Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) - directed by Tony Richardson, based on a story by Alan Sillitoe

( I was thinking recently about people's different motivations for working so hard at what they do. I suddenly wanted to watch a sports movie. I asked my boyfriend’s mother, Susan Glouberman - a psychoanalyst
who shares some of my movie tastes, if "Chariots of Fire" was worth seeing. She said no, but that "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" might be worth seeing. Most things “worth seeing” fall out of my mind pretty quickly but the words "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" proved to pulse in the brain like a Jenny Holzer truism repeating across Times Square - right up until I landed at the video store. I asked the video store employees if they had it. I explained that I didn’t know what kind of movie it was, who made it, or in what country, so I wasn’t sure where to look. They said it was a “Kitchen Sink drama. And I said, oh, ok. I immediately pictured someone eating their dinner over the kitchen sink because life is urgent and not easy and maybe because there is no kitchen table - but that there is value in "drama". These thoughts took me to the U.K. before I knew that we were there. )

Angry boy's working class father dies. His mother’s boyfriend moves in shortly after. The family receives a $500 pension from father’s no-good employer. The mother is briefly lifted from her own anger and hardship and buys new things for everyone. The angry boy secretly burns his share of the money out of loyalty?anger?disgust?. He engages in petty theft as a leisure activity and, later, he steals money from a bakery. He is caught and sent to a progressive boys' reform prison run by an upper class benevolent father figure. The angry boy shows some talent in long distance running. The benevolent father figure encourages the angry boy, tells the angry boy that maybe with the help of his talent and a little hard work, he could lift himself out of his current position in life. We are led to believe that the angry boy excels at running because of where he comes from - his genius has its origins in a family that has always had to run away from the people who run things.

The movie leads to the climax which is the beginning of a long distance race between the boys from the reform school and a group of private school boys. Right before the race, there is a pleasurable scene with the upper class jock kids on one side of a change room and the working class delinquents on the other. The upper class kids are polite and soft spoken, the working class kids rambunctious and charming. It is like seeing boys and girls meet for the first time on the dance floor after being separated by their different schools - charged and excited, filled with prejudice and curiosity.

As the race began, I wondered if the angry boy would win or lose. I thought about what needed to happen for the movie and it wasn't obvious to me. Because it is a long distance race, there is plenty of time before we know what makes this movie "worth seeing". What happens with this time is stylistically similar to the potential-suicide scene in "It’s a Wonderful Life" when Jimmy Stewart is standing on the bridge in the snow, trying to decide if he should kill himself or not. They both involve collaged bits of dialogue, from the first parts of the movies, over a man's pained face.

Some of this collaged movie-memory-dialogue in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" slows the angry boy down - some of it make him race ahead, leading the pack. You start to understand that it is not as though these movie-memory-dialogues are encouraging or discouraging - it is that, like Jimmy Stewart, he is making a decision. He is deciding if he should win or not. When we see this, we also remember how hard the decision is.

Sometimes, it is not good to win because "winning" implies you are partaking in someone else's game. Sometimes it is hard to leave the people you know behind and it is also hard to admit value to things that have been denied to you in the "loser" phase. Sometimes you are not fooled by the side of winning and its promised rewards, even while you are not fooled by the downsides of the world you are coming from. Sometimes it is really hard to win, even if you can.

Too bad for him, he has too much time to think.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Birdemic (2008) - written, directed and produced by James Nguyen

(My friend Amy C Lam sent me a link to a download of this movie. She was in The Netherlands when she sent it but I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. She said it was made with ten thousand dollars and was “all kinds of reality”. I watched about ten minutes on my computer, then downloaded it to my television where I watched the whole thing. I fast-forwarded through some of the initial driving scenes out of impatience. I fast-forwarded the Karaoke-esque dancing scene, and the making-out in their underwear scene out of discomfort. Once the digital and angry American eagles came, I didn’t fast-forward anything.)

Ok, so you only have ten thousand dollars and you’re going to make a movie. One way to go is the “Incredibly Resourceful and Innovative” route. Like, there’s Jean Cocteau’s "Orpheus" that employs a lot of Parisian eye trickery, the kind of no-money-lots-of-art special effects that convincingly show a lady from the "other side" walking out of a mirror (that's actually a pool) and Orpheus walking out of hell (hell being the film projection of an earlier take).

Another way to go is the “Think Big, Pay Very Little” method, acquiring absolutely all the things that a high budget movie has, but just have them be very low quality. If you go with this method, you might as well go all out and use one of the best movies of all time – like Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as a cinematic starting point (and point of comparison), and throw in a strong environmentalist message.

This is what that looks like:

There is a brown haired man. He is a bit stiff and can’t dance. We think maybe he is popular but not conceited, but for sure he doesn’t think only about sex like some men. He was in computer software developing, but then turned to sales. Today, he made his biggest sale. It was for one million dollars. He is feeling good. On the street he runs into a blond fashion model. They went to high school together but she doesn’t remember. She has to go – she is on her way to a fashion model audition. It looks like they’re in a really small town, so we wonder what kind of audition this is, but maybe they are in Los Angeles. She is a fashion model, but her mother would like her to have a back-up plan, like real-estate agent. The brunette and the blond go on a date. The date is like being at a wedding and listening to a small town fashion model and computer software salesman talk about what they want out of life. Sometimes we can see how interesting they are to each other because it is like the entire background is blurred out and the only sharp thing is them. The brunette goes back to work and thinks about how to do innovative green business. The brunette then goes home and buys solar panels for his house for nineteen thousand dollars. It turns out the blond’s best friend and the brunette’s best friend are also dating. No one is surprised by this, after all, it is a small world. They all go on a double date. For the double date they see “An Inconvenient Truth”. The best-friend couple have sex afterwards. They are always having sex. The brunette is introduced to the blond's mother. It is like we are at that wedding again. Then, there is another date, this one is out of town at the Art & Pumpkin Festival. It turns out that the brunette is not only interested in the blond’s looks and that the blond is not only interested in the brunette’s money. This is where we watch the man and the woman make out in their underpants.

After that happens, digital eagles start banging against their motel window. The blond and brunette wait there till it stops. Then they run to another motel room next to theirs where another man and woman stand. The tall man in this room happens to be wearing army fatigue pants and has a machine gun. The women smile friendly at each other. The brunette explains that they need help getting out of there cause the eagles are crazy and he can’t find his car keys. They all leave together in a van. After that, it gets interesting.

For example:
“I couldn’t handle fighting in Iraq anymore. Why can’t we just give peace a chance?”
“I have to go now, it sounds like a mountain lion is coming. You should go too”
“Are you saying global warming is causing the eagles to go crazy?” A: “I’m a scientist, I can’t speculate but.. (7 minute speech)…”.

I don’t know what was happening in the head of the person who made this. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be funny or if it’s supposed to be serious... or what. But besides my inability to comprehend the intentions of the director, and besides the fact that it’s kind of a horror movie, Birdemic somehow made me feel good. It’s also very relaxing, especially when the angry birds come. It’s a rare example of how the “Think Big, Pay Very Little” method can really make you contemplate why people make things. And that sometimes that method can even create meaning and give you a whole new kind of feeling.

The intentions of a director and the specific creative context of a movie's production have always been hard to puzzle out. And now, with the increasing accessibility of movie-making tools, the increasing plethora of moving images, and the ever multiplying moving-image-viewing-stations, it makes the "identifying a director's intentions and creative context game" a harder game to win. Seeing value or meaning in anything is sometimes rare – sometimes that is good enough.

If this movie was presented at a museum it should be looped on four different screens all playing at different stages of the movie. There, I think an audience would, for the most part, be drawn to contemplating the nature of what acting is, why people makes things, what normal is, what it means to be part of "reality", and the challenges and rewards of bringing politics into “entertainment”.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

At Five in the Afternoon (2003) - written and directed by Samira Makhmalbaf

(I watched Samira Makhmalbaf’s third feature length movie at home recently on my breaking-down television. Samira Makhmalbaf’s first feature, “The Apple”, is one of my favourites. It's set in Iran and is about twin sisters who are physically let out of the locked gate of their home for the first time in their eleven years by a calm and persistent social worker. The girls roam around the neighbourhood together like delighted aliens. The father who had kept them behind the gate is shown simply as a religious man with a blind wife who was doing what he thought was best. “At Five in the Afternoon” also involves two female characters who live with a religious father figure. The father here is also simply doing what he thinks is best. He is an old man and the girls are women. The father, again, wants to protect them, but he is running out of locations - struggling to find a place for them all where “God still lives”. There is no gate – no house and the woman are not prisoners. They live as refugees moving from “ruins” to “ruins” with a horse drawn cart in a devastated Afghanistan. Like “The Apple”, it is an incredibly pleasurable movie.)

Apart from the chores of finding food, water and shelter, the main character Nogreh stands most frequently at a back doorway between a religious meeting place and a city street. She slips her sky blue burqa behind her head like a superhero cape and replaces her modest shoes with well worn high heels and heads off to a school she secretly attends with girls who have less strict fathers than hers. At her school, there are “elections” to see which girl should be “president”. Nogreh has entered the race. She spends a great deal of the movie asking others and herself how change can happen in her country, how a woman like her could become president. She wants to see the speeches that successful presidential candidates in other countries wrote – “the speeches that made people vote for them”. Her questions are searching and practical, she is starting from the beginning.

There is one scene where Nogreh descends down an outdoor staircase with her high heels, her sky blue cape and sun umbrella. Behind her are ruins where her father rests. She stops ten steps above a French soldier standing alone at the bottom of the ruins. Nogreh’s friend, Poet, bikes up and begins to act as translator. The French soldier is told by Poet that Nogreh is Afghanistan’s future president. The French soldier immediately brings his body to attention and salutes Nogreh with sincere respect.

I understand the soldier, I understand that if you are in a foreign country (or even in your own neighborhood), it is often hard to know what is what. It looks like the French solider is both prepared to understand this is a game and prepared to understand that this is true. How could he possibly know for sure? It is hard even for the girl, whose narrative this is, to know what is possible. But he responds with conviction and respect. The soldier and Nogreh have entered into a situation that is either a game or a new beginning - none of us are sure which.

When Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players” in 1599, theatrical stages were in fewer numbers and in more collectively agreed upon locations than presently. Though teasing with “reality”, it was clearly a metaphor.

In 2010, the world is literally very often a stage – the stage part comes in and out of focus in random locations all around the world with the help of tiny video cameras and big, cheap ones. It is now more likely to be true that the sand box we are sitting in or the war zone we are negotiating can literally turn into a stage before you know it.

Shakespeare’s line is still an effective metaphor because though the world is often a stage, it is not always. And though sometimes we are pretending, we are not always. We know both things are possible, at the same time or alternatively, and depending on where one is standing. We can see the metaphor and/or the literal, the play fighting and/or the war, the posturing and/or the effective stabs at action.

There are some great movie makers who are smart about these co-existing perspectives: Agnes Varda, Charlie Kaufman, Ben Stiller with “Tropic Thunder". But Samira Makhmalbaf knows better than anyone how to make art while the world's random and occasionally painfully real theatrical stages coming in and out of focus. She is a genius at saying tangible and concrete things that shift freely between "the stage" and "the reality" - and at knowing how true to life this looks now.

Even woven into the heart of Samira Makhmalbaf's narrative is the hopeful and searching question - could these poetic metaphors of empowerment also be true? Her main character, Nogreh, asks herself: Am I playing or is this real? The answer, of course, is "Yes".