Thursday, April 21, 2005

Treasure Island (You can get it from Netflix)

Treasure Island is a through-the-keyhole rendering of a 1940s America that's racist, xenophobic and sexually perverse. Set in a WWII naval cryptography office in San Francisco, where two midlevel analysts labor to create a deceptive message to be placed on the body of a dead serviceman, the film draws the connection between the war bureaucracy's inadmissible homoeroticism and its atom-bomb-sized displacement via Little Boy. Slanty-eyed, effeminate others are the repositories of the anxious lusts of these pale functionaries. One, a compulsive secret bigamist, is married both to a Japanese-American whom he forces to hide in their apartment, and to a scarred Caucasian; his macho co-worker is increasingly tempted by the serviceman's maliciously provocative corpse (who resembles Pee Wee Herman). Writer-director Scott King used a 40's-era movie camera to give the film the same dark, silvery glamour of movies of the period. It's completely fascinating, sexy, and funny. And it feels like a psychologically accurate vision of a closeted mid-century America, far more so, for example, than Far From Heaven. I'm dying to see King's next movie; I just happened to see Treasure Island when it was shown in 1999 at Sundance, and have followed its (non)fortunes ever since. It was never released in theaters -- too smart and sexually explicit -- but it's available from Netflix.


posted <> 2:19 PM

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Jonathan Demme Misses Every Target at the Turkey Shoot
--by Virginia Vitzthum

Jonathan Demme was the best populist filmmaker of the Reagan years. Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob celebrated the lives of regular Joes and Janes with an affection and lack of condescension that consistently evades, say, Michael Moore. Though Fahrenheit 9/11 is a huge leap forward for the big lug, it still holds traces of Moore’s personal Dogme, “as you rage about poor people getting screwed, make sure to get a laugh at their expense” – a laugh Demme always managed to have with, not at poor people in cheap clothes. With the country so starved for a working-class hero that a millionaire trial lawyer-Senator qualifies, Demme seemed uniquely positioned to return to form and celebrate the lives of the people whose pensions get robbed and whose sons are sent into war.

But his Manchurian Candidate remake fails miserably to bring the source material into the age of the second Iraq war, the Patriot Act, Enron, Tyco, and Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. Demme’s “political” thriller so ineptly combines the brainwashing plot from the 1962 original with the current reality of a government dictated by business interests that they completely cancel each other out. Mind-blowing as it seems, a movie about ”the country’s first privately owned and operated vice president” manages complete irrelevance in election summer 2004.
We start out promisingly, with a mixed-race platoon killing time in the first Bush Gulf War, Wyclef Jean on the soundtrack singing Creedence’s Fortunate Son: “I ain’t no Senator’s son.” But someone in the group is: the mother of Liev Schreiber’s Raymond Shaw is widowed Senator Eleanor Shaw. Out in the desert, Raymond has a chip implanted in his head by the mad scientists of Manchurian Global. The implant includes a false memory of him saving most of the others in a firefight and also makes him a robot to follow the bidding of Manchurian executives. The multinational’s legislative stooge is Senator Eleanor Shaw, who like Angela Lansbury in the original, gives her son his sleep-marching orders. The rest of the soldiers also get their brains implanted so that everybody loves Raymond and “remembers” his valor in saving the group.

Keeping Shaw the victim is the stupidest of the remake’s many missteps. This material begged to be updated satirically even before Kerry was picked by the Dems – what if Shaw hadn’t even been in Iraq, like Bush with his lost National Guard months, and a memory of his valor had been implanted in the other soldiers’ heads anyway? And with five or six non-white nobodies for guinea pigs, why would the senator’s kid be the patsy and the hit man? And why would you run your android assassin for office? (OK, it worked in California.)

The real-life scion now positioned for four more years of corporate advocacy proves that unqualified rich kids need no brainwashing to convince them they can run the world. And the Cheney connection is even more tenuous, though Shaw is running for VP. If anyone’s pulling W’s strings, it’s Cheney, and nobody even bothers to keep his ties to the company hired to rebuild Iraq secret. The facts are more Orwellian than the dystopian movie.

Depressingly, this paranoid thriller is insufficiently cynical for these times. Except in one sleazy entertainment marketing way – the current Iraq war, like most wars, is largely driven by men and mourned by women (even if Condoleeza Rice does some of the lying about it), so why is our villain a woman? Why wouldn’t the powerful Eleanor Shaw get on the ticket herself? The comparisons of Meryl Streep’s right-wing monster to Hillary Clinton only seem to illustrate the paucity of woman Senators. Streep’s Lady MacBeth-slash-Gertrude is an unrecognizable creation, a default to the pre-feminist 1962 original almost as unthinking as the new Stepford Wives -- and one more satirically empty conceit in a movie full of them.

How could Demme fail to score one political point in a movie about a powerful cabal stealing the presidency from the people? That Fahrenheit 9/11 is the populist masterpiece of the summer has little to do with Moore’s moviemaking or rhetorical skill or respect for people who aren’t Michael Moore and everything to do with getting on film the current reality that the Manchurian team missed. When Bush unapologetically tells the “haves and the have-mores,” “I call you my base” and Congress passes the constitution-trampling Patriot Act without reading it, it’s depressingly clear no brain chips are needed to build a corporate-controlled administration. And its executives and generals always rob, torture, and send into battle the powerless, never the sons of senators.

posted <> 2:46 PM

Sunday, March 14, 2004


Watching Bush perform I've often wondered if he is being fed prompts through an earpiece, the kind news anchors use. His speech patterns seem unnatural, not in the stumbling, inarticulate way of a dyslexic jock (the way Bush talks when he's really talking), but in a politician-under-remote-control way. His delivery lacks the whole-body involvement of speech that's actually being produced by the speaker.

Lately the effect seems more pronounced. Bush speaks entire sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, with serial points and subordinate clauses, that are mysteriously punctuated with unnaturally long pauses, as if he's waiting for the next prompt to come through an earpiece. Or he'll pause for a protracted moment and then suddenly blurt out a few more words -- big words, sometimes. He looks abstracted, disengaged from his own language, almost like a simultaneous translator (if you can imagine Bush as a simultaneous translator). Maybe he's just learned his lines by heart, since he says the same things over and over every day. But there's a weird effect of delay in his delivery, like a bad actor's. And how is it that he can suddenly speak English?

I asked a language scientist who studies dyslexia what he thought of my notion. He told me that having a speaker reproduce phrases fed through an earpiece is a much-used experimental device called "shadowing." Contrary to what I assumed, that it would be hard to speak with someone else's voice murmuring in your ear, the scientist said it's easy; it's only difficult if it's your own voice that you're hearing.

We all already know that Bush is a puppet in every way except perhaps literally, that what comes out of his mouth on public occasions was put there by others. Yet it would be an enormous fraud perpetrated on the American electorate if it were literally the case that Bush is Rove's dummy, and that he doesn't dare to speak to reporters without an aid/e in his ear, a la Broadcast News. Why haven't reporters written about this or asked the question directly in interviews and at news conferences? Television news people wear earpieces and must strongly suspect it if the president is doing so.

Meet the Press executive producer Betsy Fischer reportedly answered an inquiry from Radio Free USA, saying that the president did not wear an earpiece in his interview with Tim Russert. How was Meet the Press able to establish this, given that the devices are so small as to be almost undetectable? Did someone check his ears? Why hasn't anyone in the political or White House press corps asked this obvious question? Not that one would expect an honest answer, of course. But that doesn't mean the question can't be pursued. News organizations should be enlisting language scientists to analyze tapes of the president's performances.

Postscript: A documentary-maker explains why he thinks Bush is wired for sound. The frequencies used for transmissions to Bush's head would be extra-secure, of course, and technology exists to beam even non-deity messages directly inside. The suspicions of another poster were aroused by a moment in Bush's December news conference:

An Absurd Asinuation: President Bush's Earpiece

Description of 12/15 Bush press conference and questions on 9/11 foreknowledge

Q I know you said there will be a time for politics. But you've also said you wanted to change the tone in Washington. Howard Dean recently seemed to muse aloud whether you had advance knowledge of 9/11. Do you agree or disagree with the RNC that this kind of rhetoric borders on political hate speech?

THE PRESIDENT: There's time for politics. There's time for politics, and I -- it's an absurd insinuation.

- White House Press Conference, Dec. 15

A funny thing happened at the December 15th presidential press conference. Asked to comment on an earlier statement by Howard Dean regarding his alleged foreknowledge of 9/11, Bush stumbles about the stage, clearly caught off guard by the question, then delivers the line: "It's an absurd asinuation." could not be more clear that Bush was provided the words with which to answer. At first, Bush stumbles about, repeating his previous line that "there's a time for politics." During this time, he's avoiding eye contact, shrugging, and delaying. Then, the answer is given to him, presumably through a wireless ear piece. Bush then suddenly delivers his line that "it's an absurd asinuation." The suddenness of his reply, after having been speechless, the smile in his eyes when he's given the correct answer, and his incorrect pronunciation of the word "insinuation" all lead to [the] conclusion that he was prompted to provide this answer.

(from post to by Veritas, Monday, December 22nd, 2003


posted <> 3:57 PM

filmbitch continues to digress

What a relief that Susan Lindauer, the mole of Takoma Park, will be brought to justice. It must have been difficult for her second cousin Andy Card, White House chief of staff, to call the FBI on her when she dropped off a peace petition at his home, but what else could he have done in good conscience? Maybe this will be a lesson to other so-called "peace" activists and/or mentally ill citizens who threaten public security by trying to interfere with a perfectly good war. Sure, you might say Lindauer doesn't fit the profile of your typical unregistered foreign agent or profiteer, like Dick Cheney or the senior George Bush (so close to the Saudi prince Bandar Al Sultan that he's like "family,") or the Pentagon's good friend Ahmed Chalabi, who's still getting $340,000 a month from U.S. taxpayers grateful for his valuable tips on where to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But the Justice Department can't prosecute every suspected lawbreaker. It has to ration its resources to concentrate on the most egregious cases, agents like Lindauer who've spotted the little red lights in their shower vents.


posted <> 3:44 PM

Monday, February 09, 2004

The Fog of War, The Whore of Fog

For the endlessly fascinating spectacle of Diane Sawyer's loathing for truth and truth-tellers, I found her interview of Howard Dean and his wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, more revealing in a Trollopean way about our political-media culture than Errol Morris's The Fog of War. A former Nixon administration aide, Sawyer's speciality is simulating oleaginously-coated shock and astonishment at those who deviate from standard political lying and falseness. Judith Dean is as unlike Sawyer as a human being could be: seemingly unarmored with lies. It was scary to see her as unconscious of her peril as a child playing in the jaws of a cobra (though on a visceral level, she knew it; she leaned into her husband the more Sawyer smiled at her). Her shyness and honesty at last confounded even Sawyer, who must have already lost her appetite for the Dean kill, given his evaporating chances.

The Fog of War is utterly absorbing and disturbing, yet Robert McNamara, the only speaker, remains opaque. I suppose if McNamara had spoken out against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, someone like Diane Sawyer would have questioned his sanity and patriotism. He didn't, and Errol Morris lets him off without pressing him on whether he sees himself as a moral failure or war criminal. You learn about what he did, and you see his icky self-pity blended with a strange callous imperviousness to the suffering and death he refused to speak out against even after he left office. But you never get to see him through the eyes of anyone else. The why and how he turned off his morality, or even whether he ever had any, remains a mystery. The film doesn't get at the practiced amoral agnosticism, the assiduous blind-deaf-and-dumbness of official Washington, for whom dissent from murderous policies while they are actually in progress is a rude breach of manners, though they can be safely, blandly admitted years later.


posted <> 9:55 AM

Monday, October 20, 2003

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood is an avatar of solemn middlebrow prurience and Mystic River is a solemn piece of kitsch. So it amazes me that some film critics are rhapsodizing over this male weepie as if it's high art. Despite egolessly fine acting (by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney) it's more like a television show -- an anti-Hallmark production -- than it is a great movie. Has Eastwood ever watched CSI or Homicide or Law and Order? Mystic River depends on an overworked plot and coincidence even more than those programs do; it doesn't trust its characters or themes or setting, even though they're more than interesting enough to make for the tragedy that Mystic River might have been.

But even with a simpler story, Eastwood's addiction to portentious visual and aural melodrama, his sexualized mythologizing of violence and sheer indifference to the sense of the script would have made it an overseasoned mess. Take away the cliches and contradictions and implausibilities and the cinematic equivalent of purple prose and there'd be no movie left. Among the contradictions: a murdered girl is found splayed out prettily in some bushes, barely bruised, yet police speak of her corpse as more horribly battered than anything they've ever seen. Or take an entire sequence of cliches: a child is abducted by two pedophiles, one of whom is wearing the ring of a priest. Why? There's no other connection to the story. It comes off as a sort of reverse product plug. The child is driven off and turns to look balefully at his friends through the car's rear window. We next see the boy on a bed in a basement as one of his victimizers approaches. The child says, "please, no more!" End of scene. Later, a man is shot in the face and the screen flashes white, then turns to daylit sky. Classy! After all, why spoil the effect of your big money shot with an anticlimactic view of the killers trudging back to the parking lot? Oh God, and the score, based on a melody by the director, is awful, grandiosely swelling near the beginning of the movie, as a husband and wife watch their daughter's first communion, and quickly becoming as tediously recurrent as a fly buzzing in a room.

As for the "women of" Mystic River, they're like the women in other Eastwood movies. Some are attractively subordinate to the male protagonists and some aren't. They function as mirrors and as ventriloquist dummies for Eastwood's fantasies and fear of women. The locus of sexual hatred in Mystic River is a vicious, broken-down slattern with a sagging lower abdomen. The fantasy figure is an uptight Boston Irish-Catholic wife and mother, who delivers a climactic speech in which she instantly excuses her husband for his revenge-murder of a blameless relative, then pushes him down on the bed and straddles him in her skirt, sex-kitten-style, telling him (a small-time hood and corner store owner), "You could rule this town."

Another of Mystic River's wives is adjudged more responsible for her husband's death than the killer, because she doubted him. Even a murdered girl's fate isn't her own; the elaborate plot has to make it collateral to her father's. So when her father says, griefstricken, "I know I was somehow responsible for your death, I just don't know how," it means literally only that, not that parents who lose a child violently can't escape a sense of guilt.

So, far from being a tragedy, Mystic River is another Eastwood wank in vigilante nihilism. Still, it's an enjoyable-enough wallow and a sensuously pleasurable movie to watch if you turn your brain on "low." Aside from one extended product plug for Jello pudding, working-class Boston is palpable down to the peeling paint on porches and the modified pompadour that Sean Penn wears. The acting is so good it almost papers over the ludicrous script, and there are moments when what may have been good in the novel filters through.


posted <> 2:56 AM

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides

I loved The Virgin Suicides, which I only got around to seeing last month, after reading the Sofia Coppola profile in the New York Times. So I had high hopes for Lost in Translation. Oh, what a bore! It's like being stuck in an airless hotel for a week with nothing to read. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play characters who come off as a narcissistic dyad - united in their superiority to the others around them, Japanese and American, who are uniformly clueless and unattractive.

A mark of fantasy and narcissism is that no one else is real. Had the other characters been written to have any human appeal, then the ambivalence of the Murray and Johansson characters towards their lives and spouses, and their mutual attraction might have come through as the pensive half-romance it was supposed to be, I guess. But as it is, what wisdom about life is the Murray character supposed to be representing to Johansson's? That a man stays married to a carping wife -- while making quick sexual forays on women he looks down on? Viz the lounge singer who sings cheerily, hopefully, in the shower the morning after, a song so dated it might as well be Some Enchanted Evening. Listening in bed, he winces as if he isn't about 30 years past being surprised to be waking up with a stranger. And when Johansson shows up at the door, she's instantly complicit with the prerogatives of middle-aged manhood. One can't easily imagine their roles reversed.

The Murray and Johansson characters don't risk anything for love or sex. Instead they spend a lot of time alone, worldwearily soaking in top-of-the-line bathtubs and exchanging status markers when they meet. He gripes about making millions for a few days' work. She lets him know she's a Yale philosophy graduate (whose only reading material seems to be a self-help book.) We're supposed to be impressed by her sophistication when she remarks that a silly movie starlet who's registered at the hotel under the name "Evelyn Waugh" must not know that Evelyn Waugh was a man. It's one of the lame attempts at characterization by appeals to snobbery (as if a man's feminine-sounding name wouldn't make a perfectly good alias, anyway.) The movie is complacent and incurious about Japan and the rest of the world. It endorses the way some men romanticize inaccessible young women while refusing to connect with women they're actually sleeping with.

I suppose the film's sexlessness mirrors the relationship of a daughter to a powerful father. The Johansson character is confused not only about what to do with her life; she also doesn't seem to know what she wants to do with her body, only that others like it. The movie has a child's-eye view of adult life, one that trusts that powerful grown-ups know what they're doing, and if one wins their approval, one will become a grown-up, too.

But Coppola's first movie, The Virgin Suicides, which she scripted from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, is note-perfect, a deadpan elegy for the perishing beauty of youth. The opening shots alone, of placid streets and green lawns in an old suburb, shaded by condemned Dutch elms, might almost make you cry for their mysterious sense of vaporized time. Probably it's the score by Air that does it: a slow, repeating melody gives the film the rhythm of a poem. James Woods plays the shy, increasingly odd math teacher and father of the five Lisbon sisters, led by the brilliant Kirsten Dunst. The girls are not death-intoxicated so much as thwarted in their desire for life by their rigidly conventional mother, played by Kathleen Turner with violent tragicomedy. It's a blackly funny, wistful hymn to teenage female eros, with Josh Hartnett as the most seductive boy in high school. Told through a group of neighborhood boys' eyes as they spy on and imagine the Lisbon sisters' lives, it gets at that feeling which doesn't survive adolescence, that the world is vanishingly lovely and one's love and pain so perfect that it might be best to die now.


posted <> 1:34 AM

Monday, December 02, 2002

Roger Dodger, Hurlyburly

In Roger Dodger's opening scene, in a restaurant, Roger (Campbell Scott), spews cigarette smoke into the faces of his boss and coworkers as he issues pseudo-apercus about women and sex that were just as banal 40 years ago. They all laugh delightedly, as if he's their very own Oscar Wilde. It gets worse from there. Tedious, boring, muddy, ugly, implausible, trite, and an icky sentimental ending.

But lest anyone think I don't ever like movies about misogynists, I loved Hurlyburly and wish more people would see it. A movie version of the play by David Rabe, of course, it stars Sean Penn (the actor who makes Brando, De Niro, Dean and Pacino look like actors, according to A.O. Scott -- wait, when does Al Pacino not look like an actor?) Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Robin Wright Penn, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin and Meg Ryan as a stoned party girl. You won't take your eyes off any of them for a second. Scary, fascinating and bitterly funny, it anatomizes a certain kind of American man: emotionally underdeveloped, solipsistic, unable to relate to women in any way other than through neediness or exploitation. Why does Neil LaBute get all the attention when David Rabe can actually write and characterize contemporary men (and women) and make it human and funny and plausible?


posted <> 11:45 PM

Friday, November 29, 2002

Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven is director Todd Haynes's homage to the melodramatic "women's pictures" of 1950s director Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind). I was hoping that meant it would be full of passion and cornball sentiment. But it's more of a drag tableau than a drama, and rather than wrenching tears from my "charred and tarnished heart" (as my son describes it poetically) it bored me to distraction, and made the audience titter in the wrong places.

The film is over-decorated down to the last detail, like a fanatical hostess's theme party. Not an object appears that isn't in the story's autumnal color scheme, and this quickly becomes irritating. When Julianne Moore goes to answer the phone, you wonder not who's calling (you've already guessed, because the story and dialogue are grindingly predictable) but what color the phone will be. (It's yellow). Nothing takes place that isn't in the story's "palette" either, i.e. no ungainly impulse of art or life is permitted to disturb the film's arch formula. Everything must match.

The effect is strangely flat and even hard-hearted. Douglas Sirk's movies may have put a genteel mask on unruly emotion, but they weren't superior to it. Far From Heaven looks down with smug pity upon its characters, patronizing their pathetic embalming in the 1950s, as if to have lived in that era was a fashion mistake.

Julianne Moore plays a genteel matron in a Midcentury Modern doll house. Dennis Quaid is as close to a real character that the movie has as Moore's tortured, closeted gay husband. And the film might have been fascinating had it entered into his struggle and confusion, instead of sampling it voyeuristically.

But it gives us only a few peeps, even at that. In the film's universe, only gay men have carnal desires. Moore's character is as neutered as a Barbie Doll, and Dennis Haysbert, the widowed black gardener to whom she's drawn, seems almost surgically celibate. (Maybe he's in the closet, too. It would have been really interesting had Quaid taken up with him.)

It's not enough for the gardener to be an attractive and intelligent black man. He must be a black Ken Doll, with a college degree in business and sophisticated opinions about modern art, but no penis. The racial subplot also manages to avoid the word "nigger," which would have been the first thing out of the mouths of the boys who chase and throw a stone at the gardener's daughter, leaving her unconscious on a cold night in a deserted place. But a few scenes later, she's sitting up on the couch with a bandage on her forehead, not evidently any the worse for wear. The gardener also wears a gorgeous suit and unembittered mien as he and daughter philosophically abandon their home and business to make a new life in Baltimore (where he may also be permitted a love life?)

Racism is a faux paus, not an outrage and a horror in Far From Heaven, and heterosexual lust is quite erased. The 1950s were a time, as is every time, when people sometimes fell in love with others of the wrong race, class or sex, and remade their lives around their unacceptable love, or lost their nerve, or were killed for it. But the director of Far From Heaven doesn't trust the subjective experiences that drive the genre he professes to admire. He copies the surfaces of 50s melodrama but leaves behind its (charred, tarnished) heart.

Far From Heaven, redux

My friend, the ordinarily all-seeing Virginia Vitzthum writes, charging me with being way off on Far From Heaven and with having a
"...faulty sublimated movie-lust detector! Cathy and Raymond's dance in the roadhouse is PACKED with sexual longing and romance. And those characters, who I believed as both people AND 50s types, weren't the types to run off to a motel for a fling; they *would* sublimate, as Dennis Quaid's character had for years. Because he's so much more eloquent than me, I attach Todd Haynes' wise words on what he was after (and in my opinion accomplished) with this film:

Me again, defending: No, no, I'm ordinarily as susceptible as the next guy to romantic feeling, in and out of movies. I just didn't believe in it in this movie. And check it out, but I think the Haynes interview reads like self-parody. All that talk of swatches and color cards, and the superiorly mystifying deconstructionist babble. He's the sort of artist who always knows more about the art than it knows about itself (or can tell you). And VV, weren't you creeped out by the black housekeeper character played by Viola Davis? Still servilely polishing the table at the end sans paycheck? Why didn't Haynes open the closet door on his black characters' inner lives, instead of reifying (yeah!! I can talk that way, too!) the steretoypes of the "safe" Negroes of the 1950s? The film has shown that it's ironically superior to the racial attitudes of the era, and that's enough -- it doesn't protest, doesn't imagine being trapped inside, like its characters.

And sorry about the link, don't know how to do that yet

posted <> 2:13 AM

Sunday, November 24, 2002

The Author of Rabbit-Proof Fence Talks About Her Family's Struggle
by Jim Smith

Imagine you're eighty-five years old, living in a small Australian town, and you're about to see a movie on the giant screen for the very first time. Now imagine that the film you're about to see is based on your own life story.

That's what happened earlier this year to Molly Craig, and to Molly's seventy-eight year old sister Daisy at the Australian premiere of director Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Based on a best selling book by Molly's daughter Doris Pilkington, Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of Molly, Daisy, and their young cousin Gracie, who, like thousands of children before and after them, were taken forcibly from their homes by the Australian government and relocated to settlements to be trained as domestics and sent out into the Australian workforce.

The children were hand picked because of their racial heritage; they were half Aboriginal, half white, or as they're known in Australia, half-castes. With the aid of Christian missionaries, the Australian government continued this practice from 1907 until 1971.

Molly, Daisy, and Gracie were taken from the village of Jigalong in 1931 and transported to the Moore River settlement, some 1,500 miles away. Away from everyone and everything they'd ever known, the three girls were extremely unhappy in their new surroundings. Led by a defiant fourteen- year old Molly, they ran away from the settlement after only a few days.

Actually, they walked away. Following the rabbit-proof fence which dissected the country from North to South, they walked for more than nine weeks through an ever-changing landscape of desert, farmlands, and forests. Fighting hunger, rain, heat and cold, Molly and Daisy managed to stay ahead of the Australian government, which was anxiously pursuing them, for the entire journey.

Twelve-year old Gracie was recaptured and returned to Moore River just a few days sort of her destination. She died in 1983 without ever returning to Jigalong.

Talking with Pilkington, a light skinned grandmother who wore a blue house dress, matching sweater, and rain boots when I met with her recently, you can hear the hurt of an entire family in her soft but deliberate voice.

Herself a survivor of the "Stolen Generation," Pilkington says the goal of the government's program was to "breed out the Aboriginality," and the first thing to go was their traditional language.

"Every time you said a word in your [native] language, somebody would come behind you and smack you so hard that it really forced you to speak English," says Pilkington.

The film, already out on video in Australia, has had a palpable impact down under. "It's been happening all over Australia, " says Pilkington. "The journey of healing has begun for most members of the Stolen Generation. The memories, the pain, the feelings that were suppressed for decades have just come to the surface now."

"Two women came up to me at the Perth premiere and said, ‘now that we've seen that movie, we're going to find our other two sisters.'"

Pilkington was lucky to find her own mother after several decades, but knows first hand that many of the Stolen Generation may choose not to locate their lost relatives after years of being brainwashed by the Christian missionaries to hate and fear all things Aboriginal.

"We were taught that Aboriginal culture was evil, and the people who practiced it were devil worshipers and evil pagans," she says.

It was a shock for Pilkington to learn at age twenty-four that her own father was not white, as the missionaries had led her to believe, but was in fact Aboriginal. She was bitter for many years, feeling that the Christians had not only robbed her of a childhood spent with her family, but also of the ten years it took to purge herself of their teachings, time she could have spent getting to know her father instead of fearing his Aboriginal roots.

Painfully, her own sister Anabelle, whom Pilkington located after years of searching, has rejected her Aboriginal heritage and refused contact with the family, including their mother Molly who hasn't laid eyes on her since 1944, when Anabelle was just four and a half years old. Still, Pilkington has been in touch with Anabelle's children since the film opened and remains hopeful that a reunion with her sister may come about.

As proud as she is of the emotional impact the film has had on her country, Pilkington also hopes the Australian government will pay attention and make some sort of restitution to the Stolen Generation, and not necessarily a cash settlement. In Pilkington's case, the mission where she grew up still exists.

"Yes, a little bit would help, but we want compensation not in monetary terms, but we'd like to have the use of the dining room and a couple of cottages, and the mission itself, or some share in the profits now. We were child laborers there. Four year olds, five year olds. It didn't matter how heavy the task was, we did it."

For now, Pilkington is enjoying the buzz and good reviews Rabbit-Proof Fence has been gathering as it approaches its November 29th release in the United States.

As for that screening last winter in Jigalong, Doris Pilkington isn't sure Molly and Daisy fully comprehended the idea of actresses portraying them as youngsters, but they did appreciate the gifts director Phillip Noyce brought for them.

"Phillip brought Mom and Aunt Daisy frocks to wear to the film–their first time ever in long frocks," says Pilkington.

"He also gave them a bottle of Calvin Klein perfume called Escape."

posted <> 11:09 AM

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Comedian (director Christian Charles)
--by Jim Smith

So Jerry Seinfeld is back. Not that he was ever really gone; it's impossible to be nostalgic for a man whose eponymous television series takes to the airwaves at least twice daily in cities large and small all across the nation. Ah, but to see the man actually traveling to those large and small cities to reclaim (and rebuild) the standup career that put him on the comedy map in the first place... well, that's the crux of Comedian, the new documentary directed by Christian Charles and produced by, among others, Jerry Seinfeld.

Produced by Jerry Seinfeld? What? He produced a documentary about himself? Isn't that a little show-offy? Is it even legal? Does the Friar's Club know about this?

Actually, it's not unprecedented, but it does seem an apt metaphor for the myopic vision and utter dedication to self that it takes to make it in standup comedy. Constant second guessing and rehashing of every minute of a performance illustrate the comic's desperate need to be the center of attention, the sun around which all the lesser stars orbit, even after stepping off the stage. Well, a comic is never really off stage, is he? Isn't that the Comic Girlfriend's long sung lament?

It's a love/hate relationship for the comic and his public. He needs us to love him, and he hates us for it. Even Seinfeld, who actually comes off in the film as a pretty decent guy, hints at this darker truth when he gets off a few jokes about having to impress people whose only right to judge professional comedy is the fact that they bought two drinks.

Someone who doesn't come off as such a decent guy in Comedian is up and coming comic Orny Adams. When we see the files full of jokes the puffy cheeked but wiry Adams has written, and the cramped apartment he's been living in while trying to "make it," I found myself admiring his determination. But when he complains to Jerry that his other friends are getting married and buying nice homes, he seems clueless when Seinfeld responds by telling him that comedy is a higher, or at least a more demanding calling. He wants his piece of the pie (and he wants it now!) and ignores Jerry's council that at 29 years of age, he's still has some dues to pay.

Crossing paths with Seinfeld and becoming a subplot of the film may be a big break for Adams, but I can't see how when he comes across as such a jerk, and frankly, a not so funny performer. (Lupus is funny? Gigantic cell phones? Oh, hilarious.) When another comic, who seems to genuinely admire Adam's act, advises him to just do his set, say thank you, and get off the stage, Orny's response is to call him a cocksucker.

Somehow we expect that sort of arrogance from highly successful people, but we don't really see it in the extended cameos from Seinfeld's fellow comedians Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Ray Romano and Jay Leno. They seem more like war buddies who relive the good times and the bad over a couple of beers. They're competitive, and needy, to be sure (Gary Shandling , in particular, needs all the love we can send his way--I think we should all light a candle for him), but they seem to enjoy the camaraderie they've found via their shared lives in comedy.

Shot in low light on digital video, the film, like comedy itself, is not always pretty, but it is largely compelling. At 100 minutes, it doesn't really have a chance to wear out its welcome, a feat Orny Adams manages in a fraction of the time.

posted <> 8:18 PM

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (PBS Frontline, September 2002) (Produced by Helen Whitney; written by Helen Whitney and Ron Rosenbaum)

Full of remarkable moments and fascinating comments and will make you cry. Yet there are gaps in the program which seem all too politic. The producers included no politically controversial statements. It's all right to curse God and Osama bin Laden on public television -- but God forbid you should curse a Bush or that anyone should point out, apropos the discussion of "evil" (illustrated with scary paintings of deformed-looking faces who didn't look anything like the nice evil people I know) that Americans have also on occasion rained hideous death and destruction upon innocent urban populations.

I'm not talking about the "collateral" deaths in Afghanistan, which are horrible but not intentional -- but didn't the producers speak to anybody who felt it necessary to acknowledge the sufferings and tested faiths of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The documentary includes testimony about the Holocaust and shows a pile of skulls from Cambodia, but omits an equally relevant part of history: the United States is the only country that has used atomic bombs to burn cities full of...people. When was it decided that this shouldn't be mentioned in a discussion of "evil" and Americans' notions of God "after" 9/11?

The show's success thus depended on not looking very hard at the questions it purported to be interested in. But I liked the grieving mother's story of an angel visiting her the night of September 11th, and telling her that her daughter was in heaven. I would like to hear more stories like that. They're comforting.

Postscript: I emailed a note along these lines to the PBS bulletin board discussion of the show. They did not post it, though they did publish some wild notes from some crazy-fucking Christians.


posted <> 2:59 AM

Monday, September 02, 2002

Trees. Mysterious creatures that stay out all night.
---Sylvia Townsend Warner

One Hour Photo (director, Mark Romanek)

An incurious and condescending portrait of a working-class loser (Robin William) as seen by winners (like Robin Williams). All art direction, not enough movie. Characterization is reduced to home-decor (Sears for the Robin Williams character vs. Crate and Barrel for the family he obsesses over). Generic script to match. Numerous plausibility problems, but my favorite is the discovery of snapshots of an adulterous interlude that are unreally perfectly posed, like the photo inserts in photograph frames, except that here the husband and strumpet are waggling tongues. The aggrieved wife and mother (Connie Nielsen) is never less than beautiful, kind and perfectly dressed and coiffed. In one scene she awaits her cuckholding husband in an earth-toned sweater and shawl, the sweater slipping artfully off one shoulder, for hours. Completing the fantasy, her 8-year old son is entirely unresistant to mother's enfolding arms. Spielbergian-derived materno-eroticism, my son grumped.

See instead: Chuck and Buck, a funny and original movie about an all-too-human stalker.


Minority Report (director, Stephen Spielberg)

More mindless art direction substituting for characters and script. Only the gadgets and office furnishings are sexy in this airless film noir, which resembles the Sharper Image catalog mated with a Pepperide Farm commercial. Asexual Tom Cruise's asexual ex-wife (a Julianne Moore clone) wears a lot of white and is a Serene Loving Presence, despite the disappearance and presumed murder of her small son. Spielberg's refusal of female sexuality and power is also pronounced in a crone's suddenly planting a wet one on Cruise. There's a racist shot of quarreling black tenement-dwellers seen from above in their low-class ways. Brutally loud, ugly and stupid, I think, was the right-on opinion of one reviewer.


Me, You and Them (Dir: Andrucha Waddington)

Gorgeously photographed, funny, wise and sexy. Regina Case, a fascinatingly unconventional beauty, plays a peasant who makes her own love and family life out of the masculine materials at hand, ultimately assembling a menage of three co-parents. The film shows the happiness that children bring to men, too, even when their paternal claims are a joke. From Brazil; the characters all sleep in hammocks.


posted <> 3:24 AM

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