21 November 2007

Movies I've seen recently

Well, I usually manage to keep up with my writing assignments, because I don't have many, and because they're usually self-inflicted. And this month, I think I had a case of information overload: I had to stop turning around and immediately describing what I saw. There was too much to take in. So I stopped and just looked and listened for a few days. What an amazing few days.

At the Denver International Film Festival I watched films about a game played in Myanmar, about a pregnant suburban U.S. teenager, about a boy who believes playing the music he hears in his head will bring his true parents back to him, about a girl growing up in Tehran, and others that impressed me in some way or another with their particular visions and truths.

The most fun and delightful discovery of the 2007 SDFF was far and away Juno. So many things won my heart: the wise humor, the tenacity at which the central character worked at being grown-up even though she wasn't all the way there yet, the acting of the woman who plays Juno (Ellen Page), and even my unbridled delight at discovering that Diablo Cody was responsible for the fabulous screenplay, which would make this her first in a three-screenplay deal for the Pussy Ranch bloger and erstwhile stripper. (In my book, she is the Wonder Woman of the new millennium.)

Another of the big Denver Film Fest premieres, August Rush, worked at evoking the ways music can be magically powerful, one of my core beliefs. And it had the orphan's search for his parents, a core issue in my world. But there was something about the orchestration of all its elements that leaned too hard on things that were too easy to reach, like the way cute kids are used to evoke specific emotions. But I cried all the way through anyway, and was vaguely reminded of elements of The Fisher King and The Cider House Rules, another orphanage story but with kids I believed in a little more than I did these ones. I liked August Rush even though it was sentimental as hell, even though Jonathan Rhys Meyers' upper lip is practically a character in its own right (speaking of scene-stealers), and even though I knew exactly where the movie was headed every second and turned out to be right. (I'm not bragging, honest: it's just not that difficult.)

Mystic Ball rocked my world, simply about a man's discovery of a game of six players who pass a ball around a circle. There are no opponents; without total cooperation and concentration you can't play at all. As a group meditation, it is both a very old way and to those of us in the capitalist west a completely new way to conceive of thinking of working and playing together. Since seeing the film and looking for replications of this pattern in other enterprises (music ensembles, theater, juggling, and some martial arts have a lot in common with this), I notice that this mode of complete collaboration exemplified by the game of chinlone is seldom encouraged by the economic forces governing our usual activities.

Getting along means something completely different in the world of Persepolis (I'll save you the internet session: Persepolis was an ancient ceremonial capital (what? a Burning Man kind of thing?) of the Persian Empire. Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical animated feature, with graphic artist Vincent Paronnaud, concerns her burgeoning awareness as she came of age in Tehran in the late 1970s into young adulthood amidst wartime politics and diminishing freedoms. An astonishing, funny, tragic, charming film (adapted from her graphic novel) Satrapi has made, and I believe her deft reanimation of her carefully chosen scenes will affect anyone who has ever been touched in any way by war. It is haunting – the scenes and images she submits to the light of film are iconic and will be etched upon our minds as they were etched upon hers as a child. It's not that this is exceptionally technically astounding filmmaking; rather, it is graphically exceptional, which heightens all the associated emotions. The cartooniness of the images belie the complexity of the intellectual and emotional centers of the film. We grow fond early of Marji, a girl whose bedtime stories are about people committing acts of bravery and being jailed and executed, the heroes of these stories her immediate relatives – uncles, grandpas, dear friends and fellow risk-takers. Young Marji learns about betrayal and ideological zeal and adaptation the hard way, and from a tender age. Fortunately, she has the honor of her own people to stand for as she finds her way in the world, and most of the time she does, even if she's a little clumsy at it from time to time.

I also saw The Savages, which was a brave attempt at finding a way through the alienation common to many parents and their kids in the dehumanizing process of aging in this country. It wasn't just the subject that had the feel and musty scent of wet wool smell clinging to it in my mind the whole way through, however. The kids' difference, their brands of intellectualism (the brother's a Brecht scholar and the sister is filching envelopes and postage at her temp jobs to apply for playwriting grants) felt somehow forced upon us, like this was something we'd get if we were hip and should want to get if we aren't. Maybe that mustiness for me came from the way the story centers on people I thought I aspired to be twenty years ago, people who look nothing like the people in the world I live in now. I liked the script and the jokes and the not-so-funny bits, even if I felt a little hit over the head by it all by the end. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are at their actorly bests, and Tamara Jenkins has some inspired moments choreographing life in an Arizona retirement paradise. And the funniest coincidence of the festival was seeing The Savages first, Juno second, and finding they have a soundtrack song in common: The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking to You" ("...'cause I'm made out of glue").

In the midst of all this there was a screening of Stop-Loss, a new film by Kimberly Peirce, of Boys Don't Cry fame. It addressed a side of today's “war effort” that we don't hear about that often but is affecting a lot of stressed-out soldiers: when the U.S. Government puts a “stop-loss” on the soldier's service contract and they have to go back, even though they have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment. “Some of them are in effect until 2031,” the director said of these contract extensions in a Q&A following the screening. A decompressing soldier in the audience broke down in tears after the film, and I too felt the film communicated the pain of how things are back home and in the war, for the people who serve in the U.S. military forces. A film like that doesn't just communicate, though: I feel it transfers some of the weight of the information it contains to its new owner, which spreads the burden a little across more people now that it is out in the open, where we can name it (violence, addiction, infantilism, nihilism) and then do something about it.

That something can be done was the surprising and beautiful lesson of Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, a feature-length documentary you're bound to see on your local PBS affiliate someday soon. It is a history lesson of a shockingly recent episode: a 1979 demonstration and conference of a pro-union anti-government Communist group in North Carolina that was crashed by the Ku Klux Klan – and also happened to be deserted by the Greensboro cops. Klan members then pulled shotguns out of their vehicles and started shooting, not stopping until four people had died – a fifth one died later. In retrospect, the absence of the police became conspicuous: they had seemed all too aware of the congregators' plans that day. And as one of the demonstrators notes, "Communist" had the emotional charge then that “terrorist” has now. In the wake of the "Greensboro massacre," the city's government whitewashed as much as possible in the hopes of attracting new business; while a core group of aging reactionaries who had literally been shot down in their prime still nursed their collective wounds, because none of the Klan were ever convicted for the murders. The city paid a settlement to the widows of the victims, admitting some responsibility, but no one in the city government ever claimed any direct responsibility for this atrocity, or even said "We're truly sorry this happened on our watch." Lo and behold, someone suggested forming a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," to investigate and sort out the truth, and something shifted, like stones from a formerly forbidden entrance. A bunch of people from the community, the kind of people you don't really notice but stand in line with you at the grocery store, dug through evidence and participants' and eyewitnesses' accounts. As a result a hope for peace grew, and you can see a kind of justice emerge that has been invested in by the participants of the society who attend these hearings and bear witness. We hear some of the testimonies not just of the aggrieved Communist Worker Party marchers who'd been shot at in 1979 but of the Klan members who talk openly about what they believe. Desmond Tutu comes to speak to the people of this small, North Carolina city about truth. And there is acknowledgment in the end of responsibility on all sides: The Klan say they overreacted to the Communists and the Communists admit that perhaps saying "Kill the Klan" in their own propaganda wasn't so smart on their part. Yet many of them get the apologies they sought in the first place, and healing and hope are shown to be possible in the actions of human beings who look just like you, me, and everyone we know.

I certainly don't consider my job as a critic to tear things down, or to say how I could do it better even though I've never even tried to do anything like that. So I feel I must respond honestly to art and truth and attempts to make meaning, and my role is to talk back. Otherwise, what's the point? Why not let people know how you are affected and afflicted by what you see and experience instead of walking out of the theater and carrying your private thoughts back into your private sphere, never to be shared or analyzed or challenged. I see films and read books both because I want to know more about things and because I like passing bits of information along and seeing what others make of them.

So I want you to know that you'll hear the same Lou Reed song in two different movies this winter and that both of those films are worth seeing, I want you to know there are artists graphically opening our eyes and our minds to what is behind the "World News" headlines. I want to know what happens when we say yes to our government's wars, and I want you to know how you can find out if you're willing to go there, too. I want you to know that someone out there loves music or respects teenagers as much as you do. I want you to know that violence doesn't always get the last word: sometimes hope and healing and love do. I want you to know that there's a game that has no opponents. I want you not to give up on popular culture or expression, to still believe people are making amazing art that has real meaning and purpose.

I love the feeling that what we get when we put our work out there is a sort of infinite system of checks and balances with all the other information each person is bringing to the world correcting and compensating and complementing the other information that people have already put out there. Like an infinite game of chinlone.

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