Torchwood star John Barrowman has known he was gay since he was nine. But was he born that way or did his upbringing have something to do with it? Here, he explains why he set out to try to solve this mystery, for the BBC One show The Making of Me.
I was in the closet for three hours once in 1972. It was dark, uncomfortable, and really cramped. Plus, I was convinced I wasn't alone (a crumpled jacket lurking in the corner looked pretty dangerous). I was five and my brother, Andrew, then 10, and my sister, Carole, 13, had shoved me into the coat closet because, well, really for absolutely no good reason. I mean what baby brother has ever annoyed his siblings to the point of needing to be locked up or tied down?
This story still gets a laugh from my nieces and nephews. Depending on who's doing the telling, Uncle John was either locked up for 30 fleeting minutes or for three long, tortuous, oxygen-starved hours. As simple as the story is I think it's an apt metaphor for the way I've chosen to live my life - openly, honestly, with no regrets. And, whenever I can, I try to confront the monsters in the dark. As my favourite Jerry Herman song proclaims: "There's no return and no deposit. One life. So open up your closet."
My sexuality has never been deliberately hidden. I'm in a committed relationship with the love of my life, Scott Gill, and he is as much a part of the family as my sister's husband, Kevin, and my brother's wife, Dot. However, just because I'm comfortable with my sexuality doesn't mean that I'm not curious about it and that's one of the reasons I agreed to take this journey to discover the making of me.
I remember vividly when I first realised I was gay. I was nine and a few of my friends were looking at some mild porn in the playground during recess. While they were ogling the well-endowed female models, I couldn't take my eyes off the male members in the shot.
Growing up in the Barrowman household, conversations about sexuality were never taboo. Over the years, we've talked about many of the theories that may explain what makes a person gay. In fact, it's always been a bit of a joke in our family that my dad was responsible - he frequently dressed me up as a girl. In fact, he has some cross-dressing in his own past. He once dressed up as a tarty neighbour, pretended to crash his own party, and proceeded to flirt with the men in the room- all with my mum playing along for the laughs.
Nature or nurture?
The show actually gave me an opportunity to discover whether or not I had ancestors who were gay because years ago if you were in the closet you were so far in the closet you were in the house next door.
During the filming of the programme, I not only revisited my childhood, I was also subjected to a battery of psychological and physical tests, everything from comparing my DNA to that of my straight brother, Andrew's, to watching my brain light up like a fireworks display in response to certain erotic stimuli.
I've always been convinced I was born gay (and am happy that way). But over the years there are plenty of people who have argued the opposite - and some still do today. I really wanted to meet people like this, and the film gave me a chance to do so. In the unresolved argument about whether it is nature of nurture that makes us gay or straight, I was hoping for affirmation that nature decides. The risk I took in filming was that it would be disproved.
But in the end neither happened as the tests didn't provide that clarity. I learned that science has yet to find a fool-proof and definitive genetic test for gayness - at least in my case.
Yet I did find something unexpected and different. The latest science is concentrating on a whole new area of potential causality that I hadn't thought about at all. It's not genes, but it is biological, looking at hormonal effects in the womb.
Other psychological and physical tests told me more about my sexuality. Like whether I had any latent attraction to women at all. That one really caught me by surprise - at least for a moment. And in word association tests, men tend to be more factual and literal. But women and gay men tend to be much more descriptive and eloquent. I'm glad to say that was true for me as well.
Another test involved looking at moving images of different combinations of men and women. I had to press buttons to signal my reaction while lying in an MRI scanner which also measured my reaction so I couldn't lie.
I'm proud to say that in some of the tests I was totally off the scale.
So participating in this programme was exciting and provocative, but in the end, taking the personal risk to discover what makes me gay was worth it because on a daily basis I get letters from young men and women who are feeling the brunt of our culture's homophobia. If exploring this issue can bring comfort to some of these young people then I think the programme will have done a really wonderful thing.
Written by John Barrowman and Carole E Barrowman
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The only thing I'd like to discover about John Barrowman is why he talks with an American accent except when he's in Scotland - what is that about? Its ridiculous and patronising and I'd like to know why he does it?
Lisa G, Falkirk
Good for John. I think it's high time people accept others for who they are and not who they want them to be.
Jenny, Denver, Colorado
Much as I find John Barrowman hugely entertaining and genuinely I do, may I suggest that he is on TV far too much and is running the risk of over exposure. With regard to being out of the closet - he is now so far out that he must surely find it difficult to even see without the aid of a strong pair of binoculars. That said - I'll be there 9pm, BBC1.
Tim Holder, London
Many congratulations to the BBC for airing this programme, the subject matter of which is smart, dangerous, timely and strongly political. Would that it were compulsory viewing at the Lambeth conference...
Kathryn Whitney, Oxford
Can we have a John Barrowman amnesty? He's never off the tv and I'm not sure anyone really cares which side he plays for.
Gary P, West London
I'm glad there are people like him in the public eye that don't necessarily conform to stereotypes and help promote understanding and acceptance of people that don't necessarily fit to what society tells us in normal. And not just homophobia, there's other things that need combating and every single person that stands up against an issue close to them also stands up to all the issues!
Angel Cutsforth, Reading, England
What an amazing family John Barrowman's is. Sadly I don't think all families are as supportive about their children/brothers, sisters etc. being gay. I will look forward to watching this programme this evening.
Celia Proud, Oxford
Typical gay man, using his sexuality to boost his career. Lucky for some, my boss is female which means I can't follow suit.
Angel, Coventry, UK
I don't think that gayness has one simple cause. Rather, like intelligence, it is a subtle interaction of genetic inheritance, neonatal & juvenile development along with environmental factors (e.g. disease, schooling) and upbringing. All of these interplay to make a person more or less likely to be gay in a statistical sense. Nature, Nurture, Personal Choice: Some people want it to be one or the other or a combination to justify their own circumstances or beliefs. At the end it is natural: animals show homosexual tendencies. We should all get used to it. We have enough evidence that homosexuality has been part of humanity for thousands of years and we aren't going to change any time soon.
Sue, Staines, UK
It's really refreshing that the BBC is exploring this issue. So many narrow minded people today just believe blindly that gay is wrong just because that's what they've been told by their parents of friends. Very similar to religion, really - you believe something just because you couldn't be bothered to think about it. Gay people don't go about beating up straight people, yet straights who do so to gays don't think they're doing anything wrong (yet themselves indulge in back-slapping, hugging and touching during footie matches - go figure). Live and let live. In this day and age people really need to wake up and stop hating so much before finding out facts.
Bob, Oxford, UK
I am interested in why the BBC seems preoccupied with homosexuality or to be more precise it's promotion. Is it because according to Andrew Marr the BBC is disproportionately overrepresented by gays? And certainly in positions of influence to promote the gay agenda?
Dave Stevens, reading. UK
This sounds like a great project and it is my hope that it will be shown in Canada at some point. I recently interviewed your Torchwood romantic counterpart (Gareth David-Lloyd) and was pleased to note how he didn't over-react to his character's bisexuality nor did he feel the need to loudly declare his own heterosexuality, as so many other straight actors have. "The Making of Me" will hopefully put a dent in the homophobia and self-loathing.
Kristine Maitland, Toronto, Canada
Jul 25, 2008
Torchwood star John Barrowman has known he was gay since he was nine. But was he born that way or did his upbringing have something to do with it? Here, he explains why he set out to try to solve this mystery, for the BBC One show The Making of Me.
Author JK Rowling has revealed her "real regret" that her mother died without knowing about Harry Potter.
Best-selling author JK Rowling has spoken of her regret that she never told her mother about her world-famous creation, Harry Potter.
She began work on her tales of the apprentice wizard six months before her mother Anne, who had multiple sclerosis, died at the age of 45.
Rowling's comments came in a BBC Scotland programme about the degenerative disease.
The writer expressed frustration about a lack of funding for MS research.
Recalling her mother, the Edinburgh-based author said: "I started writing Harry six months before she died. That's obviously a real regret, because I never told her I was even writing it.
"She never knew anything about Harry Potter at all."
Speaking of her pain at her mother's gradual decline before her death in 1990, Rowling said: "When I left home, she was walking unaided. By the time I graduated, she was in a wheelchair and in the house she needed a walking frame.
"It was awful to watch."
Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels have been transformed into a globally successful film series, said her mother had shown marked signs of the illness for six or seven years before she was diagnosed.
A numbness in her right arm had spread over half her torso in a year.
In 2006, multi-millionaire Rowling made a major cash donation towards a multiple sclerosis research centre at Edinburgh University to help find a cure.
She has now hit out at a perceived general lack of funding for, and interest in the condition, which affects about one in every 500 people in Scotland.
"It's a Cinderella of illnesses, you hear this all the time, because it's under-funded, because it's ignored," she said.
"I think it's possibly common to a lot of neurological conditions. It just seems to be an area that has not seemed very sexy for funding."
Rowling, patron of the Multiple Sclerosis Society Scotland, added: "People get diagnosed and sent home. It's a frustration to those of us whose family members do have MS that so little is being done, because it is a life-altering condition and a lot can be done now, so why isn't that happening?"
BBC Movie News
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is in final talks to star in director Tim Burton's Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, according to a report.
The 18-year-old is set to land the role after a long search for the title character, the Hollywood Reporter says.
The actress started out in Australian TV drama All Saints and stars in US series In Treatment.
She also appears alongside Daniel Craig in war drama Defiance, due out later in the year.
Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy novel will use a mixture of live action and animation and will be made in 3D.
Filming is due to begin in November, the Hollywood Reporter said.
Wasikowska has just finished filming her role as a young fan of aviator Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair's biopic Amelia, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere.
Burton's previous projects include musicals Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Jul 23, 2008
IN the crime annals of popular culture, The Godfather remains capo di tutti capi.
Many have imitated the 1972 film but few have come close to matching Francis Ford Coppola's Academy award-winning masterwork - no matter what contemporary critics contend, says Gianni Russo.
"The Sopranos to me was so low-class it's ridiculous," said the man who played Carol Rizzi in The Godfather. "To be operating a family out of the Bada Bing strip club, I mean, come on."
Goodfellas came close and Donnie Brasco was brilliant but one Mafia film tops them all, he argued with some confidence. And Russo is more than happy about that. "It's amazing, it's been a 37-year career on one film, even though I made 43 others," he said.
The Godfather's status will be reassessed tonight at Sydney's State Theatre at the world premiere screening of a newly re-mastered and restored print. If that weren't an enticing enough prospect, the film will be accompanied by a 65-piece orchestra, primarily made up of members of the Western Australia Philharmonic and conducted by expat composer Ashley Irwin.
"It sounds terrific and the theatre's glorious of course," said the Sydneysider, now one of Hollywood's most prolific arrangers.
He spent 18 months orchestrating The Godfather videogame in 2004 with additional music written to add to that famous score. He was the obvious choice to lead the live performances of what will be a number of global black tie premieres ahead of the remastered trilogy's release on DVD in September.
His work includes arranging the Academy Awards, American Idol and many films. But none in his homeland. "No, it's really sad Australian films don't use orchestrations because it adds great gloss to a production," Irwin said. "And synthesisers always sound like synthesisers.
"For me to come home and do it means there's more pressure than a New York or London premiere. I care about it more than if I was doing it in LA."
Russo, who will attend tonight's premiere with his on-screen partner, Talia Shire, said Coppola had not made any changes to the film other than visually, although he hoped a "horrendous miss I reacted to" in the fight scene had been amended. But he's content if the restoration doesn't change a thing.
"It would be like changing the Mona Lisa's smile," he said. "It's been a privilege and it continues to go on."
posted by udin di Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Jul 20, 2008
There have been countless versions of Batman, from brooding crusader to gadget-loving detective. How does "The Dark Knight" measure up?
There's no such thing as a "definitive version" of Batman in comics, movies or anywhere else. He's a corporate property and a cash cow, so there are a few things that are set in stone about him: the cape, the urban setting, the millionaire-playboy alter ego. Beyond those premises, there are as many interpretations of Batman as there have been creators who've worked on his stories -- which makes the question of whether Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" is "faithful" to its source beside the point. Still, Nolan has dropped the ball on one of the most compelling ideas comic books have established about Gotham City's most famous resident: that his heroism doesn't come from his batarangs and right hook, but from his magnificent, brooding mind.
In the nearly 70 years since artist Bob Kane created Batman with writer Bill Finger, there have been thousands of comics about the character, and innumerable wildly different takes on him -- all of them exactly as "valid" as they are good. Well over a hundred collections of "Batman" comics are currently in print. Pull one of them off a shelf, and you might see Batman as the cheerful, gadget-happy detective that Finger established in the early years; as the passionate Byronic hero of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' collaborations; as the half-demonic bruiser Jim Aparo used to draw (as Chris Sims puts it, "Every time Jim Aparo drew Batman hitting someone, it looked like -- at the very least -- they would never walk again"); as the art deco/pulp hybrid of the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers era; as the rippling creature of the shadows Don Newton drew in the late '70s and early '80s; as the stoic martinet who appeared in J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen's "Justice League"; as the tormented father figure of recent years. (The ingenious premise of Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel's "Batman R.I.P.," currently being serialized in the comics, is that Batman's personal experience encompasses all of those stories, and that their cumulative stress is crushing him.)
For most of the past 20 years or so, the Batman seen in comics has been dominated by Frank Miller's conception of him: the self-doubting, relentlessly driven ideologue of "Batman Year One" who eventually becomes the pain-wracked one-man paramilitary force of "The Dark Knight Returns." "There are 50 different ways to do Batman and they all work," Miller said recently. "In fact, I've probably done about ten of them." The echoes of Miller's stories in "The Dark Knight" don't stop with its title (the movie also borrows a few riffs from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's "The Long Halloween"); the Miller idea that has stuck to the character most is that Bruce Wayne has made himself into a perfect person, physically and mentally, by sacrificing a lot of his humanity.
There's one crucial element of Batman's relationship to the Joker in "The Dark Knight" that's directly drawn from the comics -- and one that isn't, but really ought to be. The comic book Joker, once the goofy, practical-joke-obsessed villain that Cesar Romero played in the mid-'60s "Batman" TV show, has evolved into a much scarier avatar of chaos. He's a psychopath whose sole stable personality trait is his sadistic amusement at the pain and fear he inflicts, and a lunatic whose madness can curdle milk at 500 feet. That comes through magnificently in Nolan's movie: Heath Ledger's Joker lurches through every phrase he speaks, as if he's trying to extract the right words from his roiling mind and has to orient himself by the North Star of his cruelty. 1988's "The Killing Joke," a brief, savagely cruel Batman tale by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland that has recently been reprinted as a fancy hardcover, crystallized the modern conception of the character, as well as the idea that Batman and the Joker are an inseparable dyad -- that they complete each other, and that their struggle can never end, because neither one can kill the other.
The modern idea about Batman that's most glaringly missing from "The Dark Knight," though, is that he himself is mad, one way or another. Batman's enemies aren't simply criminals: They're madmen, inmates of an insane asylum rather than an ordinary jail, and he's functionally indistinguishable from them in a lot of ways. (Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's fascinating 1989 graphic novel "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth" explores that premise.) A rich man whose parents were murdered in front of him who responds to his grief by putting on a bat costume to beat up criminals? Arguably, he's totally insane -- or maybe he's "super-sane," a person whose mind has adapted to bizarre and painful circumstances in radical but very useful ways.
And it's Batman's mind that's at the core of the best stories about him. He's infinitely dangerous because he's infinitely clever: There's a sequence I still remember vividly from a decade-old Justice League story in which he holds off an invading alien fleet with nothing more than a box of matches and a brilliant plan. One disappointing thing about Nolan's interpretation is that his Batman is basically just a growling James Bond -- he relies on super-expensive gadgets and can beat down anyone in a fight, but any number of action-movie badasses can do that. We never see "The Dark Knight's" Batman doing anything particularly thoughtful, which is a hallmark of the comic book Batman. Not for nothing has he starred in a series called "Detective Comics" for close to 70 years.
There are also a couple of aspects of Batman comics that are impossible to capture in a live-action film -- mostly because a movie's images always have to carry the massive burden of believability, and the fact that comics are drawn gives them a lot more latitude for visual impressionism. (For that matter, the "sound design" in the comics is considerably more effective: Batman's guttural hiss is much scarier on the page, where readers can only hear it in their own minds, than coming from Christian Bale's all-too-human larynx.) In "The Dark Knight," Gotham City is solid and looming, imposing and full like a slightly creepier version of Chicago or New York. In the best Batman comics, it's practically a character itself: an old-money beauty fallen into hopeless decay (imagine what might have happened if New York actually had dropped dead when Gerald Ford told it to), a maze of alleys and gargoyles and disintegrating, mossed-over remnants of splendor.
That version of Gotham is a bit more in evidence in the other Batman movie released this month: "Gotham Knight," a direct-to-DVD animated feature. Actually, it's not quite a feature, but half a dozen vaguely linked vignettes created by Japanese and Korean animation studios in an anime style; their scripts were written by Americans with connections to Nolan's movies and "Batman" comics. The stories involve a few more familiar supporting characters from the comics than "The Dark Knight," most notably detective Crispus Allen, one of the stars of Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's excellent "Gotham Central" comics; detective Anna Ramirez, who appears in both the animated and the live-action movie, bears a very strong resemblance to "Gotham Central's" detective Renee Montoya.
"Gotham Knight" is, frankly, nowhere near as good as "The Dark Knight" -- there's nothing as sharp and speedy as Nolan's dazzling opening bank-heist sequence, and its pace and line readings are slapdash in a familiar low-budget-cartoon way. But it doesn't have to pretend to be "real," and the spectacle and variety of its visual approaches to Batman and his surroundings are a welcome contrast to the gray bombast of the live-action movie. Its first episode lays out the premise of the project in miniature: A group of kids describe their encounters with Batman, and their explanations of him have almost nothing in common. He's a half-imaginary shadow, dissolving into smoke; he's a transforming robot with an arsenal of mechanical weapons; he's a guy in a bat suit, frail and bleeding. The point is that they're all sort of true, and the fact that the various segments of the film all look different doesn't mean they contradict one another.
And although they don't have the boundary-pushing illustrative verve of the best-looking "Batman" comics of recent years (Darwyn Cooke's cool, minimal "Ego," Paul Pope's ferociously blobby "Batman: Year One Hundred," J.H. Williams III's multilayered compositions in "The Black Glove"), they manage to fill in some of "The Dark Knight's" conceptual gaps. The most effective segment of "Gotham Knight" portrays Batman as a creature of almost pure intellect, whose body is effectively a liability: "Working Through Pain," written by Brian Azzarello (who collaborated with artist Eduardo Risso on the Batman book "Broken City"), is explicitly about how he manages his physical pain but is entirely in the thrall of his unending psychological torment. A little more of that might have granted some depth to Bale's stiff, guarded performance.
Still, there's something missing from both "Knights" that an action movie -- of any kind -- can scarcely provide: a space for contemplation. Comics can be read at any speed you choose, and the best ones are meant to be lingered over, image by image. "The Dark Knight" is a modern bullet train of a film: It grabs its viewers by the neck and shoulders and frog-marches them from scene to pyrotechnical IMAX scene. It's not surprising, then, that it focuses so little on what's going on behind that sturdy black mask. In a story about the relationship between madness and a detective's logic, which is what most of the best Batman stories are, the reader's own mind has to be given room to work, gazing at pictures and working out what happens in the space between panels.
Clockwise, from top left: images from "Time Bandits," "Iron Giant," "The Princess Bride," and "My Neighbor Totoro."
Back at the beginning of June, I posted a little note in my column asking for ideas for family videos that might be a little off the beaten track. I knew readers would be interested; it's a nearly universal question. What can parents, kids of various ages and other adults watch together during the inevitable summer-vacation downtime, without recycling the usual Disneyfied computer-animated spectacles or some product of the George Lucas universe?
I've got nothing against Buzz Lightyear or the Ewoks, honest. My 4-year-old twins, Nini and Desmond -- who inspired this idea, naturally enough -- are passionate followers of Lightning McQueen and his universe of vehicular pals. (Which is interesting, since they've seen the movie "Cars" exactly once.) But let's face it, I'm a pretentious art-film snob whose workday sometimes consists of watching obscure Slovenian and Japanese movies, and then reading other people's blog entries about Joseph Losey and Chantal Akerman. If I can't come up with something more interesting (not to mention less nauseating) than "The Little Mermaid" or "Pocahontas" on family movie night, I'm just about a worthless pop.
Some 250-odd responses later -- and they keep trickling in, weeks after the fact -- what we've got here is the first draft of a collaborative thingummy I call the Awesome Kids' Video Project. It's interactive! It's synergistic! It's me taking all the stuff you wrote and turning it into a list! I suspect it's the beginning or the middle of a conversation, rather than a finished product. What follows is a pseudo-democratic top 40 of not-quite-mainstream family videos that's largely drawn from reader suggestions, with a few picks I just decided to include because I thought they belonged.
A few words about what's not included. There are no Disney films made after the 1960s, and no major box-office hits of at least the last 30 years. There are quite a few family classics that could plausibly be included but got hardly any reader votes, probably because they seemed too obvious: "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "The Wizard of Oz," "It's a Wonderful Life." I've included a couple of foreign-language films that seem perfect for introducing the young 'uns to subtitles, but that almost demands its own category. There were a few things I might have included that just aren't available on DVD, like the Chuck Jones version of "Phantom Tollbooth" or the 1977 adaptation of Russell Hoban's "The Mouse and His Child."
I've got a runner-up list of movies that got votes but that I didn't include for a variety of reasons, which I'd be delighted to share in the letters or in a subsequent post. And Eric Beckman of the New York International Children's Film Festival has provided a thoughtful response to this list, and suggested some things he thinks I/we have overlooked. I agree with him about the Marx brothers, for instance (where's "Duck Soup" or "A Night at the Opera"?), and it's surprising, in retrospect, that hardly anyone voted for "A Hard Day's Night" or "Little Shop of Horrors." On the other hand, I can do without "Oliver!" (which actually did get votes). I wasn't much interested when it was a big deal 40 years ago, and I don't especially want to watch it now. So sue me!
Because my kids are young and just beginning to watch and understand a wide range of non-Lightning McQueen material, there's some inevitable excited-parent bias toward the younger end of the age spectrum, and not that much aimed at kids older than 11 or 12. (I would suggest "Smiles of a Summer Night," "The Wages of Fear" and "Throne of Blood" for that age group -- but that's just me.) Again, I suspect that movies for teens and tweens, poised so agonizingly on the precipice of adulthood, deserve their own category, but I've tucked in a few strong choices here and there.
As mentioned, I've included a few personal selections that got no votes whatever, but maybe those are balanced out by the ones I absolutely, definitely would not have chosen myself but that hordes of readers clearly love. "Mom and Dad Save the World" would be the champion in that category. And let's reserve a special prize for the bizarre outliers, suggestions so weird and inappropriate as to be seductive. I think the person who suggested "Last House on the Left" was kidding -- either that, or their kid is seriously advanced and/or sociopathic. Other what-the-hell ideas included "Top Gun," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Night of the Living Dead" and, perhaps most peculiar of all, "Rear Window." Hey, if your kids want to see a thriller about paranoia, emotional paralysis and sexual repression, no problem. My parents took me to see Hiroshi Inagaki's 207-minute samurai epic "Chushingura" when I was 9 or 10. I was enthralled, and understood maybe 10 percent of what was going on. Explains a lot, I guess.
THE UNDISPUTED CHAMPIONS
These four movies dominated the reader submissions -- so do they qualify as offbeat selections in any way? Controversy! Paradox! Debate! In any event, a great way to begin.
"The Iron Giant" Brad Bird's 1999 animation (based on a children's book by the late British poet Ted Hughes) about a boy's friendship with a giant alien robot has become a genre classic in less than a decade. Actually, the action sequences are a little intense for my twins, but most kids 6 and up, along with plenty of grown-ups, will enjoy it.
"My Neighbor Totoro" We got more votes for Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki's films than for any other single director, but the gentle, magical universe of "Totoro" will enchant viewers of virtually any age. "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" are also terrific choices, and children mature enough for the more morbid and mystical elements in "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" will love those too. All ages.
"The Princess Bride" This 1987 fantasy spoof from director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman was our overall top vote-getter. Which means you probably know about it already! Still, there are few films that work so well for both kids and adults, without patronizing or winking at either group. And what a cast! Some readers have noted that the Rodents of Unusual Size and torture sequences (however jokey they may be) can frighten younger viewers. Shall we say suitable for 7 and up?
"Time Bandits" Misanthropic crackpot that he is, Terry Gilliam lands two films on this list, with this rip-roaring, three-quarters deranged time-travel fantasy among the reader faves. I'll cautiously say that "Time Bandits" is great for 11-year-olds, will click with the most intrepid 8-year-olds, and is likely to terrify younger kids.
This category reflects democracy in action: I wouldn't have picked any of these on my own, most likely, and there are quite a few I've never seen. To my mind, these are evenly divided between delightful, unexpected choices and what-the-hell head-scratchers. But you viewers at home out there in Salon-reader-land sure loved them, so here they are.
"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" I'm of two minds here: I think Gilliam's insane fantasy-adventure, a box-office debacle in 1988 that permanently scorched his career, is one of those failures that's nearly a masterpiece. As a kids' movie? I guess that depends on you and your kids. So take my warning on "Time Bandits" and double it, be aware that the Robin Williams cameo as King of the Moon will scare the crap out of anybody, and have fun.
"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) Clearly for older kids (and parents) who will be thrilled rather than troubled by the cheerful and continuous violence, but this cornball Technicolor classic with Errol Flynn remains among the great swashbucklers, and has most of the thrills of "Rush Hour" without, you know, being "Rush Hour." Adult movie geeks will enjoy the hambone performances by Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, et al.
"Alice in Wonderland" (1949) I will argue that there is no perfect or even wholly satisfactory film or TV adaptation of Lewis Carroll's meta-literary masterpiece, although there have been almost two dozen efforts, dating back to 1903. We probably got more votes for the 1951 Disney version, a decent animated film that presents a thoroughly defanged form of Carroll's weirdness. So I'm overruling in favor of director Dallas Bower's intriguing Anglo-French version, an odd but effective mix of live action and puppetry with Carol Marsh in the title role. Of course, there's also the 1985 TV version with Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar; the 1999 version with Ben Kingsley, Whoopi Goldberg and Miranda Richardson; at least two black-and-white versions from the '30s; at least two made in Spanish and at least two silent films. Let the debate rage! And stay tuned: Tim Burton is planning to direct a new version for release in 2010.
"Born Free" I know I saw this multiple Oscar-winner about Kenyan game warden Joy Adamson and her lion cub Elsa, but I haven't thought about it much since. Still, I got a couple of insistent e-mails from people who said they were surprised to discover how well this 1966 film held up for contempo-family viewing. What would you say? Roughly 8 and up, with a few littler animal lovers in the mix?
"Bringing Up Baby" OK, I think there were two votes for Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball classic with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but what an awesome idea! One correspondent reports that his 10-year-old daughter talked like Hepburn for a week afterward, which is approximately the cutest thing I've ever heard.
"Labyrinth" I'm pretty sure all these votes came from adults who want an excuse to watch David Bowie's wild-haired Jareth the Goblin King match wits with Jennifer Connelly's teenage heroine in Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy adventure. And, hey, I've got no problem with that. Much too dark and scary for most little 'uns, I'd say, but a dynamite alternative to Potter and Shrek for the over-10 set.
"A Little Princess" (1995) Not the recent animated series or the 1930s Shirley Temple movie, but the Alfonso Cuarón film based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved children's book. I've never seen it and don't know the source material either, but this got so many enthusiastic votes it clearly belongs. Available in a DVD set with Agnieszka Holland's version of Burnett's "Secret Garden," listed below.
"Microcosmos" Entirely depends on how your kids feel about bugs -- some love 'em, some are petrified. Absolutely the greatest documentary about insect life ever made, and while there's a tremendous amount of sex and violence in "Microcosmos," all of it involves invertebrate life forms.
"Mom and Dad Save the World" Never seen it, and am kind of dubious. But there's a tremendous reservoir of affection out there for this goofball 1992 fantasy-adventure with Teri Garr and Jeffrey Jones as suburban parents who must battle Jon Lovitz's evil Emperor Spengo. Many people wrote to say, essentially, that this is an unbelievably dumb movie but they love it. Sounds like a flick for the 8-12 group, but I'm only guessing.
"The Point" Apparently, I'm just the wrong age for this Pop Art-flavored 1971 animated feature based on Harry Nilsson's fable about a round boy in a pointed world, since I'd never even heard of it. Ringo Starr narrates the home-video version (it was originally Dustin Hoffman), with original songs by Nilsson. I gather this is likely to work with all ages, but correct me if that's wrong.
This category comprises two phenomena: A) Readers voted for a movie that seems like a natural choice, and B) I just put something on the list because it damn well belongs, whether or not anybody else likes it.
"The Adventures of Milo and Otis" This chopped-up, Westernized version of Japanese director Masanori Hata's puppy-and-kitten adventure may have a checkered artistic pedigree, but has become a universally beloved kids' flick, suitable for nearly all ages. I'd be curious to see Hata's reputedly darker original, but I suppose a subtitled version of this kind of movie is a hilariously pointless endeavor.
"Beauty and the Beast" (1946) I am among those who think that Disney's 1991 version is among the studio's better recent animated films -- but that sure ain't this movie. Yes, Jean Cocteau's magical masterpiece requires either French comprehension or the ability to read subtitles, but I say get 'em started young on both counts. Eric Beckman of the New York International Children's Film Festival says he's encountered strikingly little resistance to subtitles among audiences of second-grade age or older; it's usually the parents who aren't interested. And what a magnificent, moving experience this movie is, at any age. Roughly 9 and up, I guess.
"The Black Stallion" Carroll Ballard's 1979 adventure about a shipwrecked boy and a mysterious Arabian stallion is justifiably considered one of the greatest of all animal films. Clearly too intense for younger viewers, but a tremendous cinematic experience for, say, ages 8 and up.
"City Lights" Look, it is your bounden duty as a movie lover to expose your kids to Charlie Chaplin, and you can consider this a generic rather than a specific recommendation (although this 1931 comedy-romance is arguably his best silent feature). Littler kids will be more readily engaged by Chaplin's early slapstick shorts, which are available in several DVD collections, and "The Kid" and "Modern Times" are also great choices. Here's the thing: I know you've been procrastinating on this. You think it'll seem like dutiful edutainment, like a valuable slice of history and not like fun. When your kids are rolling around on the floor howling at the gags, or weeping profusely at the sentimental scenes, then let's talk.
"Dumbo" Sure, it's a Disney film, but a gorgeous one, perhaps Walt's greatest variation on the classic theme of tragic mother-love. (And, with "Pink Elephants on Parade," it includes one of the earliest acid-freakout sequences in animated history.) Yeah, the singin' and dancin' "Jim Crows" are kind of a problem, somewhere between racist caricature and genuine African-American cultural history. Such discussion topics are good, not bad, and anyway this is my daughter Nini's favorite movie. (The game where she plays Dumbo's mommy and I play Dumbo is so sweet I can't even talk about it.) I don't want her to read this in 10 years and believe that I was so busy watching semi-pornographic 1970s Italian horror films that I didn't notice. While we're here, let's shout out to a few other highly enjoyable Disney classics your kids may not have caught, like "The Jungle Book," "101 Dalmatians" and the box sets of vintage Donald and Mickey cartoons.
"Fantasia" There were only two or three votes for this, I guess because of my apparent anti-Disney fatwa. But let's get real: It's one of the most amazing films ever made, a sound-and-light spectacle that teeters between wordless narrative and experimental animation. Sure, it came into existence as a Hollywood-high culture hybrid, a way of introducing tots to the expressive power of classical music. But I decline to think that's a bad thing, especially when the results are this magnificent. In keeping with the Mouse policy of rotating the classics on and off the shelves, this isn't currently available on DVD, but used copies are plentiful and I can assure you a Blu-ray version is on the way.
"The General" You know, I waffled on including the great silent comic Buster Keaton's greatest film -- an action-packed, locomotive-ridin' spectacular for kids, grandmas and everybody else -- because of the evident Confederate sympathies in its Civil War plot. Well, screw that. If your p.c. buttons really get mashed over watching Keaton play a Reb, you can watch Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (on the same DVD!), or collections of his shorts, or pretty much anything by Harold Lloyd. But this one's actually better.
"The Great Muppet Caper" Another quasi-random selection, in that any of the "Muppet Show" collections on DVD will serve just as well to introduce your tykes to the delirious and delightful Jim Henson universe. (I'm going to assume they've already worn out their copies of "Sesame Street: Old School," an essential assortment of grittier pre-1979 episodes.) By consensus, this 1981 film is the best of the Muppet features.
"Kirikou and the Sorceress" This animated film-fest fave from French director Michel Ocelot adapts a traditional African legend into an exciting quest narrative. It's available both in subtitled and English versions, with music by Afro-pop legend Youssou N'Dour. Ocelot's gorgeous animations incorporate both Western and African influences, but your kids won't require a lecture on cultural diversity to enjoy the yarn. There's considerable matter-of-fact nudity, which may create issues for some adult viewers.
"Meet Me in St. Louis" There was a lot of support for the general category of classic Hollywood musicals, but not much agreement as to specifics. (Great primer: "That's Entertainment!") So I'm nominating Vincente Minnelli's Technicolor wartime confection about a turn-of-the-century family that sticks together in changing times, darn it all -- and visits the famous World's Fair in St. Louis, Louie, along the way. Great musical numbers (many sung by Judy Garland) and a fantastical Halloween sequence will keep everybody watching, and the intimations of doom, while present, are pretty light.
"M. Hulot's Holiday" Technically in French but with virtually no dialogue you need to understand, Jacques Tati's beach-vacation slapstick masterpiece ought to be an ideal DVD for the rainy afternoons of your beach vacation. Several readers have testified that their kids dig it, but Beckman insists that junior audiences at his fest "loathed it." I lack empirical evidence. In theory, terrific for all ages.
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" More for teens and tweens than for little ones who don't want their Christmas (or Halloween) traditions messed with, I guess. Still, Henry Selick and Tim Burton's latter-day stop-motion classic will surely delight more than a few daring 8-year-olds.
"The Red Balloon" Finally available on DVD (in a lustrous Criterion version) after many years of scratchy VHS, Albert Lamorisse's Oscar-winning fable about a lonely boy and his magical balloon offers grown-ups and kids alike a haunting vision of mid-century Paris. When Nini and Desmond first saw this, they were enchanted -- also a little intimidated by the roving gangs of boys who pursue and persecute our hero, and sad about the red balloon's tragic fate (of course). But Lamorisse's magical, redemptive ending made it all worth it.
"The Best of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Vol. 1" Hey, Rocky -- watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat! I'm going to suggest beginning with this compact sampler, because if you start collecting the box sets of complete "Rocky & Bullwinkle" seasons, you may never stop. Fan mail from some flounder? The main question you'll face is whether you can get your kids to watch these eccentric masterpieces of early-'60s Americana as often as you want to. And now here's something we hope you'll really like.
"The Secret Garden" (1993) Although Frances Hodgson Burnette's classic about a prickly orphan who finds magic in her uncle's garden has been adapted for film and TV several times, Agnieszka Holland's version is, I think, now definitive. Best for ages 9 and up, wouldn't you say? Available on a DVD with Alfonso Cuarón's "Little Princess," listed above.
"The Secret of NIMH" Renegade Disney animator Don Bluth's adaptation of the beloved children's book "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" is widely viewed as one of the few great animated films of the '80s. (Eric Beckman thinks this is already in every parent's collection, but I'm not sure he's right.) A terrific fantasy-adventure, probably best for ages 8 and up, with a truly peculiar voice-cast that includes Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Hermione Baddeley and Shannen Doherty.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" Made on the northwest coast of Ireland with a largely non-professional cast, John Sayles' wonderful variation on the Celtic/North Atlantic "selkie" legend might be the best-loved film of his entire career. I guess its romantic-tragic elements won't interest the youngest viewers, but some as young as 6 or 7 will be entranced by the magic, the genuine folktale feeling and the sweet but unsticky sentiment.
"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" If your kids are big enough to watch action-adventure flicks, it's time for them to learn how it was done before computers. Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters, in all their herky-jerky glory, convey a kind of effortful realism totally absent from today's $300 million spectacles. Certain boys, and certain tomboyish girls, will watch this every day for a month. (And then you can move on to "Jason and the Argonauts.")
"Singin' in the Rain" Another Technicolor Hollywood-musical classic that'll stand up to dozens of viewings. This possibly requires greater powers of concentration than "Meet Me in St. Louis," but who cares about the inside-show-biz plot when you've got some of the greatest singin' and dancin' and glorious-feelin' sequences ever set to celluloid?
"Small Change" François Truffaut's episodic small-town ensemble drama from 1976, with its focus on teenage and child characters, makes for a charming and thoroughly accessible introduction to foreign-language films (perhaps as a companion piece to "Beauty and the Beast"). There's more sexual frankness than there would be in a kid-oriented American film, and one brief shot of an exposed breast. But, hey -- if they're old enough to read subtitles, maybe they're also old enough to talk about that kind of stuff with you.
"The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) We got votes for both the 1940 Technicolor version and the Douglas Fairbanks black-and-white silent, and I say if you're going to venture into this territory at all, go all the way. It's a swashbuckler classic, one of the greatest silent action films, and you can explain that the, um, cultural representations should not be taken too literally. Besides, the sooner your kids know where Baghdad is, the sooner they'll be ready to ship out!
"Winged Migration" Another amazing nature documentary made by Europeans, and an easier sell to many kids than "Microcosmos," I should think. Be alert for that scene where a migratory bird with a broken wing is set upon by crabs -- unless your kids are into that sort of thing. Possesses the great advantage of being easy to watch in small increments.
"Yellow Submarine" My adored big brother, who knew all about things like the Beatles, took me to see this when I was 7 or 8. If I've never thanked you, Michael, I'm thanking you now. If any of your kids or mine feel one-tenth the transports of ecstasy I felt at this inscrutable but completely friendly work of psychedelic candy floss -- which is somewhere between a triviality and a masterpiece -- we'll have some happy families. Which is a great place to end.
― Andrew O'Hehir. Salon.com
Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiyo Aratama in Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition"
I'm probably preaching to the born-again when addressing readers of this column, but I wanted to chime in briefly on the inevitable topic of the week, that being Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight." It's the most anticipated movie of the summer and all that, it cost a bajillion bucks to make and it plans to make 2 bajillion back. It's got some mighty impressive special effects and it's got an actor who's now dead, eating that fake-o, pixillated scenery for lunch. And no matter how many people proclaim its awesomeness, it's also an incoherent, bloated bore from a director capable of doing much more interesting work.
My colleague Stephanie Zacharek is taking all kinds of abuse in the letters section for saying that, and, hey, she's a big girl. There are plenty of times I disagree with Stephanie's take on movies; I disagree with some things in this review too. But she's one of the first critics to look past the techno-wizardry and sophomoric darkness and see how labored and awkward this movie is. It's a pileup of incidents and episodes that never congeal into a story, a succession of striking murky-but-clean images that never create a convincing temporal and spatial universe. On the one hand, it's too pretentious to be a successful comic-book flick, but it's not pretentious enough, if you want to put it that way, for any genuine moral griminess to come through. Personally, I'd love to see a Batman film set in the universe of, I don't know, "The French Connection" or "Mystic River." Nobody in Hollywood would make such a movie these days, and I recognize that it certainly isn't what Nolan tries to deliver.
It's a cliché to say that "Dark Knight" is a teenage boy's idea of a serious film, but of course that's the source of its immense appeal. (One could call the source material, Frank Miller's revisionist Batman comics, a teenage boy's idea of literature.) I'd go a step or two further: It's either a teenage boy's poorly executed idea, or the teenage boy in question has a "Memento"-scale case of ADD, and maybe all the fogeyish, clueless protestations about how video games are ruining the youth of today are actually true.
Much of the audience for "Dark Knight" will be actual teenage boys, and they're entitled to like what they like and repent at leisure. (I can clearly remember telling friends that "Diamonds Are Forever" was the best film ever made.) But the arrested-development adult critics who just want to ride along, sort of like that guy in "Dazed and Confused" who's too old to hang out with high-school kids but does it anyway -- now that's kind of depressing.
Once upon a time, midsummer was slowdown time for the indie-film biz, but this week has been batshit-crazy with counter-Batman programming, and I can't keep up with it all. I've cherry-picked four excellent little movies to catch -- OK, one of them is almost 10 hours long! -- that are worlds away from Gotham City, or anywhere else in summer-blockbuster-land. There are at least two other noteworthy films opening this week -- Julian Schnabel's über-hipster concert film Lou Reed's Berlin and Brad Anderson's claustrophobic train-to-nowhere thriller Transsiberian -- and I'll post something on those as soon as I can, promise.
"The Human Condition" This is the nine-and-a-half-hour antiwar epic by Masaki Kobayashi, made between 1959 and 1961, that closes Film Forum's tribute to the amazing Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai. Relax, nobody has to sit through all of it at once, and if you think of "Human Condition" as three separate movies (which is how it screens), or maybe as a black-and-white, foreign-language equivalent of a TV miniseries, it won't seem so daunting. One film critic I know has dubbed "The Human Condition" the Japanese "Gone With the Wind," and while I think he meant that as a dis, if you consider that that phrase in all its ramifications -- as in, "Gone With the Wind" would be a massively different movie if it were Japanese -- actually does capture something.
Nakadai plays a young bureaucrat who works for the imperial Japanese war machine, an educated man with left-wing sympathies who personally opposes the war but sees it as a chance to work for good ends through a flawed system. In the first third of the film he runs a POW forced-labor camp in occupied Manchuria, seeing it as a chance to treat the prisoners humanely. In the second third (after his spectacular failure in the camp), he's a private in the undermanned Japanese army as the war winds down on the western front, attempting to preserve some shreds of dignity while waiting to be overrun by the Soviets. In the final third, he comes full circle, finding himself a cruelly abused POW in a remote and frozen Russian camp, where the Marxism he has admired from afar seems no more than a cruel joke.
As that summary suggests, we're not talking about an uplifting view of the Japanese nation, recent history or for that matter the human being. Once viewed as one of Japan's greatest directors, Kobayashi has faded into the background a little partly because his movies are relentlessly individualist in focus and pessimistic in theme, two things that (to say the least) run against the dominant currents in that nation's culture. But even if "Human Condition" now seems too creaky and melodramatic to be considered the greatest achievement in cinematic history (as critic David Shipman once dubbed it) it's a richly rewarding visual and human experience in all its bleakness.
Nakadai's performance as a man of Christlike forbearance, who travels to the edge of human endurance in a doomed and lonely struggle against an evil society, is both moving and charismatic. That comparison is not frivolous, by the way; Kobayashi was profoundly influenced by Western philosophy, cinema and religion, to the point of being called "anti-Japanese" by some of his countrymen. (I feel virtually certain that this movie was an influence on Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima.") Kobayashi's wide-screen landscapes (shot by Yoshio Miyajima), depicting the lonely human figure against a natural world that knows and cares nothing about him, combine wonder and mortal terror.
In all honesty, there were moments in the middle film, a familiar if well-played drama of the brutality of army life, when I felt impatient to move on. Kobayashi views his characters with tremendous compassion and a grand, overall sense of historical irony, but the picture isn't leavened with much lightness or humor. By the unutterably tragic conclusion of Part III, in which the story of one man's inevitable destruction seems to embody the demolition of all the 20th century's most noble dreams, I was profoundly grateful (if profoundly saddened) to have stuck with "The Human Condition" to the end. Until now, it's long been available only in an almost unwatchable VHS edition, but this theatrical run (in a pristine 35mm print with new subtitles) will surely be followed by a deluxe DVD release.
"The Human Condition: No Greater Love" (part I) is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with screenings of "Road to Eternity" (part II) beginning July 24 and "A Soldier's Prayer" (part III) beginning July 27. Other cities, and DVD release, should follow.
"Wonderful Town" This delicate, delightful and nearly note-perfect debut feature from young Thai director Aditya Assarad offers more evidence of the tremendous film renaissance underway in East Asia. Set in a southern coastal town struggling to recover from the devastation of the 2004 tsunami (although the event itself is barely discussed), "Wonderful Town" follows the tentative and then smoldering passion that develops between a visiting Bangkok architect (Supphasit Kansen) and a local woman (Anchalee Saisoontorn) who runs the modest hotel where he's staying. Assarad is both a patient and a surprising director, alive to the most intimate details of everyday life -- folding laundry, changing sheets, drinking coffee -- and also to the dreams people hold closest to their hearts, the ones they can barely admit to themselves, let alone their lovers.
While the plot in "Wonderful Town" is fairly minimal, it's got plenty of suspense. Will the hard-working hotel proprietor let down her hair? Will the architect disappear to the big city? Will the ghosts in the haunted, tsunami-destroyed hotels be appeased, and can a town that lost 8,000 people in a single day be healed? Assarad doesn't address all these questions directly, let alone answer them, but this irresistible picture, engaging from its first shot to its last, kind of sidles up and gracefully embraces them. (Now playing at Anthology Film Archives in New York, with more cities to follow.) "A Man Named Pearl" Frankly, this odd and enjoyable voyage into Americana -- a documentary about a South Carolina man who has turned the practice of trimming his hedges into a recognized fine art -- has a title problem. If it were called "The Topiary King" or "Yard of the Month," for instance, you might have some clue what it's about. Mind you, it is about a man with an unusual first name, but whether Pearl Hyams owes any of his drive, ambition, remarkable physical prowess and peculiar artistic gift to that fact is debatable.
Motivated by a racist comment that African-Americans don't maintain their yards, Hyams set out to win "Yard of the Month" from Bishopville, S.C.'s leading garden club. He became the first black person to do so, and along the way conceived a passion for abstract topiary, a craft in which he had no formal training. In fact, Hyams is a self-taught abstract sculptor whose medium is discarded boxwoods and other hedge shrubbery, trained lovingly into microbial blobs, galactic swirls, soaring fishbone structures and other organic forms. His three-acre yard is pretty much the only reason anybody ever visits Bishopville, and much of the fascination in Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson's documentary emerges from how this still-segregated Southern town is dealing with (and endeavoring to exploit) its homegrown genius. (Now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York. Opens July 25 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)
"A Very British Gangster" Investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre's film is fairly standard British TV product, closer to a glorified "60 Minutes" segment then to cinematic art. But never mind -- its subject is, as he might say, feckin' amazing. Manchester gangland legend Dominic Noonan is a plump, bespectacled, bald fellow, appealing in an unfocused way, who wouldn't look out of place behind a bank manager's desk. But consider Noonan's newly legal last name -- Lattlay Fottfoy, which stands for "Look after those that look after you, fuck off those who fuck off you" -- and you begin to get the measure of the man.
"A Very British Gangster" will translate oddly to American viewers. Wisely, the distributors have subtitled much of the dense Mancunian dialect, and let's just say that as crime lords' lifestyles go, Noonan is several rungs below Tony Soprano. He appears to live in a dismal little English suburban slum house, half-furnished and appallingly carpeted, surrounded by a pasty-faced crew of teenage underlings. But he's believed to be one of Britain's greatest heist-men, and responsible (along with his wisecracking and since-deceased brother Desmond) responsible for upwards of 20 gangland murders. And just wait -- just you wait -- for the response when MacIntyre asks him: "I detect a hint of lavender about you, Dominic. Are you gay?" (Now playing at Cinema Village in New York and the Culver Plaza in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)
― Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
Let's move on from all these lists to the journalist's second-best friend: a quiz of dubious value! What former socialist-bloc nation is becoming the next international cinematic surprise, à la Romania? Since I've already given you the answer, let's admit that it's a trick question. As a former republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia -- which borders Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia -- was only briefly part of the Soviet bloc, before Marshal Tito broke away to pursue his own brand of communism. (Which, whatever you think of it, was vastly preferable to the nightmare of tribalism and civil war that followed its collapse.)
Also, Slovenian cinema isn't new, it's just getting a brief moment in the sun right now because New York's Lincoln Center is hosting a six-day retrospective called "At the Crossroads: Slovenian Cinema," which runs through July 22. Although it's one of the smallest and poorest of the European Union nations (as well as the one hardly anybody could identify on a map), Slovenia contributed many films and directors to the exciting Yugoslav scene of the '60s and '70s, beginning with films like Frantisek Cap's 1953 college comedy "Vesna" and France Stiglic's World War II drama "Valley of Peace," made in 1956 and starring African-American actor John Kitzmiller (an ex-G.I. who stayed in Europe to work as an actor).
This week's mini-fest will also include rarely-seen classics like Bostjan Hladnik's 1961 "Dance in the Rain," perhaps the first film of Yugoslavia's '60s-modernist new wave, Matjaz Klopcic's delicate 1967 relationship drama "Paper Planes," and "Raft of the Medusa," a 1980 parable of aesthetic revolution directed by acclaimed cinematographer Karpo Godina. One can hope that some of those titles will finally reach DVD after this exposure, and that goes double for Slovenia's post-independence films, most virtually unseen in the West.
I've been able to sample a few of the more contemporary films in this selection, and there are several worth seeking out (or pestering your favored DVD source about). Andrej Kosak's 1996 drama "Outsider" is set in the '70s punk scene in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, and yes, there was one. Janez Burger's 1999 "Idle Running" is a Jarmusch/Linklater-flavored slacker comedy, and the brand new Slovenian-Croatian hit "Rooster's Breakfast," from director Marko Nabersnik, is a loopy and slightly dark rural comedy with overtones of thriller. I haven't seen Maja Weiss' 2002 "Guardian of the Frontier," a yarn about a trio of college-age women who embark on a canoe trip near the Croatian border and wind up somewhere between a monster movie and a Balkan version of "Deliverance," but it's reportedly amazing.
― Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com
Tom McCarthy’s two absorbing and original films, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), both sensitively sketched character studies, ask the audience to connect with their protagonists—not by identifying with them, but by empathizing with them in their human encounters. To achieve these effects, McCarthy, an auteur, uses none of the conventional cinematic strategies: no postmodern manipulation of the narrative, no flashbacks, dissolves, or camera panning to the side to juxtapose past and present. There is never even a voice-over, the standard device for adding psychological dimension to cinematic depiction. Instead McCarthy offers a cinema of technical restraint and psychological compassion.
The protagonists, the lonely dwarf of The Station Agent and the stagnating economics professor of The Visitor, are not heroic. Each man’s character unfolds before the camera in a linear narrative, and that unfolding, which reaches no certain conclusion, is the plot, the emotional force, and, if you will permit, the meaning of McCarthy’s films—the arc of the moral adventure of a life. We are shown a series of chapters, episodes in which a person who is beginning to freeze in the cage of his character ventures through the bars in search of others.
If McCarthy is not easily grouped with other contemporary filmmakers (perhaps Eric Rohmer?), his approach is reminiscent of Chekhov. Not Chekhov the playwright, but Chekhov the short-story writer whose work Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed to be “above all Russian fiction on the level of Gogol and Tolstoy.” Nabokov’s Chekhov writes stories in brief “movements,” “with the unexpected little turns and the lightness of the touches” that McCarthy achieves in his films. Mainstream critics agree that, though The Visitor is predictable, these nuances make the film intriguing. And McCarthy has still more in common with Chekhov. Chekhov’s stories, Nabokov said, were “funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.” McCarthy has that same sense of humor; it is everywhere in his two films. Moreover, he shares Chekhov’s compassionate psychological understanding.
Chekhov’s short stories were written before Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective ground the lenses that shaped our cultural perspective on personality. Freud’s “science” taught us to see the child in the adult, character as the history of experience, and mental life as a constant struggle with the dynamic forces of the unconscious. Chekhov’s psychology was grounded in life’s immediate experiences, in an unblinking recognition of human vices and virtues, and an embracing compassion for humanity as we all struggle to find a place in the world. Chekhov, in writing as well as life, was a legend in his own time for his benevolence. Tom McCarthy is a throwback to Chekhov even in his generosity.
Both of McCarthy’s films are gifts to actors who might otherwise never have played a leading role. Peter Dinklage, a dwarf and ambitious actor, scored the part of a lifetime in The Station Agent, the film that made him famous. (This summer Dinklage is doing Uncle Vanya on stage. Chekhov seems to be everywhere.) And McCarthy wrote The Visitor for Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, a chameleon-like character actor, has appeared in over forty films and several TV series, but would probably go unrecognized on an airplane. Now on the other side of sixty, Jenkins is bald, his face terraced with acne scars. He lacks the presence, intensity, or magnetism of an actor who can carry a film. Indeed, when McCarthy, himself an experienced character actor, showed Jenkins the screenplay, Jenkins was thrilled but worried that if he played the lead no one would finance the film. Apparently, McCarthy’s casting was buttressed by his Chekhovian inspiration; The Visitor is not a vehicle for a star. It is a chapter in the life of a man who looks exactly like Richard Jenkins. His name is Walter Vale, and he is a professor of economics at Connecticut College.
McCarthy’s Walter is singularly un-self-reflexive, never peering into his depths. We will come to know him by his reactions. Walter is diffident and evasive, and seems to have lost interest in everyone and everything except for the glass of red wine always at hand. The professor is a tenured placeholder, giving the same lectures by rote in the same course he has taught for years. He offers nothing of himself to his students or his research. When we first encounter him, a classical piano piece is playing in the background; he secures his glass of wine and listlessly sits down to practice the piano like a reluctant child. The doorbell rings. It is a woman approximately his age. We might wonder why she is there. And McCarthy means us to wonder when, after refusing the wine she has been offered, she asks, “shall we begin?” Begin what?
She is there, it turns out, to give him a piano lesson. Like Chekhov’s stories, the moment is sad and funny at the same time. Walter has no talent for the piano, and she instructs him as if he were just the recalcitrant child he affects. In the same awkward and ambiguous way he invited the woman into his house, he informs her that he will not be taking any more lessons from her. We might expect her to beat a hasty retreat, embarrassed by his rejection. Quite unexpectedly, and with total composure, she asks him how many other teachers he has fired. Walter admits that there have been several others. As she calmly leaves, she remarks that the piano is superb, and, if someday he should decide to sell it, she would buy it.Later, she does.
These first moments in the film are like the first act of a play. Walter Vale’s character—isolated in his unhappiness, treading water in his life—has been established. We can see the kind of man he is by his desultory manner at the piano, by the way he shuts out his students, by the way he keeps his red wine within reach, and by the way he resists the efforts of the Economics Department to send him to a conference at NYU to read a paper written by a colleague who is pregnant and indisposed. (Walter’s supposed coauthorship is a fraud.) A psychoanalyst would say that Walter is depressed, still grieving over his wife, a classical pianist (the music we heard at the beginning of the film is hers) who died a few years before; that he has not worked through the loss, and is taking piano lessons as a way to hold on to her.
If Woody Allen had written the screenplay, Walter would have been in psychoanalysis trying to plumb the depths of his neurotic depression and taking Prozac to lift his spirits. But the Professor Vale of McCarthy’s imagination refuses to look inward and has problems more profound than the loss of his beloved wife. As we soon discover, he has in fact been faking his career as an economics professor for twenty years; in all that time, no project has ever engaged his passions. He is locked into his alienation, and, while he is not charismatic, Jenkins makes him totally believable and engages our empathy.
The second act finds the professor, having been forced to go to New York, encountering the world to which Tom McCarthy wants to introduce his audience. With The Visitor, McCarthy also presents a social and political agenda. His success with The Station Agent brought the State Department to his door and sent him to Lebanon in a cultural outreach program that, if it did not change anything in Lebanon, has had profound effects on the filmmaker. What impressed him was the vitality and the energy of the “Arabs” and their enthusiasm for life. It was not what McCarthy knew or what he had seen portrayed in film.
He started work on The Visitor with the idea of a young Syrian musician, Tarek, who played an African drum and had all the joie de vivre that Walter would lack. He found the perfect actor for the role of Tarek: Haaz Sleiman, an Arab-American born in Detroit who is irresistibly appealing and radiates happiness. The second act of The Visitor shows us the budding friendship between Tarek and the frozen Walter. In Tarek’s drum, Walter will find his true musical instrument and the possibility of escaping the prison his life has become.
That takes us to the next twist in the story: Tarek is in the country illegally, and the plight of illegal immigrants in post-9/11 America opens up before us. What occurs in this film is deeply moving—whatever your position on immigration law—because the filmmaker’s sketch of the characters is so compelling. Walter encounters Tarek and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) when he finds them living in his New York pied-à-terre, which he has not visited for months. Is it believable that the Walter we met in Connecticut would invite an Arab and his African girlfriend to stay on in his apartment? It is the way McCarthy tells his story with unexpected Chekhovian details,with Walter reacting rather than acting out of settled conviction, that convinces us.
The second act ends with Tarek being arrested and detained, and another visitor appears. (Everyone in the film, Walter included, might be the titular visitor.) Tarek’s mother Mouna, played by the commanding and elegant Hiam Abbass, an Israeli-Arab actress, shows up at Walter’s pied-à-terre. She introduces the third act, in which something like love seems to happen. Walter and Mouna worry together about Tarek, Walter courts her, and they spend their last night together cuddling each other in sorrow or something more. McCarthy leaves it to us to decide. It is their last night because Tarek has been deported and Mouna has decided she must follow him back to Syria. Why does Walter not ask her to marry him? Why does he not offer to go with her? Walter has come out of his cage, his character has unfolded, he has taken leave from his professorship, he has confessed to Mouna that for twenty years he had been pretending to be busy and really doing nothing. Yet McCarthy will not succumb to a Hollywood happy ending that ties up all the unraveled threads into a bow.
When Walter waves goodbye to Mouna at the airport, we sense that the possibility of love goes with her. At that point we could describe the Walter we have come to know with the line from Chekhov’s short story “In the Cart” that Nabokov found quintessential: “‘How strange,’ she reflected, ‘why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice kind eyes, to weak unhappy useless people—and why are they so attractive?’”
The film could have ended at the airport, and in a sense it does. In our empathy with Walter Vale, we have discovered the family of humanity and realized that it is through the alien other that we might transcend our stagnating selves. But McCarthy adds a postscript, presumably a vision of the professor’s redemption. In this last scene we see Walter busking in the New York subway, playing his African drum, fulfilling the dream that Tarek had shared with him. It is Walter’s moment of becoming the other, and it is filmed with all of the avant-garde filmmaker’s cinematic tricks. This is the only moment in a beautifully made and emotionally fulfilling film that provokes disbelief. Instead of Walter in triumph, what I see is a madman.
Alan A. Stone. published at http://bostonreview.net
Jul 17, 2008
by Claudia Siefen
Love – Work – Cinema. This motto seemed to me something real and grounded and I was looking forward to discovering the richness and breadth of contemporary Austrian filmmaking as it was my first time attending the Diagonale Festival of Austrian Film, held every year in Graz, Austria. And stepping into the festival office gave me an impression of what that meant this year. It was the last festival for Festival Director Birgit Flos, practically torn apart by the Austrian press for her way of leading the festival over the last four years. As she said later at the press conference, she felt she was highly "underrated". By whom? The press? The filmmakers? Or the audience? Many Austrian citizens never tire of stating that Austria is a small country and its film industry is considered a bit of a sandpit where one can watch suspiciously who is playing in it and what they’re up to. Some even whispered that the spectacle in the Austrian pit is more scrutinised if the player is a woman – and German, too.
After this, also discussed was the topic of film subsidy, but I wouldn't really call it a "discussion". It was non-stop wailing if you ever found yourself seated down for a chat with a filmmaker, male or female. Yes, they see themselves as artists, of course. Wild artists, with bothersome opinions which they feel the need to transmit to the rest of the world, for whatever reason. And they want film subsidy? It didn't sound very logical to me. As the charismatic Austrian director Peter Kern said: "If you need to make a film, just do it, sell your house and family, sell yourself. If you really want to make a film nothing will stop you!" So at the Diagonale I encountered these two camps just as at any other film festival: those who consider themselves artists with the expectation to make films and be subsidised for it, and those who treat the business as an everyday job. To be a filmmaker it seems you have to make your choice.
As a festival-goer, I had to make my choice from the program. I will start with the program on film artist Michael Pilz called "The erotic of emptiness". As he wrote: "Making films is a silver-tongued action, there is nothing to say." Pilz is extraordinary in his manner of being a stranger, always in dialogue with his camera, and having his camera always in constant dialogue with everything it is surrounded by. Reality is nothing. Your own reality is everything. Pilz seems constantly connected to his expanding universe inside. He forgoes any decoding of signs. If this sounds easy to watch, it is not. It is a strange way to follow someone: have you ever tried to step into a cinematographic poem? When even the director himself leaves no footsteps it is difficult to follow.
And sometimes the reason for that is simple. In Gwenyambira Simon Mashoko (2002) Pilz implicitly questions our all-wrong expectations concerning documentaries. A portrait of the late Zimbabwean musician Simon Mashoko is promised but, more than this, Pilz creates an excellent feeling of disenchantment with off-the-shelf TV productions. He takes his time – nearly four hours – there are no subtitles, no cosmetic time-abridging editing. How much time do you need to get closer to a person, closer to a culture, to a language you don't speak? It is Pilz's musical knowledge of rhythm – he himself is a piano player and composer – that lends him his masterly way of editing. Every film is always guided by the filmmaker’s will but Pilz gives the impression that his films have a will of their own and he is just the one who takes the camera and makes them happen. But this perhaps sounds too romantic when talking of Pilz, for he is a very hard-working ascetic. Gwenyambira Simon Mashoko doesn’t reveal anything that Pilz learned about the musician or his music. The filmmaker clearly indicates that he didn't understand his words, but does this without any question mark. And it is all about the viewers’ expectations, so Pilz turns ours on its head. Of course we are not able to understand someone speaking in a foreign language after four hours without subtitles, but what exactly makes us think we could anyway? In Gwenyambira Simon Mashoko, Pilz intermixes real and highly sensual images and sounds. Usual portraits provide the essence of a given person’s work, life, family and business. This cinematic representation has even snuck into real life and often into human behavioural expectations: we expect a clear trajectory or structure in any person’s behaviour, we expect certain results. But nothing in life will ever be straight to the point. Pilz knows this.
The festival also focused on the artist Dietmar Brehm, and after watching and listening to Michael Pilz in his Q&As, one couldn’t imagine a greater contrast. By being in the presence of Brehm, with his short sentences, pressed out in a staccato-voice, and his animated hands describing huge circles, I was pulled back to earth again. Brehm makes one dizzy with his love for technical metamorphoses. So, we encounter him using 16mm or High8 material, making it overexposed, turning it into a negative, then shortening it, then colouring it and using strained editing and so on: voilà! We feel the photographer for every second, in every single frame and Brehm takes us onto a journey into the land of alienation. The sound track is not any less spectacular: rasping, door slamming, echoing, dark sounds, telephone ringing, birds. The Diagonale program contained his recent, ongoing Praxis serial. After the screening of Praxis 1-3, with about 30 spectators in the audience waiting for him to speak his words, he stepped up, took the microphone and added that the curtain was closed and he was missing some applause. Cut. Yes, it was only silence after the screening, but didn’t he take even one close look at the audience? I did and all I saw were sparkling eyes and red cheeks. For me it was clear that the audience was completely touched by the screening and I thought it was kind and respectful of them to not scream and shout but rather to sit still and wait for him. But Brehm didn’t. Still, later it wasn't all that bad and you could see him standing in the foyer, talking to admiring audience members. A colleague at the Austrian Filmmuseum later told me that he was working on Brehm’s archive and that the filmmaker was always happy to talk about his work in detail, so some diva behaviour is perhaps sometimes needed for a good show.
Jörg Kalt was represented at the festival with a little tribute containing five films: Richtung Zukunft durch die Nacht (2002), Taste The Waste (1995), Living in a Box (2000), Kalt kocht (1999/2008) and Jörg Kalt im Hotel Europa 2006 (2006/2007), which was part of his installation The Europa-Tapes. For me Richtung Zukunft durch die Nacht exemplifies the pure essence of experimental filmmaking so evident in his work. It is about love and time, where two people fall in love; later she leaves him and time passes in reverse. The film starts with the story’s end, and finishes in its middle, only to go back to its beginning and to finally end there. To make all this time mix-up more “rational” Kalt also shot in reverse, and even the director’s instructions on the set were spoken in reverse. Kalt loved to produce a special kind of unreality that feels real for just a moment. Unfortunately there is nothing more to come: for his own reality is that he committed suicide last year.
Concerning the Austrian feature films, one problematic tendency was clearly noticeable: the ubiquitous television-co-production. Film production should be made for the big screen, but I saw a lot that was artistically compromised with a later broadcast TV, whether in sound-editing or, even more visibly, in the camera work and, last but not least, in the acting. Too many scenes were simply not composed for the theatrical screen but for a small picture at home. A film with a great story and fantastic actors but ruined by these factors was Ein halbes Leben by Nikolaus Leytner, in which a father (Matthias Habich) can't accept his daughter’s murder, even though the killer was never found. Twenty years later a DNA analysis opens up new perspectives and the film presents the killer’s life in the neighbourhood, where he is now a father himself. It is only a matter of time that both men’s paths will inevitably cross some day. To me, the dialogue sounded just like that found on television, and the actors seem wasted on bad material, as the film exists not for cinema but clearly for TV.
The beautiful Revanche by Götz Spielmann also suffers the same affliction, but thanks to the talents of its director of photography Martin Gschlacht it is not that obvious. Spielmann tells the story of two couples in their thirties; one is a young policeman and his wife who are doing their best to live an accepted bourgeois life in the country and who still have no children; the other couple is formed by a young prostitute and her ex-con procurer, who want to free themselves of the urban red light district they live in. For that they need money – a bank robbery is planned quickly and so all four come together in a fateful moment: the policeman kills the prostitute and the procurer is subsequently bent on revenge. Spielmann is a pure dreamer but clearly fond of his story: he presents a type of country life that just doesn't exist anymore, and he renders the red light district in a style as old fashioned as possible. But in the end the focus is on the main character of the ex-con played by Johannes Krisch who gives a performance of equal parts roughness and tenderness.
Pure beauty. Astrid Ofner’s short film Sag es mir Dienstag imagined Franz Kafka’s four-day visit to Vienna in 1920, where he met Milena Jesenskà. What happened before and after the visit is well known thanks to the exchanged letters and diary-entries. Ofner found the images to these fragile words and emotions. Shooting in black and white, these days Ofner seems to compose as one composes music, thankfully without becoming fustian. Her film is one of those small jewels that every country is sometimes lucky to produce. "We are such a small country" – it sounds almost like an excuse – this sentence I heard so many times during the Diagonale, and only a few filmmakers such as Ofner make me ask: what should that mean?
The Diagonale website: http://www.diagonale.at
about the writer:
Claudia Siefen works as a film critic and essayist, focussing on interviews and cinema history. She has also spent eight years working as a film editor for documentaries. Born in Cologne, Germany, she has lived and worked in Vienna since 2007.
by Dušan Makavejev
How did I get Otto Muehl (1) and the AA Kommune (Actions-Analytic Kommune) into Sweet Movie? The shooting of Sweet Movie was planned for October 1974. In the earlier version of the script, the leading female character ends up catatonic in a mental hospital. She comes back to life by being treated with the highly perceptive non-action of a nonverbal doctor whom I imagined as my variation of Ronnie Laing. (2) I had never met Laing, but he fascinated me with his intelligence, risk-taking, playfulness, radical insight and genuine respect for life. He was a healer by just being around.
Then, a batch of films from Vienna that screened in a tiny ‘underground’ cinema in Munich moved me into an unexpected experience of a difficult–to-explain mix of charm, disgust and fear. I oscillated between surprise, fascination and revulsion. The films were baroque, even rococo – a cascade of prolonged “blood, shit and tears” scenes, agony, dirt, “sadism” – as if someone was inviting my stupidity to step forward. The authors of the films, obviously, wanted me scared or furious. The public was leaving the cinema in a panic. I had never before faced the anarchy of life cleansed of humour. However, the orchestrated chaos on the screen contained a lot of daring and a genuine indefinable “something”. And, also, the blood was more often ketchup, and the chaos was mostly an excess of flour being spilled around.
What I’d seen on the screen made me acutely aware that instead of staging some clumsy half-fantasy of mine with hired actors I could, and should, place my leading actress into a sort of living anti-psychiatry collective. I decided to get in touch with Otto Muehl.
At the time, the Commune was rejecting visitors but I managed to find about two dozen of them living in a large apartment on the Praterstrasse in Vienna. They lived without reading newspapers or watching television, in a sort of very lively and communicative family life. Only later, I realised that they were strongly connected also through a group marriage. Luckily, the only film they had seen the year before was my WR: Mysteries of the Organism [W.R. – Mistirije organizima, 1971], so they let me in for a short visit.
They were kind and nice to each other, and with me, but about being in my next film they said no. Their ‘no’ was not a refusal; they were simply not interested. However, I managed to get their permission to visit them once again the following week on their farm in Burgenland, a half-barren land near the border with Hungary. They were neither interested in the glamour of being in a film and its connected publicity, nor in the chance to earn some money. It was a collective of non-aggressive outsiders. (Moving through their space, I was tested, watched by everyone, not knowing that my unstated task was to seduce them.)
After protracted negotiations, we managed to get eight of them to join our cast and be with us for a week in an abandoned old factory in a Paris suburb. (With the money earned from the film, they bought a cow or two, to have milk for their kids.)
So, there I was the following week, at the end of the world, in sparsely populated region. Otto Muehl, a little older than the others, was fun, easy, tolerant and exercised no authority at all. I was told that, if I wanted eight of them to participate in the scene in my film, the whole commune would have to hear my story and approve of it.
I was in a cold sweat. I sat with all of them ‘a la turca’ in a big circle. I started telling my story to neutral faces that let me feel the stupidity of my film and the futility of my endeavour. As I went on describing scene by scene the story of Sweet Movie, a baby girl of about a year and half who was playing with a dog climbed into my lap. Busy with my storytelling, I had no time to look for the child’s mother, so I accommodated the girl in my lap and continued quite desperately with my story. The child fell asleep. It seems this was a vote of approval.
The “Commune” in the film consisted of the eight members from Vienna and another eight young actors from Paris selected through some interesting exercises. The Commune scenes changed a lot from the original script. I kept only the idea that the catatonic girl gets into the commune and, at a certain point, starts coming back to life. We decided to shoot for several days, one ‘theme’ a day, whatever happens. First day was the ‘Day of Nest and Milk’, next was ‘Day of Food’, next the ‘Day Re-birth’ and the last one was to be the ‘Day of Blood’.
Day after day, we shot for just a few hours. Every single shot was good and usable. The Commune members were collaborative and enthusiastic, and the Paris actors melted in. Most of the creative crew was inspired and positive. Part of the professional crew followed half-heartedly. It seems we were not “following the script”. I knew that some people were afraid of the chaos. I tried to explain that we were getting much better film images than planned. The real strain was on actress Carole Laure. She brilliantly and bravely participated and inter-acted, especially in the wild lunch scene. The scene was improvised and all shot in less then two hours. The actual ‘lunch’ was shot without rehearsals, continuously with the hand-held camera circling around the table twice. At the end, the whole table and the food were destroyed and we finished the shoot. When Otmar Bauer started pissing on Herbert Strumpfel, his partner, it was so joyous and hilarious. (Otmar Bauer was introduced to me as the commune’s accountant, and Herbert Strunmfel was just around. They both made a number of their own films as Vienna Aktionists.)
I was sure that the ‘provocative content’ could overcome the censorial impulses waiting at the end of our work if the excess normally considered dangerous is wrapped up in infantility, happiness and pure ‘joy of life’. It ended, paradoxically, both ways. The film played in many countries; however, it is still banned in Canada and the United Kingdom.
I think I’ve interpreted correctly the Commune’s ‘destructivity’ as respect for life in all its wilderness, unpredictability, freedom, pleasure. Celebration. It was clear to me that all their actions, ugly or shocking, were pure play and performance, innocently offered to both themselves and to the camera eye, and politically more than correct.
I could not know then that I was experimenting, twenty years before the time, with what was to be named ‘A Reality Show’. I just felt that I should not interfere. This Ali-Baba’s Cave of Horrors that was offered to us, and brilliantly recorded by Jan Lemasson’s perceptive hand-held lens, was a genuine gift of unpleasant poetry. I just told Vincent Malle, the producer, that we were getting some incredible material, that I could not censor. I asked him to let me make, without extra costs, an independent documentary of twenty to forty minutes. In the feature film, I would use maybe seven to ten minutes integrated in the rest of the film, stylistically interlaced with humour, colour and the general spirit of the film. He said no way. I could not believe that he was not aware that we would get some sort of monstrous ‘blob’ of uneasy images towards the end of the film.
In retrospect, I find curious that thinking of my own film, whose production was near its start, I was not intimidated by the fact that the screening in Munich ended with an empty cinema. At a screening in Taormina, within a minute or two of the Commune scene a few dozen people stood up and ran out of the screening room. And minutes later another three, five and a dozen people left. They were ugly moments. When I went out to hear what they were saying, I found them all watching the film through the exit doors. When the Commune scene ended, they all went back to their seats.
The last day with the Commune ended without any filming. A highly poetic and frightening scene conceived only by the actresses for the ‘Day of Blood’ was not shot. I owe readers an account of this scene scripted by Carole Laure and the other actresses, as well as an account of the French crews rebellion, and Bojana’s (3) thoughts on the matter. But I’ll leave that for another day ...
about the writer
Dušan Makavejev is a Yugoslav born filmmaker who resides in Paris and Belgrave and whose extensive and distinguished career includes such titles as Innocence Unprotected, The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator and Manifesto.
The MIFF Box Office opens today at The Forum Theatre!
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The idea of the superhero shrink is ripe for comedy, yet the inner workings of the Dark Knight's mind would be no laughing matter
For all pop culture's shamelessness, one comic opportunity has yet to be exploited. I could see it as a Saturday Night Live sketch, or an entire Jack Black film: a psychiatric service for superheroes.
Catwoman could celebrate her liberation from dowdy secretary to latex black nightwalker, then prank call Halle Berry and upbraid her for having wrecked her mythos. The X-Men would arrive together, saying how lonely they felt before discovering their commonality. Superman could debate the conundrum of being a virtually indestructible alien.
But the toughest nut to crack would be Batman.
All superheroes experience pain as they suffer the initiations that the genre demands. They have to be brought low before rising up again through sheer will. They also need a chip on the shoulder big enough to sustain a multi-film production, comic books, novels, video games and intense cultural analysis.
But Batman's the only constant self-hater. Wealth, worldliness and acclaim as Bruce Wayne do nothing for him: his own pain is his fetish. He reminds himself of his trauma every time he dons his wetsuit, because he's chosen as his emblem not something which provides strength and inspiration, but the sign of his misery. The black bat looms like a fascist stamp over everything he does, a constantly reinforced link between the grieving kid and the angry man.
Batman doesn't want to get over it. Bruce Wayne's money enables Batman to indulge his own chagrin and vindicate his desire for confrontation. His vast wealth could easily be rerouted into the institutions of the great and the good. That would improve the world. But what Batman really wants is to get off on his own grudge.
Unlike many other superheroes he doesn't have extraordinary gifts, not even (like Cassandra) those of prophecy and intuition. He didn't become super by accident (like Spider-Man) or force (like Nikita), and he's no Potterish Chosen One either. Batman's suit and vehicles are weapons loaded with gadgets. They let him pick and win fights. Like actual medieval knighthood, the chivalric ideal is an excuse to satiate the desire for violence.
And yet for all his angst, Batman has only one real foe: himself. It was the young Wayne whose fear of bats, brought on by a childhood tumble into a cave, caused his parents to leave an opera performance early and fall victim to a random street thug (at least in Christopher Nolan's version). While the Dark Knight's vigilantism is focused upon a vain effort to retrospectively right that wrong, the fact that he dresses in the guise of the creature that brought on his own moment of greatest failure suggests the larger part of his anger is directed inwards. The bat represents everything Wayne hates, regrets and fears - and he's in love with it.
Nolan's Batman Begins was a return to Bob Kane's original invention in 1939, and it utilised another heroic reworking: Mary Harron's reinvention of Christian Bale in American Psycho. American Psycho is one of the most impressive, coldly seductive films of the last decade. It showed the previously nondescript, now rebuilt Bale as an Aryan uber-paragon, his perfect form taut with contempt. It was this identity which Bale carried into the rebooted Batman.
In The Dark Knight, out next week, Batman confronts The Joker, a peculiar self-hater just like himself. The faceoff will be a tortured duel between two pathologies but in true Nietzschean form, Batman's pain is our pleasure - and his own. [blogs.guardian.co.uk]
posted by udin di Thursday, July 17, 2008