Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) is something of a rough collage. Constantly shifting styles, the film, at different times, has the feeling of a pseudo-Shakespearian comedy, a familial melodrama, and a classic road tale in the vein of Easy Rider. And to add even more confusion, all of these elements are played out in gay-prostitute underworld of the Pacific Northwest (oh and a little bit in Idaho and Italy too). The film follows the life of Mike (River Phoenix)-an allergic, narcoleptic, and emotionally violent hustler who goes about his business in the slums of Seattle. In these ventures, Mike soon encounters Scott (Keanu Reeves) an old friend and fellow call-boy. From here, the two travel around on many adventures-the purpose of which eventually crystallizes into the search for Mike’s estranged mother.
This longing, on Mike’s part, to finally see mommy again gives the film a place to go, but is far from its most interesting aspect. Instead, the viewer will be drawn to the contradictory world members of the Northwest’s prostitute sub-culture occupy. In many ways the existence of these Hustlers is quite miserable. They sleep on roofs or in doorways, and to survive, must indulge their client’s bizarre fetishes, which Van Sant does not hesitate to display in painful detail. But in another way, the characters of the film’s sub-culture have a vibrant quality that cannot be found in the “legitimate” world their clients occupy. Many wear flamboyant neon jackets with tight jeans and cowboy boots that clearly set them apart from the more conventional sort. Others speak in a vernacular that strangely and cleverly blends hipster slang with Shakespearian English-often giving what would be normally mundane observations a distinctly poetic quality. And all of Idaho’s Hustler characters possess the defiant demeanor-associated with all the proudest counter-cultures-that allows them to say “yeah I’m weird, and fuck you” with every step.
But superficial differences aside, the hustler world that Mike, Scott, and the many others in the film occupy is permeated by a class hierarchy that sharply resembles that of the “normal” world. Throughout the film, Van Sant plays with this irony to an often divesting effect. His ability to make Idaho so strange and yet so familiar is what makes it an engaging film.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) begins like a documentary. Just after the opening credits, the viewer is taken along on a crisp montage consisting of a mixture of images depicting the bomb’s grisly aftermath, as well as shots of the various mechanisms-monuments and museums-the city relies on to remember the event. Patched over director Alain Resnais’ camera is a conversation between the films two main characters-French actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), and Japanese Architect Lui (Eiji Okada). Though, their tones are soft and friendly, the pair are disagreeing on a major point. “I saw everything [in Hiroshima]” claims Elle, describing Resnais’ scenes of vacant hospital patients, enraged protesters, and eerie museum exhibits. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima” counters Lui-offering no evidence for his assertion, but repeating it adamantly.
This discussion over who remembers correctly serves nicely to set up one of Resnais’ main purposes in the film- to consider how memory functions in our lives. In particular he seems interested in how recollections ebb and flow, for a time slipping into the depths of our subconscious- only to be retrieved when least expected in an experience that is quite jarring for the individual, but also those surrounding them.
Resnais’ use of Hiroshima’s plot to develop this question is a classic example an “essay film”- a concept developed by him and other members of the 1960’s French New Wave. Their idea was to use the Cinema as a means of argument, a medium for elaborating on cataclysmic clashes of culture that were occurring during their time.
And in the case of Hiroshima, these conflicts are present as its characters-both of whom are married- navigate their way through a passionate romance that takes place in a Hiroshima that has been reborn into a bustling cluster of cabaret’s and coffee joints. During this exchange the two characters find themselves separated in terms of sex, race, nationality, and profession. But to Resnais’ credit, these divisions do not dominate the film. Instead, he quietly weaves them into his broader concerns about memory, which compels the viewer to think about the films as a whole, instead of being distracted by awkward points of tension. This type of seamlessness really makes the film a real treat.
The rather black and white narrative-pitting American good against Soviet evil- that many people in this country assign to the Cold War tends to block out a much more complicated and accurate version of American history that includes people sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and released in 1981, sets out to debunk this oversimplification.
The story-based on the life of journalist Jack Reed (played by Beatty) – begins in the energetic, but largely abstract world of the American counterculture that existed in the 1910’s. Reed, a prominent fixture within this social scene, is a talented journalist whose Marxist sympathies do just enough to prevent him from enjoying the comforts of a successful career at a mainstream publication. Instead of becoming a bonafide member of the journalistic establishment, he floats in between two worlds, one occupied by irregular and fiery radicals debating how to bring about a worker’s revolution, and another comprised of well tailored socialites-many prominent editors- of who mostly have lukewarm liberal views.
But then-in 1917- revolution strikes in Russia and Reed-along with his journalist wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton at her very best)- through a combination of skill and circumstance find themselves embroiled in a concrete application of the beliefs they had spent so much time arguing over and drinking to. As the revolution progresses, they can barely write fast enough to record its swirl of events that took place during Russia in that fateful year.
Though it is solidly shot- with convincing period costumes and props- the film’s real strength lies in its screenplay-which Beatty co-wrote with Trevor Griffiths. Both writers provide an incredibly complex portrait of both Reed, but also the American leftist movement-comprised of a cacophony of intriguing characters including anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and playwright Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson), whose tendencies toward combat and copulation make for all sorts of drama.
And by the closing credits- this epic-three hour plus narrative- remains remarkably fresh- revealing a slew of interesting ideas relating to the challenges faced by Reed in balancing political and personal life, as well as those of the American communist movement in responding to the Bolshevik Revolt. This type of complexity makes both disks well worth it.
The success of “The Sopranos” allowed HBO to put up a slew of similar shows, unable to match the quality of the channel’s original crime family hit. But a few have measured up quite well. Of these, there is probably no better example than “The Wire.”
Set in contemporary Baltimore, season one begins with a relatively simple plot: a special investigative unit in the Baltimore City Police Department is tasked with busting up a drug-ring run by gangsters in the city’s western housing projects. From here, as the investigation gains steam and the seasons pass by, things become a bit more complicated as the detectives begin to make connections between the drug-ring and various members of the Baltimore community. The result of all this is anything but the standard version cops and robbers. The show paints nuanced portrait of Baltimore, exploring how the city deals with its crime problem, but also depicting daily life in the city’s various ethnic and economic subunits.
Through all of this, creator David Simon is able to maintain a stark sense of realism. This especially comes through in how the Baltimore City Police Department functions. Instead of working like a well-slicked machine, “The Wire’s” police department often barely functions. Indeed, many officers make a habit of brutalizing petty criminals and commanders don’t pursue difficult cases in order to keep their stats positive, just to name a few things.
Along with this engaging plot, the show is bolstered by a competent acting core: including, Lance Reddick, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Dominic West. This combination makes for a both thrilling and thought provoking viewing experience.
*Unfortunately, “The Wire” like many great HBO shows, came to an end last year after a five year run on the network.
This summer Spike Lee found himself in a familiar place: the news headlines. The 20th anniversary for the release of his masterwork Do the Right Thing fell in August, and this resulted in a steady stream of reminiscence about all the controversy the film caused. All this talk about Thing is fine, but sometimes the film tends to overshadow the rest of Lee’s work. Though his career has been sporadic, Lee has put out a number of other thoughtful movies, including his debut project She’s Gotta Have It.
Like Thing, Have it is set in Lee’s home neighborhood of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, but this time he chooses to frame the community in an entirely different manner. Instead of being bathed in numerous vibrant colors-as Thing was–Lee places his characters in an environment that is, with one showy exception, starkly black and white. Such an absence of color, along with Lee’s tendency toward longer shots interspersed with frenetic editing, causes Have It to feel a bit like the films of the 1960’s French New Wave; his scenes of Bed-Stuy’s streets and stoops contain especially strong echoes of the Parisian neighborhoods where Jean Luc Godard shot Breathless, considered to be one of the most important New Wave films.
Yet instead of being about conflicted artisans or intellectuals, a trade mark of the hallowed French school, Lee’s screenplay in Have It encompasses a broad range of characters. At its center is Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), an advertising professional who absurdly carries on relationships with three different men-all of whom are aware that she is unfaithful. The three lovers, Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), spend the film trying to convince Darling to ditch her other two partners, but also serve as an allegorical cross section of the Black Male community. Childs, a career obsessed model with a white slicked back hair style, is a rabid assimilationist. Blackmon, marked by goofy glasses and mismatched outfits worn by Buggin Out in Thing, wanders Brooklyn as a rebellious hustler. And Overstreet, who sticks to a collared shirt and jeans, serves as Lee’s Black everyman.
By constructing this foil, Lee allows viewers to think about a host of issues regarding race, gender, and sexuality in America, but while Have it is intellectually provocative it tends be bland in places. Lee attempts to liven the film with various injections of irony, but these are quashed by his overuse of monologues and the generally dispassionate delivery of Have Its cast.
It’s interesting cinema, but don’t expect to be on the edge of your seat.
Ari Folman, the Israeli director and animator, was a member of his country’s army during one of its darker periods. He served during the Lebanon war of the early 1980’s, when Israeli forces aided their Lebanese Christian allies in massacring hundreds, if not thousands of Palestinians living in the Sabra and Shatila Refugee camps. Yet surprisingly, the event was not imprinted in Folman’s memory; he got out of the army and went on with his professional life without really giving his experience in Lebanon much thought. Then, more than twenty years removed from his military service, he began having a recurring flashback to the day of the killings. The memory was particularly haunting because it was the only thing about the Lebanon war Folman could remember; besides it, his recollections on the experience were completely blank. Jarred by the idea that he could forget most of what happened in such a significant event, Folman began interviewing some of his old comrades, as well as a couple of mental health experts, with the hope of jogging his own recollections. He describes this process in his most recent film Waltz With Bashir (2008).
Documentary, in the sense of its standard definition, is not an accurate label for Bashir. In a number of ways, Folman uses the film to challenge the general idea of what a non-fiction feature should look like. Such rebellion comes most forcefully in the director’s almost exclusive use of animation. Aside from a few shots at Bashir’s end, all of its scenes originated on a cartoonists’ drawing board. This structure allows the Folman to frequently defy chemistry by manipulating the natural color of objects. Many times in Bashir, the Lebanon portrayed becomes a gloomy mixture of unsettling blacks, blues, yellows, and grays, providing the viewer with an often psychedelic experience.
Along with these technical feats, Folman also uses Bashir to prove his is a gifted narrator. Following a multi-layered narrative-covering both the war experience and psychology of memory- the film tracks an animated Folman as he travels from interview to interview. This decision, on the part of the director, to include himself as an on-screen character gives Bashir a sense of fluidity- usually only found in fiction, and Folman’s active presence further provides chances for his role as interviewer to be reversed. The ex-soldiers and mental health experts he talks with often ask him questions- allowing genuine dialogue to take place.
This type of thoughtful conversation, along with Bashir’s stunning animation, makes the film well worth watching.