Jan 14, 2008

Beyond the Multiplex

Certified Nurse-midwife Cara Muhlhahn attends the homebirth of Mayra and David Radzinski in "The Business Of Being Born"

by By Andrew O'Hehir

When I posted my lovingly crafted year-end article about the state of the indie-film business a couple of weeks ago, several of you wrote in -- in the loveliest possible way -- to point out that I was a mainstream media hack who had missed a major element of the story. Well, that may be true, but you know what? It's hard out here for a pimp.

Readers observed that the people in the movie biz whom I interviewed indulged in a lot of bellyaching about how "specialty films" are moving gradually but inevitably out of the theaters toward some not-yet-specified home-delivery mechanism. There was a lot of talk about IFC's move toward video-on-demand as its primary mode for distributing art-house films, but none of my interviewees even mentioned the more old-fashioned elephant in the room. "Have you heard about this revolutionary new service called Netflix?" one reader inquired. Hmm, I don't know; do I detect a note of sarcasm there?

This acerbic commentary points out a real phenomenon: Everybody in and around the film business knows that Netflix and its competitors have altered the behavior of film buffs, perhaps fundamentally. But most of us are so deluged with movie screenings and DVDs that we don't often use those services, so we don't experience the change at a personal level. (In addition to the mainstream rivals of Netflix, like Intelliflix and Blockbuster, let me nudge you toward Chicago's Facets Multi Media and San Francisco's GreenCine, probably the two best online sources for renting independent films, foreign films and art-house classics. Other faves? Let me know.)

Netflix already offers some indie films on an exclusive basis, before the DVDs have become generally available, and the company is also considering acquiring video-only distribution rights for films that have played the festival circuit without finding more conventional deals. But the question that's been hanging over Netflix and all other such services for several years is exactly how long a business model that combines the 21st century and the 19th century -- the Internet and the United States Postal Service -- can remain viable.

Last week came an announcement that, at least potentially, marks a major step away from that model. Netflix will partner with LG Electronics to develop a set-top box that will allow subscribers to stream movies straight from the Internet to their TV sets. There are lots of unanswered questions about this venture, from the price of the box -- LG may integrate it with a dual-format player that plays both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats -- to how much of Netflix's catalog will be available in digital form. (The company's current Internet streaming mechanism carries only 6,000 titles, less than 10 percent of the total available by postal mail.)

As the Reuters story on the LG deal observed, the movies-by-Internet market is "increasingly crowded and confusing." Apple TV has failed to catch on, despite that company's rabid fan base. The Vudu set-top box costs $400, and only offers about 5,000 movies. TiVo's partnership with Amazon has yet to gain much consumer traction. Still, the long-term picture is pretty clear even if the details are murky: Sooner or later, you'll be watching movies that have been piped into your house, somehow or other.

In the meantime, Netflix's supposedly antiquated business model works just fine, thank you very much. We've hit a post-New Year, pre-Sundance lull in the release calendar, while Oscar-hungry Indiewood productions like "Juno," "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" continue to pile up awards (and plenty of cash money too). All four of the new movies I'm covering this week may well fare much better as DVD rentals than they will in the theaters; these days, a limited, big-city art-house release is more like an "ancillary" to home video than the other way around.

In the case of Abby Epstein's documentary "The Business of Being Born" (which Rebecca Traister covered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival), Netflix is arguably the film's principal exhibitor. After screening in a few major cities this month, Epstein's button-pusher on the natural-childbirth and midwifery movements will be made available by Netflix "to women everywhere" in February, as the film's press kit puts it.

It only makes sense to reach an audience that largely consists of pregnant women (or would-be pregnant ones) in their living rooms. But with occasional exceptions on the order of "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Lives of Others" and "La Vie en Rose," the audience for foreign-language films has also gravitated from the cinema to the couch. So acclaimed festival pictures like Korean director Hong Sang-soo's intriguing comedy "Woman on the Beach" and Turkish director Reha Erdem's haunting "Times and Winds," both of which could have been modest art-house hits a generation ago, will sneak into a couple of theaters to be seen by a few hundred people, before (we hope) gradually finding a viewership on disc.

My ultimate underdog this week, though, is Ilya Chaiken's micro-budget feature "Liberty Kid," a terrifically engaging story about two friends on the mean streets of Brooklyn that does more, with fewer resources, to capture the spirit of post-9/11 New York than a dozen typical Hollywood morality fables. If Chaiken can get any kind of DVD deal for this movie, and the chance to make another one, I'm sure she'll be delighted.

Oh, and in other news, this is the last weekly installment of Beyond the Multiplex. Wait, hang on! It's even worse than you think: Starting next Thursday with my first report from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Beyond the Multiplex will become a daily feature on Salon (and yes, that's spelled B-L-O-G), covering all the latest indie releases along with interviews, DVD releases, box-office reports, news on upcoming films and more stuff we'll make up as we go along.

"The Business of Being Born": Fighting back against the maternity-industrial complex
Produced by talk-show host Ricki Lake as part of her personal campaign to spread the gospel of midwifery and natural childbirth, Abby Epstein's "The Business of Being Born" is a messy, didactic and propagandistic film whose very premise -- judging by the reader response when Salon covered it last year -- makes many people uncomfortable. (Watching Ricki Lake giving birth buck-naked in the bathtub of her New York apartment may make some people uncomfortable too, but that's their problem.)

I know very little about the history of American childbirth and how it became so medicalized relative to nearly every other country in the world, so I can't really evaluate "The Business of Being Born" on the basis of fairness or accuracy. Needless to say, I don't have to face the choices outlined by the film myself, so unlike some women who have chosen medically assisted hospital births, I'm not likely to feel defensive in the face of Lake and Epstein's assault. (For the record, my wife had a cesarean section in a New York hospital -- but she was carrying twins, one of them breech and the other transverse. Even the crunchiest natural-childbirth fanatic in the universe would have sent her to an obstetrician.)

But I don't think Lake and Epstein are pursuing fairness and accuracy, exactly; they're trying to drive home a simple argument that's both intuitive and logical, while battling enormous ingrained prejudice and the cumulative power of the medical establishment and the insurance industry. That argument is that entrusting childbirth to doctors and hospitals is a relatively recent idea in American social history, and not such a good one. Most women can and should deliver most babies outside the pharmaceutically driven production line of the maternity ward, with a midwife's assistance, either at home or in a hospital-affiliated birthing center.

This is clearly a controversial and, for many Americans, a counterintuitive idea. Epstein drives it home with a dual strategy, by showing us Lake and numerous other women giving birth at home, and by drawing in a series of experts to tell us that the United States is (sigh) virtually alone in its industrial approach to childbirth. Nearly all American babies are born in hospitals, yet we rank near the bottom of the list, among advanced nations, in infant and mother mortality. (Yes, the film addresses the fact that those statistics can be sliced and diced different ways: We need all those medical interventions because we have more high-risk women than European nations. We have more high-risk women because of our crappy lifestyles and our endemic poverty problem. Quite a defense, isn't it?)

So for part of the film Epstein is following New York midwife Cara Muhlhahn around town, in her eccentric hairdo and post-Goth get-ups, from one gloppy home birth to another. I can imagine that some viewers don't want to see this material quite so up close and personal, but speaking as a male human who has witnessed exactly two births in person (two minutes apart, and in an operating room), I found the home-birth scenes shattering, inspiring and prodigiously emotional. Then we meet an impressive series of OB/GYN's, medical researchers, midwives and anthropologists who explain how we wound up with a childbirth system that is more expensive and more dangerous than the rest of the world's. Good old Yankee ingenuity.

Epstein herself became pregnant while making the film, and her experience becomes an intriguing counterpoint to Lake's -- and a reminder that we should be appropriately grateful that all those doctors and hospitals exist. Midwives are not, after all, a bunch of self-taught Wiccans with towels and candles, but trained medical professionals who are prepared for emergencies and know their limitations. When Muhlhahn sees that Epstein has gone into labor weeks ahead of schedule (and that her baby is breech), she sends Epstein to the hospital without hesitation, and that turns out to be a very good decision.

Lake and Epstein are not in fact trying to stigmatize other women's choices about how and where to give birth. Instead, they're trying to introduce an entire universe of history and information that should inform those choices, and that the medical establishment has virtually erased from American memory. Whether the bizarre character of American healthcare overall can ever be changed is an open question, but no one, male or female, pregnant or childless, who sees "The Business of Being Born" will ever see the hospital maternity ward as a normal environment again.

"The Business of Being Born" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York. It opens Jan. 16 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, Jan. 18 at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, and Feb. 29 in Seattle. The DVD will be available for rent from Netflix in February, and for general sale in March.

"Woman on the Beach": A wistful comic romance from the Eric Rohmer of East Asia
As A.O. Scott observed in the New York Times two years ago, the South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo belongs to a growing category of international filmmaker: the accomplished master whose work has been shown all over the world, but remains almost unknown in the U.S. Korea alone offers an entire regiment of such directors: Sure, there's a tiny fan base that's obsessed with Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance" trilogy, and Bong Joon-ho's monster movie "The Host" was a modest art-house hit last year. But how many Americans have ever seen anything by such film-festival favorites as Kim Ki-duk or Lee Chang-dong (who made this year's Cannes sensation "Secret Sunshine," still without U.S. distribution) or Im Kwon-taek (director of 100 films, or so claims IMDB)?

I first saw Hong's dry, wry, difficult-to-capture comedy "Woman on the Beach" at the 2006 New York Film Festival, and only after revisiting it a second time do I feel confident enough to fit that description to it. Hong has been compared to Eric Rohmer, the French master of low-key, ordinary-life comedies, and if such shorthand comparisons are inherently unfair, this one fits pretty well. Certainly the rambling, episodic plot of "Woman on the Beach," which follows a group of discontented artistic types to an out-of-season resort on Korea's western coast, feels like something Rohmer would pursue. So also does the offhand, deceptively casual nature of the filmmaking, which partly veils a subtle and careful blend of humor, romantic loss and existential mystery.

A filmmaker universally referred to as "Director Kim" (Kim Joong-rae) drags his nerdy, sycophantic buddy Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo) along to the beach town, in hopes of breaking his writer's block. But Chang-wook brings along Moon-sook (the Korean TV starlet Ko Hyun-joung), an attractive young woman who may be his girlfriend and may not (their views on this question seem to differ). Director Kim is exactly the kind of narcissistic artist who sees this situation as a challenge, but his customary blend of rakish-shithead behavior yields a series of unpredictable consequences.

Against the gray, largely abandoned landscape of the beach town, Hong unfolds a tale that sometimes feels like "Jules and Jim," sometimes like "Vertigo" and sometimes like a showbiz satire. It's not easy to sympathize with Director Kim, who is entirely responsible for the romantic triangle's implosion and his own unhappiness, but then again I'm not sure Hong wants us to. Kim's going to get something out of the situation -- maybe a new girlfriend, maybe some much needed time to reflect on his own misdeeds, maybe a less crappy screenplay. Out in the audience, we've been treated to a marvelously acted and memorably atmospheric picture.

"Woman on the Beach" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other cities may follow. DVD release from New Yorker Films is forthcoming.

Fast forward: "Times and Winds" offers a haunting vision of rural Turkey; "Liberty Kid" follows George W. Bush's war into the streets of Brooklyn
Speaking of unknown directors, description fails me almost utterly when it comes to Turkish director Reha Erdem's picture "Times and Winds," which has wowed audiences at numerous film festivals and finally finds a tiny theatrical release this week. If I tell you that it's a lovely, lyrical film about children's lives in a remote Turkish village, with long contemplative shots of natural beauty, that sends you in one direction. If I haul out comparisons to art-house heavyweights like Abbas Kiarostami and Theo Angelopoulos, that may send you in another. Let's say that from the first frames of "Times and Winds" I felt completely captivated, and that Erdem's shots of curtains blowing in a window, or three men having an argument in a field, have a hypnotic power that's not easily summarized.

"Times and Winds" follows three children, aged around 12 or 13, as they begin to grasp elements of adult life. One hates his father, or believes he does, and schemes to kill him. One girl, after watching horses coupling in a field, has begun to grasp the horrible outlines of biological reality. Another boy is hopelessly enamored of his attractive young schoolteacher. Erdem's constructed reality feels authentic but timeless; the movie could be set yesterday or 40 years ago, although the clothing (and the near-total absence of technology) suggest the latter. I suspect that Erdem has a point to make about rural Turkish society, or more likely a complicated set of perspectives that would make sense if I understood it better. But "Times and Winds" is not a message movie. It wraps you in a world of discovery and heartbreak. (Opens Jan. 11 at Anthology Film Archives in New York and Jan. 25 at Facets Cinemathèque in Chicago, with more cities, and DVD release, to follow.)

There may have been two or three dozen American films that struggled to make sense of 9/11 and its aftermath, but none of them have done more with less than "Liberty Kid," the second feature from New York writer-director Ilya Chaiken (her first film, "Margarita Happy Hour," premiered at Sundance seven years ago). It's a simple story, engagingly told, wonderfully acted and shot with an eye for the beauty of the Big Apple's unglamorous outer-borough neighborhoods.

Odalis, aka Derrick (played by the tremendously likable Al Thompson), is a Dominican immigrant who sometimes passes for African-American, depending on prevailing conditions. Along with his best buddy Tico (Kareem Saviñon), Derrick loses his job slinging hot dogs at the Statue of Liberty after the 9/11 attacks, and the duo follow different paths through the crime-ridden streets of South Williamsburg.

Chaiken relies on a time-honored dramatic structure here, but I think that's the film's strength. Derrick is the reliable guy with dreams and aspirations, while Tico is the charming ladykiller with his eye on the here and now. One of them ends up in the military and the other in jail, but Chaiken is not trying to moralize, and the consequences and trajectories of both men's lives remain ambiguous. This terrific little indie may or may not propel its director and stars to bigger things, but it's yet another good, no-budget work from New York indie kingpin Larry Fessenden and his production company, Glass Eye Pix. Give that man a MacArthur fellowship? Or at least some damn money. (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York.)

Source: www.salon.com

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