Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies: February 2005 Archives
Filmmakers and photographers adore "Born Into Brothels," and no wonder. This Oscar-nominated documentary about eight children in the red light district of Calcutta brandishes the camera the way Christian missionaries used to brandish the Bible – as the physical manifestation of salvation. The question, though, is: Who is saved? To judge by the film alone, I would say the filmmakers, not the children.
When British photojournalist Zana Briski first entered these filthy, rat-infested back alleys, her aim was to film the prostitutes ("sex workers," in her enlightened parlance). But her subjects, evidently not sharing this enlightened view of their profession, proved uncooperative. So Briski and her cinematographer, Ross Kauffman, turned their viewfinders toward the children.
Which was understandable, given the beauty and vivacity of these amazing kids. Between 10 and 12 years old, they revive the old cliche about brilliant flowers pushing up through a dungheap. Yet they are also social outcasts, and unless their lives change drastically, they will very soon become prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, and addicts – just like their elders.
Briski doesn't just film the kids. She gives them cameras and teaches them the fundamentals of photography. Some are more gifted than others: the clear winner is a pugnacious little fellow named Avijit, already an accomplished watercolorist. But each child manages to produce a couple of exceptional photographs, and Briski works hard to have the collection exhibited in a Calcutta bookstore.
But this is where the film stumbles. As the little ones go from seeing their first contact print to being driven to the exhibition in a nice section of town, they become terribly excited - and the gap between their dreams and their reality becomes achingly wide. To her credit, Briski understands this, and struggles to help. But her efforts are excruciating to watch, because they are all predicated on uprooting these tender blossoms from the only world they know.
After a long search, Briski manages to locate two boarding schools in Calcutta that will accept pupils from such a background. It’s not easy to enroll them, and between obtuse bureaucrats and impossible demands for documents, she almost gives up. But finally, assiduously dotting every "I" and crossing every "T," she gets everything arranged.
Or almost everything. Here's the rub, because it is then, only then, that Briski talks to the parents. Or rather exhorts them, with comments like: "Don’t you want Puja to have a better life?" and "Of course you’ll be able to see him...once a month." Maybe it’s a distortion of the film, but Briski seems painfully oblivious to the fact that these downtrodden adults not only love their kids but also depend on them.
Most of the parents give their consent - but grudgingly. And as the film ends, we learn that most of the children did not stay in school. Either their parents took them out or they left of their own accord (for emotional reasons not hard to imagine). Ironically, the only child who sees all this coming is Avijit, and he is also the only one who truly escapes. Unlike the others, he has a grandmother who has long supported his painting and is willing to loosen her grip.
I gather from various websites that Briski's efforts did not cease with the completion of "Born Into Brothels." Far from it. She raises money for them through the sale of their photos (some through Sotheby’s), and she presides over an organization, Kids with Cameras, that seeks to bring the joys and opportunities of photography to other impoverished children around the world. If she wins the Oscar, these efforts will receive a gratifying boost.
But as Briski and others spread the gospel of the camera, I hope they bear in mind the lesson this film inadvertently teaches: Talk to the parents first, and put yourself in their shoes. If you lived in a dungheap, would you want to lose your only flower?
No, I am not going to review "Inside Deep Throat." The original film I found stupid, boring, and anti-female, and the idea of making a documentary about it I find even more so, especially considering that this is 2005, not 1972.
So imagine my delight at seeing both films trashed by Anthony Lane in the current New Yorker. Instead of disgust or disapproval (reactions that, while understandable, backfire by making the critic seem a prude), Lane goes in for ridicule - especially of "the predictable roster of guest preachers" who appear in the documentary. These lit-crit nitwits, people like Camille Paglia, Norman Mailer, Hugh Hefner, Erica Jong, and Gore Vidal, would endorse horse manure if they thought it would keep them in the celebrity game.
Fellow AJ Blogger Drew McManus writes:
"I loved Sideways, my wife and I agree it was a well made flick with some excellent acting. But I also hate the film because, as wine drinkers, my wife and I also hate Merlot; so now we look like Sideways tag-alongs when we say we'd rather drink soda than Merlot. In the movie world, is there a name for something like that, when a movie takes away something that you used to feel was uniquely you and turn it into a public fad?"
Not that I know of, Drew, but there ought to be. I'd suggest Merloted (mer-LOAD), but it looks funny. So how about Merlotted? Somewhere between garrotted and besotted...?
Today's Wall Street Journal reports a flood of tourists arriving in California’s Santa Ynez wine country, re-enacting some of the less savory moments from the surprise hit movie "Sideways," such as the scene where a self-pitying, drunken Miles (Paul Giamatti) asks a bartender for a porn magazine.
So the makers of "Sideways"* have pulled off a winning combination: a serious idea wrapped in consumer-friendly frippery. The phenomenon recalls "Babette's Feast," Gabriel Axel’s 1987 film about an ascetic religious colony on the windswept coast of Denmark being restored to life and true spirituality by a marvelous French chef.
"Babette’s Feast" set off a round of lavish restaurant-going in New York City, with chefs competing to reproduce the meal depicted in the film down to the last tender morsel of baby quail flesh. Of course, the people who gobbled this up had not spent the previous half-century subsisting on boiled fish and breadcrusts.
By the same token, the Miles wanna-bes slurping down the vintage in Santa Barbara County probably do not have very good palates, in wine or anything else. If they did, they would not be living vicariously through a movie the whole point of which they seem to have missed.
* See my review, posted January 7
A handsome young man stands on the edge of a rocky cove staring down into rippling turquoise water. It looks deep, so he dives. But it is not deep. He hits bottom, breaks his neck, then spends 28 years as a quadriplegic. He also becomes famous for battling with the legal authorities in his native Spain for the right to commit assisted suicide. He loses the battle but wins the war: after publishing a book, he persuades one of his many devoted helpers to give him a glass of water spiked with cyanide.
"The Sea Inside" ("Mar adentro") is about a real man, Ramon Sampedro, whose followers are no doubt hoping that it will win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I am hoping it doesn't, because like the water into which Sampedro dove, it is exquisitely beautiful - but a lot shallower than it looks.
The acting is superb, especially Javier Bardem's portrayal of a man whose face, especially his eyes, are filled with all the seductive vitality missing from the rest of his body. Also finely drawn are the people who pass through Ramon's picturesque Galician farmhouse: his father, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and three loving women: a "death with dignity" activist, Gene (Clara Segura); a lawyer, Julia (Belen Rueda), who is warding off her own debility from strokes; and a local factory worker and single mother, Maria (Lola Duenas), who at first urges Ramon to live but then becomes the one who helps him die.
But as lovely and beguiling as this film is, it is also tendentious. This is especially true of its caricature of a quadriplegic priest, Fr. Luis de Moya, who has said in an interview that he and Sampedro had a serious correspondence about assisted suicide before Fr. de Moya came to visit Sampedro in Galicia, and that while neither man swayed the other, they parted with mutual respect.
If this is true, or even if it isn't, why does director-writer Alejandro Amenabar feel obliged to ridicule Fr. de Moya, making him mouth petty dogma in a scene contrived to be as farcical as possible? And why accuse the Church of being inconsistent on such issues as suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and the death penalty, when in fact it is consistent?
One needn't be a Catholic or even a believer to grant that the Church's reasoning about these questions is strong and philosophically compelling. If "The Sea Inside" had the courage to take on that reasoning, then it would be worthy of its own considerable artistry. Admire the artistry if you want (I did). But be careful. Don't plunge in head first.
It took me a while to see "Million Dollar Baby," the Clint Eastwood movie nominated for seven Academy Awards, but it was worth the wait. The film is a beautiful example of why tried-and-true formulas are ... well, tried and true. This isn't faint praise. Every art has its formulas, and success depends on what a given artist does with them. In this case, Eastwood takes a venerable formula - the boxing flick in which the contender's hardest fight is outside the ring - and burnishes it to a rich, glowing patina.
Of course, that's not all Eastwood does. It's impossible to prove a negative, but I suspect that if the contender in question were a young man from the white-trash side of the tracks, the critics would have dismissed the film as (you guessed it) formulaic. By making his star a young woman, Maggie (Hilary Swank) Eastwood makes plenty of room for all that burnishing.
Recently several talk-radio "conservatives" have accused "Million Dollar Baby" of being an advertisement for euthanasia. What can I say to this, except: Come on, guys. Look at the blinking movie.
Frankie, the burnt-out trainer played by Eastwood, is the sort of Catholic who attends mass every day in order to ventilate his doubts with Father Horvak (Bryan O'Byrne). When Maggie is paralyzed by a dirty punch and begs Frankie to disconnect her life support, Frankie asks Father Horvak what to do. The priest tells him (very sympathetically, I might add) that euthanasia is a sin. And Frankie obeys, refusing Maggie's pleas.
But then Maggie starts biting her own tongue in a desperate attempt to drown in her own blood. At that point Frankie does the deed. But not in the spirit of Dr. Kervorkian liberating another paying customer. Rather he does it in the spirit of a stoic, self-punishing man sacrificing his own soul for that of another. Maybe God will forgive him, maybe not. You get the feeling he is willing to take the chance. And despite the wistful closing lines by his old friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman), there is no happy ending. After Frankie disconnects Maggie, he disconnects himself - from everything and everyone he has ever known. He disappears.
What sort of standard are these "conservatives" using, I wonder? If artists are not allowed to show troubled mortals committing mortal sins out of love, then talk radio has a long list of artists to condemn. How about starting with some of the worst offenders, like Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky...?
This is a new category of entry - recommendations of books about film that are actually worth reading. They are few, in my opinion, for reasons I hope to set forth as we go along. The heading is "codex" because that is the word used for the bound book when it was a new medium.
Whenever I plow through another essay or book about film "theory," the main conclusion I reach is that the people who write it never made anything with their own two hands. Theorists seem to think that a film either springs directly from the forehead of an individual genius, or it gathers spontaneously as a sort of excrescence on the surface of an entire society.
That's not how films are made. They are made by groups of people working collaboratively, which is the single best explanation both of why most are so bad AND of why the good ones are so astonishing. It follows that the best writing about film is by talented people who understand this.
Such a writer is Walter Murch, the veteran editor and sound designer whose credits include "Apocalypse Now" (original and recut), "The Godfather Part II," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "The English Patient," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Read Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye," if you want to be reminded of how much old-fashioned craftsmanship, not to mention artistry, goes into the making of a good film.
Effortlessly Murch goes from explaining fine detail to expressing large understanding. Here are two examples, though it's tempting to quote the whole book:
"By cutting away from a certain character BEFORE he finishes speaking, I might encourage the audience to think only about the face value of what he said. On the other hand, if I linger on the character AFTER he finishes speaking, I allow the audience to see, from the expression in his eyes, that he is probably not telling the truth..."
"The underlying principle: Always try to do the most with the least ... Why? Because you want to do only what it necessary to engage the imagination of the audience - suggestion is always more effective than exposition. Past a certain point, the more effort you put into a wealth of detail, the more you encourage the audience to become spectators rather than participants."
If you've ever attended a Hollywood press event or been wooed by the media relations department of an entertainment firm, then perhaps you share my distrust of how most reporters cover show business. If the word "cover" is taken in the agricultural sense to mean what a bull does to a cow, then typically it's the reporter who gets covered.
For a funny, bittersweet recollection what this beat is like, see Bernard Weinraub's column in Sunday's New York Times. After 14 years writing about the movie, TV, and record industries, Weinraub is stepping down. These quick reflections are not revelatory or earthshaking, but that's why I like them: they offer a human's-eye view. For example, Mr. Weinraub writes:
"Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, 'I used to drive a car like that.' Though I'm ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes."
What I recall are not just my luncheon companions' reactions but also the reactions of the valets. Whenever one of those nice young men would deliver my Honda Accord, I would give him a five-dollar tip and watch the look of pity on his face turn to contempt. A hundred might have helped, but I decided not to try. In those environs, there's no real cure for sagging vehicular status.