April 2011 Archives

Every small town is small in its own way. Inspired by Roger Ebert's review of Hoop Dreams, the brothers Turner (Bill and Ross) began documenting everything they could in their home town, Sidney, Ohio, zip code 45365.

We see moments collected over a seven-month period. A guy whose cable isn't working calls a cop, who with infinite patience suggests they call the cable company; later the same - or perhaps another - cop promises the man he's just arrested that he'll send someone by their house to tell his wife what's happened. A couple individually and nervously practice their vows while putting on their wedding clothes. A mother berates her son about the $50 missing from her purse. The high school football team prepares for the season and then the game. There is an election: the local judge records his endorsement tagline for his ads; campaigners go door to door and discuss with residents where to put their posters. A pair of older men discuss what to do about a bunch of bats and then fall to talking about the use of guano for growing marijuana. "You ever try it?" one asks, and then looks at the camera with a grin.

That's actually one of only two moments in the film where anyone seemed conscious of the camera. There is trick-or-treating. A car makes circles in pristine parking lot snow. A young father reads a book about ducks to his toddler. "Daddy duck," she says, pointing. And then, making a connection, snuggles into his arms. "Hi, Daddy." A cop talks about the lack of parenting skills that leads to a cycle of arrests: he's now arresting the children of the 25 to 30-year-old adults he was arresting ten to 15 years ago when he came to town. "For the same crimes," he adds. The brothers culled all these moments out of 500 hours of footage over a year of editing that saw them toss the narrative structure they first thought of and focus instead on the collection of clips Bill Turner assembled into a folder labeled "Things I like".

We never find out who won the game.

In folk music circles there are always arguments about what makes a new song a folk song. One thing is a connection to a specific place and way of life; another is a focus on the lives of others. 45365 is a folk movie.

Unfortunately, unless you can get a Netflix subscription so you can watch it streaming, you can't see this movie commercially: the brothers can't afford the $30,000 they estimate it would take to clear the rights to the music they've captured and used. "It's a black market movie." Even more like folk music, then.

I have a particular discomfort with fiction about real people, historical or living. This extends as far as biopics, and it definitely includes Me and Orson Welles (2008), in which a 17-year-old kid (Zac Efron) gets drafted to play Lucius in Welles' famous 1937 production of Julius Caesar, the moment at which Welles became a star. The Welles in this movie is a tyrannical megalomaniac with a habit of bedding the actresses. How much of this is a fair portrayal is unclear: the movie is based on a novel. In the post-screening panel, the director, Richard Linklater, said that the kid was based on a real person, Arthur Anderson, who was 14 when he appeared in Caesar, and who went on to have a lengthy (and continuing) radio career. He did not, like the kid in the movie, get fired: he played his role for the run of the show.

That's fair enough: the real person's name was not used for the movie. What I find more difficult is the casual way that Sonja (Claire Danes) assumes that Welles has the right to demand a sexual relationship at his convenience (the Welles character has a pregnant wife and is already sleeping with at least a couple of the actresses in the show). Granted, attitudes about sexual harassment were different then, but requiring the favors of his ambitious non-actress employee ("He'll introduce me to David O. Selznick," she explains) makes him much sleazier. Which is fair enough if that's actually true; but not if it's inaccurate. It's the uncertainty that I dislike so much about the use of historical figures in fiction: I feel obliged to go do as much research as the authors did to make sure I remember the facts and not the fantasy.


I have liked so many of the films, both high-profile and lesser lights, that Norman Jewison has made in his varied career - most especially ...And Justice for All and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, but also Agnes of God, Best Friends, and Moonstruck. Only You, which I saw for the first time tonight, is one I missed. There are many good things in it, most notably Robert Downey's character's intensity and machinations and Bonnie Hunt's character, who gets all the best lines ("If I had this dress, I'd give it to someone," she says, seeing Tomei's prospective mother-in-law's wedding dress). There is only just the slightest hint of stereotyping of Italians in the ending (which I think was unavoidable, as it was needed for bookending; Jewison had been living in - and, he said in the panel afterwards, was in love with - Italy at the time). I guess it's just me, but I hate those oft-repeated scene of everyone on-screen clapping when the lead couple finally come together. This one is mercifully short.

Is Only You a "chick flick" (as offensive as that term is), the panelists asked? Jewison calls it a romantic fantasy that has the kind of innocence that the movies he directed with Doris Day (yes, his career is long enough to include The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers). I think one reason the movie ought to appeal equally to both genders is that once Downey's character appears to grasp hold of the situation the plotting has the twists and turns of a mystery novel.

One of the people I met here this week said that Hollywood should be prohibited from making romantic comedies for ten years until they remember how to do it. There's a lot to be said for this: I'm hard pressed to think of a good romantic comedy produced in the last ten years. Jewison is old enough to remember how the good ones are done; he says we forgive Downey's character his deceptions because we know he's in love with the girl. I think also that the complications that beset Peter as a result of his own muddled attempts to hold onto the best thing that's ever happened to him help us root for him to win out in the end (even though we know this is a Hollywood movie, and he is the star who has to win). The desire for romance and passion, one of the audience members said, is equally true of both males and females in this movie.


In her current book, Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby writes about the plight of the poor and old in America: as she says, the largely invisible poor and old. The eponymous hero of Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D isn't entirely invisible. When we first see him, he is sneaking food to his dog at a center providing free meals and trying to sell a fine-quality watch to fellow elderly diners. A retired and dignified former civil servant with a 30-year career behind him, he puts on a good show, but everyone he knows shies away from the desperation they can smell as he bargains over selling his possessions to pay his landlady's bill and finds that he can't quite bring himself to beg on the streets. His ally in trying to survive his landlady's ever-increasing determination to throw him out is the maid, Maria, who is pregnant by a soldier - the one from Florence, or maybe the one from Naples. She secretly loans him a thermometer and visits him when he summons an ambulance and asks to be taken to the hospital. She even promises to take care of his dog.

He has belongings but no space he can really call his own. His landlady rents out his room for 1,000 lira an hour to adulterous couples while he's out, and even Maria strolls in without knocking to wave to her soldier out the window.

But the post-movie panel was all about the dog, Flike (as the subtitles spelled it), Umberto's constant companion is both his comfort and his trap: he can't trust anyone else to care for Flike, everywhere he needs to go refuses to let the dog in, he can't give the dog away, and, in the film's most overtly dramatic sequence, the dog won't let him commit suicide. Like Linda at the end of Natural Selection, he closes out the film with a moment of snatched happiness despite being doomed.

My Dog Tulip (2009), on the other hand, is based on a memoir written by the English author J.R. Ackerley (voiced by Christopher Plummer) about the 15 happiest years of his life, the years in which he was possessed by an Alsatian named Tulip. The movie is beautifully hand-drawn and painted by dog owners Paul and Sandra Fierlinger (Paul spent the panel discussion after Umberto D explaining that Umberto and his dog looked so wrong together that he couldn't get emotionally involved in the film). It is also both a warm and funny story (think a British, dignified version of , if Marley were a girl and his owner deeply concerned to make sure he married and reproduced) and a wicked commentary on English middle-class attitudes. And these persist: you could easily remake the movie and set it in modern-day Britain, replacing Tulip with a child.

The heroine of
Tiny Furniture (2010) , Aura (Lena Dunham) does not have many happy moments. She is, like Ben in The Graduate (1967), newly home after graduating from college, and, like Ben, has little idea of what to do next. She studied film theory, and frets that she is not qualified for anything. There is a plan she has been letting slide: she is supposed to move into an apartment with a friend who will shortly be arriving in Manhattan, not a place the uncertain can usually afford to live.

In the meantime, she is living back home, where her successful artist mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), and younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), have formed a unit while she was gone and seem to resent her as an interloper. Nothing seems to be going right and, again like Ben, she passively lets other people's desires make choices for her. She meets a couple of dedicatedly exploitative men, takes a badly paid, boring job because a friend makes that an easy path, and waits for her life's path to present itself. By the end of the movie, though she hasn't yet glimpsed that path, she's beginning to find her first stirrings of adulthood. If Jane Austen were alive now and a young filmmaker, this might be the movie she'd make - the detailed miniature painting on ivory is a fitting description.


Two movies.

First up, the most recently restored version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) with footage found in Argentina that had been thought lost and live scoring from the Alloy Orchestra. Metropolis has always been on my list of movies to see, but this was my first viewing. From the descriptions of the many ways it's been hacked about, I'm glad I waited. The movie is so complex and multi-layered that it's easy to see how you could excise large chunks of it and come up with vastly different genres of film - Biblical epic, science fiction, romance, action. What's astonishing is to realize that although there have been many significant advances and changes to the technology of film, the art of film has not advanced much at all. Fritz Lang's imagery has been borrowed by all sorts of people for all sorts of films. On this first pass, I found myself noting Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, 1936), Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, 1997), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, 1982), Alex Proyas (Dark City, 1998), Leni Riefenstahl, and various iterations of Frankenstein.

Many others have written about the astonishing quality of the imagery; besides that what really startled me was the quality of the acting - you are never in doubt for a second, just from watching Brigitte Helm's body movements, whether you are watching the real Maria or the machine simulacrum. We tend not to associate silent films with subtly nuanced acting.

I would actually like to see the movie again with the original or close-to-original score. As much as everyone loves the Alloy Orchestra and as perfectly matched as their score seemed to be, I'd like to hear what Lang heard.

Second, a late addition to the festival after Ebert saw it at SXSW: Natural Selection (2011). Bobbie Pickering's first movie tells the story of Linda (Rachael Harris), wife of a devoutly Christian man (John Diehl) who believes 1) that sex is only to be allowed for the purpose of procreation and 2) that Linda is unable to bear children. No matter what her wishes are in the matter, desires for sex must be subsumed into prayer. And then he has a stroke and Linda learns that for the length of their marriage he has been donating sperm at a clinic once a week. Well, you can see the logic: it's for the purpose of procreating. Armed with that revelation and with a request from her husband to locate the result of those donations, a son, Linda sets off on her own road movie, which hits (as Pickering said in the post-screening panel) the usual tropes of road movies: the car is always gone, the oddly assorted pair always visit an assortment of seedy motels and diners.

But the movie is also the story of the other participant in this road trip, a drug dealer who makes one of the grand cinema entrances, falling out of the collecting bag attached to a giant riding lawnmower in a triumphant escape from prison. He is more or less the exact opposite of the husband she's trying to please: young, profane, potent, and angry.

The movie is enormous fun and creates wonderfully detailed characters, and in the face of that it seems churlish to complain about the ending. I'm going to anyway (SPOILER) since it's in part because the characters are so fully realized that I find the ending frustrating. I'm glad that faced with two bad choices Linda takes neither of them. But this only raises the question: what is she going to do now? What kind of life is this woman, who is not shown as having any work experience and whose personal situation could hardly be worse, going to be able to make for herself? All the other characters seem to have their paths marked out for them, sad and rigid though those may be. But the 1970s feminist in me wonders whether this male screenwriter understood quite how much his heroine is going to pay for her glorious moment of birth into freedom. Time for a sequel?


Long before it was fashionable, my parents were in their 40s (41 and 47, to be precise) when I was born. My father's parents were long dead by then; I didn't even meet many of his siblings. My mother's father lived in Switzerland, and I only met him once, when I was eight years old. My only memory of him is really his sitting in a chair, looking at me, and saying, "Your dolly has a dirty face." In fact, the doll's face was just made of dark carved wood. My mother's mother was therefore the only grandparent I had much contact with. She lived nearby in a retirement home for Swiss people, then later, when her dementia got to be too much for them to handle, in a nursing home slightly more distant. She died when I was 13. My only real memory of her is her having dinner with us sometimes and playing checkers, where she played by European instead of American rules and I thought she was cheating. Or maybe she had simply forgotten rules and made up new ones; I don't remember the detail.

Anyway. It's only in the last few years that I've thought to ask my brother, who knows everything, a little more about these folks.

My maternal grandfather, I've always known, was a vaudeville artist. He trained dogs to perform scenes from plays, and somewhere in the family there are books of photographs of the dogs wearing costumes and even shoes (getting them to wear shoes was apparently his claim to fame and skill). It sounds dreadful now, but I imagine at the time it was pretty amazing entertainment. My mother toured with him for a while before she got married, and always said how much she hated the experience despite meeting other Vaudevillians of the time such as Milton Berle; she told me she'd held "Baby" Rose Marie in her lap. I think I was more impressed with that than Mother was, since Rose Marie was a favorite of mine on the Dick Van Dyke Show (not for her constant efforts to meet men but for her wit, her egalitarian relationship with the other writers, and the fact that (unlike the ghastly Laura Petrie) she had an interesting job and was clearly highly skilled at it.

On my wall, I have a map of all the places I played in the US and elsewhere as a folksinger; this week my brother sent me a PDF of a typewritten list my grandfather kept of all his world travels between 1887 and 1950 (with times outfor the wars). I can imagine the pride with which he kept it: he toured all over Europe, including the Folies Bergere, the US, and even Australia. His tours in 1915 and 1916 include San Francisco, LA, Indianapolis, Winnipeg, Vancouver - all places I played myself - plus a side trip to Auckland. It was hard enough doing all that by car and plane; imagine doing it by boat and much slower land transit. My mother was, I think, rather ashamed of him and his profession; she always took my involvement in "show business" (ie, *folksinging*!) as a personal attack.

My other grandfather turns out to have been a butcher in New York City. Learning this made me absurdly happy: it's a good, honest profession.

So: this is what makes a middle-class folksinger. Now we know.


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