Monday, July 30, 2007

The Journey (Watkins, 1987)

Every generation deserves a rabble-rouser as committed and ambitious as Peter Watkins. During the mid-80’s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet nuclear tensions, Watkins traveled the world in order to make a film for peace – a 14-hour documentary broken into 18 installments entitled The Journey. Watkins’ goal was to demonstrate that despite the enormous network that has been established to stockpile nuclear weaponry - with the deadliest of bombs and missiles being constructed and transported right under our noses - the general public still remains largely ignorant about even the most basic concepts associated with the technology and its potential consequences. Watkins further asserts that the news media of the United States, Canada, England and Australia has failed to properly educate citizens about the growing nuclear danger and has, on the contrary, confused and mislead its viewers. Finally, Watkins ties in the expenditure made for nuclear weaponry to the lack of funds available to aid the starving populations of the world.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of The Journey is the extraordinary amount of information that Watkins unearths about how nuclear weapons are created within our midst. Although many of us may think that this activity goes on in top secret facilities tucked away somewhere beyond our reach, Watkins shows us that the technology for these weapons is developed at our universities, built in our factories and transported along railways that run through our neighborhoods. The task is divided up sufficiently so that very few people have to actually take personal responsibility for the creation of death devices. An individual factory worker may only know that he is responsible for the creation of one part. It is therefore easy to remain willfully ignorant of the part’s eventual purpose. In order to get at the truth, one would have to ask uncomfortable questions of authority figures responsible for your employment and break a taboo that dictates silence on the matter.

In some communities, conscientious objectors may not only be out of a job, but also branded by their neighbors as a political radical. As Watkins shows a train carrying an enormous amount of nuclear weaponry through a seemingly peaceful Washington town, the scene eerily calls to mind Resnais’ Holocaust documentary Night and Fog and the way in which grotesque acts were committed in neighborhoods where citizens dutifully went about their daily routine. Watkins covers so much territory that the likelihood that he will touch upon a surprising fact about an area near you is high, no matter what continent you currently occupy. Doggedly, Watkins works to lift the veil of silence that dominates the subject and provide average citizens with sobering information so that they may make a decision about whether or not they will remain complicit in these activities. However, Watkins also shows that effective protests are not easy to accomplish, particularly with a media that is all too willing to side with authority. When protestors decide to stand in the way of the aforementioned train, the local news story shows them being dragged away forcefully by police. The train carrying deadly weapons is not shown. The subject of the protest is not discussed. The objections are effectively marginalized.

For the most part, Watkins’ film staggers the viewer with both statistics (the hungry all over the world could be fed with what is spent on the arms race in two weeks) and scope. Watkins talks with witnesses to Hiroshima and Allied bombing in Germany. He talks to Algerians who are subject to prejudice in France, women in Mozambique who struggle to maintain their community despite war and poverty, and also Polynesians who live near the site of nuclear testing. In Australia and Norway, he stages speculative improvisations with non-actors, demonstrating how nonsensical and inadequate government guidelines are for handling post-nuclear situations. And yet, The Journey’s greatest strength also turns out to be the thing that keeps it from having the impact of some of Watkins’ shorter films like The War Game and Punishment Park. Watkins lays out an extraordinary case in the first two-thirds of his film and then spends much of the last third cycling back over points that have already been established. When he uses low-tech video to allow a family in Britain to communicate directly with a family in Russia without the filter of the media or the government, the resulting appeals for peace are moving. However, how many families around the world do we need to see arrive at the same conclusion: that family is essentially just like me.

The size of Watkins’ film coupled with the vitriolic nature of his attack on the media and government proved troublesome. Despite what obviously was an enormous amount of research, time, energy and dedication, the film has appeared on television exactly three times since its release according to the director’s website. Longer is the list of international TV stations that refused to air the film. Consequently, the documentary has appeared only at the occasional film festival or special screening. Perhaps the difficulties that Watkins has faced mirror the problems we face with the nuclear problem. The subject is so taboo, the conspiracy of silence so fierce and the cruel effects of the weaponry so surreal that it is hard for the average citizen to digest. Still, it is hard to imagine another filmmaker having the patience and courage to tackle such a noble use of the medium. Latest word is that Watkins is attempting to bring The Journey to DVD. If so, the number of people who have seen this work will multiply enormously. Despite being over two decades old, The Journey still holds much that could make the world a better place.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)

When creating a modern adaptation of a classic piece of literature, there are at least two ways in which a director can go wrong. The first way is to treat the famous text with so much reverence that it is not allowed to breathe. It becomes a museum piece where viewers gaze appreciatively at what a past generation must have considered great, but do not fully engage for themselves. The second way is to assume that the viewer will only respond to the work if it is ‘translated’ into something aggressively contemporary. Oftentimes, this method results in an extreme flattening of the source material, causing it to become something utterly banal. For his recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright finds the perfect balance, trusting in the comedy and emotional pull of the two-hundred-year-old story and yet also using modern technology and sensibilities to keep the tale alive and fresh.

Wright does not simply observe the social gatherings where men and women play a highly stylized game of courtship. He puts us in the party. In the one of the film’s most memorable (and perhaps showy) moments, Wright’s camera moves through several rooms at a lively ball, beginning with a father requesting that his musically mediocre daughter stop playing the piano and then sweeping past each of the major players, checking in on their status and giving the viewer an idea of where each is located in relation to each other. While the long tracking shot has become something of a contemporary film cliché, it is utterly appropriate here, giving us a first-hand feeling for how the characters might maneuver around, attempting to create ‘chance’ meetings with those they wish to engage and avoiding those they don’t. After checking in with several characters, the shot finds the father and daughter in an entirely different part of the building, attempting to resolve their prior quarrel. We have not seen all that has transpired in between, thus reinforcing the film’s central theme – that we can often formulate opinions about situations and people based on tiny snippets of information.

Wright’s directorial choices are often adventuresome, but rarely, if ever, do they distract from the film’s main purpose – to convey Austen’s ideas and observations about human interaction. He shows a remarkable eye for composition, such as anytime the Bennett sisters are shown on camera together. They stand about the room, perfectly arranged in a manner pleasing to the eye and yet not so formal as to seem forcefully staged. When the central lovers embrace, the sun shines perfectly between their faces, bathing the union in celestial light. When Elizabeth flees the marriage proposal of the interminably boring Mr. Collins, the camera is positioned with appropriate distance in order to accentuate the comedy of the moment, as she runs down the lane pursued by geese. Wright is also aided by an extraordinary ensemble, led by veterans Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench and with a central performance by starlet Keira Knightley that makes a lasting impression. Only Matthew Macfadyen in the key role of Mr. Darcy seems to be in over his head – or perhaps it is just the awkwardness and social anxiety of his character that I am reading as stiltedness. No matter. His performance does not distract substantially from the film’s building tension – yes, tension! – and palpable emotional pull.

With Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright has managed an extraordinary feat, giving a modern sheen to a classic, without letting it be devoured by our post-modern world. He has not condescended to his viewer, nor asked for our idolatry. He has proceeded with trust in Ms. Austen and the idea that if a classic is to remain a classic, then it must connect with a modern audience on its own terms, not through its reputation. Wright’s adaptation is full of life, humor and sensitivity, announcing this first-time feature director as a talent to be paid careful attention in the years to come.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Quest for Fire (Annaud, 1981)

For years I’ve wondered why they don’t make more films like Quest for Fire, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s bold and beautiful adaptation of the J.H. Rosny novel. After all, considering the origins of our species is a gateway for all sorts of provocative questions about what made us what we are and why. There is something mesmerizing about fire - even today when our scientific knowledge runs much deeper. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of sitting around a campfire musing about how such a simple phenomenon makes so many extraordinary things possible.

Quest for Fire takes us back to a time when different tribes of early humans roamed the earth. More often than not, a collision of tribes leads quickly to violence, particularly when one group possesses that which is necessary for the other group’s survival. It is one such clash that serves as the film’s inciting incident. We witness a skirmish in which one group is forced to flee from the safety of their homes in order to escape from a group that is much more aggressive. In the process, they extinguish their master flame, leaving them in darkness. The astute viewer will note that this darkness is both literal and figurative as it becomes clear that the mastery of fire is vital for the tribe to progress towards the next stage of evolution.

The stakes that are set up are extraordinarily high; however, as three of the tribesmen begin their quest to travel the countryside in search of a new flame, it becomes clear why prehistoric dramas are an exceedingly rare commodity. For one thing, we have to consider the rate at which technological and cultural progression occurred in these early times. Whereas 21st century humans can open up the newspaper (or better yet, surf to their favorite news website) any day of the week and read about an extraordinary discovery or development in the world of science, the accomplishments of early humans – critical though they were – occurred over the course of tens of thousands of years. It therefore becomes difficult to compress scientific awakening into a two-hour drama without the result coming across as at least somewhat comical. What are the odds, for example, that one fateful journey could lead one prehistoric man to discover not only a method for creating fire from scratch, but also laughter, spears and the missionary position?

Despite the challenges, Annaud does an excellent job evoking an era of history that is based on a comparatively tiny amount of scientific knowledge. Using a made-up prehistoric language and careful observations about the social interactions of primates, Annaud constructs a world that is plausible enough for us to invest in characters that express themselves mostly through grunts, shrieks and growls. Although anachronistic moments inevitably slip through – such as a couple instances of shtick from Ron Perlman lifted directly from vaudeville - more often that not, the experience of speculating on how our distant ancestors struggled for basic survival without a fraction of the comforts that we now enjoy is humbling and spiritually stirring.

While individual moments may seem a silly or contrived, the overall result is a film that is admirable for the vision displayed by its director and the courage and the courage displayed by its cast. You may wish that Annaud had allowed himself to venture even further away from the conventions of the three-act mentality; however, you will probably be glad that the film exists at all and that he has taken you as far as he does.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Gertrud (Dreyer, 1964)

For his final film, the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer, opted to adapt a play (written by Hjalmar Söderberg) about a woman who is drawn to great men but then finds that they are incapable of offering her the depth of love that she requires. A writer, a politician and a musician comprise her past, present and (she hopes) future lovers respectively. As she carries on with an affair under her husband’s nose, word arrives that the writer will soon return to town to be honored for his influence and artistry at a special ceremony. The convergence of these three figures in Gertrud’s life put her into a state of deep self-reflection as she realizes that she is at a critical crossroads in her life. Not content to be proverbial ‘good woman’ standing behind the ‘great man’, Gertrud seeks a path that will lead towards personal fulfillment and, above all, true love.

When we first meet Gertrud, she resembles nothing so much as Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, unconvincingly playing the part of doting wife to a successful husband. Her dissatisfaction registers palpably on her face, hoping to communicate to her husband an internal state she would rather not have to put into words. Past the point of putting on a brave face, Gertrud already seems to have separated herself spiritually from her daily reality, even though her body is going through the motions. Dreyer further underlines the tension by not allowing his actors to even look at each other throughout most of the first twenty-minute scene. The effect is jarring and unnatural at first; but, slowly we come to realize that Dreyer’s lack of warmth is intentional, that he has denied his players the very thing that most actors feed upon – the energy that comes through eye contact and interplay with another performer.

Surprisingly, this oppressive limiting of eye contact and direct interaction continues throughout most of the film. Characters exist in the same room and speak words that work together to make a conversation, and yet rarely do we ever feel as if they are truly connecting. At one point, Dreyer creates a beautiful picture with one character facing towards the camera and another character directly behind facing off to our left. Their bodies are so close that they merge together in our vision. And yet, the souls that give them life are miles apart. At one point, Gertrud notes that she sees life as a long chain of dreams, drifting into each other and Dreyer’s direction takes that assertion to heart. From the initial set-up, we may expect a series of tense, passionate explosions along the lines of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Instead, we get a film that comes at loneliness and heartbreak from a completely different direction. It is almost as if Dreyer has created a film that deemphasizes the flesh that gives us form and instead delves straight for the intangible spirit that gives us spark. It is a somber film, occasionally tedious and stilted, but ultimately profound and effectively unsettling.

Risk-taking and audacity is generally associated with youth; however, Dreyer takes risks here that perhaps only an experienced director in his seventies could take. He takes one of the most conventional starting points for a drama – a woman is unsatisfied with her husband and seeks fulfillment elsewhere – and elevates it to a stirring statement on our ability to reconcile personal achievement with love for another. Drawing from a lifetime in the cinema, he drains his drama of the one thing that we would assume would drive the film forward – passion. He is able to do so because his superior sense of composition and structure are able to steer our attention towards startling truths that lie around the corner from our expectations.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Once (Carney, 2006)

On the streets of Dublin, a man plays a guitar that has seen so much use that it looks as if it could collapse inward upon itself at any moment. Initially, he seems like just another wannabe folkie, the kind that might be likely to irritate you in the later hours of a good party. Most of us would simply walk on by, catching a few seconds of his tune and this nothing more about him. However, because this is a film, we are forced to pay attention, to listen to his music unfold and build towards an impressive crescendo. Skepticism turns to empathy and admiration as we observe the investment the man has in his music, the sincerity and passion that he pours into his performance. The reception he receives on the street is less than enthusiastic. Only one person, a young Czech woman has stopped to appreciate his talents. Despite her praise, he is somewhat disheartened when the she is much more excited to discover that he is a vacuum-repairman by day and might possibly be able to aid her with a problem Hoover.

After this adorable meeting, you probably think that you know how the rest of the film will likely unfold. Chances are though, that you are wrong. As it turns out, she is a gifted musician as well. Although she cannot afford a piano of her own, she enjoys playing one of the display models in the local shop. He listens to her play and soon they are playing one of his songs together. The moment is magical and in his mind, he sees her as the cure for his loneliness and depression. He pushes – too hard – for a tangible connection. She, on the other hand, is in no mood (or perhaps no position) to rush into a whimsical romance. Still, she sees a way to assist him and perhaps even give him the sense of fulfillment and self-worth that he has been craving, albeit in a different way that he may have initially desired.

Often romantic comedies can seem to be written by people whose ideas about male-female relationships and courting never evolved beyond their high school prom. Their hijinks typically revolve around someone who frets over whether or not they will be able to find “the one”. And because they believe that there is one and only one person that will fill their lives with happiness, any amount of immature, selfish, idiotic behavior is justified in pursuit of their end goal. Once is a film that truly understands that attraction between intelligent men and women is really much more complicated than that. The truth is that it is possible to meet people throughout our lives that excite us and help elevate us in satisfying ways. This is a film in which two adults attracted to each other have to make grown-up decisions and not simply follow their impulses. Ultimately, writer/director John Carney leaves his characters with fates that fall well short of their wildest dreams. And yet, this does not mean, on the other hand, that he drags them through misery and despair. Instead they find themselves with unexpected rewards because each has mindful of the needs of the other. Together, they exemplify the idea that true love is in helping the beloved to be the most happy, the most fulfilled, the most satisfied that they can be.