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Fifty-nine feature films in 12 days. It’s a daunting prospectand we’ve already seen 26
The 11th Annual Washington International Film Festival is the usual cavalcade of hits, misses, and unknown quantities, and as usual Washington City Paper has done what it can to assist committed festgoers (and casual ones, too). Holly Bass, Arion Berger, James Lochart, Joel E. Siegel, Virginia Vitzthum, and I evaluated all but one of the possible films. (We didn’t review Open City, since it’s so often screened.) There’s good news and bad, as well as the customary quota of in-between.
The country of emphasis this year is Italy, but of the seven Italian films, we can recommend only one: The Venus of Willendorf. Another Italian effort, Italiani, has already been screened as the opening-night offering. And then there’s Beyond the Clouds, the first film in more than a decade from Michelangelo Antonioni (with the aid of Wim Wenders). This film, which wasn’t previewed, has gotten mixed reviews elsewhere, but its screening is an event nonetheless.
The principal other series (aside from Filmfest for Kids) is “Global Rhythms,” the annual roundup of music videos. Here the average is better: Our critics commend studies of ’50s world music (Umm Kulthum, a Voice Like Egypt), ’60s folk (Festival), ’70s rock (Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival), and ’90s ballet (Swan Lake). Curiously, there are fewer nonmusic documentaries this year than usual.
As for the fiction features, we were charmed by cross-cultural restless-youth comedies about Russians in Hungary (Bolshe Vita) and Irishmen in Sweden (The Disappearance of Finbar). Speaking of cross-cultural, the festival also features Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, a sumptuous meditation on ancient Japan and contemporary Hong Kong (among other things), and Olivier Assayas’ freewheeling Irma Vep, in which Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung plays herself remaking a 1915 French silent thriller in Paris with a waning director.
We also liked Hide and Seek, Su Friedrich’s stylistically diverse study of lesbianism and ’60s pubescence, and Lola, perhaps the best mix of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s bitter humor and candy-colored cinematography. (Filmfest is showing Fassbinder’s earlier, meaner Martha, too.) A majority of the Rosebud winners are worth seeing as well.
There are a few other likely highlights, although now we’re just guessing. Brassed Off and When the Cat’s Away… come highly recommended, Hong Kong film fanciers should appreciate John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Shu Kei’s Stage Door, and cinematic formalists will surely want to see La Rencontre, the latest effort by the unprolific Alain Cavalier.
Some of the festival’s screenings are essentially sneak previews for films that will open in the next few months: Expect to see Brassed Off, Children of the Revolution, Commandments, Irma Vep, The Pillow Book, and Shall We Dance on commercial screens soon. Judging from their distributors, A Chef in Love, Fire, Flamenco, Intimate Relations, and When the Cat’s Away… will probably get commercial runs, too.
As always, some of the films are less interesting for their art than for their subject matters or countries of origins. That may reveal the preferences of the festival’s programmers, but it mostly reflects the availability of potential entries. The San Francisco Film Festival, which runs during the same two weeks as Filmfest DC, is showing nine of the same movies, as well as seven others that have shown recently in Washington in festivals or noncommercial venues. What’s in the fest simply represents what’s out there. Given Hollywood’s burgeoning hegemony, this selection is not bad at all.
Under the Skin
Set in a small town in northern Peru, this thriller offers a regional variation on the serial-killer genre: The murderer, suspects local chief of police Percy (José Luis Ruiz Barahona), is inspired by the human sacrifices practiced in the area 2,000 years ago by the Moche Indians. In fact, the killer may even have used an ancient ceremonial Moche blade borrowed from the local museum. Following up this theory, Percy soon has a suspect in custody.
Director Francisco J. Lombardi doesn’t take the movie in the police-procedural direction he originally feigns, however. The emphasis switches to Percy, a lonely, distant man who’s trying to do right in a hopelessly corrupt town. His only friend is his dog, but then he meets the new pathologist, Marina (Ana Riseño), an eccentric beauty who quickly initiates sex (atop a Moche ritual-sacrifice altar, no less). Percy likes Marina a lot more than she likes him, and when she moves on he’s consumed by jealousya jealousy that might even turn murderous.
The movie’s locale is more distinctive than its plot, which is not woven quite so tightly as it needs to be. (The definitive identity of the original murderer, for example, falls right through the gaps.) That would be fine if Lombardi were using the thriller genre to explore larger issues, but he clearly aspires to nothing more subversive than a few plot twists. Notably, the director is not interested in questioning the racial status quo: Under the Skin accepts the ruling-class status of Spanish types like Percy and Marina, while depicting Indians (including Percy’s deputies) as ignorant drunks and layabouts, good only for the occasional nugget of earthy wisdom.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, April 26 and Sunday, April 27 at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
The Pillow Book
Written by a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in 10th-century Japan, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is a brilliant miscellany. That explains its appeal to Peter Greenaway, who loves lists and digressions and has never been much of a storyteller. This film actually has a narrative, and in barest outline it’s a lot like that of Greenaway’s highest-profile picture, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl does something weirdly ceremonial with boy’s corpse.
Not actually an adaptation of Sei Shonagon’s tome, Greenaway’s film follows Nagiko (Vivian Wu) from her childhood in Kyoto to her 28th birthday in Hong Kong. (This birthday, of course, also marks the 1,000th anniversary of The Pillow Book.) When Nagiko was a girl, her father used to paint birthday greetings on her face every year. As an adult, she finds flesh the most erotic of canvases, but her sex life is hampered by the declining calligraphic skills of today’s young men. She briefly finds happiness with a translator (Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor) and sets out to compose a text on the bodies of 13 men. (These “books” parallel the equally fanciful tomes of Prospero’s Books.)
As usual with Greenaway, this story is just a pretext for an elaborate series of associations and oppositions: Ancient, serene Kyoto versus modern, bustling Hong Kong. Paper versus flesh. Art versus fashion. Sex versus death. Photographed by Sacha Vierny (who shot most of Alain Resnais’ best films and has worked with Greenaway since 1985’s A Zed and Two Noughts), Pillow Book is characteristically luminous and dense. With lots of footage shot on the streets of Kowloon, the film looks less abstract than most of the director’s efforts. Yet this actuality is countered by the superimpositions Greenaway has explored since 1989’s Death in the Seine: Eastern calligraphy, Western typography, erotic woodblock prints, and photographs all dance across the primary images. It all adds up to a Hong Kong action flick for the head: The film’s pace is stately but its mind is racing.
At 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Director Peter Greenaway will be at the screening.
Night of Destiny
The way writer-star-director Gamini Fonseka tells it, the perfidies of politics in Sri Lanka are not so different from those in the United States. Fonseka himself has been a member of parliament since 1989 and is currently a governor, so presumably he would know. What may come as news to Sri Lankans, however, is well known by Americans, who have toured the territory staked out by All the King’s Men, All About Eve, and A Face in the Crowd before.
Fonseka plays large-living underworld puppet-master Linton Cooray, who takes under his wing goodhearted budding politician Devendra (producer Lucky Dias). Devendra soon relinquishes his naiveté and assists Cooray in some of his more nefarious projects (mostly ridding the Cooray gambling empire of truth-telling troublemakers), figuring that when he is elected to office he can start doing the people good. As his power increases, his need to share it with Cooray dissipates, until the frustrated mobster craves revenge.
In the meantime, Cooray’s wife watches in horror as acts of household brutality become more and more commonplace. Her husband becomes increasingly certain that he can coerce her into staying; after all, she has seen what happens to those who try to leave him. But she is drawn to the gentle-natured Devendra and escapes to his house, to which Cooray tracks her for a violent showdown.
Melodramatic in the extreme, Night of Destiny has all the high emotion of subcontinental cinema, as well as striking compositions and distressing cost-saving (many of the subtitles are hard to read). The film’s attitude is cynical, but its execution is extremely naiveit takes its predictable story very seriously, surprising itself with every new development.Arion Berger
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Director Gamini Fonseka and producer Lucky Dias will be at the screening.
It’s easy enough to shake up the ballet world, but mess with Swan Lake and dance-watchers go berserk. When Mikhail Baryshnikov dabbled in ambiguity by dressing Odile in a white tututhereby indicating that the smitten Prince Siegfried wasn’t a complete dunce for being fooled by her resemblance to the white-clad Odetteballetomanes fumed and covered their eyes. And now Matthew Bourne marches in on the path cut by Baryshnikov, Michael Clark, and Mark Morris, with a male enchanted swan and the love story firmly intact.
To say that casting men as swans is Bourne’s only worthy idea in his rethinking of this whitest of “white ballets” is not to deny the brilliance of this innovation. Swans are not sweet, feminine animals; they’re scary, aggressive, and antique, and his dancers are as vain and bold as the birds themselves. It’s rare to see so many men onstage at one time, and their sheer number is overpowering: You can see why the Prince would rather dance with his wild new friends than waltz in stuffy halls with a handpicked flock of would-be princesses.
Bourne has refigured the period with a mishmash of stagy effectsthere’s a seedy nightclub, a royal ball that looks suspiciously like Oscar night, as well as the standard 19th-century castle interior with its flimsy gilded fittings. Tchaikovsky’s silly, gorgeous music lends itself to such massive reconstructions; no steps seem built into his twinkling waltzes and lambent passages. But in toying with the libretto, Bourne has left long deserts of pantomimeunenlightening and, at first, rather perfunctorily danced.
Siegfried (Scott Ambler) meets a vulgar blonde who embarrasses him in front of his mother (Fiona Chadwick) and snacks in the royal box (where they attend an old-fashioned ballet performance starring one of those fat-calved 1850s primas). Then he wanders to the lake where he is almost pecked to death by the swans and where the Swan Prince (Adam Cooper) rises from the waters to dance his tragic story.
Since Odette, the enchanted princess, is the most droopy and feminine heroine in ballet, casting a man in the role of trapped lover can’t help turning this story into a gay parable. But Bourne presses his point by throwing various unnecessary obstacles in the lovers’ path, many of them clichéd and cruel. The prince shares one of those ambiguous modern relationships with his repressed mother; the vulgar blonde is emblematic of womanhood (all the girls at the royal ball are gold-digging tramps under their sequins), and only in the hothouse atmosphere of the lake and its flapping male inhabitants can he be free.
Bourne’s choreography for the swans is delicioushe drops the foolish and difficult hand-holding in the famous pas de quatre and instead creates a sprightly, flirtatious frolic for his cygnets. A pas de deux for Siegfried and the Swan Prince is tentative and lovely, with melting leans, indicating mutual dependence, replacing patriarchal triumphant lifts. In fact, Bourne seems to enjoy ignoring or downplaying most of the hoary facts of Swan Lake. Von Rotbart appears minus his clap of thunder, and the Black Swan manages to bedazzle his prince without those 32 goddamn fouettés (although the music clangs desperately on). The Act 4 lakeside scene takes place in and around the real focus of all this yearning: Siegfried’s royal bed. Also, I’m guessing, but this may be the only Swan Lake in which Odile pistol-whips the prince.
With its indestructible ratio of panto and solos to divertissements, its evil magicians, enchanted animals, endless love, and romantic death, Swan Lake invites tinkering by iconoclasts or dance prankstersor even geniuses: Mark Morris’ A Lake is a somber, asymmetrical one-act that hearkens to the sound of the hunter’s horn, as if Benno, the prince’s best friend, had a strange dream of his own. Loaded with the baggage of filmed balletno one knows quite where to put the camera, there’s no intermission, and the audience seems to have won its tickets at the tractor pullBourne’s reworking is an admirable if often unwieldy attempt to put an old fairy tale into the context of modern politics.
At 10 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens
Saturday, April 26 at 5:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
The Killer Condom
The first half of Germany’s The Killer Condom is a mildly amusing, gamely acted horror-comedy with more good sense than sense of outrageousness. As either satire or homage, it pretends to be a hard-boiled American cop story, the Americanest, in which the no-nonsense cop is of Sicilian descent and New York is a city of trannies and dominatrices who converge on a sinful flophousethe Hotel Quickie. But the script is too polite and the sets too clean and depopulated to give any sense of place except for a disorienting one somewhere between cultures, between juvenile humor and pro-tolerance agitprop.
After Inspector Mackeroni (Udo Samel), with the help of burly transvestite Babette (who used to be Mackeroni’s lover, used to be named Bob, and used to be on the police force before taking up the more lucrative vocation of hooking), captures and destroys the prophylactic that has been biting off male members in the hotel, a denouement seems to wind the story down. (This passage is the most cleanly executed in the movie: Babette boredly lip-syncs “Teach Me, Tiger,” while the cop and a young hustler, Billy, declare their love free from commerce in the hotel elevator.) What has just transpired is a queasy pro-gay satire whose tolerance does not extend to actual womenhookers are arrested on suspicion of doing the biting, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the motherly safe-sex-insuring condom as a literally castrating (the cop loses a ball to it) vagina dentata that most graphically doesn’t allow men to do as they like together.
But the movie revs up again and becomes a liberal satire drawn in broad strokes. The powers that be dawdle while the monsters attack “queers and hookers,” but are mobilized into action when one of the condoms emasculates a Republican presidential candidate. Mackeroni’s homophobic colleague must go undercover in the gay community and learn tolerance, and all the good guys find themselves in search of a mad scientist with a divinely inspired plan to eradicate “perverts.” The Killer Condom is quite poorly structured and never as pointed as it wants to bethe Psycho parody pales in comparison, unfortunately, with that in Mel Brooks’ High Anxietybut it is very nicely filmed, rather funny at times, and even touching.
At 10:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Saturday, April 26 at 10:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Also screening April 25: Guantanamera (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Shall We Dance? (6:30 p.m.,Cineplex Odeon Tenley), When the Stars Meet the Sea (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), BLOB! A Short History (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Brassed Off (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Boy From Mercury (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Quiet Room (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Intimate Relations (10:20 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley)
Rosebud Film and Video Awards 1997
The failure of parents hovers over Rosebud’s 1997 Winners Showcase. Of the family tragedies featured, Philip K. Davis’ 14-minute Dark House is the revelationnakedly autobiographical, fantastically ambitious.
Davis cuts up the movie screen to make his search for his father both literal and hallucinatory: The top half is a road trip seen through a windshield. Below it a square screen grows and shrinks, appears and disappears. Into the flickering TV window and the soundtrack Davis stuffs dozens of fragments: his subtitled poems, home movies, doo-wop songs, an audio snippet of his mother recalling her horrific breakup with his father (“I tried to run him over”).
As the countryside rolls toward us, the TV appears like the thoughts of a wandering mind. There are home movies of two young brothers and of a wedding. We hear men (Davis? His brother?) recounting first-time confrontations with long-gone fathers, then a radio preacher defending Eve (“I always wonder if it wasn’t Adam who took the apple”). At dusk, the car finally stops at a stoplight, while the subtitles conclude that “the box of heroes I’ve carried since I was a boy…instilled in me a desirethis is my father.” What follows is an unlikely montage of movie menJames Dean, Henry Fonda, Martin Sheenthat ends with the last shot of The 400 Blows, of the boy who has run out of room at the ocean’s edge.
The sounds and images fly off the screen so glancingly that the whole is much subtler than the sum of its parts. The film really does speak memory and the thrall of movies, and it would be poignant even without the back story. After making Dark House, Davis died at 33 of a heart attack. His mother, to whom the film is dedicated, submitted it to Rosebud and collected its Best of Show award.
As doggedly literal as Dark House is imagistic, Michael Day’s Game Face tells the father’s story and puts the idealized son on the TV screen. Carl Potter invites the boys from work over for his son’s first televised football game. Carl and his boss tear into each other, while Junior ties the scoring record and then suffers a career-ending injury. Though Tom Quinn is excellent as Potter Sr., Game Face is ham-fisted and overwritten, with every weakness, every conflict, telegraphed early and often.
Alaska on the other hand is curiously underwritten. Well shot and acted, it traces the bond that develops between a teenage runaway and the nervous woman who picks her up hitchhiking. Their conversation, like the film, hints at more but ends up going nowhere.
A witty antidote to all the family angst, Spare Change is a Claymation collaboration by Chris Beutler and five kids from the Capital Children’s Museum. A panhandler works a group at a bus stop, then is unexpectedly validated. His rap, delivered in the aggrieved, justifying lilt of the scammer, is hilariously dead-on.
Zoltan Szallasi’s Thoughts in the Cellar is the most perfectly realized of the Rosebud films, a two-minute masterpiece in glowing black-and-white. A rat sees a ball roll down the cellar stairs. A one-legged girl in a halo of light chases the ball, hears the rat, calls, “Kitty?,” then clumps back up the stairs. As one begins to fear for the girl in the basement with the unseen monster, the narration glides to the musings of the rat, now shot in close-up as cute and pensive. “What if he had happened to be born a kitten or even (because we’re so greedy, his dreams were leaping far ahead) if he had been born a one-legged daughter of a janitor. But that was too beautiful,” the voice concludes, as the rat humps back to the cellar’s depths. “He could not even imagine that.”
This tiny gem of a movie and the haunting Dark House stake the place for films that are not market-driven features. The small experiments that Rosebud champions define their own art form.
At 2:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Followed by a “Meet the Filmmakers” panel discussion.
The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage
Filmfest DC’s brochure proclaims that “For those who revere Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch as a pivotal work in contemporary American cinema, this extraordinary documentary is nothing short of a religious experience.” Perhaps because I prefer the late filmmaker’s elegiac Junior Bonner and bitter, obsessive Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to his official masterpiece, I am insufficiently reverent to appreciate The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which struck me as trifling and unenlightening.
The Wild Bunch is indisputably one of the key American features of the last half-century. Famously, it broke new ground in the depiction of screen violence, opening the floodgates to three decades of graphic cinematic bloodshed. Its aestheticized brutality overshadowed what is arguably the film’s greatest achievementLou Lombardo’s dizzyingly dynamic editing of the opening and climactic gun-battle sequences.
In 1995, 70 minutes of anonymously shot black-and-white silent footage documenting the film’s production was unearthed in a Warner Brothers vault. Director Paul Seydor, the author of several critical studies of Peckinpah’s work, has combined some of this material with clips from the film itself, accompanied by soundtrack reminiscences by members of the cast and crew. Disappointingly, the recently discovered footageshots of Peckinpah and unidentified collaborators going about the laborious, exacting business of filmmaking in the streets of Parras, Mexico, the film’s main locationaren’t very edifying, and, taken out of context, the truncated wide-screen color excerpts from the movie fail to convey its power. The brief spoken extractssome by survivors of the project, others read by actors including Ed Harris, who serves as Peckinpah’s voicearen’t much pithier than fortune cookies. (Seydor’s decision not to identify the speakers until after they have said their piece is disorienting. It would be useful to know whether we are listening to the reflections of an actor, screenwriter, or composer before he speaks.)
Two recent Peckinpah biographies, Marshall Fine’s Bloody Sam and David Weddle’s “If They Move…Shoot ‘Em,” offered vivid insights into the life and art of this gifted, conflicted, often monstrous director. Seydor’s 34-minute documentary, a recycling of the Peckinpah rugged-individualist myth, never transcends auteurist idolatry. Appended to a laser disc of The Wild Bunch, it might serve as a diverting if shallow supplement. But viewed in isolation, it fails to cast much light on the film itself or the talented, complex artist who created it.
Joel E. Siegel
At 7 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Monday, April 28 at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. (Both showings w/Forgotten Silver.)
The first film by French critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas to win American commercial distribution, this is an outgoing in-joke, an intellectual romp. Hired to remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915-16 thriller serial, Les Vampires, washed-up French director René Vidal (played by French New Wave poster boy Jean-Pierre Léaud) decides that it would be “blasphemy” to cast a French actress in the role of Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”). So he recruits Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung, who looks good in the required skin-tight black outfit but doesn’t speak French.
Cheung (playing herself) re-enacts some scenes from the original, but René isn’t sure that’s what he wants. What really inspires the director, he ultimately admits, is Maggie herself, and he’s not alone: Wardrobe manager Zoé (Nathalie Richard) also has an erotic interest in her. As René’s film disintegrates, Maggie spends her time at parties, raves, and interviews, casually discussing the fate of cinema to the tune of Luna and Laetitia Sadier’s version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” When she defends René’s work to a French reporter,
he laughs. “It’s over, I hope,” he says of the French art film, which he dismisses as too introspective.
That’s certainly not the case with Assayas’ film, which is freewheeling and spontaneous, if not exactly mainstream. Shot quickly and partly improvised, Irma Vep is as loose and vital as early Godard. The subject is self-conscious, but it’s played out cinematically rather than cerebrally, as the director intercuts his own handheld, behind-the-scenes shots with sequences from Les Vampires, René’s increasingly abstract footage, and a scene from The Heroic Trio, one of Cheung’s vivid, fanciful HK action flicks. The result is a film that broods on cinema’s decline while giddily exploring its many possibilities.
At 7:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
Two parts documentary, one part artsy biopic, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask deifies the revolutionary writer even as it attempts to dispel the myths surrounding him. In the opening sequence, the actor portraying Fanon quickly lets us know that he wrote his groundbreaking study of the colonial mentality, Black Skin, White Mask, in 1952 at the tender age of 27in other words, that he was basically a genius.
And it’s true. As complicated and riddled with contradictions as Fanon’s writings are, they remain the seminal texts about the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and the process of liberation. Fanon died from leukemia less than 10 years after writing Black Skin, White Mask; he was undergoing treatment at NIH, having just completed his second book, The Wretched of the Earth, which focused more specifically on liberation struggles in Algeria and other parts of Africa.
The 50-minute film opens with noir images of a mental patient, shackled arms held above his head, as he paces obsessively, while another patient mumbles in Arabic. It then shifts into documentary format, offering comments by various scholars, childhood friends, and family members. Fanon was an eloquent writer who used metaphor and anecdote to illustrate his theories and findings. It seems the filmmakers were trying to capture cinematically Fanon’s ability to move between terse academic writing and lyrical prose: Images of World War II and black slave workers in the Caribbean islands are interspersed with striking abstract imageswomen in traditional Islamic veils onto which other images are projected, Fanon’s hands caressing a large, white, corallike shell. But these elements don’t succeed in helping the viewer to better understand the writer. Ironically, some of the most arresting images come from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 The Battle of Algiers, which is a far superior film in terms of understanding the revolutionary consciousness.
Fanon was a multifaceted public figureclinical psychologist, author, revolutionary fighter. Born in Martinique, he was raised in the colonial tradition of trying to be “more French than the French.” As a young man, he fought in the French army against the Nazis. Later, he would fight against the French for the decolonization of Algeria. When he adopted the Algerian independence movement as his own, he became more Algerian than the Algerians, bristling when his island background was brought up.
As a physician, his methods and egalitarian approach were liberating for both patients and staff. The film’s re-enactment of his sessions with various patientsboth Arab and Frenchcrystallizes the immense psychological damage caused by the violent revolution, yet ironically Fanon remained a staunch supporter of violence as a means for change. He was against the “decolonization” process, favoring instead “independence” movements in which power is seized from the colonizer with little or no negotiation.
The highlight of the film is the commentary of scholars Françoise Vergès and Stuart Hall, who concisely elucidate Fanon’s theories in accessible language, providing biographical and historical context. They psychoanalyze the psychoanalyst, pointing out the contradictions and complexes that informed his worldview. Vergès tells us that Fanon’s light-skinned, bourgeois mother, who preferred European music, forbade her son to listen to Creole songs. Hall explains the devastating impact of Fanon’s first encounters with full-fledged racism when he attended university in France. We learn that Fanon’s struggle for liberation is really a struggle to reclaim the masculinity stolen by the white (male) colonizer, so Fanon’s text focuses on black men and white men. What little space he devotes to white women, “mulatto” women (he omits black women altogether), and black gay men (he says they don’t exist in Martinique) is rife with ambiguous, problematic statements. Likewise, Fanon states that the love of things white and colonial interferes with the blacks’ ability to gain liberation, though he married a white French woman (as did his brother)a fact Fanon justified by stating that he was free of the colonial mentality of “alienation.” Vergès, in turn, poses the crucial question: What makes some alienated and some not?
For those who don’t know anything at all about Fanon, the film is a good introduction. For those who have read his works and books about him, the re-enactments won’t come across as particularly powerful. The value of this film is that it gives us another chance to discuss this controversial, brilliant thinker, whose work is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance.
At 8 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Sunday, April 27 at 7:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Director Isaac Julien will be at the screenings.
Children of the
This Australian comedy features some of the biggest names in Down Under filmmaking, including Judy Davis, Sam Neill, and Shine sensation Geoffrey Rush, all in the cause of a one-joke movie that doesn’t make much sense up here. Joan (Davis) is the most fervent commie in ’50s Australia, and Welch (Rush) is the fellow traveler who idolizes not Marx but Joan. Their relationship founders as Joan flirts with a triple agent known as Nine (Neill), but after Joan comes back pregnant from a trip to Moscow, Welch agrees to marry her. The baby’s name is Joe. Could his real father be his namesake, Joe Stalin (F. Murray Abraham)?
Joe (Richard Roxburgh) grows up to be a firebrand labor leader with a thing for handcuffs; he marries the cop (Rachel Griffiths, the crippled libertine from Muriel’s Wedding) who regularly arrested him in his Vietnam-protesting youth. By the early ’90s, Joe has become a tyrant and a threat to the country’s domestic tranquility. This is the point at which, presumably, intimate knowledge of Aussie politics transforms writer/director Peter Duncan’s contrivances into something quite hilarious.
Presented as a pseudo-documentary, the film apparently means to resonate with actual events in world and Australian political history. For clueless North Hemispherians who think of Australia as a fairly stable country, however, the intimations of civil upheaval are mystifying. But maybe the political satire is really no more penetrating than the film’s portrayal of Stalin as a preening old phony who likes to break into show tunesand no more contemporary than the T. Rex tune from which Duncan borrowed the title.
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Sunday, April 27 at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Listening to You:
The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival
The only real reason to see director Murray Lerner’s unadorned, slightly abridged, excellently preserved record of the Who’s appearance at the August 1970 Isle of Wight Festival (apart from John Entwistle’s astonishing skeleton body suit) is the great, sorely missed Keith Moon. A title at the beginning of the film that provides practically its only framing alleges that this performance was one of the group’s most memorable, but such is plainly not the case. The event might have felt apocalyptic at the time, as some 200,000 to 600,000 fans waited until either 2 a.m. (according to the film) or 3 a.m. (according to the notes to the two-CD recording of the show released last year) to see the Who play its fake-deep “opera” Tommy, but the gig starts out a bit stiff and sloppy, and Pete Townshend has such trouble with one pedal that he ends the pre-Tommy set by dashing it against the stage.
A far better record of a far better show earlier the same year is the gloriously restored Live at Leeds (which was my favorite album even before it was remastered and expanded to include nearly all of the performance it documents), but Live at Leeds is not a film and cannot capture the visual dynamism that made the Who so unbelievably exciting. Lots of footage of the group from this period exists, but practically all of it focuses on Roger Daltrey’s mike-twirling macho posturing and Townshend’s whirling-dervish guitar playing (with the odd cutaway to the indulgent, placid Entwistle); none of the cameramen noticed that the drummer was redefining his instrument’s role, and that the real tension in the Who was that Moon and Townshend were, sonically speaking, trying to kill each other.
Listening to You goes a long way toward correcting this historic injustice. While it might be a stretch to call Moon the film’s star, he is certainly its most charismatic figure (and the only one having a good night or a good time), and the numerous cameras come close to giving him his due. Looking boyishly handsome yet depraved, Moon twirls and tosses his sticks, spits water up in the air, gets into a pretend fight with Townshend, and conducts the overture to Tommyall while providing percussion so frenzied that at one point he breaks a bass drum head.
Moon was such an explosive drummer that in most old film of the Who it’s hard to match what you’re seeing to what you’re hearing during the brief snippets Moon is on camera. In Listening to You, although the editing is occasionally fudged with nonmatching shots, you see enough of Moon that you can see what he’s doing, and it only makes the thunder he generated out of a rudimentary, undermiked kit more extraordinary. Even though Moon has been dead nearly 20 years, Listening to You features a short commemorative coda, suggesting that Lerner was appropriately impressed.
At 10 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens
Saturday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m. at
the American Film Institute Theater. Director Murray Lerner will be at
the May 3 screening.
Also screening April 26: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m., Hirshhorn Museum), The Unknown (3:30 p.m., National Gallery of Art), Intimate Relations (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Boy From Mercury (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Stage Door (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Guantanamera (9:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley)
A Sense of Life
Like lice, the writings of Ayn Rand keep reinfesting the American consciousness. Resistant to dousings of rational analysis and common sense, they attach themselves to impressionable adolescent minds, vulnerable hosts for her simplistic pseudo-philosophical rejection of collectivism and religion, and celebration of individualism, capitalism, solipsism, romanticism, and self-esteem. By the time one generation matures sufficiently to recognize the shallowness of her thinking, a new one begins itching.
Filmfest DC’s description of writer-director Michael Paxton’s interminable but smoothly crafted documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, admits the ironic lack of objectivity in his depiction of the founder of Objectivism. “This is not a kiss and tell or critical study of the controversial author: replete with interviews with her and her associates, letters, diary entries, notes, and family pictures, this is film as autobiography.” Substitute “hagiography” for “autobiography” and you have a good idea of Paxton’s perspective and tone. Produced with the cooperation of the writer’s estate and interspersed with fawning talking-head testimonies by nerdish Rand chums and scholars, it’s a wartless deification of St. Ayn, Our Lady of Selfishness.
Viewed from a less partisan perspective, Rand’s saga could have made a compelling film. Born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was a child interested in both abstract thought (loved Aristotle, hated Plato) and kitsch (rinky-dink pop music, French boys’ magazines, movies, operettas). In 1926, she emigrated to America and soon found herself in Hollywood, where she worked as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings before advancing to editing screenplays for the director and, by the early ’30s, serving as head of RKO’s wardrobe department. Scarred by the Russian revolution’s impoverishment of her family and alarmed by the looming specters of what she regarded as mankind’s greatest folliesaltruism and collectivismshe began expressing her individualist views, first in plays (Ideal, Penthouse Legend) and later in novels (We the Living, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged). Dismissed by critics and intellectuals, her books were embraced by postwar anti-Communist readers and still sell 300,000 copies annually. In later years, Rand abandoned art for philosophy, promoting Objectivism in Playboy interviews and on television chat shows (Phil, Tom, Johnny, Merv), where she touted the virtues of unbridled capitalism and eulogized, among other things, Marilyn Monroe and the Apollo 11 launch.
With her large, luminous eyes and unflappable self-assurance, Rand is a magnetic camera subject. But her ideas bear the same relation to philosophy that Pop-Tarts do to Viennese pastry. As she soberly explains her Objectivist principles to Mike Wallace in the film’s opening sequence, one can’t help recalling Anne Elk’s vapid theorizing in a memorable Monty Python episode. Riding the same hobbyhorse for half a century (and, in Paxton’s movie, 137 minutes), this self-dubbed “fanatic of individualism” quickly wears out her welcome. Paxton glosses over questionable passages of his subject’s history: her shameful alliance with L.B. Mayer, Walt Disney, and Adolph Menjou in the Hollywood witch hunts, her intellectual and extramarital sexual dalliance with Nathaniel Branden, her indifference to the social and political upheavals of the ’60s, her fatuous newspaper articles identifying businessmen as the last hope of U.S. civilization. Ridiculous assertionssuch as the notion that leftists owned Hollywood in the ’30sare offered up as truths, and intriguing psychological keys to Rand’s personality, like her phallicistic obsessions with skyscrapers and trains, are left unexplored.
Like all holy relics, Paxton’s documentary, which presents its subject as an uncomprehended, often vilified, prophet, will be unquestioningly accepted by its cult. But moviegoers expecting a balanced view of the life of this singular cultural phenomenon are advised to search elsewhere.
Joel E. Siegel
At 2 & 5:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon
Tenley. Also screens Tuesday, April 29 at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Director Michael Paxton and producer Jeff Britting will be at the screenings.
One of the advantages of not living in France is being spared exposure to movies like this enervating 1995 comedy-drama.
Camille (played by Fabrice Luchini, a smaller, wormier Chevy Chase) is an anesthetist at a Bordeaux hospital who refuses to commit to his girlfriends. His clandestine relationship with Clementine, a young, pretty married woman, becomes threatening when, without consulting him, she confesses the affair to her husband and prepares to move in with her lover. Fumbling for an excuse to keep her at bay, Camille takes advantage of an airport mix-up to invent a phantom mistress. His luggage has been switched with an identical red suitcase belonging to Juliette Graveur, a classical flautist. Unable to exchange baggage with Juliette, who has mysteriously disappeared, he distributes her clothes around his apartment to convince Clementine that she has a secret rival.
Pinching devices from Laura and Vertigo, writer-director Philippe Le Guay and co-scripters Jean-Louis Richard and Brigitte Rouan contrive for Camille to develop a romantic obsession with Juliette, a woman he has never met. He acquires and repeatedly plays her recordings of Mozart flute pieces, and even purchases underwear and an elegant black performance gown for her. Spellbound by his dream lover, he spurns the advances of several desirable flesh-and-blood women. When the real Juliette’s whereabouts are unexpectedly discovered, he finds himself caught in an ironic climactic snare from which he won’t be able to escape as easily as he has the clutches of his previous girlfriends.
Running a scant 85 minutes, L’Année Juliette feels at least a half-hour too long. Le Guay telegraphs his “surprise” ending long before it arrives, postponing the inevitable denouement by introducing and developing characters who are summarily abandoned. The film is not without marginal pleasures: appealing appearances by several lovely actresses, and Pierre Novion’s handsome cinematography. But Luchini’s charmless performance makes him an unappealing protagonist and a highly implausible lothario. It’s difficult to believe that intelligent, fetching women would willingly break bread with him, let alone share their beds and emotions.
In its brochure, Filmfest DC claims that its program committee viewed over 1,500 movies before deciding on the 59 features showcased in this year’s festival. The pickings must have been pitifully slim for them to include this picture, which is as sleep-inducing as its protagonist’s profession. Why the Embassy of France would be willing to lend its prestige to the presentation of such stale fromage and bring its director to Washington is too bewildering to ponder.
Joel E. Siegel
At 6 p.m. at the Embassy of France. Also screens Monday, April 28 at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Director Philippe Le Guay will be at the screenings.
It’s 1990, and the scenic cities of the former Soviet bloc are filling up with young adventurers from both East and West. With the barriers finally down, Russian street musicians Yura (Yuri Fomichev) and Vadim (Igor Chernievich) arrive in Budapest; they’re soon followed by Sergei (Alexei Serebriakov), an engineer who plans to continue on through Yugoslavia to Italy, where his ultimate goal is simply to sit at a sidewalk cafe. The Russians congregate at an outdoor flea market, a rooming house with a Russian proprietress, and Bolshe Vita (“big life”) itself, a nightclub where Russian is widely spoken. At the rooming house, Yura meets Maggie (Helen Baxendale), a pretty Welsh translator who takes him home and introduces Vadim to her roommate Susan (Caroline Loncq), an impulsive Texan.
What follows is a slacker idyll, set in a low-rent international boho underground. Yura and Maggie find true love, and Vadim finally encounters an audience that appreciates his saxophone playing. But everything’s not perfect: Vadim and Susan’s romance founders, and Sergei can’t continue his trip. (Plus, Maggie and Susan refuse to let Yura and Vadim go to McDonald’s.) Then Russian mobsters arrive to take over the outdoor market, and the Russian-émigré community scatters. The big life is over.
This film is engaging and a bit of a mess, but that’s apt. Its lackadaisical structure suits the story and period, both of which crackle with the energy of new (yet hardly epic) possibilities. Writer/director Ibolya Fekete cuts brief scenes from her own documentary, Children of the Apocalypse, into the action, giving the script’s mostly modest and domestic events a wider context. The effect is both specific and universal, much as Budapest in 1990 is both an epochal place and just another playground for the youthful hustlers and dilettantes who’ve been searching out happening locales since the ’50s. The Hungarian residents of the city don’t really feature in the film, but that’s how émigré traveling parties work: Budapest one week, on to Brighton or Tashkent the next.
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Monday, April 28 at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
In which a none-too-fresh episode of the BBC’s South Bank Show is passed off as a biographical film. While the South Bank Show is an excellent source of entertaining biographical information, and Little Richard is a more than worthy subject, this version of his story grinds to a halt in the ’70s and fails to acknowledge that he has been unable to stop making an imprint on American culture even today.
Little Richard controls the show for his diffident hosts, so the version of his life you hear may appear larger than it actually is. Still, he’s so relaxed and charismatic that it’s impossible to mind his self-mythologizing. Amazing facts slip out in scattershot fashion. While eating in a diner he remarks that his father’s murder was never solved, then adds, “My best friend killed him.” In telling the story of how “Tutti Frutti” was first recorded, someone explains that the lyrics were too dirty to commit to vinyl; they were rewritten in the studio, on the spot. A sample first verse is more than adequate proof.
Mixed in with a sober history lesson are the hyperbolized backstage stories without which no biopic (much of this one is shot in the back of a limo) would be complete. Little Richard details the shameful financial abuse of performersespecially black performersin the ’50s, stating that those who asked for their money were tagged as troublemakers. Not long after, questions of his influence on white rock ‘n’ roll pop up, and he expounds giddily on teaching an agog, blundering Paul McCartney to go “Whoo!” and Mick Jagger how to walk.
Little Richard takes the unseen filmmakers to the first home he bought, and they accompany him to a Los Angeles church (presided over by ex-soul singer the Rev. Johnny Otis) where he is embarking on his career as an evangelist. Most of this is entertaining, but not much is enlightening, especially considering that Little Richard is back in the public eye in the latest of many vaunted returns to showbiz. The Little Richard Special is uninterested in his music, but it accidentally demonstrates that he had the most extraordinary vocal control and resilience for a guy who made a living raising the roof.Arion Berger
At 9:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Monday, April 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Also screening April 27: “Short Stuff” (5 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Shall We Dance? (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Stage Door (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), A Summer in La Goulette (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Vaska Easoff (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
a Voice Like Egypt
“Doesn’t everyone in the world love Umm Kulthum?” asks an old woman in this documentary about the Egyptian singer. Most people have never heard of Kulthum, of course, but the old woman’s confusion is understandable. The singer was a sensation in Egypt during her 50-year career (she died in 1975), and the powerful signal of Egyptian radio blasted her traditional tunes throughout the Arab world.
Michal Goldman’s documentary, narrated by Omar Sharif, briefly recounts the story of both Kulthum and 20th-century Egypt, and the two are sometimes hard to separate. The singer was a favorite of King Farouk as well as the man who deposed him, President Nasser, and became more than just a national symbol. She once brokered the resumption of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Tunisia, and strongly supported Egypt’s wars against Israel. (The film treats the latter issue hastily.)
Umm Kulthum, a Voice Like Egypt is an intriguing introduction to the singer and her place in Egyptian culture, but for Western viewers it raises as many questions as it answers. The interviews with Kulthum’s friends and admirers could have been productively supplemented with comments from objective observers of the singer and her era. The film also might have done a better job of capturing the alleged rapture of her performances; we’re told several times that Kulthum’s concerts required tremendous stamina and lasted for hours, but the short video and audio clips included here fail to convey the intensity that the singer’s fans describe.
At 8:15 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Tuesday, April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Director Michal Goldman will be at the screenings.
Also screening April 28: Sweet Power (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Vaska Easoff (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Brassed Off (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Martha (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), A Summer in La Goulette (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley)
Luna e L’Altra
There are enough plot strands in director/comedian Maurizio Nichetti’s latest for a half-dozen hilarious Italian farces, but somehow they fail to make even one. Uptight, well-meaning Luna (Iaia Forte) is the only female schoolteacher in a Milan boys’ school. Building custodian Angelo (Nichetti) worships her, while the other teachers mock her behind her back. It’s the ’50s, so the locals are still uncovering bombs left over from World War II, and the bourgeoisie is paranoid about communists. The working class is solidly communist, however, and Angelo plays in a band that performs at the funerals of fallen comrades. Meanwhile, Luna’s crabby father just wants to go back to Naples.
Then the circus comes to town, with a magic lamp that brings shadows to life. It frees Luna’s shadow to live her own free-spirited life: She calls herself Lunette andclassic farce moverents a room in the local brothel patronized by nearly all the movie’s adult male characters. Luna and Lunette are often confused, of course, and some are pleased by the seeming change: Dad is delighted that his daughter has become fun-loving, and Angelo joins Lunette in working up an act for the circus, which saves the traveling troupe from the real threat of the ’50s: television. But eventually Luna and Lunette must meet.
Nichetti previously co-directed the amiable, semi-animated Volere Volare, in which he played a sound-effects artist bedeviled by ‘toons that come to life. This comedy is based on a similar idea, although it uses animation more sparingly. Perhaps because it takes so long to set up the elaborate premise, the movie seems laborious rather than lighthearted. It’s not as strained as Nichetti’s excruciating U.S. debut, The Icicle Thief, but it’s not nearly blithe enough to sustain its mix of shopworn burlesque and trite sentiment.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Saturday, May 3 at 6 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Clever and pointed, Su Friedrich’s hourlong feature uses an unusual formathalf documentary, half fictionto discuss and explode myths of lesbian childhood. Interviews with a number of smart, confident women put to shame platitudes about the lonely tomboy with an anguished crush on her girlfriend.
Hide and Seek kicks off with a dimpled Scottish woman reminiscing about girlhood Sapphic experiments in which she and her friend would pretend to be Davy Jones and one of his nameless TV girlfriends going away for a dirty weekend. It then segues into footage of lab chimps playing with little girls, while other women respond thoughtfully, dismissively, or enthusiastically to questions about the so-called gay gene and the idea of homosexuals as the lab monkeys of social science.
The women are all interesting, and no two experiences are alike. If one had a crush on a teacher, another never noticed other girls until her late teens; some were tomboys, while others, such as a saucy older woman with a European accent, were dyed-in-the-wool girly girls with dreams of both being a princess and rescuing one. Some confess to erotic resonances from childhoodthe smell of Love’s Baby Soft or a blue vein on the back of a slim knee; one gorgeous black woman tells of hiding a page from a Vampirella comic in her jewelry box. The memory is strongshe keeps repeating with overjoyed amazement, “She was so beautiful.”
Intercut among these reminiscences and mortifyingly unhelpful education films from the past is a story about pretty, hoydenish Lou, a grade-schooler in the early ’60s grappling with new feelings. Lou’s story is touching, fresh, and free of clichés, although it ends with an indecisive whimper, as if Friedrich and co-writer Cathy Nan Quinlan didn’t much care what would happen to her next. Still, Hide and Seek displays more honesty, humor, and diversity than a whole season of Ellen.
At 8:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Wednesday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Director Su Friedrich will be at the screenings.
Also screening April 29: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program III” (1 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), For Roseanna (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Martha (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Sweet Power (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), God’s Comedy (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Tot Ziens (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
This 1981 social comedy is the most satisfying of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s later filmsor at least it could be for Washingtonians who can’t get enough bitter satires of real-estate development. The basic story (and the name of the lead character) is derived from von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel: Cabaret star and prostitute Lola (Barbara Sukowa) entrances an upright man (Armin Mueller-Stahl, here beginning his career in the West). But this story is set in 1957, during Germany’s “Economic Miracle,” and the honest man is a building inspector whose scruples are a hindrance to Lola’s lover, a small-town Bavarian development tycoon (Mario Adorf).
Lola is the middle panel in Fassbinder’s postwar triptych (the others are The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronika Voss), which was supposed to be part of the director’s “comprehensive picture of the German bourgeoisie since 1848.” Though the film is shot in the Douglas Sirk/Vincente Minnelli candy colors typical of late Fassbinder, the politics owe more to Godard. (There’s even an interesting parallel with Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, another parable of corruption amid a post-World War II building boom.) Despite the opulent, self-conscious style, the film retains the provocative spirit of Fassbinder’s earlier, more ragged work. Indeed, Lola combines the two so well that it’s an ideal place for a Fassbinder explorer (or re-explorer) to begin.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
In 1945, the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. In 1948, Israel was established. In the intervening years, however, the Western powers did shockingly little to help the remaining victims of Hitler’s racialist dementia. Most people who know something about the period are aware that Holocaust survivors faced new horrorspogroms in Poland, for examplebut few could catalog the full range of outrages recounted in Mark Jonathan Harris’ documentary.
After the war, Allied forces interned many Jewish DPs (displaced persons) in prisonlike facilities that were not much better than the ones they’d just left. (Some even ended up being housed in former concentration camps.) The British attempted to keep European Jews from reaching Palestine, while the United States resisted accepting Jewish refugees. According to the film’s interview with Clark Clifford, President Truman was largely alone in his own administration in supporting the recognition of Israel; among his bitter opponents was Secretary of State George Marshall, whose compassion for bombed-out Europe apparently did not extend to its Jews. (British Foreign Minister Bevan doesn’t come off very well, either.)
If the history it tells is fascinatingand necessarythis film is a little duller than it should be. Constructed largely with archival footage and voice-oversthe principal one is by Morgan FreemanThe Long Way Home is surprisingly short on talking-head interviews. The effect is to make the story seem more remote and less immediate than it really is. (More interviews like the one with Clifford would have helped.) Slickly edited and sometimes obviously emulating previous films on related subjects, the documentary is a little bland. The story it tells, however, is not.
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Thursday, May 1 at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Director Mark Jonathan Harris and producer Richard Trank will be at the screenings.
Also screening April 30: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program IV” (1 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Fire (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Second Time (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Beyond the Clouds (8:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Tumult (8:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Midaq Alley (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), When the Stars Meet the Sea (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Late-middle-aged Buenos Aires accountant Clara Goldstein (The Official Story’s Norma Aleandro) has told her brother, who lives in Boston, that she has a new beau, a successful businessman named Jack Kleiman. When her brother announces he’s coming for a visit, Clara has to find someone to play Jack, and the only person who answers her newspaper personal ad is Raul Ferrara (Cronos’ Federico Luppi). The picture framer is an attractive older man, but he’s not rich and he’s not Jewish.
Clara attempts to teach Raul how to pretend to be Jewish and her boyfriend; naturally, the latter pose works better than the former. Even when Clara tells people that Jack’s a little deaf, everyone sees through his impersonation, thanks to his ignorance of Yiddish phrases and Jewish cuisine. Still, the two inevitably fall in love.
Novelist Eduardo Mignogna, who wrote and directed this sweet-natured romance, attempts to cut the sap with occasional scenes of street violence in Buenos Aires, a city the film suggests is on the brink of anarchy. He also punctuates the proceedings, however, with brief glimpses of such venerable Hollywood leading men as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, which is more to the point. There’s nothing anarchic or particularly experimental about this mostly old-fashioned movie, even if Mignogna also includes brief reveries that depict Clara’s overactive imagination. (There’s also some tired shtick with Clara’s car, which keeps breaking down.) The streets may be dangerous, but the bedroom is warm and cozyif a little bit musty.
At 6:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Friday, May 2 at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
This gentle comedy starts in Roddy Doyle territory but ends up on Aki Kaurismäki’s frozen turf. Along the way, director/co-writer Sue Clayton takes an appealingly bemused view of contemporary Europe, which is rapidly being remade by the European Community and redefined by satellite TV.
Finbar and his pal Danny, both about 10, are introduced singing in an Irish cowboy bar; American country music is the soundtrack for their lives in a bleak housing project. A few years later, the surly but charismatic Finbar (Jonathan Rhys Myers) gets a chance to play professional football (that is, soccer). After he blows that opportunity, Finbar becomes increasingly disagreeable. Then one night he frightens his friends by climbing to a perch precariously high above a busy highway. When Danny (Luke Griffin) goes up after him, Finbar has vanished.
The mystery gradually becomes a sensation. People report that the boy is a traffic cop in Limerick, or living in a Greek monastery. At the commemoration of the third anniversary of Finbar’s disappearance, a cameraman arrives; it turns out he’s making a video for a song about Finbar, which soon becomes a European hit. (There’s an echo here of the British fascination with the evaporation of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey James.) Then Danny gets a clue that Finbar is actually in Sweden and goes to investigate, discovering near the Arctic Circle a small community of hard-drinking, openhearted tango enthusiasts.
The Disappearance of Finbar is a delicate whimsy, but rich in its own lighthearted way. It’s an Irish-British-Swedish-Danish-German co-production, and Clayton has some fun with the new, all-jumbled-up Europe: Country-and-western yields to Leonard Cohen-inspired technopop and traditional Irish pennywhistle dirges, while Danny finds that his new Swedish hometown has been re-engineered by a European Community crew, just like his old Irish one. “There’s no place like home” is an ambiguous maxim, of course, and Clayton is alert to the comic possibilities of that ambiguity.
At 6:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Friday, May 2 at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Director Sue Clayton will be at the screenings.
This domestic-scale Canadian drama at first appears as mild-mannered as the political event it documents: the forced move of Japanese-Canadians from Vancouver to the British Columbia interior after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. The relocation, though certainly unjustified, seems almost benign compared to the fate of Japanese-Americans, who were interned in concentration camps. As the story unfolds, however, the full extent of the Canadian government’s perfidy is revealed. Unfortunately, Anne Wheeler’s film remains bland even as the events it describes become more bitter.
The director, whose previous work includes another tepid World War II homefront drama, Bye Bye Blues, focuses on two families: the Anglo locals living a hardscrabble life in a depressed mining town, and the previously wealthy Japanese who must adapt to life in an abandoned mining-company shack. There’s much suspicion between the two, but after the Japanese family’s eldest daughter Aya takes a job as a housekeeper and nanny for Peg, the two women become close friends. In the narrative background, the arrival of the new residents reinvigorates the local economy; gradually, other cross-cultural alliances are made, both business and personal.
Focusing on Aya and Peg’s growing rapport is a respectable low-budget strategy, but the effect is to downplay the wrenching sacrifices that Japanese-Canadians were forced to make. Even after the war turned against Japan, Canadian officials made new and more onerous demands. There’s nothing in the movie that hits as hard as the final title, which explains what happened to many Japanese-Canadians after the war. Too bad Wheeler couldn’t have incorporated more of that impact into her story.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Friday, May 2 at 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Actress Mieko Ouchi will be at the screenings.
The Venus of
What appears to be a schematic “problem movie” about two cousinsone robust and well adjusted although beset with man trouble, the other neurotic and bulimicgathers power over the length of its 90 minutes. Curvy, frizzy-haired Ida comes to the house of her thin, frosty cousin Elena to help sort through the ashes of their family’s past. Elena’s husband, Enrico, used to be Ida’s boyfriend; he loves Elena but is weary of her exasperating alienation. She is wan, brittle, and utterly repressed. She can only find an outlet in the shopping, eating, and barfing binges that soothe her in times
Not a lot happens, and the script is so elliptical that translation from the Italian makes it doubly difficult to grasp the undercurrents. Ida’s no-good boyfriend’s daughter visits, and Elena gets a hint of the warmth and family feeling she did not create in her own home. Finally, Enrico leaves Elena and, unable to accept defeat or sympathy, Elena throws Ida out as well. Alone, she indulges in nonstop binges, shown with disgusting clarity. Director Elisabetta Lodoli doesn’t treat the nature of Elena’s affliction as a surprisefrom her first scene, it’s clear that Elena’s neuroses about food go beyond most women’sbut the masterful pace at which she pulls back the curtain on Elena’s secretive behavior does provide maximum shock. Beautifully filmed by the Italian seaside, this spare, affecting movie exposes the yearning and gloom that tear at the foundations of even ostensibly well-adjusted middle-class families.
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Friday, May 2 at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Director Elisabetta Lodoli will be at the screenings.
Also screens May 1: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program IV” (1 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Autumn Sun (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), For Roseanna (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Delicate Art of the Rifle (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Midaq Alley (8:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Beyond the Clouds (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Tumult (8:45 p.m., American Film Institute Theater)
The folk-music counterpart of Bert Stern’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Murray Lerner’s Festival (1967) reflects the emergence of cinéma vérité techniques in the early ’60s. Although both films were shot at Newport, R.I., events, Stern’s feature is artily, glossily photographed in vivid colors. The introduction of lightweight cameras, portable sound equipment, and fast black-and-white film stock, initially exploited by Frenchmen Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in 1961’s Chronicle of a Summer, altered both the style and content of documentary filmmaking. Hitherto “invisible,” the camera itself became a participant in filmed events, recording and affecting the representation of reality.
Lerner prefaces Festival with a typical cinéma vérité autocritique. When he shouts “cut” to a group of young singers, one of them observes, “If we’d have been really blowing, he couldn’t have helped but listen. He’s justhe’s interested in making a film. He’s running a machine. He’s awful interested in making a film of what he wants to see in the film, not of what we want in the film.”
But the director soon abandons this self-reflexive strategy in his impressionistic documentation of performances and offstage incidents culled from the 1963-66 Newport Folk Festivals. Viewed three decades later, Festival is more valuable as time capsule than as performance film; Woodstock, Stop Making Sense, and a host of other concert movies have advanced the art of photographing live music well beyond the reach of Lerner’s ambitions and skills.
Following an interminable telephoto shot of youthful hoards approaching the festival grounds, Lerner presents songssome complete, some fragmentedby over two dozen folk artists. Perversely, none are identified by subscripts, and only the biggest names are afforded spoken introductions. As a result, familiar faces like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are named, but Spokes Mashlyane, Tex Logan, and Cousin Emmy are doomed to anonymous immortality.
What Lerner captures most invigoratingly is the egalitarianism and diversity of the Newport festivals. Musicians from a spectrum of national and ethnic backgrounds share their artistic traditions: jug-band players, white and black gospel groups, clog dancers, bluegrass pickers, blues singers, penny whistlers, cheekslappers. Predictably, though, the most famous performers receive the lion’s share of footageBaez, Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
With her radiant smile and generous spirit, Baez emerges as the film’s star. It’s edifying to chart her four-year evolution from a somewhat whiny, longhaired interpreter of traditional ballads (“Mary Hamilton”) to, under Dylan’s influence, an earthier, smartly coifed performer of contemporary songs (“Farewell Angelina”). (Baez’s candid comments about her reluctant celebrity status”Idolatry is a little weird”are counterbalanced by her patience in signing autographs and recognition of her responsibility as a role model for younger fans.) Dylan undergoes a parallel metamorphosis, from a rather cherubic acoustic folkie (“All I Really Want to Do”) to an insolent, electrified pop star (“Mr. Tambourine Man”). I could have done with fewer than the four long performances by Peter, Paul, and Mary, though Lerner’s camera exposes how shrewdly Mary Travers exploited her striking looks and waist-long flaxen hair to divert attention from her colorless voice.
Obviously, Festival’s highlights depend on each viewer’s musical taste. I particularly enjoyed Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry’s lively “Keys to the Highway,” Odetta’s majestic presence and powerful singing of her two numbers, and the young, mischievous Johnny Cash’s sly presentation of his signature song, “I Walk the Line.” The low points were Buffy Sainte-Marie’s brief chorusesher quavery vibrato makes Eartha Kitt’s sound like a tuning forkand the interchangeable gospel groups. Son House’s spoken dissertation on the meaning of the blues struck me as something of a con jobthe likely inspiration for Mark McKinney’s mocking Kids in the Hall bluesman monologuesbut his soulful singing and playing are ample compensations.
With the civil rights movement gathering force and the divisive horrors of the Vietnam War yet to come, Festival captures an idealistic moment in our national history when young people still had faith in Dylan’s anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Pete Seeger, the perennial camp-counselor organizer of uplifting group songfests, observes, “The average man or woman can make his own music. In this machine age, it doesn’t all have to come out of a loudspeaker. You can make it yourself.” Could this benevolent figure have then imagined the corporate-sponsored nihilism of contemporary gangsta rap or the mass-marketed cacophonous feedback of disaffected pop bands? Despite its formal shortcomings, Festival offers something more valuable than polished filmmaking: a souvenir of life before the fall.
Joel E. Siegel
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 3 at 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Director Murray Lerner will be at the May 3 screening.
Also screening May 2: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program II” (11 a.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program IV” (1 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Africa Dreaming (6:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), When the Cat’s AwayÉ (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Wake Up, Love (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Autumn Sun (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Other Side of Sunday (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Watermelon Woman (10:15 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Last Hurrah for Chivalry (10:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Screening Saturday May 3: “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program I” (11 a.m., Hirshhorn Museum), “Filmfest DC for Kids; Program II” (12:30 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Open City (12:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids: Program III” (2 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), “Short Stuff” (3 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), La Rencontre (3:30 p.m., National Gallery of Art), Africa Dreaming (5:15 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), When the Cat’s AwayÉ (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Wake Up, Love (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Second Time (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), God’s Comedy (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Other Side of Sunday (9:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Watermelon Woman (9:45 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Last Hurrah for Chivalry (10:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Screening May 4: A Chef in Love (4 p.m., Key)