE GATES chronicles the decades-long struggle of Christo and Jeanne-Claude to bring their most ambitious work of art to life.
Video Premieres HBO Tuesday, February 26 at 10pm ET/PT."

 

 

This epic HBO documentary has some interesting moments that go beyond the endless scenes of flapping  orange material blowing in the wind.  The cold, which can be inferred and the two creators, Christo and his companion Jeanne-Claude talking with the same theme of, this work of art is like our children, the child we never had, becomes an enigmatic signifier at the beginning of the documentary. But as the documentary moves on the meaning of the comparision between orange material and my child now grown, becomes clear.

What is noteworthy in the documentary is how this couple has changed in appearance over the years in the making of the Gates, although their spirit and their love for each other does not appear to have waned.

The magnificent, the extraordinary effort involved in putting the Gates up, in assisting the final product is truly awesome.

But for me, beyond the process of the creation and implementation, beyond the documentary’s lack of over all voice which I applaud (done in the Fred Weissman  method of the silent camera),  is the concept of change that this work of art brings to our conscious minds.

When asked if the Gates were in response to the 911 devastation  downtown the artist immediately said, no no.  We planned all this before the plans crashed.

 But the reporter asked a question that I have thought of and without perhaps realizing it, many others have spent time either in conscious or unarticulated reaction to an   everyday experience in New York City.  . Destruction, construction is everywhere and one can not help but react.

Human Beings are not comfortable with change.

What  the Gates did, whether good or bad. is to introduce into nature a man made element that dominated what nature was and is today. Of course there  are no Gates in nature.  There is an open sweeping unending flow and orange is a color seldom seen in pastoral setting. In Central Park, mid day, it is abrasive

 Whenever we go outside and see a tree, that is now missing, flowers that have died or a plot of land once a vacant lot now the home of more condos there is a reaction to the change as if it is death.  A moment that requires us to reflect upon, to exclaim, "What happened?"

The alteration brought about by the Gates in Center Park does mirror the destruction of the world trade center buildings because it is a moment in which the feeling of annihilation posed by the crashing plans  is revisited .  Nature never asked to be so adorned and the pit in downtown Manhattan is equally out of sync with what we know and expect.

My son held his marriage in the middle of the Gates, under a bridge with the weather so cold , the ceremony so long that my feet froze almost to gang green.  So I understand that for Christo and Jeanne-Claude the love of art, as does the love of children, brings us change regardless of the personal expense but it isn’t done without nostalgic moments of “I remember when”.

Linda Z

WBAI Women’s Collective

 

 

 

 

The Closet

The Closet

Francis Veber

 French with English subtittles

DVD 2001

 

This delightful, poignant comedy brings humor to a serious issue, homophobia. with such great love, warm and even significant depth to remind the viewer of Charlie Chaplin at his best.

I would have written a scathing review due to the ill treatment of the women in this film except that upon closer examination I realized that all the characters (including the kitten) were stick figure types without a shred of depth and that in essence is what makes this film all the more enjoyable and profound.

The one dementional character sketch brings out the viewer’s seemingly inherent prejudice against the homosexual even when the viewer feels safe from such ugly, knee jerk type thoughts.

Plot:

François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is a non-entity accountant, divorced two years but still in love with his wife and wanting a better relationship with their 17 year old son. Then, he is the last in his company to hear that he is to be fired.

A neighbour, Belone (Michael Aumont) suggests that Pignon create the impression that he is gay, so that the company executives will find it difficult to fire him or else be thought homophobic. The plan works. 

Although this film received only one award, from the 2001  Shanghai International Film Festival I found the experience of watching the ins and outs of this simple yet succinct plot totally delightful

A must see film for those moments when life seems dull and in serious need of a “pick me up”.

LindaZ

WBAI women’s collective

 

 

 

 

 

 

2/27/08

Hard Road Home: Surviving Life After Prison

By Logan Nakyanzi Pollard

Macky Alston has made a smart film, Hard Road Home, about a tough subject: ex-convicts. While it’s often the subject of entertainment – subplots of cop shows and law and order court dramas – we don’t frequently see the lives of ex-cons in a non-fictionalized, non-sensational way. The film follows men and women who try to start their lives over after serving time.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “from 1995 to 2005, the number of jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents rose from 193 to 256,” so ex-convicts are among us and growing. Up against that bleak reality is Hard Road, which tells the story of Julio Medina, jailed for selling drugs and transformed by his incarceration. He served twelve years and founded a group called Exodus Transitional Community upon his release. His goal - to aid others like himself get back into the world: find jobs, resolve their addictions, support their families, be productive, and hopefully never go back to jail.

Unfortunately, everyday stresses - a broken-down car, partner drama, bills to pay - can lead to major setbacks for the men and women in the program, throwing their lives into complete chaos,. Like the story of Alberto Lopez, who struggles to keep his family together, despite a resurgent drug addition.

The men and women in the film battle each day to help each other stay away from their own self-destructivity. I saw myself there; I’ve fought to change something in myself, to do better than I have done in the past. I found myself thinking something many people are told growing up, just hang on a little longer, things will work out.

Hard Road is a poignant view of our universal frailty and strength – how hard it is to find your way out of a box, even when the top is open. Just looking up, is not always so easy.

Hard Road Home is airing on PBS Independent Lens. Check local listings.
More information is at: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/hardroadhome.

Logan Nakyanzi Pollard is a producer at Air America and Go Left TV. She writes articles and film reviews online at The Huffington Post, at huffingtonpost.com. Logan is also a member of the Women Film Critics Circle.

2/24/08

Billy Elliot
2000/DVD 2001
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis

Reviewed by Nancy Keefe Rhodes


Stephen Daldry, who switched from stage directing to movies with the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot and went on to literary cinema like The Hours (2002), says that Billy Elliot is “not really a dance film.” Something like the 1935 Fred Astaire vehicle, Top Hat, is his idea of a dance film. There are clips from Top Hat inserted into this gritty tale of an 11-year-old miner’s son who secretly leaves Saturday boxing lessons to learn ballet, pirouetting in and out the white-tutus in the midst of the UK’s worst labor strike since World War II. Set in northeast England in 1984-85, this story does not employ clips of classic Hollywood fantasy about tuxedo-clad high society to embody Billy’s aspirations. No, they appear only as remote, grainy images flickering on the tiny TV of Billy’s addled old grandmother, whose recurrent line, regretful and longing, is, “They always said I could’ve danced professionally if I’d only had the training.”


Those old musicals trafficked in a little vaudeville melodrama, but audiences were after the escapist entertainment when Fred, Ginger and all those supporting extras took flight. Instead, Billy Elliot – though it has three or four wonderful dance sequences – repays a second look eight years later because it’s a surprisingly complex and savvy drama about how men struggle with social constraints – from wildly divergent styles of fatherhood, convictions about men’s aggressive nature that spring from hard times and class friction, and whatever largely consigning the “artistic side of life” to women comes to mean about the sexuality of artistic men.


Daldry’s cast is superior. For the title role, he reportedly combed through some 2,000 auditions to find relative newcomer Jamie Bell (now appearing in Jumper as Griffin), also a native of Billy’s northeast England, who hid the ballet part of this role from his own school mates during filming. Julie Walters – Molly Weasely in the Harry Potter films – plays the prickly, chain-smoking dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, who gives Billy private lessons and puts the Royal Ballet in his head. Pitch perfect as the profoundly reticent, still-grieving widower wrenched by disturbing emotion, Gary Lewis (Prime Suspect: The Final Act) is Billy’s dad Jackie.


It was a savage time. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives closed many open pit mines in the nationalized coal industry to increase efficiency and profit. Over 11,000 strikers were arrested. Ten died in the running battles with police that swept through housing projects. Swaths of northeastern England and southern Wales remain virulently anti-police. Billy gets his letter of acceptance from the Royal Ballet the same day – March 3, 1985 – that the forever-after weakened miners’ union “caved in,” as Jackie’s fellows tell him as greeting for his son’s good news, ending the strike.


Daldry takes some care depicting this violence on both sides: police and strikers in ferocious, shouting tugs of war on picket lines, phalanxes of police beating their shields with batons – Billy’s rough hothead older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) is clubbed bloody – and enraged strikers pelting scab-carrying buses with eggs and rocks. The strike also caused extreme privation. Billy’s father Jackie weeps twice during this story, first when he’s forced to smash his late wife’s piano with a sledge hammer to burn the wood for heat on Christmas Eve, the second time from fear when he rides the scabs’ bus to work so he can buy Billy’s bus ticket to London. In this life – nasty, brutish and short – men fight tooth and nail, 11-year-old boys take boxing lessons, and an incensed father who’s never been to London because “they don’t have mines there” equates ballet with “poofs.”


Billy isn’t gay. That’s why Mrs. Wilkinson’s precocious daughter Debbie is in this film, starting a pillow fight with Billy that fills the air with feathers and looks forward to the sexual charge of Billy’s breathtaking leap onto stage years later in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But his forlorn friend Michael (Stuart Wells), whom we first meet refusing to box, is. At first sharply put off, Billy’s growing comfort with Michael parallels his growing acceptance of his own desire to dance. And one of the film’s pleasures is the increasing physical affection among the Elliot men as their definitions of manliness expand and they start supporting Billy’s dancing.


The role of women in the film is less satisfying. Formerly, all Billy’s support has come from women – from Mrs. Wilkinson, from his mother Jenny’s example, from his grandmother’s love of dance. Even the pivotal question at his Royal Ballet audition, which restores this tongue-tied boy’s voice – “How do you feel when you dance?” – comes from the sole woman on the interview panel. And moved as Jackie Elliot is by how good Billy’s gotten, the deal maker is that “his mother would’ve let him.” Still, Mrs. Wilkinson disappears from the story abruptly and for good after Jackie’s conversion – I would at least have liked to see her in the final scene that gathers many of the principals together ten years later – as if Daldry insists that men must not delegate some matters.


Interestingly, the film delays powerfully muscular, masculine ballet until the end, fast forwarding to Billy at age 25 by splicing in footage of dancer Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s 1995 all-male revival of Swan Lake. This production on Broadway earned Adam Cooper a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical and was extremely popular with teen-age boys, causing a minor surge in dance lessons. Young Billy’s major dance sequences – his sense of self and skill still awkward works in progress – instead rely on dazzling tap work danced not in toe shoes but laced-up boots, especially his raw anguish when his father at first forbids the Royal Ballet audition. We get to watch both men grow up.


*******
This review appeared in the 2/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Andrew Dominick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard

Reviewed by Nancy Keefe Rhodes


Theirs is one of our favorite stories of sidekicks-gone-wrong. Not quite 20 in September 1881, Bob Ford met his childhood idol near Blue Cut, Missouri, just as Jesse James and his older brother Frank were embarking on what they intended would be their last train robbery before retirement. At 34, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) had robbed over 25 trains since 1867. Other than Frank (Sam Shepard), who soon left him, and some feckless younger cousins, the rest of his gang was dead or locked up. Bob (Casey Affleck) hoped for a chance to show his “daring and grit,” and insinuated himself with a little set speech not that remote from a novice job-seeker today. Initially rebuffed in no uncertain turns – Frank tells him “Scat!” and pulls his gun, and Jesse’s crew stands up en masse from a campfire when Bob tries to casually sit down with them – Bob had a way of glancing off into space so as to miss rejection and he persisted.


Eight months later almost to the day, Bob shot Jesse James in the back of the head with a six-shooter Jesse had just given him as the domestically fastidious robber stood on a parlor chair after breakfast to dust a framed print of a horse. Because his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) had also raised his pistol, Bob shot Jesse quickly, so as not to miss out on the reward and fame. He also feared Jesse’s revenge for other disloyalties just come to light and anyway his love had been souring for some time. Later, the Fords toured the US, re-enacting their betrayal on stage more than 800 times, until Charley committed suicide and Bob – running a tent saloon ten years later outside the silver mines in Creede, Colorado – was himself shot to death by another fame-seeker.


New Zealand native Andrew Dominick wrote and directed this film from Rob Hansen’s novel. Previously Dominick worked in Australia, seven years ago making Chopper, based on another violent, charismatic thug’s exploits and celebrity. (Aussie ex-convict Mark Read’s inventory of murders actually exceeds that of Jesse James, and he’s lived so far to enjoy lucrative profits as a pulp fiction writer and rap artist.) Now this film, released last October to disappointing box office, closely follows historical events but adds a rich, layered imagining of Jesse’s symphonic mood swings and Bob Ford’s evolving infatuation and resentment. This year’s Oscar nominations have their glaring omissions – Brad Pitt’s excellent Jesse among them – but Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford earns his spot for Best Supporting Actor and then some.


The great Roger Deakins is cinematographer. He’s Oscar-nominated this year a second time for the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, but his work here is clearly more daring. I watched this film with an art historian whose exclamations of pure visual pleasure punctuated the film’s lengthy running time. In Deakins’ use of extreme shadow and focused light for what are essentially intensely still portrait studies, she saw Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt. As for the Western movie’s landscape with those classic sweeping Texas vistas – see No Country – Deakins here offers two sharply contrasting world visions. Often Jesse appears against the open sky, wading in wind-rippled prairie grass. The prospects of others are pinched, muddy and bleak. Door frames truncate their vistas, intervening upright posts and roofs chop their frame into halves and thirds, short-sightedness blurs their peripheries, chill emptiness washes out their colors to near abstraction. Whatever Jesse may evoke, for most folks frontier life was monotonous, harsh, and flat. It’s no stretch to imagine Bob Ford – all his dreams hidden scraps inside a shoe-box that his brothers tease him for – in one of today’s bombed-out urban cores.


Over 20 films – the first made in 1921, starring Jesse James, Jr. – have recounted these events. Long at 160 minutes, difficult, rewarding, with far less “action” that we expect from Westerns, this film requires some commitment to watch. Both the dialogue and voice-over narrative (actor Hugh Ross delivers a meditative, often sparely lyrical reading that’s also at odds with an action film’s expectations) make you want to jot down line after line. Very early, for example, we hear of Jesse, “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed.”


Quickly, the Blue Cut train robbery lives up to this kind of heightening. In real life, Jesse barely escaped the Blue Cut fiasco in one piece. On-screen, with the train’s light shivering through the forest, the rolling fog conjuring sudden silhouettes, Jesse’s almond-shaped eyes glittering out of the night, brutes stalking up the aisle among passengers – well, right here’s our home-grown hi-jacker, fearsome, deeply sadistic, alluring.


Civil War Missouri was a border state ripped apart by guerilla fighting. Jesse’s own family was tortured and Frank James rode with the irregular militia, Quantrill’s Raiders. Jesse was probably an actual terrorist too – in 2003 biographer T.J. Stiles argued persuasively for this – long recalcitrant after a war whose breadth of death and brutality we are only lately discovering. Scholar Drew Gilpin Faust’s new This Republic of Suffering just got a two-page spread in Newsweek. Dominick’s film includes a taken-for-granted continuum between that Civil War and the settling of the West that has reappeared in some recent Westerns – Seraphim Falls and David Milch’s Deadwood, for example. For many years classic Hollywood Westerns, as I have written elsewhere, glanced away from this continuum - Bob Ford writ large - as if settling the West were an opportunity to forget, both in its new beginning and its on-screen portrayal.


Those impatient with the time national reconciliation is taking in Iraq need only look within.


*******
The Assassination of Jesse James was released on 2/5/07 on DVD. This review appeared in the 2/7/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
Golden Door

2006/US DVD 2008

Director: Emanuele Crialese

Cast: Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Filippo Pucillo


Reviewed by Nancy keefe Rhodes


There has never been a ship-launching on screen quite like this. Sicilian peasant Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) gathers his two teen-aged boys, his mother, and a couple pretty young neighbors – mail-order brides under his protection until Ellis Island – on deck. He’d collared his younger son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) when the boy panicked on the swaying gang-plank. Now the rough chaos of hundreds boarding subsides and the crowd seems to drop away as the camera pulls straight up. From a hundred dizzying feet above, the crowd on deck and land merges as one mass and pauses together, listening maybe for the steamer’s whistle, poised to edge away. In this hush, just the wind and some gulls crying, and the ship’s own mournful creaking as it shifts and starts to glide out. A ribbon of sea opens, dark in the shadow of the dock, then parts the crowd in two. Flashing like a blade, the widening gap reflects the sky’s light, and suddenly, the immensity of this step, this journey.


Italian director Emanuele Crialese says he had this scene – its God’s-eye view so easily the central image for both his film and any immigrant’s undertaking – planned out and fully story-boarded two years before he started shooting in Buenos Aires, whose port stood in for the Italy of a century ago. National cinemas all have their visual vocabularies. One reason that Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is so mesmerizing stems from cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sprawling vistas, which restore – even if subliminally – the specifically American frontier landscape of early Westerns. The Coens’ new vision of American “possibility” may be terrifying, but we’re still more at ease with that open space in our origin stories.


This resonates elegantly with Crialese’s filmmaking and subject. One thing we’ve learned from Italian cinema – from Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) onward – is that you first look for that horizon. No sky on-screen, no hope or future.


Golden Door is persistently filled with sky. As the Mancusos leave their village forever, Crialese films them from below, looking up at them perched sorrowfully atop a cart, dressed in the cast-off boots of a local baron and the cloaks of dead bandits so they take the spirits of their dead with them, with only the sky’s coming storm behind them. Salvatore and the mysterious, resourceful, large-spirited English redhead Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as magnetic here as in I’m Not There) enact their silent courtship pacing on-deck against the sea’s golden horizon. Upon first tasting American white bread, Salvatore – already long sustained on dreams – says, “It’s like eating a cloud.” Crialese casts the New World’s uncertainty as the steamer’s fog-shrouded deck when they enter New York’s harbor, and the frosted windows in the solarium at Ellis that hide the near-by city. Salvatore and another newcomer scale the window frame, peer through clear panes near the ceiling at Manhattan’s tall structures, speculate on taking their livestock up elevators, and Salvatore muses, “I’d like to live in the sky.”


Golden Door recounts his anguished decision to leave home, the harrowing week-long passage in steerage, and survival of Ellis Island processing. He has two sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa), perhaps 20, and the younger, Pietro. Others assume Pietro is deaf-mute but he’s clearly neither; we first meet him imitating bird songs to tease some girls on a rocky hillside. Salvatore’s twin left for America after Pietro’s birth; Salvatore’s wife may have died in that childbirth. His mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) argues the spirits are angry because they fear the sea. Eventually she relents but cannot adjust. Her “resistance to rules” – she erupts in rage when a nurse attempts a rectal exam without warning her of what’s coming – gets her deported as “feebleminded.”


Golden Door occurs roughly in 1913, midway through a decades-long tide of immigration to a jittery US. For one thing, single women weren’t allowed to enter unaccompanied. Hence the shipboard industry of the marriage broker Don Luigi (the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli, whose death during filming cut off a larger subplot). Lucy Reed refuses his efforts at recruitment in favor of finding her own prospect. Hence the nerve-wracking procedures of men claiming their intended fiancés at Ellis – neither of the village girls Salvatore chaperones are pleased with their mates – and an improvised exchange between Salvatore and Lucy across the crowded hearing room that hints at how well they’ll compliment one another in their new life.


Second, the pseudo-scientific “fitness” testing regimes that occur on-screen were put in place after eugenics pioneer Henry Goddard visited Ellis Island in 1910 and his doctored-up book on the Kallikak family appeared in 1912. Goddard’s views on inherited feeble-mindedness and moral degeneracy led to immigration quotas based on favored nationalities and to sterilization laws that the Nazis later admired and copied. Crialese brilliantly contrasts the ritual-infused Sicilians and their visions with such official and officious white-coated voodoo in the name of progress. When the doctors bizarrely instruct Pietro to open a door that has a brick wall behind it in one such exam, this supposedly primitive boy shoots them a look that says, “These people are crazy.” And what’s this election campaign’s wedge issue?

*******

This review appeared in the 1/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.
The Battle of Algiers

1966/DVD 2004

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Cast: Saadi Yacef, Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin



Reviewed by Nancy Keefe Rhodes



If you’ve happened to hear that as a young man the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo was inspired to forsake photojournalism and take up making movies by watching a single decisive film, and you’re lucky enough to find a copy of Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 Paisá, you will see from the very opening scene what attracted the sensibility of one who also studied composing, grew up under Mussolini, led an anti-Fascist resistance in the city of Milan during World War II and went on to make the legendary cinema vérité-like epic of Algeria’s independence, The Battle of Algiers (1966). I was lucky enough to borrow a personal VHS copy of the European release version, with the English-language dialogue of American GIs and British troops subtitled in Italian, and right there – in the opening scene, where the Yanks are advancing through the narrow, twisting stone alleys of Sicily at night, rifles at the ready, and then up to a ruined seaside fortress in the moonlight, in the first leg of the liberation of Italy – you can see a cinematic vision that fed Pontecorvo’s filming of the running battle through the twisted streets and over the rooftops of the Arab quarter – the Casbah – in Algiers.



Paisá is – criminally – not available on US format DVD right now. An anthology of six episodes set in different parts of Italy from 1943-45, it chronicles the Allied liberation of Fascist Italy from the perspective of ordinary people who interacted with, primarily, US GIs, often turning on misunderstandings due to language and O’Henry-like twists. Paisá also exposed Pontecorvo to the long tracking action shots that provide a deep visual pleasure that today’s jump cutting can’t approach, and to unashamedly moving music as backdrop. A good deal of the emotional heft of The Battle of Algiers, for example, comes – one realizes afterward – from the fact that Ennio Morricone’s score gives the same dirge-like music to Arab and European deaths alike, all equally tragic and wasteful.



There is also a strange shock of recognition in Rossellini’s film, which curiously the subtitles seem to spark first. We’re not used to English speech translated into another language in the text crawling under the action. It seems backwards somehow, snags your attention. But here is a film with American characters that an outsider made and he got us right. This is one of Paisá’s many exhilarating pleasures and, as significant, one cause of an accumulating deep trust in the director’s vision. While it’s harder to track than a particular visual approach, this capacity to portray those who are different so that they recognize themselves – and experience themselves as truly seen by an outsider – may be the more important lesson that Pontecorvo took from Rossellini.



This is worth mentioning at some length because Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers has been so decisively influential among filmmakers working today. The Criterion’s 2004 DVD set – unusual with a highly expansive three discs – includes interviews with Spike lee, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Mira Nair. The Indian director says Battle of Algiers is “the one film in the world that I wish I had directed.” So how these two Italian directors perceived and filmed war and liberation has come to gradually permeate what’s on our screens. What is further remarkable is how little the course of war and its political justifications have changed.



The Battle of Algiers covers the years 1954-57, culminating in the title’s battle, and largely following the conversion to politics and rise to leadership of a young street thug, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), after he witnesses from his cell what was actually a pivotal execution by guillotine of two Algerians in the prison’s courtyard. Most of the Algerian characters in Battle portray actual historical figures – some such as Ali named literally – and all nonprofessional actors. Saadi Yacef, who sought Pontecorvo to propose making Battle, plays a character in the film named Jaffar who is essentially modeled on himself. The French paratrooper commander, Col. Mathieu, is a composite of French commanders played by the French film actor Jean Martin. Dramatically, soon after the film opens we see Ali La Pointe trapped behind a building’s wall in a hide-out, ordered to come out by waiting French troops. Ali La Pointe did not come out. The resulting explosion entombed him and his little band. Three years after the end of this war, Pontecorvo rebuilt the house where Ali died and blew it up again for the film.



The Battle of Algiers is structured as a flashback from this moment in 1957, when fresh French paratroopers had arrived, surge-like, in response to escalating attacks against police and troops and – a new tactic – three women had planted bombs that detonated in public gathering places frequented by Europeans. Pontecorvo was especially intent to portray the role of women in Algerian independence; the powerful montage in which they prepare for and carry out the three public bombings occurs without dialogue and backed by the Algerian anthem, “Baba Salem.” French troops, whose use of torture in interrogation has of course compared to more recent controversies, then arrived to break a looming national strike called by the National Liberation Front (FLN) that was timed to coincide with United Nations debate on Algerian independence.



Criterion outdoes itself with this set’s bonus features, which more than repay the several evenings you’ll spend watching them and which will leave you angry at what you didn’t learn in school, and aghast at how old the argument is that terrorism justifies torture. These include a string of interviews with surviving French officers and nationals – the colonel who headed the death and torture squad, the French officer (a decorated hero in French Indochina) who resigned and exposed atrocities, the French-born newspaper editor who was himself tortured for siding with the Algerians – as well as recent interviews with Saadi Yacef and Zohra Drif-Bitat (one of the three women bombers), both of whom sat in the Algerian parliament at the time of this DVD release. There’s a short 1989 documentary that Pontecorvo made upon revisiting Algeria, a documentary about his film career narrated by Edward Said, and a conversation among ABC News’ Chris Isham, former national security coordinator Richard Clarke and the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator Michael Sheehan, filmed in May 2004.



But first watch the movie itself.



*******


This review appeared in the 1/17/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

2/22/08

Beyond Belief: Documentary

BEYOND BELIEF
Beth Murphy



Plot:
On Sept 11th when their husbands lost their lives Susan Retik and Patti Quigley two ordinary soccer moms living in the affluent suburbs of Boston are confronted with tragedy and with the life of adults living in perpetual pain.

This is their story of recovery from the American tragedy of 9/11, achieved by these two women who reach out to women half a world away in Afghanistan to unite in the loss of their love ones, the men who support and keep them alive and, living in dignity with sufficient food and money to nourish the lives they bring into the world


I once went to a funeral In Brooklyn. A police officer, young man, from a working class background from which he never rose up to be other than a kid in the neighborhood. The funeral was attended by Mayor Bloomberg, a multi millionaire, probably a billionaire and I heard Mayor Bloomberg give a speech to solace the pain of the bereaved and I heard him compare himself, his life, his journey, to that of the police officer and I thought……what is this?

What is beyond belief in this documentary is a comparison of these two middle to upper class women to the poverty stricken women in Afghanistan who are totally lost, without hope, dignity, food or means for gainful employment of any sort once their husbands are gone.

The subject of this documentary  contains its fatal flaw: the attempt to elicit sympathy or interest in the  insipid American lives of wealthy women.  The technique used to tell this story feels like a home made video with snap shots strung together to create something that mean something to its  creator but little to an outsider.




Once the journey is in progress it is impossible to pity, to feel sympathy for Susan or Patti because they each have so much and the pain from the loss of their husbands enriches them as people but the pain from the loss of an Afghanistan husband depletes, destroys the afflicted woman and her children.

In short, there is no real comparison. Not for these woman, not for Mayor Bloomberg and the young police officer who left two children to be supportedf by his high school graduate wife.

Some things in this world are not equal   This film, “Beyond Belief is a painful reminder of “it’s not fair”.


LindaZ
WBAI Women’s collective

Beyond Belief opens February 29th

2/15/08

The Verdict

The Verdict 1982
Sidney Lumet

Plot:
Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a down-on-his luck lawyer, reduced to drinking and ambulance chasing. Former associate Mickey Morrissey reminds him of his obligations in a medical malpractice suit that he himself served to Galvin on a silver platter: all parties willing to settle out of court. Blundering his way through the preliminaries,
Frank Galvin decides the case should go to court: to punish the guilty, to get a decent settlement for his clients, and to restore his standing as a lawyer. Written by Murray Chapman {muzzle@cs.uq.oz.au}


Every so often it is good to see a film from the early 1980;s when the director still honors the locale of the characters as he tells a story with a panoramic lens that goes well beyond the visage of the character, the sound of each character’s voice.

Sidney Lumet’s work, the master film maker of old, can be seen again in this 1982 film The Verdict.

It isn’t that Paul Newman’s portrayal of Frank Galvin isn’t worth the close ups afforded actors today. On the contrary, it is Paul Newman’s riveting performance that enabled me to watch the film without shrinking from yet another view of Newman’s face without benefit of his upper torso or a view of the surroundings in which his words resonated.
And the use of the camera at the end of the film where the actor emerged from the panoramic view of the courtroom scene of many actors, is the essence of good, excellent film making. an art sorely missing today.

Lidsay Crouse would not have been such an emotionally charge contributor to the plot had the camera focused just on her. It is the juxtaposing of James Mason with the image of Lidsay Cruouse, , the woman of conscience that drives home the point that what is legal is not always Just.

The women in this film have more than a stereotypical role. They are the pivotal characters who drive the hidden agenda that Sidney Lumet insists on presenting in his theatrically perfect display of simulated real life. Women , particularly in the 1980s were not up front and out there in the professional world but they were very much the force behind the scenes, the ones to drive history to get us where we are today.

This vital role of woman is so well, so palpably portrayed in Lindsay Crouse’s performance and in that of Laura Fischer.

James Mason is of course, suburb.

And I never got tired of watching, listening to my idol, Paul Newman.


Do see this film. Go to the Film Forum on Houston Street and enjoy yet again a film from the l980s, a film that says we are living in a world that is greater than the sight of a single face filling up ever larger cinema screens.


See The Verdict and feel good, reassured that films are something other than a bunch of talking heads.


Linda Z
WBAI women’s Collective

The Verdict: currently playing at the Film Forum, Houston Street, New York city

2/8/08

Prison Rebel Turned Filmmaker TCinque Sampson Talks Black August

By Prairie Miller

Black Vietnam veteran, son of a cop, and convicted drug dealer turned prison rights movement organizer and now filmmaker TCinque Sampson, spent 22 years behind bars. But as he fiercely maintains in this interview for his movie, Black August, those decades of discouraging and dehumanizing imprisonment also gave impetus to political and creative knowledge and inspiration that infuse his film that he co-directed with Samm Styles. This remarkable docudrama touches on the tragic short life of legendary prison revolutionary and black liberation guiding light George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye. who was gunned down during a prison uprising in what Sampson characterizes as an orchestrated execution by the prison authorities.

TCinque Sampson met to talk about the journey of Black August to the screen, and George Jackson as an inspiration for both the film, and his own personal enlightenment and self-discovery, and awakened political consciousness. Black August has been released direct-to-DVD by Warner Home Video for Black History Month

How did such a remarkable film not get a run in theaters, and go straight to DVD?

TCINQUE SAMPSON: Well, I have not given up hope. But the important thing, is that this story is out there.

What is it about George Jackson and that turbulent historical period, that inspired this film?

TS: The first and foremost thing that moved me, is that George Jackson has been a mentor for me. And it is the dichotomy in this country of Black America, that caused me to juxtapose George Jackson's struggle, with the underclass struggle today.

And I had written down a lot things in prison, never thinking that it would turn into a film. And then I thought that those looking at this piece about George Jackson, and those yet to be born, would find inspiration in his journey. And the circumstances of his death, are moving people even today.

So making this film was very easy for me, my own situation and being in captivity. George Jackson's writing was like the bible for me. Soledad Brother, and eventually Blood In My Eye. And I think it's the same experience and inspiration that gave me to take my education to a higher level. And we wanted to capture how George's struggle and his life, touched others.

How did you go about condensing and approaching all the material at hand?

TS: I wrote from sitting in circles that George Jackson himself had sat in, and with some of the same people that had survived the onslaught of COINTELPRO activities. There was that plethora of information, but it was made easy just by juxtaposing my own walk.

And myself, doing time in the same beast's belly, I knew reading and testing George's theories, that there was a lot of correctness in the directions he had taken. So with that, I had to basically put myself in George's shoes - if I so dare.

But believe me, everyone in captivity is George Jackson. They just don't know it yet. And what I focused on, was the last twenty months of his life. Because like many others who went in there, his first revolutionary act was probably criminal. But this aggression turned into something constructive.

So I pick up on his life when he opened himself up to others, and in like circumstances. And when he brought their attention to people's suffering. And we take it from there to the time of him writing his books, and expressing himself to the world.

How did you end up in prison?

TS: I was a drug dealer. I was a predator. I was a product of an environment from which I sprung. And George and myself, we came up in like circumstances. We both came out of Chicago, and Catholicism was in our lives. Altar boy, catechism, I did the whole thing.

And my father was a Chicago police officer. And somewhere along the way, I think it was because I was a Vietnam veteran, my first encounter with racism was when I was in the military. And that left a permanent impression on me.

I eventually served 22 years in prison. I could have gotten out a lot sooner. But once I embraced the teachings and the mentorships of individuals like George Jackson, and Black liberation struggles, the Black Panther Party, anyone who stepped out of the range of omnipotent administrative behavior, I was put in security housing and given an indeterminant amount of time to serve there.

And today, there are so many that I've left behind. And that's what makes this film so beautiful, because this was not made for profit, this was made for pride. Because we continue to let people frame us in the light they want us seen, and we have had no voice.

George Jackson only needed to deny his ideological precepts, and he would have been freed from his one year to life sentence. And that's the beauty, what he did was for the people's struggle.

What do you feel is George Jackson's legacy, and what do you hope your film conveys to the younger generations of color?

TS: I think George will always be known as the greatest prison organizer in this country. And a human rights activist for all prisoners, black and white.

And he was a great inspirator for those prisoners who made it back into the free world, to turn their criminal passion into responsibility towards their communities. And as the real maintainers, providers and protectors.

And the younger generation must come to understand that new truths disturb the old power relationships, and power defends itself. There's the power of the police who terrorize their communities, and the mental kind, the propaganda.

So the underclass youth in this country, need to know that they must stand up for their lives. And life is next to useless, if it is not accompanied by the tools that determine its quality. And in our grand designs, we must achieve something other than new forms of the old miseries.

One remarkable aspect of Black August, is that you speak your mind without worrying about controversy, and that's a rare truthfulness whether we're talking about filmmakers or politicians more concerned about their careers. What led you to take that risk with your film?

TS: Well imagine, someone like me labeled a subversive in this society, I went to a basketball player who saw some of his own life in this story, and he gave me the money to put this film together.

But you're right, it was very difficult with this story, as it's been told, nobody else wanted to touch it. They would give me their cordial dialogue, but it never came into fruition. And I do applaud Warner Home Video, for taking that chance.

Now that's a big studio. Were they ever nervous, or not willing to let you go as far as you wanted to go with this story?

TS: No. They invited me in. But it was like going into Fort Knox, there was so much security. There were fifteen of them from Warner Brothers on one side of the table, and I was on the other.

And they said, what are your intentions for Black August. And they allowed us to speak. But this is actually the eleventh year that the hip-hop generation, and Mos Def, are commemorating Black August. So there was already a music movement behind this. And now this is going to be the first visual commemoration.

And I am so proud to bring George Jackson into a greater manifestation. He was a real person, and it could have been any one of us taking that step, and put on the path that George Jackson ended up on.

What about those problems you had with the local authorities, who ran interference against your filming in some of the original locations?

TS: Well, it was a matter of the establishment versus everyday people, not a color line. Many, black and white, wanted to see this film made. And even after thirty years at San Quentin where these situations took place, the wounds were still fresh.

And people there were actually angry that we were claiming history. We weren't creating a story, we just wanted to tell the story. So we had to bring complaints to the state for differential treatment from other filmmakers that had come in before us.

And when San Quentin finally agreed, they made it a catch 22 situation. We would have to unload and reload our trucks every day. And anyone who knows about film, knows they were trying to blow us out of the water with our budget. They could kill our budget in one week, just with having to load and unload our trucks every day.

So we passed on that. And then we were invited out to Nevada, to a state prison there. And we were treated really well. Some of those guards appear in the film, and all the inmates you see are real inmates. They're not actors, except for Gary Dourdan. And myself, I make a brief appearance.

However, when it came to filming at the site of the Marin Courthous Courthouse shootout on August 7th, 1970, they pulled our permit. And we had to take them to federal court to get a cease and desist. And then we were allowed to shoot out shots there, except for inside the courtroom.

But speaking of what we went through, there was this off-duty police officer who came on the set with a weapon. He had been at the Marin County Courthouse on the day of the shootout. And he had to be removed, restrained and arrested by the Marin County sheriff's department.

What was he doing on the set?

TS: He was trying to impede our filming. And when he heard that we prevailed in federal court to shoot there, he decided that he was not going to let that happen.

What was your approach to depicting COINTELPRO, and questioning that official record of events?

TS: I relied on my own research of COINTELPRO activities. Of course, you could wait for years for release of documents, if you were to just ask for them. And our real message with all the spying and wiretapping we depict - and it was all true and proven at the trials of the remaining Soledad Brothers - was that a lot of the deaths didn't have to happen.

We suggest and we stand behind this in the film, that everything that happened was preventable. And that these people will allow deadly events to take place, to propagate them for their own ends. So that's the story, the way we tell it. And we don't back off from it.

Now, what led you to become a filmmaker after 22 years in prison?

TS: I see myself less a filmmaker, than someone who has internalized the stories of great men in captivity who inspired me to pick up books. Forgotten men, in like circumstances.

And all those years, my writing style came from reading western novels. And I did that to get away now and then from the academic surge in my body. And those novels helped me look at something, and see a little more. Like the point of view of a wagon crossing the prairies, that sees from there everything around it.

And that was only because I had the desire to see, and to understand. And I've been blessed with the ability to convey other people's thoughts. So that was so important to me. Because my time in prison was spent as well, as a prison organizer and activist. And part of that involvement was keeping the prison struggle going. Because that struggle is meteoric.

What do you feel you brought to Black August, that someone who had never been in prison couldn't capture or comprehend?

TS: As soon as I walked on the set and saw how everything was being set up, I said no, this is not real life. It's not the story I'm telling. And I started throwing things off the tier and telling them, no. We will not cover up the conditions under which George Jackson lived.

And that means the way he lived, how he lived. And how he was treated every day. And it was more important than anything, that this story be people-rich. And if I did this correctly, and those who are yet to be born and follow can understand it, then that makes it all worth it.

Gary Dourdan is amazing as George Jackson in the movie. What led you to choose him for the part?

TS: I needed someone who could show me that radicalism, and that militancy. And he showed the depth of George Jackson.

How do you feel prison politicized you, and changed you as a person?

TS: Let me put it like this. Prison has made me a better person to struggle on, and help those in struggle like myself. And not be afraid to stand up for my convictions that I believe in.

And I think the best thing for me to do, is be a filmmaker. Because I cannot be silenced or censored. My first job when I got out of prison, I got my paralegal license and I was working for a firm, they gave me a chance.

I even got a chance to lecture at Hastings School of Law in San Francisco, talking to attorneys and federal judges about the prison snitch programs that the federal government maintains in its sentencing process. And it's ironic, because I was speaking to these people who are supposed to protect lives.

And me being an ex-prisoner, an ex-slave, what have you, it was like I was telling them something that they had no idea about. But when you know the truth, you have to act on it.

And it's not only Al Qaeda and the Taliban that they torture. They do it right here, in these prisons. Those stories have yet to be told, and must be told.

Prairie Miller