I Am Not Your Negro

Posted January 22, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

iamnotyournegro520x300A recurring image in I Am Not Your Negro, a wounded but finally hopeful documentary, is of forward movement — street lights or palm trees passing by from the POV of a car’s passenger, and so on. It expresses, I think, the state of mind of its wounded but finally hopeful subject, the writer James Baldwin. In 1980, Baldwin signed a contract to write a book, Remember This House, about his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all martyrs to the civil-rights cause. In 1987, Baldwin died, having completed just thirty pages. I Am Not Your Negro uses that text, and others from Baldwin’s public and private writing, to construct the story of a man’s soul under lifelong pressure from living in a racist society.

Despite its forward motion, the movie flits back and forth in time, making the point that Baldwin’s concerns in the ‘50s and ‘60s are, if anything, more relevant today. Things have changed in some ways, not in others. Baldwin refused black responsibility for “the race problem” — he thought that the “problem” was created by white people and that they needed to own it. To the extent that whites have failed to assume responsibility for the systemic racism that benefits them, much of the tension prevalent in Baldwin’s prime is still very much with us.

In an intimate voice approaching a whisper, Jackson reads Baldwin’s diamond-sharp words. A multiple outcast, Baldwin was gay as well as black. Conceivably, he could find himself among fellow black men who would condemn his sexuality, and find himself among fellow gay men who hated his race. It’s no wonder, then, that Baldwin often wore what I would call a sad yet sardonic expression. His consciousness was unavoidably ironic and also informed, or warped, by the highly combustible tropes of the Hollywood movies of his youth. The movie takes the opportunity to interrogate Hollywood’s culpability in American racism, leading up to what I considered the single discordant element: cutting directly from footage of Doris Day emoting to a stark photo of a lynching victim. It’s mean and uncalled-for; it grates aesthetically and morally. Yes, Baldwin did call Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” but I mean, c’mon.

Otherwise, the film’s critique of American culture and society, following Baldwin’s lead, is more than fair (including Baldwin’s revulsion at such cinematic Uncle Toms as Stepin Fetchit — although that performer has since been re-evaluated). The Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches the timelines and footage together smoothly — the result is an engaging riff on Baldwin’s themes. It’s the opposite of dry and academic; the style is jazzy and allusive, with a strong mix of movie clips. Baldwin’s point about Hollywood is that one of the ways you learn a society’s nature is by looking at the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

So what story does I Am Not Your Negro tell? It’s not strictly a biographical piece; Peck assumes you know who Baldwin was and why he managed to rub elbows with so many African-Americans of note, serving as a “witness” more than taking direct action. It’s not a balm in frightening times; it endorses Baldwin’s thesis that the American problem must be faced. It brings some lesser-known Baldwinisms to a larger audience, and may lead people to his books and essays. (Maybe begin with The Fire Next Time, a true classic that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among others.) It begins with the concept Baldwin had of a book about Evers, King and Malcolm, and ends up irising outward to take in the world that formed them, held them aloft for a while, and then took them.

We Are the Flesh

Posted January 15, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, foreign, horror, porn

wearethefleshEvery so often you need a movie that’s so defiantly uningratiating (and often unpleasant) it seems to clear the air, like an especially intense thunderstorm, and demonstrate that art doesn’t always play nice. The surreal, sexually explicit Mexican art-house horror film We Are the Flesh unfolds in a cruel universe occupied most of the time by only three characters, bringing in other people only to feed them into the meat grinder (figuratively — or maybe literally; it’s that kind of film). It is steadfastly not for everyone, yet I feel it’s important to note such work; it is also heartfelt about the point it seems to be making about the soulless squalor of society — or at least the society it depicts, which may not have a lot to do with society as we know it. Art doesn’t always play fair, either.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter sets up a scenario that sometimes feels like an Off-Off-Broadway play. It appears to be the days after apocalypse. A mysterious man named Mariano (Noé Hernández) lives alone in what seems to be an abandoned asylum, building things or taping up liquids into large drums or obtaining food through a tray in the wall. Two siblings, Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), break in to rob him. Instead, he dominates them and makes them have sex with each other — something they warm to after some (not much) initial resistance. During his onanistic oversight of these events, Mariano dies, but then is reborn through a slimy tunnel in the wall. The siblings, especially Fauna, seem altered by Mariano’s influence.

In a way, We Are the Flesh is a contemptuous fulfillment of what voyeuristic audiences claim to want from entertainment. It’s full of sex, drugs (a substance in an eye-dropper), and violence. But these things are presented in an aggressively weird, anti-audience manner; it gives you what you want in ways you didn’t want it. The movie isn’t completely devoted to Funny Games-style game-playing, though. On another level it seems quite sincere about its message of madness, and admirably committed to it. It has an addled purity, and the purity extends to its rigorous if sometimes chaotic use of cinema to express inexpressible states of emotion. The camera trembles, spins, lurches, zooms, and other times stays pristinely still or lingers. The color scheme begins with despairing grays, the shades of a corpse, but then the corpse gradually wakes up until blood flushes its skin with red.

The movie’s very context itself is untrustworthy: what’s real and what isn’t? There’s no baseline of sanity here — it begins on a savage and dimly intelligible note and keeps playing that note. Faced with nonsense, the brain seeks the solace of allegory. Everything comes to seem abstract, everyone a representation rather than a person. That’s also how a brain can shield itself from onscreen atrocities, and there are a lot of them as We Are the Flesh winds down. Maybe it’s best simply to say we’re getting life as seen through the filter of an outraged, terrified artist, a heightened, gory reality presided over by demons.

Is Mariano the devil? Or is he a construct to give the siblings license to sin — much like God and Satan? Noé Hernández plays him as a man delighted by each potential of perversity, each corruption of innocence, he happens to run across. Mariano doesn’t go out and recruit souls; he mostly stays holed up, and the souls come to him. Is Emiliano Rocha Minter saying that we hold our souls so cheaply we’ll simply offer them to Satan? Or, in this context, is Lucifer more of a chaotic-neutral agent, happily flouting hypocritical moral codes? We Are the Flesh could inspire evenings of fervent disputation and interpretation, but first there needs to be an audience for it, and for this? I’m not so sure. There was once a time, though.

Cameraperson

Posted January 8, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

film_853_cameraperson_originalThere’s no clearcut, conventional narrative in Kirsten Johnson’s frequently moving Cameraperson. Johnson, who has worked as a cinematographer or camera operator on many documentaries (including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), has assembled a quilt of outtakes from some of those films and presents it here as a sort of visual memoir. Shortlisted as a possible Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Cameraperson comes to DVD and Blu-ray in February via Criterion, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in this art form and the people who have to capture life and shape it.

It is also undeniably, serenely and triumphantly female. We always feel, somehow, even if we don’t hear Johnson’s voice behind the camera, that we are seeing through the eyes of a compassionate woman. And since the subject of many of the films she works on is trauma, specifically female trauma, that matters; it matters that the women on-camera feel listened to, feel safe. Whether the speaker is a Bosnian rape survivor, an unexpectedly pregnant young woman agonizing over her decision to abort, or Johnson’s own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Johnson seems able to create a warm bubble in which they can breathe and tell their stories. This works even on men: a Fahrenheit 9/11 outtake expands on Corporal Abdul Henderson’s pained choice not to return to Iraq even if it gets him in deep trouble. Henderson’s hesitations when talking — something that would be edited out of a conventional documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 that has so much else on its plate — speak volumes here.

As it goes on, Cameraperson reveals a sort of supernarrative tied to the humanity and responsibility of what we’ll call, for want of a more precise term, “the media.” At one point, the camera watches two Bosnian kids, one only a toddler, playing with a small but sharp axe, and though we figure the footage wouldn’t be here if it ended with an accident, we feel tension anyway, and Johnson sounds a bit tense too, hoping someone notices the kids with the axe, yet probably feeling it isn’t the white American’s place to step in. She’s just there to record. Yet whose place is it to help the Bosnians — or the Syrians?

Johnson can help to report on global pain, but obviously the traumatized people have stayed with her. They’re all pieces of her own story, and in Cameraperson she makes a movie out of the pieces. The editor, Nels Bangerter, shuffles it all together into an organic visual poem, with certain magic tricks only cinema can perform — Johnson’s mother is dead one minute, then alive again, a Tralfamadorian temporal irony (it’s been done before, of course, but in the context of this film it feels fresh). The movie is personal, yet seems to expand its purview to take in life and cinema and how one impacts the other. It’s also the portrait of an artist using the artist’s own art — we get a sense of Johnson’s compositional superego, her hands pulling away blades of grass until the image feels right to her; at other times, the imperfection of a shot is its point, such as when she films a furious documentarian (Kathy Leichter) flinging bits of her deceased mother’s belongings around the room.

You don’t want a pristine image there; you want a reflection of chaotic reality, same as when Johnson catches an enraged boxer after he has lost a fight. In the instances of the Bosnian rape survivor and the young pregnant woman, Johnson films them from the chest down, keeping their faces out of frame but focusing on their hands, twisting in torment. Johnson knows when to go for a painterly effect and when to wing it, and it always comes back to expressing life as it is for the subject — a Bosnian sheepherder, a Nigerian midwife. One nearly abstract image from Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary, seems to stand in for that entire movie and the experience of making it. The title almost invites a comma — Camera, Person — but it’s one word, one concept indistinct from the other. The person doesn’t stop where the camera starts.

Wishful Drinking

Posted January 2, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, concert film

wishfulOne of the better jokes in Wishful Drinking, HBO’s filmed version of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, will inspire sad cringing more than laughter these days. I won’t give it away. But if anyone existed in the zone between laughter and sad cringing, it was Carrie Fisher, who at one point during the show touted herself as “runner-up for bipolar woman of the year.” Fisher, of course, will forever be known for the piece of real estate she held down in the vast suburb that is Star Wars. But her true sardonic self came out in her writing and then in her performance of her writing. Wishful Drinking, which HBO re-ran on January 1 in the wake of Fisher’s death, offers probably the purest essence of Fisher in the visual medium (you can look to her novels and memoirs for more).

Fisher’s subject is how bizarrely magical and magically bizarre it is to be “celebrity royalty” — the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, both of whose later married lives were so thick and confusing a large family-tree diagram is necessary to keep it all straight. The format is mainly anecdotal; wandering around a stage set that resembles a retiree’s cluttered but homey living room, Fisher keeps the show on the level of decent stand-up. She doesn’t go for any pathos — she’s too acerbic for that, and whenever she approaches a cliché, she backs away from it quickly with a jet-blast of snark. She doesn’t want to make the material more meaningful, or enlarge it to fit a theme; she just presents her life as comedy. I imagine the movie gives us what it might have been like to sit in Fisher’s parlor listening to her hold forth.

Fisher visits the old suburb briefly, counting the ways Star Wars has immortalized her (as a Pez dispenser, as a shampoo bottle, as a photo in a book ironically titled — no kidding — New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder). “George Lucas ruined my life,” she says, adding “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I’ve seen Fisher’s Princess Leia described as the most famous female character in history; I balked at that until considering that Star Wars is quite likely the most famous film in history and that there are very few other women in Star Wars. That donut-headed hairstyle is iconic, immediately recognizable, and mortifying to a 19-year-old.        

So what happens to the human woman who played the icon and is forever linked to it? Especially a woman whose sanity had already been imperiled by being the daughter of stars? It’s a wonder Fisher never climbed a tower with a rifle, but women of Fisher’s generation didn’t do that; they self-medicated, self-deprecated, self-destructed. Somewhere in the show, Fisher proselytizes for electroshock therapy, which she later expanded on in her second memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher felt it helped with her depression, but there’s a chance it might have done some damage to her heart — along with the other punishment she dealt it over the years.

There’s a certain degree of heartlessness — not soullessness, but an ability to distance oneself — required to make witty one-liners out of the chaos of one’s life. (Fisher was a modern master of the epigram, the baby-boomer Dorothy Parker.) Some detachment is needed in order to shape the material so that it can reach others, rather than being incoherent diary entries. (Sadly, Fisher’s last book, The Princess Diarist, was sometimes that.) What brought Fisher’s later fans closer to her, though, was her vulnerability. What you hear in the audience in Wishful Thinking is laughter given gratefully and also generously. Fisher wasn’t angling for pity. She wanted to hear laughs. So much of her writing earns laughs, but they sound hollow now that she’s not here to hear them.

A Man Called Ove

Posted December 18, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, foreign, overrated

a_man_called_ove_-_2For some time, I’ve wondered why Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel A Man Called Ove, a huge international bestseller, has captured so many imaginations. Having watched the film adaptation, which hits DVD in America next week, I think I know. Which is not to say it deserves all those imaginations, or knows what to do with them. The film stars Rolf Lassgård (Wallander) as Ove, an irascible widower pushing sixty and yearning to follow his wife Sonja, who died of cancer six months ago. Ove tries various methods of suicide, but life — in the form of his neighbors — keeps intruding. This wounded old man must, of course, learn how to rejoin the human community. And that’s about all there is to it.

The movie jerks its tears tastefully; there’s a minimum of schlock, because the tone takes its cue from the film’s astringent, taciturn protagonist. There seems to be a trend in recent Swedish pop culture to lionize the grouchy and rumpled; witness the success of the novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and its film version, or for that matter the detectives Wallander and Backstrom and many others. Ove slouches through the Swedish chill and fog, growling at everyone he looks at, lording it over his condo association, browbeating clerks and youths and, at one point, a clown. He’s the sort of joyless asshole who can only be enjoyed from a distance — men like him make life hell for retail workers the world over.

Of course Ove has a lot of pain in his past to explain his behavior. (So do the targets of his scorn, quite likely, but the movie isn’t interested in that possibility.) He grudgingly — always, in these movies, grudgingly — forms a bond with a new neighbor, Iranian immigrant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), who has two cute-as-a-button daughters and is carrying a third baby. In no time he’s giving her driving lessons as well as agitating for the rights of a disabled friend and taking in a young gay man whose father has disowned him (this plot thread gets forgotten).

In this construction, a man filled with rage and despair can be healed by the warm touch of the well-meaning. (Ergo the story’s popularity from sea to shining sea.) Fredrik Backman packs his narrative with neatly relevant thematic elements, and the movie, adapted and directed by Hannes Holm, tries hard to include them all. The block association that Ove dominates and resents comes together to help him. Even a foofy old fussbudget of a cat follows him around. It’s as though dear departed Sonja had arranged for a micro-society to close ranks around her husband and keep out that Swedish cold and angst.        

People have fallen for the book and will fall for the movie. It could be worse. The film’s flashback structure is smoothly fastened together by editor Fredrik Morheden, its present-day gloom and past-glory color clearly captured by cinematographer Göran Hallberg. Bahar Pars is appealing as the voice of life, and Lassgård anchors the movie with his sad, churlish gravitas. But things are made a little too pat (for instance, Sonja is a bit idealized, and the subplot about Ove’s trying to keep his disabled friend out of a home lacks credibility), which makes this entertainment, not art, and simplistic, familiar entertainment at that. A Man Called Ove is harmless, I suppose, except for its assurance that all a miserably suicidal person needs is a family of friends. Well, the many grieving friends of the many depressives who have attempted suicide — and succeeded at it, not semi-comedically failed — might beg to differ with that diagnosis.

Hidden Figures

Posted December 11, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama

hidden-figures-df-04856_r2_rgbAll things considered, Hidden Figures wraps some fairly radical themes — three African-American women entrusted with important NASA jobs at a time (1961-1962) when Jim Crow was still the law of the land — in a largely unradical package. Whistle-clean, one of the few modern films to get an uncomplicated PG rating, the movie hits all the standard biopic beats. For every scene enlivened by the retro R&B of Pharrell Williams, there’s another in which Hans Zimmer’s strings try ineffectually to pluck at our heart’s. It was made, seemingly, to be shown in schools.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Hidden Figures is affecting in ways that a less squarely conceived movie couldn’t be. It is a balm of sorts in a world in which women, people of color, and even the sciences will likely be respected far less in a few weeks. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie tracks three NASA employees — math genius Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), unofficial computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer-to-be Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — as they face racism and sexism while slowly getting to the point where their efforts help John Glenn circle the earth. (Sadly, Glenn passed away last week, probably without getting to see himself played by Glen Powell, a blonde hunk in the Chris Evans mold.)

A white male hand passes a piece of chalk to a black female hand: the image succinctly says everything important Hidden Figures wants to say. The white man confers whiteness — importance, credibility — on the black woman. Near the end, though, a white male hand brings coffee to a black woman, as is her due. (A cynic might say, sure, give the black woman caffeine so she can continue to help white men go into space; it was 1983 before the first black man hit space, 1992 before the first black woman did.) The movie speaks of a country where a lot of things are about to flip; we get a few glimpses of the battle for civil rights. The mostly white male NASA environment is a little more enlightened than the general population, but only a little; Katherine has to run to a separate building to use the “colored women’s” bathroom.

Kevin Costner passes the chalk; this actor keeps trying to bridge the gap between races, but here, at least, he brings an edge of gruff pragmatism to it. His character, a composite NASA manager, needs a math genius who can think outside the box, who exists partly in the future, and Katherine is it. Katherine, though, is no John Nash or even Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons plays a sizable role in the film, as persnickety as Sheldon with a side order of racist-sexist disdain). Katherine is conceived as basically a normal woman with normal tastes and desires; I didn’t see a lot of continuity between her home life (widowed with three daughters) and her work life. She’s supposed to devise “math that doesn’t exist yet,” as per Costner, and she also uses ancient math; she’s not only a math savant but a math mystic, yet Taraji P. Henson isn’t encouraged to give her any quirks or sharp edges or even nerdiness. The same goes for Spencer and Monáe; these freakishly gifted and self-possessed ladies don’t have the stubborn oddness that many people at their intellectual level might have.        

Again, though, depth of portrait isn’t really on the movie’s agenda. Hidden Figures exists primarily to pay tribute to the space race’s forgotten heroes, secondarily to inspire. I don’t quite have it in me just now to come down on a film, however narratively conventional and artistically inert, that prizes the intelligence and strength of black women and the gains made possible by math and science. The Daily Beast has already called it “the movie Trump’s America needs to see,” which I suppose is true, though it’s also a relic of Kennedy’s America by way of Obama’s America, and in the chalk being passed you can almost see the line being drawn between Jack and Barack.
       

The Love Witch

Posted December 4, 2016 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, overrated

lovewitchEvery frame of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is lavishly loved and fussed over, and every frame is unquestionably Anna Biller’s: she directed it, produced it, wrote the script, edited it, designed the sets, handmade the costumes, and composed the music. The movie has a luscious dreamlike look, too, shot (by cinematographer M. David Mullen) on 35mm in radiant tribute to the Technicolor Euro-horror of the ‘60s. I would love to award it high marks in areas other than the purely technical, but the troublesome truth is that The Love Witch, while stubbornly idiosyncratic and unmistakably a vision, is also dawdling and hollow and kind of awful, really — difficult to sit through, once the creamy visuals lose their novelty. It’s a long two hours, and it could have been worse: “If I had not cut any lines out and I just kept it the way it was in the script,” Biller has said, “it would have been three hours.” Jesus wept.

The narrative, such as it is, follows lonely witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she sets herself up in a new town and goes about finding men to seduce and lure to their deaths. There’s a good deal of talk about how men and women differ, and all the men are blinkered or pathetic or both, which may be what the film’s supporters are talking about when they call it “feminist.” Elaine does seem to be trapped, stylistically as well as in the script’s context, in a reality in which she is defined solely by her appeal to men and her power over men. But it’s Anna Biller who traps her there, and I couldn’t work out how the polymath director felt about her heroine or her struggles. Biller seems content to photograph the externals.

Some of the movie comes close to camp or just falls in, as when Elaine is assaulted by former friend Trish (Laura Waddell in the film’s only genuine performance), whose husband Elaine has stolen. “Skank! Whore!” Trish yells, slapping Elaine while wearing a wig cap — the movie helpfully provides its own drag-show re-enactment. A sequence in which Elaine is confronted in a bar by a mob of superstitious goofballs (“Burn the witch!”) is frankly terrible and staged with incredible clumsiness. The Love Witch will be worshipped as a fetish object by a certain breed of film nerd who luxuriates in its DIY retro aesthetic, but it isn’t really a movie — it would have to move first, and the pacing is leadfooted. The plot’s pairing Elaine with a stolid detective (Gian Keys) just leads to a handfasting scene at a local ren faire that seems to go on for six, maybe seven years.

I wonder if any of the hipsters cooing over the film have seen George A. Romero’s 1973 effort Jack’s Wife (also known as Hungry Wives or, on video, Season of the Witch). It tells a bleak and discomfiting story about an abused wife who finds, she thinks, acceptance and family in a coven. Romero’s film is technically uneven but feminist in a way The Love Witch isn’t — it grapples with reality vs. ideals, and ultimately presents its heroine as trading one form of domination for another. The Love Witch isn’t nearly as complex or, really, as dramatic. It seems transfixed by its star, who acts in the same arch, artificial manner everyone else does (and I wish Biller had been as obsessive about the sound as she was about other things in the production — the dialogue sounds tinny, hollow, amateurish).      

Truly, witch narratives can get deep to the heart of this country’s Puritanical weirdness about women and the Other. Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, from earlier this year, carries an oblique (and therefore more powerful) charge of blasphemy and transgression against patriarchal force. But The Love Witch has no inner life, no deeper meaning beneath its attractive surface. People will appreciate it, if they do, on an aesthetic level or even an ironic one, but I don’t anticipate it touching anyone’s heart in the way that even teen junk like The Craft did twenty years ago. Its smug, lacquered beauty walled me off from feeling anything about it except impatience.