Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies: January 2005 Archives
From Agence France-Presse:
Multiple Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman lamented the state of modern filmmaking, using a promotional session for his latest feature to pan a money-hungry marketing-focused industry. "The whole culture is in the craphouse," Hoffman told journalists gathered in London to hear him promote his latest comedy vehicle "Meet the Fockers" ...
If you live in New York or Los Angeles, rush out and see "Head-On" ("Gegen die Wand'), the fourth film from Turkish-German writer/director Fatih Akin. Comic, tragic, absurdist and affirmative, "Head-On" won the Golden Bear in the 2004 Berlinale and has been causing quite a stir in Europe. It's a terrific, timely piece of work that deserves a larger distribution here.
The two central characters are moving at escape velocity but in opposite directions. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a Turkish-born denizen of the Hamburg punk scene whose marriage to a German woman has failed, sending him into drink and depression. As the film opens, he is driving into a concrete wall ("Gegen die Wand" means "against the wall"). Alive but banged up, he is sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic when he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a daughter of Turkish immigrants who rebels against her tradition-minded family by slashing her wrists.
Recognizing scraggly Cahit as a kindred spirit, Sibel conceives a better escape route than suicide: marriage to a guy who, being Turkish, will pass muster with her family, but who also, being a complete lowlife, will not care about the wild fling she hopes to enjoy once she’s free. As it turns out, Cahit does care. Or rather, he learns (re-learns?) what it means to care. And Sibel is drawn, reluctantly, into caring for him. They don't live happily ever after; on the contrary, some grim things occur before the end (this is a German film, after all). But they do pull each other back from the brink.
"Head-On" is so timely, it's easy to miss the subtleties. For example, the New York Times describes Sibel's background as a "cloistered society where women are kept captive by their fathers and brothers." But this is a caricature. Sibel's father (Demir Gökgöl) is strict, and her brother (Cem Akin) is a bully. But they are not the Taliban. If they were, then Sibel's mother (Aysel Iscan) would not dye her hair blond and chain smoke. And the hilarious scene where Cahit comes to call would not end the way it does. After listening to his son berate Cahit, the father turns to Sibel and asks, "Is your mind made up?" And when she says yes, the stern old man shrugs: "What is left to say? When two people are in love..."
For Cahit and Sibel the road is not just rocky, it is land-mined. Against the presumption that it’s always good to shake off the fetters of tradition and religion, "Head-On" opposes a distinctly unromantic portrait of the liberated Western lifestyle. Cahit wants to end his life of booze, drugs, impersonal sex, and selfish behavior; Sibel wants to begin hers. But for a moment they glimpse something better: not the old ways, but not their total rejection, either. The sweet spot is when, after cleaning up Cahit's pigpen of a flat, Sibel cooks him a meal of stuffed peppers. The music on the soundtrack is perfect, the camera lingers on her hands, and even though the film contains several sex scenes, this is the most erotic.
There is no hotter issue in Europe right now than the assimilation of large Muslim immigrant populations. But Europeans still have a tendency to think of assimilation as a one-way street. Here in the nation of immigrants, we have learned to think of it as a two-way street. Indeed, in recent years millions of immigrants have come to America and learned new ways. But they have also kept some of the old, and in the process, the rest of us have learned (re-learned?) that life is best lived between the poles of individual liberation and the constraints of family and community. If the success of "Head-On" is any measure, then the same lesson is being pondered in Europe.
Of late, the public ceremonies of my country fill me with mixed emotions. Today is Inauguration Day, and as the pale wintry sun gleams on the U.S. Capitol, and the excellent armed services band plays on the surreally high podium, my blood stirs in a way that is half-joyous, half-anxious.
Joyous because, like most Americans, including those who did not vote for Bush, I know my country to be high-minded, idealistic, brave. Yet anxious because, like countless other people around the globe, I also know America to be hubristic, self-deluding, rash. Maybe the president's speech will resolve this ambivalence?
No chance. The speech itself is not eloquent or soaring (don't touch that cliche), but it is well crafted and strains earnestly to lift off. Yet the president's delivery makes me squirm. His speaking style is no longer forced and mangled (he's come a long way), but it remains incurably tinny. No matter how hard he tries, he just can't wring the insincerity out of his voice.
Why is that? His enemies say, "It's the stupidity, stupid." But Bush isn't stupid. He's no intellectual, but he's as smart as the proverbial whip. His problem is different. Until three years ago, his success in the world derived from his skill at cheerfully deflating the seriousness of others. The English wit Sydney Smith once quipped that while others were rising by their gravity, he was sinking by his levity. For Bush it has been the other way around.
I'm not suggesting a lack of seriousness now. Along with the rest of us, Bush changed on 9/11. You don't have to take my word for it. Just rent "Journeys With George," the flawed but fascinating documentary about the 2000 Bush presidential campaign, made by Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D. California). It will show you, up close and personal, the pre-9/11 Dubya.
And what a droll, sardonic, towel-snapping fellow he was! Traveling with him was tough for the rumpled reporter types, because instead of snapping their towels at the candidate, they found themselves getting snapped at by his. The film ends at the First Inaugural of Bush the Second, and the podium was just as surreally high then as now. But everything else has changed, hasn't it? Which is why Bush's speech only intensifies my ambivalence. It contains too much dissonance of its own.
If you prefer not to stay up past midnight on February 25 to hear the words, "And the winner is...", The Guardian (UK) has a formula for predicting who will take home the Oscars this year. Which leads me to wonder: will the movie industry soon be adopting a hit-prediction system as effective as the pop music software described elsewhere in the Guardian?
Among critics, the cliche is that the entertainment industry already works by tried-and-true formulas. And certainly this is what studios, networks, cable channels, and record companies would LIKE to do. What mega-corporation wants to go on investing millions of dollars in a product so unreliable it comes out different each time it is manufactured? But among the good people who actually make movies, TV shows, and records, the cliche is just the opposite: "Nobody knows anything."
What do AJ readers think of this apparent paradox?
A married couple no longer young sit on the roof of a luxury hotel, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. By candlelight, over a beer, the husband reveals that shortly after meeting his wife he had bribed her boss to transfer her to a job near him: "So I could marry you." Joking about the amount of the bribe, they kiss.
The only jarring note is the chatter of machine guns in the background. This is Kigali, Rwanda, in May or June of 1994. And outside the hotel gates, Hutu militias armed with guns and machetes have started the genocide that because of the world's inaction left between 800,000 and one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu dead.
But this scene is not a mistake. It's been carefully staged by the husband, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the elegant manager of the hotel, so he can tell his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) how he wants her and their four children to die. Paul is Hutu, his wife Tutsi. And seeking refuge in the hotel are 1,200 more Tutsis. Paul is trying to keep the militias at bay, but if he fails, he wants his family to jump off the roof rather than watch each other be raped and hacked to pieces.
This strange doubleness - candlelight, mass murder - reflects the startling depth of "Hotel Rwanda," which you will miss if you look for the usual ingredients. The world knows that Mr. Rusesabagina succeeded, so there isn't much suspense. None of the killing occurs on camera (except for some grainy news footage), so there isn't much violence. And while director Terry George makes clear the moral failure of the US, the UN, and the West in general, there isn't much politics, either.
Instead, "Hotel Rwanda" achieves something almost never seen in the movies: a serious portrait of a good man. Paul loves his family and is brave - in Hollywood this would be more than enough to make him the good guy. But this film does more. It emphasizes Paul's mental qualities. He is no intellectual, just a hotel manager. But he is alert, attentive, self-controlled, swift to read people and manipulate them (through cunning if necessary), and above all, cool in the face of danger. He is what the ancient Greeks called sophron.
In the same vein, there is a classical resonance to the fact that Paul in the hospitality business. Hospitality meant far more to the ancient Greeks than it does to us. In Homer, it means not just being nice to people but showing them how rich and powerful you are, placing them in your debt through good treatment and fine gifts, and finally being in a position to call in your chips.
This is precisely what happens in the escalating scenes between Paul and the Hutu general Augustin Bizimungo (Fana Mokoena), which alone are worth double the price of admission. Smoothly and convincingly, Cheadle's Paul goes from being the kind of host who knows what everybody is drinking to being the kind of hero who knows what every fearful moment requires. Against such a hideous backdrop, this is a beautiful thing to watch.
Who are the two best actors in America? Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, IMHO. To judge by a fascinating interview with Penn in today's Boston Globe, there is no love lost between them. But that's not what strikes me about the interview. What strikes me is Penn's ability to relate the political side of his brain to the artistic side. For what are probably very good historical reasons, artists tend to compartmentalize these.
Sean Penn is the son of Leo Penn, a blacklisted figure from the bad old McCarthy days, so it is not surprising that he is a man of the left. Yet not the Hollywood left, I'm tempted to say. It's a matter of proportion. Most movie people live in a bubble, and when they try to connect with the world, they typically do so by taking highly moralistic, simplistic, one-sided stands on pet issues. (A political style found on both sides of the ideological divide, needless to say.)
What's impressive about Penn is not that he never takes such stands (he does), but rather that he does more. In plugging his new film, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," he brings the open, imaginative, penetrating side of his mind - the artistic side - to bear on a political topic. On Nixon and George W. Bush, he sound more like a thoughtful historian than a celebrity actor.
Too bad he couldn't muster the same sympathy for Robert Duvall.
Writing in today's Christian Science Monitor, David Sterritt asks an excellent question: Why do movie critics engage in groupthink? At press screenings, he notes, he and his compadres often seem to be "on different wavelengths" about the films they see. But when the time comes to compile lists of the year's best movies, "the same titles keep leaping out, as if some secret signal had been transmitted to our movie-critic brains."
I agree with Mr. Sterritt that along with challenging the taste of the public, critics should challenge the taste of other critics. But I disagree with his account of how to do this. Rather than engaging in groupthink, he writes, critics should be "following our own lights, disagreeing more often than agreeing, and remembering there's no scientific test to determine 'good' or 'bad' at the movies." The first two points make sense but not the third. Of course there's no scientific test. But that doesn't mean there are no tests at all.
Personally I find critical groupthink reassuring, because even when wrong, it suggests a certain coherence. The alternative is found on the ubiquitous chat-rooms attached to movie websites. They contain many intelligent remarks, to be sure, and every now and then you find someone who can actually spell. But these free-form reviews also illustrate what happens when (as the saying goes) "everyone's a critic": unfettered subjectivity, bizarre free association, celebrity gossip, and worst of all, a childish inability to disagree without reaching for the flamethrower.
Now let me offer a flameless rebuke to Mr. Sterritt. The critical favorite of 2004 is "Sideways," a judgment I am happy to endorse; it does my heart good to see such a terrific film get the kudos it deserves. Mr. Sterritt admires "Sideways" too, but so intent is he on the virtues of disagreement for its own sake, he quotes A.O. Scott of the New York Times reducing the critics' plaudits to narcissism. They like "Sideways," Scott suggests, because as "white, middle-aged men" they identify with the main character's "self-pity and solipsism," qualities that "represent the underside of the critical temperament."
Oh, dear. Leaving aside the merits of proving one's independence by quoting the New York Times, isn't it possible that all those hard-working criticis actually have good reasons for praising this movie? If they identify with the character of Miles (Paul Giamatti), it is probably not because he is a sad sack (excuse me, Mr. Scott, but your description of the movie critic does not cover all cases). Rather it is because Miles has a fine palate for wine, which he has developed over a long period of time, and he is traveling with a buddy who keeps saying, "Tastes good to me!" while slurping down the worst rotgut. Hate to sound like a snob, but I've been there. Haven't you?