Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Spotlight

January 24, 2016

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Various representatives of the Catholic Church have given a thumbs-up to Spotlight, a docudrama about Boston Globe reporters breaking the story of the Church’s cover-up of scores of abuses by Boston priests. Well, how else is the Church going to react to it? Condemning the film would be fantastic free publicity; praising it is brilliant tactical aikido against possible new detractors of the Church. Anyway, I happen to agree with the fine film critics at the Vatican and the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight is an undemonstrative journalistic almost-thriller with an even but urgent heartbeat, driven as much by reporters’ need for their paper to be first to crack the story as by actual concern for truth, justice, and the American way. We are, for example, asked to be horrified at the idea of the Herald getting its sulfurous, tabloidy claws into this once-in-a-generation scoop.

The movie takes its name from the Globe’s elite investigative team, instituted in 1970, known for its devotion to going deep on afflicting-the-powerful stories and taking its sweet time getting there. Here, they don’t have much sweet time. The new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), makes a pitch to Spotlight commander Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton): why not look into this business about Father John Geoghan abusing children and Cardinal Law dealing with it by reassigning Geoghan and keeping silent? The team — rounded out by passionate Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), compassionate Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and dogged Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) — swings into action, soon finding that the story extends far more broadly than only one priest playing Musical Parishes.

A welcoming round of applause for the return of director/cowriter Tom McCarthy, who emerges unbloodied from his prior experience on the Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler. This is indeed the kind of “small” (well, $20 million is small these days) mid-budget drama for adults that seems so endangered now; technically, it’s an indie production, distributed by Open Road, owned by theatrical giants AMC and Regal. McCarthy, who has roots in indie comedy-drama, gives us a film that looks like television without really feeling like it; the conflicts feel major even as McCarthy and writing partner Josh Singer mostly avoid melodrama. The few encounters with victims, now grown, of pedophile priests are handled with tact but with a steady eye for relevant detail; one man shows us, almost too quickly to catch, needle tracks on his arm. The men look haunted, mutilated in their souls; they stare inward into hell.

It was a hell that few knew or cared to know about. The Spotlight team has an unwilling ally in abrupt, irascible lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has zero patience for adults but, we discover in a late scene, all the affectionate patience in the world for his young clients who have suffered abuse. Muddying the moral waters a bit is a meeting with a molesting priest who cheerfully admits to his crimes, because he doesn’t consider what he did to be rape; rape is what happened to him. The movie doesn’t clarify whether he, too, was a boyhood victim of a priest, and whether some victims of abuse become tireless advocates for justice while others, their souls incinerated, continue the cycle of abuse themselves. A psychologist and ex-priest, played as a phone-voice of authority by an unbilled Richard Jenkins, suggests that the problem with the Church stems from psychosexual deformity caused by celibacy — or does the priesthood, and other positions of trust like school coaches, attract the psychosexually deformed? Spotlight gets us thinking about that, but ultimately leaves the answer to other movies (I recommend, for starters, the two-part powerhouse The Boys of St. Vincent). Decently, it focuses on the victims, and why there continued to be victims for so long.

The Hateful Eight

January 3, 2016

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Quentin Tarantino’s justifiably cocky new film The Hateful Eight unfolds on a wide, wide canvas — enormously wide, epically wide. Yet most of the action plays out either inside a moving stagecoach or inside a tavern during a blizzard, and most of that action is talk — ruminations about who can be trusted, or disquisitions on such topics as the ignominious last moments of a hapless bounty hunter or the taste of stew relative to its maker. This stew certainly tastes like Tarantino cooked it, and viewers whose palates have adjusted to the loquacious maestro’s style will sigh with pleasure. The hellfire-in-mahogany images (shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Robert Richardson) and knife-edge sound design ground us in a stark reality that Tarantino eventually gleefully stomps on.

The people onscreen may be hateful but the movie, like all Tarantino’s films, is a work of love, a grindhouse-deluxe act of devotion. The timbre of a seasoned actor’s growl, the authoritative clunk of a gun hitting a wooden floor, the creak of a heavy boot on a stagecoach step — all of these elements get such lavish attention that The Hateful Eight could almost be a radio play. But the sounds consort beautifully with the Jackson Pollock blood spatters and the white hell of snow-torn Wyoming and the chafing left on a woman’s wrist by handcuffs. The woman, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is being taken to the town of Red Rock by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), called “the Hangman” because he sees that all his prisoners dangle. Ruth wants to deliver Daisy alive, but he isn’t above bashing her with a gun butt or an elbow.

Misogynist? Not the movie — Tarantino hands the film to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who hungrily bites into the patented Tarantino Comeback Role, nasally drawing out the syllables of her trashy dialogue like a razor across a strop. Daisy is as much a cackling agent of chaos as the Joker was, and in a way the harsh treatment of her is anti-sexist. I was reminded of the mobster in Ghost Dog who shoots a female cop; when his partner blurts “You just shot a broad,” the mobster ripostes, “I shot a cop. They wanna be equal, I made her equal,” and so Daisy, who can take as well as mastermind hard punishment, is equal.

The same can’t be said for black people, not in the movie’s timeline some years after the Civil War, and not now, either, Tarantino is saying. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (probably a nod to western writer/director Charles Marquis Warren) is a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, a complicated and perhaps not very noble man, someone possibly as deformed by the racism of his time as Jackson’s character Stephen was in Django Unchained. The “N-word” is, as in that prior racially charged Tarantino western, said maliciously or casually or merely descriptively, even by a Union veteran like John Ruth. The people in this movie aren’t yet over the Civil War. Tarantino doesn’t think we in the 21st century are, either.

Warren is brought into Ruth and Daisy’s sphere by the weather, and together Ruth and Warren must figure out who in Minnie’s Haberdashery — everyone’s stopover destination to ride the storm out — has conspired with Daisy to free her and leave however many corpses to harden in the snow. This aspect of the story has been likened to Agatha Christie, but it’s less a whodunit than a who’s-gonna-do-it. Among the many ironies is that the most innocent one in this situation may be a foul old Confederate general, although his past is far from innocent. Whose is? Nobody’s, says Tarantino. Yet The Hateful Eight, for all its heavy negativity, is not a nihilist work. There’s too much life in the execution, too much irrepressible affection for the snowy milieu, which, like Kurt Russell’s slyly distrustful performance and Ennio Morricone’s score, harks back to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Jackson’s bitter gaiety in the face of white hypocrisy holds this long, strange trip together right up to the end, when heads are blown off, an arm hacked off, blood gushing and puddling on the floor. He’s eventually matched by the great character actor Walton Goggins, whose Chris Mannix claims he’s to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. We never find out for sure; perhaps Mannix is using his position to fuel his hatred the way Warren fuels his. The other actors — including Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Michael Madsen, who’s aging to look and sound like Nick Nolte — are more two-dimensional, and give somewhat one-note performances, but their characters are conceived as pieces on a chessboard. Ruth, Daisy, Warren and Mannix take turns believing they can win the game, but in the end two opposite numbers on either side of the racial divide are united over shared contempt for lies — life-saving ones as well as death-dealing ones. I don’t know if The Hateful Eight has much to offer the uninitiated, but for me the worst news about Tarantino’s gorgeous and gory “8th film” is that there are only, according to him, two more to go. I hope not.

Island of Lost Souls

October 17, 2015

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H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.

Repo Man

September 20, 2015

detail.23448415Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.

Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).

Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.

This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.

Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

September 13, 2015

the-man-who-fell-to-earth-4For some reason, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a Pink Floyd album to me, even though Floyd had nothing to do with the film. It’s oblique, morose, spacey, a little po-faced about dramatic themes and subtexts that strike high-school students as particularly profound. It’s essentially Dark Side of the Moon 2: The American Dream. David Bowie, by his own admission nuked out of his skull on ten grams of cocaine a day, is a fragile alien who takes the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton. He, or his ship (it’s not really clear which), lands in New Mexico, and he promptly sets about getting filthy rich with electronic patents. (Perhaps meaningfully, he doesn’t develop anything major to help Earthlings — just better quality cameras and recorded music: leisure gadgets.) His mission is to amass enough wealth to build a spacecraft and return home to his dying, drought-ridden planet with enough water to save his people.

Things don’t work out that way, and a great deal of Man Who Fell is devoted to why they don’t work out. After the first scenes, which feel absurdly telescoped in time (Newton goes from pawn shop to pawn shop selling gold rings, and then he’s shopping his patents around), the movie slows way down. It becomes mesmeric in a way, not to mention repetitive, with not one but two sequences in which chemistry professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets it on with a student. One tryst might have been enough, but then we realize that director Nicolas Roeg and scripter Paul Mayersberg (adapting a Walter Tevis novel) are contrasting Bryce’s sexual behavior with that of Newton, who meets and becomes enamored with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). We might also throw in Newton’s lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whose homosexuality is handled so matter-of-factly we may have to remind ourselves the film was released in 1976.

But then Roeg and Mayersberg are both British. For a while, based on this movie and Don’t Look Now, Roeg had a glowing international reputation for a truly adult erotic sensibility. The frequent sex in this film is explicit, joyous, desolate, satirical, but never American, never inflected with that peculiar Puritan sense of guilt and sin. People have sex in the movie because they’re of age and they want to. It happens often enough (though never between Farnsworth and his lover, significantly) that one might begin to read Man Who Fell as an allegory about American sexual mores and how the government seeks to punish sex. It’s about roughly fifty other things too, of course. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the film is hazy and amorphous enough to be about whatever you want it to. Christ allegory? Sure. An “alien” (British) view of “Earth” (America)? Why not.

The movie is bleakly gorgeous, with a growing sense of ennui, but not a lot of urgency to Newton’s mission. We have no idea how much time is passing, and besides, Newton gets sidetracked with twin addictions to alcohol and television. He sits around drinking and watching the tube (in some scenes multiple TVs) while his chance to make a difference passes him by. That’s the American dream whose native hue of resolution, to paraphrase Hamlet, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of CBS and Beefeater. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who has fallen from the pinnacle of this and Don’t Look Now to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) lights the New Mexico desert and cottage lakes for mysterious beauty, and makes Newton’s interior lodgings appropriately antiseptic. Past a certain point, Newton might as well be a zoo creature in a cage even before the plot essentially makes him one.

The Man Who Fell to Earth gains, of course, from its on-the-nose casting of Bowie in the lead. He isn’t acting, quite; again by his own admission, he was stoned and behaving in character. His scenes with Candy Clark, who overacts and whose voice sounds too clangorously dubbed, feel emotionally lopsided: he’s Brit cool, she’s hot-blooded American Woman. (I should point out that the American men don’t come off much better.) But as a sort of found object of alienated angst, Bowie is suitably iconic. The movie is so effective at building a mood of dislocation that it’s almost a bummer when it has to punch its time card as a sci-fi film, with scenes of Dr. Bryce surreptitiously getting a photo of Newton to prove he’s an alien and then asking him if he’s the first visitor to Earth. Newton gives a rather too explicit answer to that question; it would have been better if he’d just flashed an enigmatic smirk. Like many another classic science-fiction film, Man Who Fell seems larger than its sci-fi trappings, seems to have more on its mind and under the hood.

The Great Silence

August 30, 2015

6bSilence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a mute bounty hunter in turn-of-the-century Utah. He has become, out of necessity, what he hates: bounty hunters killed Silence’s parents and slashed his throat. Attempting some sort of balance, Silence kills other bounty hunters, and likes to provoke them into trying to shoot first so that he can kill them legally. Some hero. And yet this is the hero we get in The Great Silence, a midnight-dark “spaghetti western” by the director Sergio Corbucci, perhaps best known for 1966’s Django. That film was filled with pain and gore and a dismal view of humanity, but at least it allowed its eponymous protagonist to triumph. The Great Silence is made of bleaker and deeper stuff. It’s been called “great” and “Corbucci’s masterpiece.” It just might be.

Corbucci liked to fill his westerns with discomfort and unpleasant weather. Django was dank and muddy and cold. The Great Silence was partly shot around the Dolomites, a cruelly stunning Italian mountain range, blanketed with snow at the time. The film’s recurring image is of a lone horse and rider trudging through deep snow. I’m not sure what seems more godforsaken, less hospitable to human survival — this chilly snowscape or the Monument Valley desert locations used in many American westerns. At times the icy locale has the look of a frozen hell or an ashy post-apocalyptic world, and if you ignore the details tying the story to 1898 it could easily be taken as a nightmarish future á la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is nothing if not a nihilistic Corbucci western set in ghastly print.)

Silence’s major opponent is a cold-blooded killer known as Loco or Tigrero depending on which version of the film you’re watching (I prefer Tigrero). As played by Klaus Kinski, Tigrero isn’t really all that dark or evil; he is simply a creation of the world he lives in, and so he survives by his considerable wits and his willingness to kill. Those hoping for a juicy, manic Kinski performance, like the ones he always spat out for his frenemy Werner Herzog, may be disappointed — Tigrero scarcely bats an eye even when someone shoots his hat off his head. Blonde and blue-eyed, Tigrero can be taken as the Aryan menace whose shadow darkens the globe, but really I think Corbucci (who co-wrote the script with three others, including his brother Bruno) is after a more general complaint about capitalism and its ruthless logic in which men make money by spilling blood. In the words of the old Don in The Godfather Part III, “Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.”

There’s something of a romantic subplot, when the widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee), whose husband has been killed by the bounty hunters, hires Silence to go after Tigrero. Eventually they fall into bed, itself a bit of a radical gesture in an era when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge deal, and that guilty-white-liberal classic wasn’t a tenth as erotic as Corbucci allows the interracial tryst here to be. So there is some mitigating soft and human beauty here, not just the harsh splendor of the icy mountains. It helps to give The Great Silence a bit of texture. Corbucci knows that nothing is gained by showing a world that’s completely, irredeemably repulsive and inhuman, because we also need some sense of what has been lost in this post-morality universe, what scraps of love or passion must be clung to in order to render life bearable.

We need that most of all because of the denouement Corbucci leads us to. The Great Silence is notorious (and heralded) for its defiantly unhappy ending. There is no Django here to save the day; there is only a mute gunfighter with a mangled right hand, and he tries to step up anyway, but his efforts don’t guarantee him success. They are met, you could say, with a great silence — the quietude of the indifferent land, the noiseless dark of the water under a frozen lake, the void of an absent God. The alternately traumatic and mournful score by the master Ennio Morricone seals the aesthetic: this is a world where men are either killers or corpses, or both, and the great silence swallows up prayer as well as gunfire.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

August 23, 2015

the-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmithIn the otherwise forgettable 1985 potboiler Badge of the Assassin, there’s an exchange between a black cop and a black revolutionary that I think of often (it was also used as a sample in the incendiary 1992 single “Guerrillas in the Mist,” by Consolidated ft. Paris). The cop tells the revolutionary that what he did “doesn’t make any sense.” The revolutionary shouts, “It does not have to! It only has to get noticed. They have to understand — oppressing people costs!” Well, those last three words could serve as leitmotif for America these last few years, and also for the morally complex 1978 Australian drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. This film, perhaps still the greatest of Aussie cinema, is recommended to anyone who doesn’t understand why Ferguson burned — why it had to.

It’s the turn of the century in Australia, and eager young Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine), goes from one job to the next, being denied full proper wages for the work he does for casually racist white landowners. It gets harder and harder for Jimmie to hold his placatory smile in place, especially when he marries a white woman (Angela Punch) and she gets pregnant. Jimmie can’t support a wife and child on what he makes, and pretty soon some local women conspire to make sure Jimmie no longer even gets groceries in exchange for services rendered. The agenda, it’s clear, is to send Jimmie back to the squalor he’s trying so hard to transcend.

Jimmie has rejected the black world — the Aborigines are required to live in repulsive circumstances — and won’t be accepted into the white world. He’s a true nowhere man, and it drives him insane. He goes to the house of those meddling local women, accompanied by his not-entirely-with-it uncle, and before anyone knows what’s happening Jimmie has killed or maimed several of them with his axe, leaving only a crying infant alive. Thus begins a terrible, personal war on whoever has slighted Jimmie, and along the way he no longer leaves infants alive. He’s too far gone. The movie in no way justifies his rampage, but it has patiently laid the sociological groundwork so that we understand why it happened. Oppressing people costs.

Released in America two years after its Australian premiere, Chant was a calling card for the strong director Fred Schepisi, who soon moved to Hollywood; his best-known mainstream film is probably the superb Steve Martin rom-com Roxanne. Here, Schepisi works in a classical style, no funny business with the camera or with editing, just a clean and horrifying account of a man breaking down in insupportable conditions, his anguish both mocked and heightened by the wide-open spaces preserved in flawless widescreen compositions. The movie is gorgeous pure filmmaking even when we wince at the violence — and we do, because Schepisi doesn’t present it as cathartic or exciting. Especially not cathartic. Jimmie goes over the edge and it does nothing for him other than to get his cheerful half-brother (Freddy Reynolds) killed and to get his own face half shot-off.

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), which in turn was based on a true story, the film might these days, in more sensitive times, be called “problematic”: After all, does not Jimmie fulfill the whites’ jaundiced view of him as a savage? Yes, he does, and that’s the tragedy. Jimmie wanted so badly to be welcomed into white society (he was raised by a white minister and his wife), and when he was systematically rejected, he had no self to fall back on, no identity other than the “other” he was shown that he was. He had no choice but to become the “black bastard” his world insisted upon. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is both a national epic and a national nightmare, and of course the nightmare extends beyond Australia. It may trouble the sleep of anyone who is part of the white-privileged group, who scoffs at “Black Lives Matter,” who has knee-jerk racist panicky reactions to the mere presence of black people because they know deep down that oppressing people costs, and who knows when the bill will come due?


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