Filmfest DC has its schedule on the World Wide Web this year (http://www.capaccess.org/filmfestdc), but the 10th incarnation of this annual cinematic binge is otherwise not especially cutting-edge. The festival opened Wednesday with Caught, a Robert M. Young film co-produced by Jim and Ted Pedas, the former owners of the local Circle Theater chain and longtime Filmfest patrons. The featured programs include such familiar, time-tested ones as “Global Rhythms,” “Filmfest DC for Kids,” a silent classic with live organ accompaniment (this year it’s 1924’s Romola), a selection of films chosen by Women in Film and Video, and the winners from the Rosebud competition, a showcase for local filmmakers. And the country whose filmmaking will be saluted this year is France, not a nation whose contribution to world cinema is obscure or widely disputed.
As with many other second-tier U.S. film festivals that don’t attract an industry crowd (like Sundance) or focus exclusively on the season’s upcoming art-house releases (like New York), Filmfest DC is a slightly motley collection of the commercial and the obscure, the anthropological and the artistic, the extraordinary and the merely interesting. This is a recipe that seems to suit the fest’s diverse local audience, which ranges from hard-core cineastes to public-policy junkies to foreign nationals seeking a glimpse of home. According to festival director Tony Gittens, ticket sales are “way ahead of where we were last year,” when more than 50 percent of the screenings sold out.
“People have come to trust us to some extent,” says Gittens, and to some extent they have no choice. As usual, much of the fest’s fare was not available for preview. Also as usual, however, Washington City Paper scrutinized all the films that were made available (except Celestial Clockwork, but let’s not go into that): Nicole Arthur, Holly Bass, Eddie Dean, James Lochart, Dave Nuttycombe, Joel E. Siegel, and I report our findings on the following pages.
Many of the films we recommend are documentaries (Freestyle, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, A Perfect Candidate, Procedure 769: The Witnesses to the Execution of Robert Alton Harris, Silences: Manu Dibango), but other worthy offerings include a French new-wave revival (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), satire (Dadetown), and satire of the French new wave (Son of Gascogne). Meanwhile, Hate and Douce France offer evidence of another French new wave, largely located in the poor Parisian suburbs where the children of the country’s former empire uneasily dwell. France also still produces pretty costume dramas like The Horseman on the Roof, although in that one the drama is upstaged by the prettiness.
Horseman is scheduled to open commercially next month, and it’s likely that other films in this year’s lineup will also appear on local commercial screens. Hate, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Terence Davies’ unpreviewed but much-anticipated The Neon Bible, for example, have already opened in New York; Welcome to the Dollhouse recently won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Manneken Pis was a hit in Europe, so those too will probably get commercial bookings. Others in this lineup, however, will never pass this way again. (I, for example, am looking forward to Bombay and Village of Dreams, both commercially dubious and both American premieres.) Choosing between the sure things and the one-shots can be difficult, but it sure beats the options offered at your neighborhood megaplex most any weekend.—Mark Jenkins
Pas très Catholique
Though its heroine is well into her 40s, Tonie Marshall’s Pas très Catholique is a coming-of-age story. Maxime (Anémone) is a private detective who makes her living chronicling the sexual misdeeds of others. Though she’s about as stereotypically macho as a female can get, Maxime is not a conventional gumshoe; the script reveals that she entered the profession as a young wife, tailing in turn the investigator her wealthy husband hired to tail her. The trail led back to a detective agency, where she promptly applied for work, walking out on her jealous spouse and
Pas très Catholique opens many years later. Maxime, apparently overcompensating for her privileged past, lives in a one-room apartment; willfully frumpy, she wears the same clothes for days at a time. She has few close relationships and rebuffs even the merely friendly overtures of the local cafe proprietor with excessive ferocity. Maxime is single-mindedly devoted to her job and seems settled into a cheerless routine of trailing adulterers and chain-smoking her way through late-night stakeouts. She’s not a pathetic figure, but the film makes a fairly convincing case that Maxime has confused self-actualization with self-abnegation.
Anémone’s surly Maxime is likable despite herself, but—as the movies have taught us and Marshall reiterates once more—beneath every gruff exterior there lies a sensitive soul. (This is established early in the film, when the detective browbeats an oafish man into apologizing to a dog for yelling at it.) Maxime must own up to her gentler emotions when, in the course of an investigation, she meets the son she abandoned in his infancy. The ensuing events take a predictable course but stop short of full-blown sentimentality.
All this takes place in an atmosphere of distinctively French—and, after a time, rather grating—sexual nonchalance. Going to console a recently widowed woman, Maxime finds her preoccupied with the loss’s effect on her sex life. (“I’ll have to take out a newspaper ad—how humiliating!”) Maxime’s new trainee at the agency is sleeping with their male boss as well as the female runaway he’s been hired to track down. Maxime beds a woman one night and a man the next. People mistake her teenage son for her lover; he confesses that he finds her “sexy.” And so on.
For a loner, Maxime doesn’t spend much time by herself.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Friday, May 3, at 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
W.E.B. Du Bois:
A Biography in
It was almost 100 years ago that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, a work that still speaks to this century and to the persistent problem of the color line. Still, Du Bois’ vast body of work and his political contributions remain largely unheralded. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices, a documentary by Louis Massiah, sheds new light on the life and legacy of one of America’s greatest intellectuals.
The documentary’s greatest strength is the very scope of its subject’s life. Du Bois’ 95 years provide a prism through which to view America’s history, from the first reversals of civil rights in the 1880s and the subsequent increase in lynchings to the Harlem Renaissance to World Wars I and II to McCarthyism and Cold War–era imperialism.
Born just after the abolition of slavery, Du Bois had an exceptional life, especially considering the options for African-Americans at the time. He was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, and his early research laid the foundation for modern urban sociology. In addition to his academic work, he was an ardent anti-nuclear activist, an early Pan-Africanist, and the editor of The Crisis, a black social and political magazine. He continued to write, work, and remain active his entire life, becoming a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in 1961, when he was over 90
Du Bois was also one of the founders of the NAACP. From its onset, the organization has been troubled by internal politics and occasionally deep rifts between its members. By chronicling its beginnings, the film offers insights into the organization’s role in the civil rights movement and its current state of turmoil and transition.
The film’s soundtrack consists of American popular music from the eras covered in the film and dramatic original theme music typical of PBS-style documentaries. The narration is eloquent and often poetic, not surprising given its authors—Wesley Brown, Thulani Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Amiri Baraka. The film wisely sections Du Bois’ life into four parts, with each writer taking a turn—hence the title.
All but the most learned scholar will find something new in this well-researched two-hour film. And those who are quite familiar with Du Bois’ work will still enjoy the commentary of leading historians and those who knew him—friends, relatives, former students, and employees—as well as rare photos, archival footage, and Du Bois’ own voice. The film’s only significant weakness is that there isn’t more of Du Bois speaking. In the end we’re left with a great deal of information, but still without a great sense of the character of this man. What was he like as a person? Was he perceived as arrogant or down-to-earth by the working-class blacks he interviewed for his research? What was he like as a family man? These difficult and interesting questions may not be answered soon, but they let us know there’s still more to learn about this long underrated activist and man of letters. —H.B.
At 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
The African Prom
Filmed a year ago at London’s Royal Albert Hall, this 60-minute BBC film offers a few songs by each of five African performers: Mali’s Salif Keita, Algeria’s Keita Khaled, Senegal’s Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour, and South Africa’s Lucky Dube. (Except for the last, all these performers hail from Francophone Africa and generally base their careers in Paris.) Director Kriss Rusmanis zooms in and out of the audience frequently in an attempt to generate electricity, but the music easily upstages his tricks.
This performance was part of a yearlong celebration of African culture in London, and some of the performers seem to have adopted an uncharacteristically traditional style for the concert. What’s seen of Keita’s set is less Westernized than the show he played earlier this month at the Lincoln Theater, and Maal’s band blends traditional stringed instruments with electric guitar. Still, this is not anthropology: Dube’s reggae relies on keyboards and hard-rock guitar, and when N’Dour brings the performers together for the big closing number, it’s “Chimes of Freedom,” a song whose best-known version is by the Byrds.—M.J.
At 9 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, April 27, at 10 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Shown with Béatrice Soulé’s Silences: Manu Dibango.
This BBC documentary is just as interested in Cameroon-born saxophonist Manu Dibango’s context as his music, which seems to suit him fine. As a camera crew trails him, Dibango gamely travels through France, Cameroon, and Belgium, where in 1956 he helped open a club that provided his first regular gig. France’s exploitation of its Cameroonian subjects—especially during the two World Wars—is a none-too-hidden subtext of Béatrice Soulé’s film, but Dibango discusses Cameroon’s colonial heritage candidly and without rancor. (He laughs when he remembers helping to free his uncle, a French Army “volunteer” who was recruited with his hands tied together.) Soulé allows the French to hang themselves through clips from antique colonialist documentaries that Dibango watches good-naturedly.
More than a skilled imitator of American jazz, Dibango also appreciates traditional West African music and French anthems, as well as the music of marching bands and Christian choirs, all of which he enthusiastically performs or incorporates into his music in the course of this portrait. He seems just as happy, however, to discuss the role of Germany, Cameroon’s first colonizer, and the introduction of football into a country that is now one of world’s football powers.
Soulé’s treatment of all this is a little arch. She actually films Dibango watching the old documentaries and propaganda films (including one by Jean Cocteau) she wants him to discuss, and forces him and his childhood friends to sit in their old desks to reminisce about their school days. The saxophonist’s gentle nature offsets her contrivances, however, and her strategy does permit her to cover an impressive amount of territory. From Josephine Baker to Charles de Gaulle to the origins of Afropop, Silences packs some 60 years of cross-cultural history into 58 minutes.—M.J.
At 9 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, April 27, at 10 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Shown with Kriss Rusmanis’ The African Prom.
The Son of Gascogne
In Pascal Aubier’s off-beat romantic comedy, Harvey (Gregoire Colin), a young man from Le Havre, is hired to escort a Russian singing ensemble, the Voices of Georgia, during their concert tour of France. His flirtation with the group’s shy 18-year-old translator, Dinara (Dinara Droukarova), is interrupted by Marco (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a porcine limo driver who claims to have starred in White Mane, Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1952 short about a boy’s love for a wild horse. Marco insists that Harvey, who does not know his father’s identity, is the illegitimate son of Gascogne, a deceased actor/musician/poet/filmmaker/womanizer idolized by New Wave filmmakers.
Accompanied by Dinara, whose father wrote a thesis on French cinema, Harvey and Marco contact Gascogne’s former colleagues, friends, and lovers, a who’s who of actors and directors. Gradually, Marco’s hidden agenda emerges. If Harvey is indeed Gascogne’s son, he could prove instrumental in locating the lost rushes of Heat, an unreleased movie Gascogne finished shooting just before his death in 1976. Marco plans to peddle the footage to the wealthy husband of the actress who starred in the film, a man determined to purchase and destroy all traces of his wife’s former career. While growing accustomed to his newfound status as the putative son of a legendary celebrity, Harvey finds himself falling in love with Dinara.
This breezy, brightly photographed jeu d’esprit reunites an impressive constellation of aging New Wave luminaries, who have great fun spoofing themselves. Directors Claude Chabrol, Michel Deville, and Jean Rouch make cameo appearances, along with a bouquet of still-fetching actresses who became international stars in Nouvelle Vague movies—Alexandra Stewart, Bernadette Lafont, Marie-France Pisier, Macha Meril, Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier, and Marina Vlady—all of whom, amusingly, claim to have had tempestuous affairs with the fictional Gascogne. Snippets of New Wave classics are reprised, notably as part of a homage to Godard’s Breathless, intercutting shots of Harvey and Dinara with footage of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in a re-enactment of the famous final scene.
If, like me, you came of age during the New Wave, The Son of Gascogne will prove fascinating and a bit sobering, too, a reminder of how much time has passed since that heady infusion of youthful talents revitalized the then-moribund French cinema. But if you know little about that time and are unfamiliar with those movies, you’ll probably feel excluded from most of Aubier’s inside jokes and be left wondering what all the fuss is about.—J.E.S.
At 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Sunday, April 28, at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
The Witnesses to
the Execution of
Robert Alton Harris
When convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris died in the San Quentin gas chamber in 1992, he was the first person executed in California in 25 years. Dutch documentarian Jaap van Hoewijk interviewed 11 of the execution’s 49 witnesses, who range from the sister of one of the victims to a cousin of the murderer, and the effect is as gripping as he intended. Too bad he had to go further, juicing his talking-head interviews with mannered effects.
Those effects, fortunately, occur only as the witnesses say their hellos and goodbyes. At the film’s opening, van Hoewijk lights up the faces of his subjects as each is introduced; at its end, he stages ostentatious still portraits of them, making them stand motionless as life goes on in the background.
Such bombastic visual conceits aside, Procedure 769 is a compelling glimpse of the ornery issue of capital punishment, not to mention the implacability of human emotion and opinion. Though some political ugliness surfaces in passing—big contributors to California Gov. Pete Wilson jockeyed for a seat at this legal snuff—the story is basically classic and universal: redemption versus revenge, forgiveness versus fury. This is not a conflict exacerbated by class, race, or protestations of innocence; it’s simply an unresolved dialogue between those who still can barely comprehend the savagery of government murder and those who didn’t find it savage enough. “He struggled a little, but not enough for me,” says the coolly pitiless sister, just before she’s shown in the congregation at her church.
At 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 26: Tale of the Three Jewels (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Interview (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), I’m So-So (8 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Les Visiteurs (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Coming to Terms With the Dead (9:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Neurosia (10:15 p.m., Biograph)
The annual celebration of D.C.-related filmmakers continues the trend toward practiced, thoughtful artistry. Not to say that there isn’t any art-school frippery, but the majority of this year’s winners are documentaries, and most of the dramatic works are straightforward and assured.
Justine Schmidt focused her camera on homeless street artist Peter Lekki and the people who watch out for him in Dr. Lekki: The World Bank President. In fact, the now-sad figure was a successful World Bank economist whose life disintegrated after his entire family was tragically killed. He still speaks six languages but remains deranged in all of them. Perhaps the only person in his homeless shelter to have an art dealer, Lekki’s paintings are as haunting as this film.
Another eccentric is found in Katrien Jacobs and Ivan Al-Azm’s Joseph Beuys in America. Using videotape footage from a 1974 American appearance by the German performance artist, we get a brief glimpse of this advocate of “social sculpture,” who is given to casual declarations like “Art is the only possibility for change.” Modern interviews add some context and try to explain what Beuys was doing sharing a cell for a week with a coyote.
“Chicks dig snapping the necks off pigeons,” proclaims a skinheaded high-schooler in Eddie Becker and Ron Avey’s Gunblast: Culture Clash. Actually, they don’t, but this portrait of a traditional rural-Pennsylvania pigeon-shoot that has drawn the attention of animal-rights activists lets both sides speak for themselves. With cameras apparently everywhere, the grim and explicit images speak the loudest and clearly present one of the great divides in today’s society.
The wisenheimer team of Jason Farrell, Chloe Monahan, Colin Treado, and Russell Barbara provides a bleak-and-white, Jack
Kerouwacky view of D.C. in North Route 1. The low-budget tale follows a drifter as he hitchhikes into town and falls in with Slim Jim and his gang, the Nicklebacks—so called because they spend their days scavenging returnable bottles. Slim reveals the “seedy underbelly of this two-story town” with such bright originality that one hopes that the gang hitches back soon.
Musical is Mark Schwartzbard’s droll best-of-show piece about a man with a steel plate riveted over his mouth who has given up his desire to play the trumpet. Then he finds a harmonica and, well, what would you do in that situation?
At 2 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
In this comic melodrama, a group of brash working-class Russian women—Europe’s equivalent of trailer trash—are bemused and bewildered by cosmopolitan Venice. Writer/director Alexander Galin’s film introduces several members of the delegation, including a prize-winning hairdresser and the Volga’s champion female diver, but the focus is on Chloja (Inna Churikova), the women’s interpreter. The middle-aged multilinguist, sophisticated by the standards of the other women, nonetheless finds herself overwhelmed by Venice’s attractions, notably gigolo Lorenzo (Luca Barbareschi).
This relationship is at the center of the film, which is a problem. It’s hard to imagine that the well-read Chloja, even on her first trip to Italy, wouldn’t comprehend what Lorenzo is—or at least recognize that he’s not the connoisseur of art and poetry he rather lackadaisically pretends to be. Yet she doesn’t understand that he’s a hustler, and he doesn’t realize she has no money to be hustled, which are both punch lines the viewer can anticipate as soon as the two meet. His comeuppance is played for laughs, but her disappointment is supposed to be poignant, a blend Galin doesn’t quite pull off.
Perhaps the least romantic film ever shot in Venice, Delegation does have some fun with the locals’ horror over the frumpy Russian women’s invasion of their parties and boutiques. The city is not especially glamorous, either: With the canals overflowing, people scamper along makeshift wooden walkways and use trash bags as impromptu boots. By the time the women return to frozen Russia, the movie’s tone has become hopelessly muddled.—M.J.
At 7:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Tuesday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Song of the Siren
This Israeli romantic comedy’s gimmick is that it is set, pointedly and incongruously, against the backdrop of the Gulf War. It’s the kind of movie that thinks it’s progressive just because its heroine is a single career girl, but even though an early montage sequence strongly recalls the opening credits of the Mary Tyler Moore Show (with Talila, the plucky protagonist, high-spiritedly bopping around Tel Aviv, impulse-shopping in a store that sells old LPs and zooming through a supermarket tossing frozen foods into her cart), its message is that Talila, unlike Mary (apparently the patron saint of single career girls the world over), really just needs to find the right man.
Talila (Dalit Kahan—sort of a tall, thin Bette Midler, only younger) is an ad exec who discovers at the office New Year’s party that her hunky ex-boyfriend, Ofer, is about to marry a 22-year-old bimbo. So Talila fucks her boss, who rewards her by giving her the big food-manufacturer account, and at her first encounter with the client Talila meets rangy, handsome food engineer Noah, who is a bumpkin because he lives on a kibbutz and doesn’t tie his shoes. Nevertheless, Talila takes up with him and is so transported that she forgets about the gas masks and masking tape everyone else (including Noah) is worrying about to protect themselves against the potentially poison gas–carrying SCUDs that are starting to hit the city. But then Noah’s bimbo ex-girlfriend appears, and the jilted Talila falls into the waiting arms of the freshly dumped Ofer. She agrees to marry him but changes her mind in a gas-masked epiphany; she winds up with Noah, who is the man for her because, unlike Ofer, he doesn’t tell her when to get her hair cut.
The only thing that makes Siren different from any number of crummy romantic comedies is its wartime setting, but the way the war illuminates Talila’s character is presumably not what writer Irit Linur or director Eitan Fox intended. Whenever an air-raid siren sounds (the title is a pun—the cute boys are not the film’s only sirens), everyone except Talila reaches for his or her gas mask and takes shelter in a sealed room. Talila, however, is too distracted by her man troubles to take any self-preservative steps. We are ostensibly supposed to think she is following her heart and that everyone else is hiding, not just from the SCUDs but from life itself. In fact, she just seems hysterical and desperate.
Worrying about Siren’s message may be giving the film too much credit, however. The closing credits acknowledge the Fund for the Promotion of Israeli Quality Films, and Siren’s agenda clearly includes making Tel Aviv seem like a happening place—even during a war—and generally promoting Israeli culture. The latter aim is chiefly manifest in the inexplicably huge plug the film gives the High Windows, who were apparently a ’60s Israeli pop group. Talila buys an old High Windows LP and then actually scolds Noah for ignoring his own cultural history when he asks if she got it from a museum; several of the group’s songs appear on the soundtrack, too.
Kahan’s performance is lively and occasionally funny, but virtually all the other actors are merely decorative, and the hackneyed plot prevents the film from resonating either as comedy or as insight into the effect of war on normal life.
At 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Monday, April 29, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Seeing Guiltrip, I was reminded of an old Roz Chast cartoon heralding a movie-of-the-week series called “Bummer Theater.”
The relentlessly bleak debut by writer-director Gerard Stembridge depicts a harrowing day in the lives of Liam (Andrew Connolly) and Tina (Jasmine Russell), a working-class Irish couple. Liam, an army sergeant, is a sadistic martinet whose habits include making his wife keep a written record of his household rules in a ledger he calls the “Standing Orders” book. The film opens in the evening, chronicling the day in question though a series of flashbacks. Tina has just rigged a portable CD player to the living-room speakers; from them issues a song whose chorus, “I love you in my own peculiar way,” becomes more sinister as Guiltrip progresses.
Liam, as portrayed by Connolly, is almost too bad to be true. (As he leaves for the day, Tina watches his departure from the window to assure herself that he’s gone.) That morning at the army base, the slutty sister of a subordinate catches Liam’s eye; he spends the rest of the day plotting a “chance meeting” with her that evening. Though Tina is meekly submissive, she is still able to muster ineffectual shows of defiance. In fact, her behavior parallels her husband’s. As Liam contrives a one-night stand across town, she initiates a flirtation with the affable proprietor of an electronics store.
Stembridge’s plotting is highly schematic: Unbeknownst to the principals, the woman Liam is pursuing and the store clerk with whom Tina flirts are also husband and wife. And the second couple’s marriage is a mirror image of Liam and Tina’s—the woman is abusive and the man compliant. In a perverse way, the couples complement each other. All of which could be construed (as the film’s title, Guiltrip, seems to indicate) as a commentary on the absence of laws addressing divorce in Ireland. Yet the behavior depicted is so extreme that both marriages seem circumscribed by pathology rather than legality.
At 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Sunday, April 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
Also screening April 27: “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program I” (11 a.m., Hirshhorn Museum), Romola (4 p.m., National Gallery of Art), Les Visiteurs (4:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Cross My Heart and Hope to Die (5 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Madame Petlet’s True Story (5:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Tale of the Three Jewels (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Monkey Kid (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), W.E.B. Du Bois (7:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Celestial Clockwork (9:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Village of Dreams (9:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The African Prom (10 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Neurosia (10:15 p.m., Biograph)
on the Roof
Grand in style but curiously undernourished in narrative, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s latest epic suggests its predecessor, Cyrano de Bergerac, mostly through its period costumes. Adapted from Jean Giono’s novel by scripters Rappeneau, Nina Companeez, and Jean-Claude Carriere, this follows Italian exile Angelo (Olivier Martinez) through 19th-century southern France as he tries to warn his fellow émigrés that they’re in danger from secret agents of the Austrian government, which controls northern Italy. On his quest, he discovers a major cholera epidemic and a woman in distress, Pauline de Theus (Juliette Binoche), both of which complicate his new task: to smuggle gold back to revolutionary allies in Italy.
Since he’s a hunted man, Angelo has reason to be wary and mysterious, but Pauline also reveals little about herself. This mystification proves annoyingly hollow: Pauline is simply the wife of a nobleman, who wants to locate her husband amid the confusion caused by the plague. The chivalrous Angelo insists on helping her bypass French army roadblocks, escape quarantine, and fight off ravenous, open-mouthed crows. They gradually become closer, but the resolution of their relationship is left to the final voice-over, which reduces the whole point of the film to an afterthought. (Did Rappeneau run out of money, time, or simply patience?)
Frustrating as it ultimately is, Horseman does have its arresting moments. The provincial hysteria caused by the plague is well rendered, there are plenty of grand horseback-chase sequences, crows have never seemed more ominous, and Gerard Depardieu and an agile cat provide memorable cameos. Given such an anemic story, though, Martinez and Binoche are merely picturesque; as often as not, their role seems merely to set off the impressive scenery of the French Alps.—M.J.
At 6 p.m. at the French Embassy.
The Gate of
In the days following the June 3, 1989, Beijing massacre, Chinese television broadcast the now-famous footage of a lone man blocking the path of a column of armored tanks. To the rest of the world, the gesture symbolized the indomitability of the human spirit. To the Chinese government, it symbolized futility. (“This scoundrel could never have stopped them,” the TV commentator notes smugly.) Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton’s fascinating three-hour documentary, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, suggests that neither interpretation is wrong.
Scripted by Geremie Barme and John Crowley, the film places the Tiananmen Square protest in historical perspective, chronicling the tradition of student demonstrations in China. When Tiananmen Square (which translates as “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”) was built in 1950, a monument honoring the revolutionary protesters of May 4, 1919, was placed at its center. It was there that students congregated after the May 28, 1989, death of reformist Hu Yaobang. The deaths of important leaders, the film explains, have historically preceded rebellion, because they provide a pretext for people to gather in a public place.
“They talked,” the narrator observes of the mourners, “as Chinese students have always talked—about ‘saving China.’”
As the event gains momentum, so do disagreements among its student leaders. One participant recalls a power-snatching technique that involved meeting incoming protesters at the train station, identifying oneself as the leader, and using the new recruits to take command of the loudspeakers. There were typically “three or four coups a day,” he says. As the film observes, the protest “recreated in miniature all the problems of having and keeping power.” In its early stages, with rebellious young people living side-by-side on blankets and in makeshift tents, the protest has a Woodstock-style atmosphere. Its ambience recalls ’60s America in other ways as well. Pop star Hou Dejian explains that the event “was all about freedom of expression.” And at a negotiation with government representatives, a young hunger striker tells officials, “You leaders just don’t get it.”
The massacre itself comprises a small but unforgettable portion of the film. Nighttime footage of a speeding tank alight with—but unaffected by—Molotov cocktails provides a metaphor for the protesters’ chances against the People’s Liberation Army. Within a week, the protest was quelled, and the resulting deaths—variously estimated in the hundreds and the thousands—were officially denied. Bystanders were executed for throwing rocks at tanks, and one man who spoke to foreign reporters of protesters being crushed beneath tanks was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In due time, Tiananmen Square was the site of the official ceremony honoring the soldiers killed in the massacre.
The filmmakers interview many of those who took part in the protest. (Presumably, none of its subjects currently lives in China; writer Dai Quing, for example, says of Mao’s embalmed body, permanently on view in the square, “It’s so disgusting!”) All speculate about what went wrong. In a letter sent from hiding, student leader Chai Ling writes, “What the Chinese lack is not a heart, but a mind.” The film makes a similar if less poetic point, arguing that Communism provides no useful models for instigating political change. Much like the huge official functions staged in Tiananmen Square, the protest was a grand gesture with little practical direction. As one interviewee says of the protesters’ efforts, “They were straight out of Communist propaganda.” But courageous nonetheless.
In an effort to protest The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Chinese government made an unsuccessful attempt to pull Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad from this year’s Academy Awards competition. Further proof that “You leaders just don’t get it.”—N.A.
At 6 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Tuesday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
In the world of hiphop, the San Francisco Bay Area rarely gets its props, and women are most often relegated to the supporting roles of video rump-shaker or background vocalist. Freestyle takes a look at these ignored citizens of the hiphop community and provides us with perhaps a glimpse of the music’s future. This 22-minute documentary by Jacquie Jones, former editor of the Black Film Review, covers the music-industry spectrum, interviewing rappers, DJs, managers, and producers—all of them female, black, and proud to be from
Freestyle does not try to be a music video. Parts of the film may seem slow to audiences accustomed to fast cuts and incoherent edits. Jones uses longer scenes that are visually arresting without being distracting—a group of fans entering a club or a slow drive across a lit bridge at night—to give viewers a chance to listen to the rappers’ lyrics. We also see the ladies practicing their art, performing live on stage or standing in the studio with handwritten lyric sheets.
The film showcases rappers of different styles. Asha Karima comes fast and furious on a poetic a cappella trip. Mandolyn Ludlum, who goes by the stage name of Mystic, flows with mellow grooves (“…a rolodex of rhymes…pocketful of dimes, chillin’ in the state of sunshine…there’s an unexpected pleasure in my presence”). Then the Conscious Daughters come on hard-core. Dispelling the suggestion of the group’s politically militant name, their lyrics are replete with bitches and hoes. The Daughters speak for all of the rappers, though, when they talk about how their skills have improved over the years. In the ’80s it was all “I’m 5-foot-9, feel so fine.” Now the words, regardless of the style of delivery, are more complex: “I’m separating your soul from your body-frame/You steady droppin’ shit, but you ain’t potty-trained.”
There’s an interesting back-and-forth about the bitch/ho debate. Jones’ editing of comments by Aisha Bilal and Crystal Isaacs of Honey Presents Management and comments by Conscious Daughters frame the issue not so much as an argument but as a presentation of differing viewpoints.
It’s a man’s world, and Freestyle’s rappers lament that people view their gender as a gimmick or that, traditionally, in order to succeed a woman must attach herself to an established group of men. A particularly rich point raised by the women in Honey Presents is that too often women in hiphop are “representing the man,” which they clarify as being not so much a matter of clothing or appearance, but vocal inflections, topics, outlook, and approach. They call for a new aesthetic, for something nonconformist and distinctly female, something that allows them to make the music on their own terms.—H.B.
At 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Shown with Nicole Atkinson and Julia Kerfoot’s Word of Mouth.
Also screening April 28: “Special Shorts Program” (11 a.m., American Film Institute Theater), “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program II” (2 p.m., Cheshire Cat), Naked Acts (3:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Kimia (3:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Village of Dreams (5 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The African Child (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Guiltrip (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), A Foreign Land (7:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Madame Petlet’s True Story (8:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Son of Gascogne (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), My First Name Is Maceo (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Screening April 29: “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program III” (4 p.m., Shepherd Park Library), “Jazz at the Kennedy Center: Women in Jazz” (5:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Welcome to the Dollhouse (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Song of the Siren (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Eggs (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Angela (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Mayday (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Bombay (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The African Child (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), A Foreign Land (9:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley)
and the Moon
Like his countryman Pedro Almódovar and our own John Waters, Spanish director Bigas Luna came to prominence by perpetrating bawdy comic outrages (Jamón, Jamón, Golden Balls.) And like those filmmakers, his efforts to shock are becoming increasingly forced and feeble.
The Tit and the Moon extends, but hardly enriches, Luna’s Rabelaisian obsessions with sex, food, and excretion. Nine-year-old Tete, an “anexeta” (the child who climbs to the top of human pyramids), envies his breast-fed infant brother and wishes on the moon for his own nurturing hooter. This arrives attached to Estrelita (Mathilda May), a buxom French entertainer performing in a local nightclub with her impotent older husband, Maurice. (In their act, she toe-dances while he, a professional farter, propels flames and darts at her.) Tete’s attempts to dine at Estrelita’s bosom are impeded by Miguel, a moonstruck young man questing for her sexual favors.
Luna presents Tete as the film’s narrator, indulging in intermittent magic-realism effects reflecting the boy’s perspective. (His infant brother is seen as a piglet in swaddling clothes; his phallocentric father appears garbed as a Roman centurion.) Like most movies representing a child’s outlook—Vigo’s Zero for Conduct is one of the rare exceptions—The Tit and the Moon tends to be gratingly arch, a problem underscored by the director’s frequent violations of Tete’s point of view. The alternation between child and adult viewpoints shatters Luna’s attempt to sustain a faux-naive tone.
With its close-ups of dried turds, custards shimmering like breasts, and buttocks bellowing shafts of fire, The Tit and The Moon is intended, in Luna’s words, “as a tribute to life.” This cunning strategy insulates his movie against criticism; if you don’t like it, then you don’t like life. Well, I have no desire to expire and, as an admirer of Chaucer and Benny Hill, I enjoy boob and fart jokes as much as anybody, but Luna’s movie failed to rattle my funny bone. Instead of eliciting guffaws, his swinish exploitation of the voluptuous May—lactating a fountain of milk onto Tete’s eager face, sucking Maurice’s toes and comparing their taste to Roquefort cheese, devouring a huge baguette jutting from her impotent husband’s crotch—made me want to dial a feminist hot-line and request an emergency intervention. Fans of Mel Brooks and Fellini in their ca-ca/pee-pee modes might find The Tit and the Moon more to their liking, but it can only be confidently recommended to rowdy pre-pubescents with calcium deficiencies.—J.E.S.
At 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Thursday, May 2, at 9:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Also screening April 30: “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program I” (4 p.m., Francis Gregory Library), “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program III” (5 p.m., Anacostia Library), Coming to Terms With the Dead (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Delegation (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Lumiére and Company (6:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), The Gate of Heavenly Peace (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Kimia (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley)
A Ladder to
The plot of this predictable drama closely resembles that of The Garden, another of this year’s Filmfest offerings. Where that film is Eastern European and mystical, however, this one is Italian and sentimental.
Remote, uptight astrophysicist Lorenzo (Tcheky Karyo) travels from Milan to Sicily to supervise the repair and sale of the family villa. There he finds the customary Italian divide—“You’re from the north, aren’t you?” he’s asked as soon as he dares wonder why the work’s not proceeding quickly—and a town full of eccentrics.
It turns out that most of the locals are residents of an asylum, and contractor Salvatore (Nino Manfredi) hires some of them as construction workers, in part out of guilt over having long ignored his son Agostino, who’s one of the patients. Lorenzo gradually comes to appreciate the charms of the village and its residents, notably a mysterious, disturbed Botticelli beauty, Luisa, to whom the astrophysicist agrees to give piano lessons. (Although it’s Agostino who has a thing for roofs, Luisa’s the one who desires the titular “ladder to the moon.”) After the local psychotherapist warns Lorenzo that he too was once inhumanly “scientific,” the astrophysicist decides to lose his clinical detachment—and to keep the house.
This is apparently heartfelt—writer/director Alberto Simone was a psychotherapist himself before turning to film—but also didactic and obvious: Lorenzo is a specialist in black holes, which is just what he has in his heart, and the warmth and humanity of “backward” Sicily is a staple of the recent Italian cinema. Of course, if all residents of Southern Italy were as charming and common-sensical as Italian films pretend, no one would move to Milan in the first place.—M.J.
At 6:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Saturday, May 4, at 6 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Writer-director Russ Hexter’s Dadetown is a festival programmer’s dream discovery—an original, brainy, entertaining movie. This mock documentary about a year in the life of an imaginary upstate New York small town (“Small towns are the backbone of America”) begins as a dead-on satire of provincial boosterism, precisely mimicking and wryly parodying the conventions of cinéma vérité filmmaking.
No formal or thematic cliché escapes Hexter’s net. Vintage black-and-white stills chronicle Dadetown’s 150-year history. Interviews with inhabitants (identified by subtitles) present a mosaic portrait of the self-satisfied town’s vaunted stability and security. We meet the baby-kissing mayor, hear the school band torture “America” at a playground dedication, and spy on the lovable local eccentric, an old man who wanders about painting everything in sight green. Citizens express nostalgia for the town’s WWII economic heyday, when the Gorman Metal Co. (now reduced to making staples and paper clips) fabricated aircraft parts. And we learn about Dadetown’s invasion by a new industry, high-tech American Peripheral Imaging (API), which, encouraged by generous tax incentives, has consolidated several metropolitan offices in a single location. Although the town’s limitations are noted in passing—it has no movie theaters or fast-food outlets—and some coolness exists between the townies and the recently arrived corporate yuppies (symbolized by the mixed reactions to the opening of a cappuccino bar), Dadetown appears to be a Norman Rockwell dream (and a Preston Sturges nightmare).
Then Hexter’s vision darkens, shading from satire into grim social realism. Crippled by overseas competition, the financially strapped Gorman factory downsizes, laying off 150 longtime employees. The economic and cultural gap between Dadetown’s blue- and white-collar workers widens. Random, anonymous acts of vandalism occur; the homes of API professionals are splattered with red paint, and dead deer are deposited on their doorsteps. At an acrimonious town meeting, elected officials are castigated for the 60-percent property-tax break granted API as a relocation incentive. A group of disaffected Gorman unionists vote to strike the failing company, a decision that further divides the disintegrating community. Armed guards stand as sentinels on Gorman’s roof; a young boy is shot, the accidental victim of mounting anxieties. Hitherto genial townspeople begin expressing racist and xenophobic attitudes, even blaming the filmmakers themselves for instigating the town’s crisis. By the fadeout, the traditional life of Dadetown has been irrevocably altered by the community’s complacent refusal to comprehend the new order of global economics.
Few American independent filmmakers have dared what Hexter has accomplished in Dadetown. As confidently as Ridley Scott invented the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner, he has crafted, from whole cloth, an archetypal American small town, the Russell, Kan., that blustery Bob Dole absurdly hopes to resurrect. All of the inhabitants—there are nearly 100 speaking roles—are impersonated by actors, none of whom strikes a single false note. Locations in Hammondsport, N.Y., are seamlessly transfigured to create this fictional but palpable community. At a time when mainstream movies are retreating into the past or time-traveling to the future to evade the disruptive fissures in American society, Hexter addresses the worrisome present head-on. Put Dadetown at the top of your Filmfest DC must-see list.
At 7:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Thursday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater.
Encouraged by his father to sell his late grandfather’s “garden” and use the proceeds to begin a more settled life, aimless Slovakian schoolteacher Jakub (Roman Luknar) goes to fix up the old place. Once he arrives at the neglected orchard and dilapidated farmhouse, however, Jakub’s life becomes only more unsettled. He splits with his married lover, Teresa, and receives a variety of eccentric (and presumably symbolic) one-time guests: Benedict, a shepherd who orders Jakub to wash his feet; Rousseau, who bemoans technology and then commandeers Jakub’s car; and Wittgenstein, who thinks the property could be sold to Austrians as a vacation home.
Jakub’s most striking guest is Helena, a beautiful, eccentric neighbor who visits regularly. Helena may or may not bear bruises from frequent beatings by her mother, who thinks her daughter is crazy and illiterate. Having discovered and read his grandfather’s journal, Jakub recognizes that Helena’s distinctive script is not gibberish and in fact matches his grandfather’s. (She also knows her world capitals.) Half nymphet, half saint, Helena is no doubt one of the principal reasons Jakub decides to stay at the country bungalow, disregarding his job and further distressing his father.
In plot, director and co-writer Martin Sulik’s film closely resembles another Filmfest entry, Ladder to the Moon. Both contrast urban anxiety with rural serenity and use an attractive young woman as bait to entice a city-dweller on a temporary mission in the country to establish permanent residence. The Garden has a beguilingly mystical aura, however, an effect intensified by the division of the tale into chapters whose introductions suggest a medieval allegory. Combining the mundane with the fantastic in that distinctively Eastern European mode, The Garden is a much more intriguing film than Moon. Even if it’s simply camouflaging its sentimentality with magic and mystification, this country idyll conjures an enchanted mood.—M.J.
At 8:15 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Thursday, May 2, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
A Perfect Candidate
The ironic title of this lively documentary refers to Oliver North, the former Marine colonel who thought lying to Congress about the Iran-contra affair was “a neat idea” that would endear him to Virginia voters. To some of them it did, as the crowds of true believers shown here demonstrate. But the 1994 Senate race went to Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb, who in R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s film barely rises to the level of lesser of the two evils. (At one point, there were four candidates in the race, and the one who looks smartest and most articulate is former Gov. Douglas Wilder, who dropped out to support Robb, his longtime antagonist.)
Some of the people who made this film also worked on The War Room, the documentary about President Clinton’s campaign that stressed political strategist James Carville. Candidate gives similar weight to North campaign adviser Mark Goodin, who proves sharp, irreverent, and witty, even if his notion that North actually belongs in the Senate is hard to credit. Goodin and his cohorts gleefully torment Robb’s campaign by hinting that they’re going to unveil one of the “bimbos” with whom the senator consorted, and their wicked enthusiasm is contagious. It helps, of course, that Robb comes across as a stiff, two-faced dork; when he avows that for him “truth is an absolute,” even his loyal wife looks incredulous.
The film isn’t especially hard on North, who spends a lot of his campaign time flaunting his Christian humility. Indeed, his more fervent supporters make North look almost reasonable by comparison. (One of them teaches a small, gun-wielding boy to brag that he shoots “clay pigeons and Democrats.”) Mostly, the candidate just stands there looking upright as he takes what turned out to be devastating hits. When he declares himself “the most investigated man on this planet,” Wilder tellingly retorts that “there might be a very good reason for that”; later, the press nails North for editing his position on the Confederate flag for an interracial student
Most prominent among the correspondents dogging North is the Washington Post’s Don Baker, who may regret equaling Goodin’s candor. “It’s important to get [everyday people’s] opinions in the paper,” he says, “even if we don’t understand them.” Baker’s bosses may not enjoy that admission, but they should appreciate his questioning of Robb about striker-replacement legislation; it’s a classic sequence. Ultimately, both Baker and Goodin seem surprised by the election results. It’s always fun to watch the experts get flummoxed, and it’s to Cutler and Van Taylor’s credit that Candidate makes the spectacle almost as immediate as it was on election night.—M.J.
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Friday, May 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Also screening May 1: “Filmfest DC for Kids, Program II” (4 p.m., Mount Pleasant Library), “Jazz at the Kennedy Center: International Sweethearts of Rhythm” (5:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Bombay (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Madagascar w/ Love Me and You Will See… (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Outpost (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Muriel’s Parents Have Had It Up to Here (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Neon Bible (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Screening May 2: Don’t Die Without Telling Me Where You’re Going (6:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), The Garden (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Dadetown (6:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Madagascar w/ Love Me and You Will See… (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), The Outpost (7 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Lumiére and Company (8:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Cross My Heart and Hope to Die (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Theater), The Tit and the Moon (9:15 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley),
Manneken Pis (9:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Set in Paris’ Franco-Arab suburbs, Malik Chibane’s ensemble piece is geographically proximate to but temperamentally distant from Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate. This is about somewhat older youths who intend to survive and even thrive in Douce (“sweet”) France: Moussa and Jean-Luc buy a cafe, and the latter sets up his new law office in the back room, near the illegal gambling and the Western-style toilet they have installed. Moussa and Jean-Luc—and almost everyone else in the film—want to be “integrated” into a mainstream French culture that would just as soon keep them separate.
Although his mother is using her upcoming open-heart surgery to coerce Moussa into marrying a North African woman he’s never met, he’s interested in Fadila, who insists on wearing a chador despite the objections of family and friends, as well as complete strangers. (She’s qualified as a teacher, but the only school that will hire her is one run by orthodox Jews.) Meanwhile, Jean-Luc is trying to rekindle a romance with Fadila’s sister Souad, who emphasizes her modernity by working in a drive-through burger joint.
Constructed from short, terse scenes, Chibane’s film does follow the principal characters through some significant events. It’s more interested in capturing the demimonde than in telling stories, however. The slice-of-life faux-documentary style largely avoids dramatic events or irrevocable choices. (Indeed, Fadila’s big decision, made in the final shot, seems contrived and uncharacteristic of both her and the film.) This low-key approach is not much like Kassovitz’s, but Douce France and Hate share more than overlapping real estate. Both attempt to bring a neglected community out of the shadows, and both end in a mood that mixes urgency and resignation—that things must change, and that they won’t.—M.J.
At 6:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. Also screens Saturday, May 4, at 8:30 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Foundry.
This Boyz N the Banlieue was a shocker in France, but it looks both less incendiary and less convincing in the country that invented revolution for the hell of it. The second feature by Mathieu Kassovitz, whose Cafe Au Lait investigated interracial romance, Hate follows 24 hours in the lives of three friends—an Arab, an African, and a Jew—who live in one of the bleak housing projects that encircle Paris. A friend of theirs has been shot in one of the many recent confrontations with the police, and Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Kounde) wander more or less aimlessly through their own neighborhood and central Paris, contemplating their revenge. Should they kill a cop or not, they wonder, a question Kassovitz teasingly leaves open-ended.
Punctuated by periodic time checks and phrases borrowed from American hiphop, Hate is energetic and stylish; its typewriter credits and jumpy, frenetic black-and-white action recall the audacious energy of early Godard. Unfortunately, the film is also indebted to Spike Lee, an obvious influence on Cafe Au Lait, both in its style and its confrontational yet vague politics. When an aerial shot shows a kid atop a high-rise roof serenading the hood with a scratch mix of Edith Piaf and “Fuck Tha Police,” Hate’s cultural references seem as secondhand as its political agenda.
For the underwhelmed stateside viewer, part of the problem is that French (sub)urban outrage really is derivative of its uncle from America; Jean-Jacques Beineix’s IP5, shown a few Filmfests ago, demonstrated that. But Kassovitz also immersed himself in banlieue slang, to the extent that middle-class Parisians have sought out English-subtitled prints of the film so as to better understand the dialogue. Those subtitles are reportedly very loose, however: Though the three kids really do rely on such examples of U.S. tough-guy culture as Taxi Driver, when the subtitles indicate that they’re discussing Tweety and Sylvester they’re actually talking about French cartoon characters.
Some of these scenes are as iconographic as the director intends: These urban exiles walk by billboards clearly not intended for their eyes that taunt, “The World Is Yours”; picked up by the cops for questioning, Saïd and Hubert are treated with ruthless condescension. Mostly, however, the central characters are merely emblematic, their psychology paper-thin and their friendship largely unexplored. At one point, the guys try to pick up some women at an upscale gallery opening only to find their brashness transformed from an attraction into a liability in a matter of seconds. Occasional scenes like this one say more about the suburban outcasts’ place in French society than all of Hate’s more swaggering, rhetorical flourishes.—M.J.
At 6:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Saturday, May 4, at 9:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
An installment in Time-Life’s History of Rock ’n’ Roll series, this straightforward documentary works quite well on its own. Crammed with rare archival footage, it’s valuable not only as a video scrapbook of some of punk’s greatest moments but as a putdown of the New Wave dreck that followed in punk’s wake.
Striking a balance between the U.S. and U.K. scenes, Punk traces the roots of the music’s stripped-down sound and sense of outrage to Iggy and the Stooges, with appropriate nods to the MC5 and the New York Dolls. One of the film’s most entertaining clips shows Iggy on the Dinah Shore Show: “Did the music of Detroit have an influence on your music?” purrs Dinah. “The industrialism of Detroit,’’ replies Iggy, before flaring his reptilian tongue at the studio audience.
The New York segment—highlighted by quips from Legs McNeil and old Factory snippets of the Velvet Underground tuning up—locates punk’s primitivist urges in the Ramones, and finds its arty tics in Talking Heads—even an early performance clip betrays the Byrnian mannerism that doomed the band.
When the focus shifts to London, the film hits high gear, and not even Malcolm McLaren’s rhapsodizing about Richard Hell’s ripped T-shirt can bog it down. There’s riveting footage of the Sex Pistols getting arrested during a Thames riverboat concert, and a clip of a wired Elvis Costello bugging out on Saturday Night Live. Though it was a bad economy as much as a bloated rock industry that fueled British punks, the political overtones haven’t dated the music a whit. It’s impressive how well these records—especially those of the Pistols and the Clash—have stood the test of time.
In addition to the astonishing archives unearthed here, the cameos are a hoot, as everyone from Billy “Rebel Yell” Idol to Bono the Fly takes a shot at post-punk profundity. Smirk intact two decades later, Johnny Rotten damns New Wave as a “corruption”; then, in a splendid segue, Sting appears on screen, caressing his stand-up bass and crooning his VH-1 stalker anthem, “Every Breath You Take.” (Rotten, of course, isn’t exactly one to talk about selling out, what with his reunited Pistols’ tour to celebrate the anniversary of the Summer of Hate.) It’s made clear, though, that even if the Pretenders earn a full pardon, such crafty pop acts as Squeeze did as much damage to punk’s legacy as Bobby Darin ever inflicted on early rock.
A few quibbles: The film is limited severely by its 62-minute length, making it a mere primer. Except for a quick look at the L.A. scene (damn, X’s original lineup with Billy Zoom was good), it overlooks important hotbeds—Cleveland and San Francisco, among others—and also completely ignores many crucial figures: No X-Ray Specs? No Will Shatter? No Adverts? No Peter Laughner?
The real spirit of ’77 lives on not in the justly maligned “alt-rock” revolution but in the work of these fallen martyrs and that of stubborn survivors (drifting ever further from the charts and the dial) like the Fall, Mekons, and the Shatter-less Flipper, whose funeral dirges echo every time a Nirvana song hits the airwaves.—E.D.
At 8:30 p.m. at the American Film Institute Theater. Also screens Saturday, May 4, at 11:15 p.m. at the Biograph.
“It’s too goddamn preachy!” complains drag queen La Miranda (Guillermo Diaz) about the protest song her activist boyfriend Matty Dean (Fred Weller) composes for a homosexual-rights demonstration. The same criticism applies to Stonewall, the late Nigel Finch’s British-American co-production that fictionalizes Martin Duberman’s thoughtful, detailed book about the 1969 Stonewall confrontation, a turning point in the ongoing struggle for gay liberation.
Like movies about Pearl Harbor and the Titanic, Stonewall largely consists of an extended prologue to the titular event. Rikki Beadle Blair’s screenplay introduces an assemblage of characters who serve as mouthpieces for various approaches to gay issues. Matty, a young man who moves from the hinterlands to New York City in search of personal freedom, becomes radicalized after experiencing police persecution during a raid of the Stonewall Inn, a clandestine Village gay bar. Matty’s activism rubs off on La Miranda, a cynical but softhearted street hooker. Ethan (Brendan Corbalis), a teacher who also has an affair with Matty, intermittently pokes his head out of the closet but shrinks from total acceptance of gay pride. The Stonewall’s manager, Vinnie, a macho Italian unable to come to grips with his own sexuality, is romantically (but covertly) involved with Bostonia, a Judy Garland–worshiping drag queen. Bostonia (Sandra Bernhard look-alike Duane Boutte) serves as den mother to the bar’s outcasts and as a catalyst for the uprising, which began shortly after Garland’s death. Members of the conservative Homophile Society, a straight-acting group struggling to gain social justice through noncombative tactics, represent the values of the first wave of gay activism.
Stonewall plays less like a period piece than an instant antique, an earnest, gay Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like the lyrics of his protest song set to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” much of Matty’s dialogue appears to have been pasted together from bumper stickers. (“How can they just do this? Like we didn’t have a Constitution or nothing….We’re the real America. At least we believe in fuckin’ freedom!”) The film’s political earnestness overwhelms its considerable artistic potential. Nearly every character and incident is contrived to make an obvious didactic point—the preening, sadistic cops-from-hell, who periodically bust gay clubs to obtain illicit payoffs; La Miranda and Matty’s young-outcasts-in-love montage; the Fire Island idyll exposing that gay mecca as a fool’s paradise; the ponderous episode in which Matty’s singing awakens the consciences of a busload of staid Homophile Society members. Stonewall’s sole nonobligatory sequence is, unsurprisingly, its most satisfying. A group of activists, accompanied by witnessing newsmen, enters a Village tavern to challenge the state liquor authority’s ban against selling drinks to homosexuals, only to discover that the bar’s hospitable staff couldn’t care less about obeying the antiquated law.
The film’s opening image—a man applying heliotrope lipstick—introduces its tonal palette; some shade of purple appears in virtually every shot. (If magenta were poisonous, sitting through Stonewall could prove fatal.) Finch links the episodic narrative with a glitzy Greek chorus of drag queens lip-syncing to vintage girl-group recordings. Arriving on the high heels of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Fu and the various incarnations of La Cage Aux Folles, Stonewall’s idealization of the drag queen as a metaphor for spiritual liberation seems terribly passé. One can no longer evade questioning whether donning drag and lip-syncing in a bar every night is really all that much more emancipating than putting on a dark suit and going off to work at Xerox each morning. The gay-rights movement deserves a more articulate, inclusive symbol than a huffy queen snarling “That’s Princess Ernestine, you bitch!”
When, in the movie’s final moments, the confrontation between gays and cops finally occurs, the chaotically staged sequence is cut short before it reaches its climax. Duberman’s book could have provided the basis for a bracing, edifying docudrama about the actual events leading up to the Stonewall incident. (Finch’s opening-reel presentation of real-life participants in the riot, similar to the witnesses in Reds, nods in that direction, a gesture quickly abandoned.) By substituting melodrama for historical truth, Stonewall, despite its unquestionably noble intentions and some striking performances, does a disservice to those courageous individuals who, a quarter-century ago, took enormous risks to combat social injustice.—J.E.S.
At 8:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley. Also screens Saturday, May 4, at 10:45 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Tenley.
Also screening May 3: A Perfect Candidate (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Lumiére and Company (6:30 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Pas trés Catholique (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Guimba (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Manneken Pis (9 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry)
Screening May 4: Say Yes (5 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), A Ladder to the Moon (6 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), 3D: Money From Home (6 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), The Neon Bible (6:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Muriel’s Parents Have Had It Up to Here (6:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Guimba (7:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Don’t Die Without Telling Me Where You’re Going (8 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), 3D: Money From Home (8 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Douce France (8:30 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), My First Name Is Maceo (8:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Foundry), Hate (9:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), 3D: Money From Home (10 p.m., American Film Institute Theater), Stonewall (10:45 p.m., Cineplex Odeon Tenley), Punk (11:15 p.m., Biograph)
Jacques Demy (1931-1990) was the butterfly of the French New Wave, a director whose gossamer movies were overshadowed by the more vigorous works of Resnais, Godard, and Truffaut. His early features, Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963), romantic fables sprinkled with allusions to Max Ophuls, Jean Vigo, Robert Bresson, Gene Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, and Bette Davis, signaled the arrival of a young artist capable of translating the magic of classic filmmaking into a new kind of cinematic poetry. His international breakthrough, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), revitalized movie musicals just as Hollywood was abandoning the genre, but its successor, the beguiling The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968), proved to be a commercial washout, a failure that damaged Demy’s career and shook his artistic confidence. Films he made in the U.S. (The Model Shop), England (The Pied Piper), and Japan (Lady Oscar) were poorly received, and his intriguingly somber musical melodrama, Une Chambre En Ville (1982), went unreleased in this country.
Since Demy’s death, his widow, director Agnes Varda, has shot several films to honor her husband’s memory, among them Jacquot de Nantes, a biography of his formative years, and a documentary about the making of The Young Girls of Rochefort. Now, assisted by composer Michel Legrand and actress Catherine Deneuve, she has completed a three-year restoration of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was nominated for five 1964 Oscars including best foreign-language film, and won the grand prize and best actress award (for Deneuve) at that year’s Cannes festival. Because all previous U.S. release prints were struck from duplicate negatives, this is the first time American audiences will be able to see this sumptuously designed and photographed film as Demy intended.
Demy wrote the libretto and lyrics for what he punningly called a film “en chant”—entirely sung and enchanting. The story, which unfolds over a six-year period beginning in 1957, concerns two ill-fated young lovers, Genevieve (Deneuve), the daughter of a widow who owns an umbrella shop, and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a gas station attendant. Shortly after Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria, Genevieve discovers that she is pregnant. Thinking that her lover has abandoned her, she marries Roland (Marc Michel, returning as the love-struck character he played in Lola), a jewelry dealer. Wounded and embittered, Guy returns from the war, marries Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who has secretly loved him, and fathers a son. The movie’s bittersweet climax comes on a snowy Christmas Eve when Genevieve and Guy are unexpectedly reunited.
Although lacking the vitality and complex tone of his early work, Umbrellas is suffused with beauty—the ravishing faces of the young lovers, Legrand’s haunting, melodic score, Jean Rabier’s bejeweled cinematography, and Bernard Evein’s stylized art direction. (In interior scenes, the characters’ clothes are color-coordinated with the elaborate wallpapers.) Demy addicts will especially treasure Roland’s aria (which, outfitted with English lyrics, became the cabaret standard “Watch What Happens”). As Roland sings about the showgirl he once loved, Rabier’s camera sweeps the arcade at Nantes where he first encountered the dazzling Lola. Had Demy’s career flourished, he might have been able to create an entire world of color and music populated by recurring characters changing partners in an unending quest for love. But the few films he was able to make on his own terms insure his place, alongside Ophuls and Minnelli, as a master of romantic cinema.—J.E.S.
At 1 p.m. at the National Gallery
Also screening May 5: Palooka-
ville (4 p.m., Key)