Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
November 2003

Jonathan Rosenbaum was on a local San Francisco call-in show this week talking about the year's movies. Although this kind of show never allows one topic to stick around very long, he did have some interesting comments.

Showing why he's my favorite contrarian, he listed among the movies he liked this year Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, Stone Reader, Gatekeeper, Masked & Anonymous, Pistol Opera, Demonlover, School of Rock, and Down With Love.

About Down With Love (if you missed this like I did, you might want to know that it's already on DVD), he said that the people who made it weren't old enough to remember the 50s and 60s and as a result they kind of combined the 50s and 60s, which he thought was "actually kind of exciting."

About School of Rock: "If Jean Renoir had decided to make a movie about rock and roll musicians in the 6th grade, it would have been something like this. [laughing]" He called Richard Linklater, who directed School of Rock, "one of the very best independent filmmakers in the country," although he did School of Rock for hire.

About Elephant:

What I think is really interesting about it is— I think it got kind of misjudged by Americans who saw it at Cannes because they seemed to think it was a movie that was trying and failing to explain why Columbine happened. Whereas I don't think Gus Van Sant knows any more about this or has any more interest in it than the rest of us. I think what he's really more interested in is why we weren't able to predict something like Columbine. And it's really a film about following the lives of high school students just before something like this happened.

I happen to agree.

A few other choice tidbits:

The best films that I tend to see are things most people haven't heard of because they don't have multi-million dollar ad campaigns.

And about the term "independent":

It's Sundance and distributors like Miramax that have wound up confusing everyone. This is the way I make a distinction: an independent film is a film in which the filmmaker is independent of distrubution. If a filmmaker has final cut, then it's independent. And that means that Jim Jarmusch is an independent filmmaker because he owns the negatives of all of his films. On the other hand Quentin Tarantino is not an independent filmmaker because he doesn't have final cut. I mean what confuses everybody is that Sundance is supposed to be this big promoter of independent film but if a filmmaker succeeds at Sundance it means he or she loses independence because the studio buys it and is able to recut it.

If you'd like to hear more about these or other topics — vengeance as a theme in movies, the virtues of multi-region DVD players, In the Cut, Shattered Glass, Mystic River, marketing The Cat in the Hat at the U.S. Post Office ("We've lost the cold war. We're living in a Stalinist world"), and the much-discussed lack of video "screeners" for critics to compile their year-end lists — you can listen to the program online.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (2)
2003, U.S.
director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

In the world of 21 Grams, no life happens without death, and no death happens without life. Blame and guilt flow from one person to another as easily as their fluids and organs are transfused and transplanted. Although the numerous parallels would seem to give the movie balance, equal parts joy and despair, in the doomed thermodynamics of 21 Grams, an external force tugs down hard on everything, a great equalizer that sucks the middle class wife of an architect into seedy motel rooms and pulls grime out of the pores of math teachers and ex-cons alike.

The story follows three lines: a woman whose husband and children are hit by a car and killed, the criminal trying to go straight who is driving that car, and the man who receives the heart of the dead husband. The movie doesn't follow any one of these lines linearly. For the first half hour, the episodes spill out in a seemingly random order, presented as a tease, asking us to guess whether the beard or the clean-shaven face came first, the wife or the girlfriend, the blood or the hospital, the prison or the church. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu showed an affinity for twisted timelines in his debut feature, Amores Perros, but here he has taken it up a notch.

The question, of course, is what does he say by telling us the story in this manner. The three story lines have similar and related themes of loss — loss of family, life, and faith — but the non-linear narrative seems unnecessary to highlight that fact. All of the losses stem from the same event, so no fancy temporal shifts are needed to make them coincide. Maybe Iñárritu wanted to reflect the lives of his characters in his editing structure, and indeed their lives do seem to go in loops. A character who receives a heart transplant finds out that his body isn't accepting it and he'll need another one. A man who has turned to Jesus to try to stay clean begins to think Jesus is leading him back to jail. And an upstanding mother of two with cocaine in her past turns to her old dealer when her life falls apart. For these people, the order of events hardly seems important, so why should the order of the scenes in the movie?

Even so, it's hard to shake the impression established early on that Iñárritu is playing a game that overtakes his characters. After its initial jerkiness, the movie does settle down for most of its mid-section into a linear tale with brief forward flashes, but the game isn't over. Gradually, the characters become pawns. They're no longer acting according to logic or emotion but instead according to the filmmakers' desire for an ingenious structure, a hall of mirrors. People do things in order to appear appropriately ironic. The living kill, the dying give life, the fatalists find purpose, the guilty do their time, face death, turn out to have been framed, and then beat the rap with what can only be described as ironic benevolence from their creator. No image is complete until it has been reflected in at least two surfaces; a man remembers the eyes of the girl he killed not just when he looks in a mirror, but when he looks in the mirror while making love.

That we feel anything at all for these characters whose lives are chopped into slivers says that something here works. Much of the credit goes to the three lead actors, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, but the actors in the smaller parts are just as good. And the underlying emotions — grief, revenge, and the feeling of being predestined to suffer — seem real and complexly intertwined, so real that one wonders if the filmmakers found them too raw to depict head-on.

Iñárritu withholds the answers to a few mysteries until the end, both large ones (where did all that blood come from?) and small ones (what made the woman laugh when she left the pool?), but by then, like the final pointless moments of a long lost chess match, whose finger is on the trigger and whose fluid is in whom hardly matters.

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Anyone who heard Terry Gross's interviews with Gene Simmons and Bill O'Reilly should enjoy today's interview with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (and then his creator, Robert Smigel).

Ohh kay, here we go. Gene Simmons warned me about you. He warned me about you. We were [bleep]ing a border collie one day and he was like, "I can't [bleep], I'm still thinking about that interview."

And when Terry asked him about his sexist attitudes:

Holy Christ, listen to this. Let me ask you something. I feel like I'm being bombarded here. I know what's happening here. I know what's happening here. Did you ask the same questions to Kermit the Frog? .... How about when Beethoven did your show, did you challenge him the way you are challenging me? ....

Oh is that right, it's a satire what Beethoven does? Yes I'm just— You know I can't believe the government is paying for this, is what I can't believe.

You think it's fair, Terry, you need to get into another business! That's right, no, good, this is all going to be fodder for Harper's Magazine, for Dog Fancy Magazine, which I know... there are liberal publishers of Dog Fancy....

Yes, it's a banner day for NPR, and my stomach hurts from laughing.

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Last month when I saw Dog Days, Ulrich Seidl's disgusting but, on some level, accomplished feature (and winner of the grand jury prize in Venice), I immediately flashed back to Stanley Kubrick and Todd Haynes. But Seidl's suburban compositions — those rows of houses and splashes of color on the arid outskirts of a city — are also reminiscent of some of Yasujiro Ozu's later color features, particularly Good Morning. Ozu's housewives trot across the lane to peek in on their neighbors, a forced intimacy that prompts one couple to move and another to consider it. But, someone counters, "You'll have neighbors everywhere, except the mountains."

Although I'm largely ignorant of Ozu's life, I've been intrigued to hear that he may have been influenced by American movies. Circles, circles.

Think of Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars. It's widely known that Leone borrowed heavily from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo for his tale of a lone gunslinger/samurai who plays a local town's powers against each other. But Dave Kehr has pointed out that Kurosawa seems to have lifted the character and plot from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, an American novel about a nameless detective, referred to as the Continental Op, who pits a corrupt town's bigwigs against each other. And Hammett may have been inspired by a real labor dispute in Butte, Montana.

And so it goes.

Film is truly an international medium, but the industry heavyweights have it in their best interests to erect borders, with their DVD region codes and xenophobic multiplexes. How else would Hollywood be able to repackage Ringu as The Ring and Open Your Eyes as Vanilla Sky? In other circles it's called protectionism.

But, you know, you've got neighbors wherever you go, except the mountains. Enjoy the view.

Posted by davis | Link

Evaluating a movie requires some context. Who made it, when, under what circumstances, based on what pile of possible influences? But I try to disregard a director's stated intentions. The director's chance to communicate with us is in his movie, not in the PR campaign that accompanies it.

Besides, the people who made the movie may not know about everything they've done. As Stanley Kubrick has said, half the fun of watching a movie is finding things that the filmmaker may not even know about.

But every once in a while, a tidbit comes your way that's hard to get out of your head. And sometimes, I admit, these little factoids can be fun.

I thought about this recently after watching Ozu's Late Spring. A bit of this movie, the part where Noriko and Mr. Hattori ride bicycles to the beach, appears on a TV in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Good Men, Good Women (one of my favorite movies, and a movie I have threatened to write about for this site).

Why does this shot appear on that TV? Well, I suppose it's a gentle nod at the audience, many of whom have compared Hou to Ozu. But the two movies also share some abstract concepts: parents losing children, a woman's duty to her spouse, people clinging to past comforts instead of moving on with their lives. And there's a mysterious shot late in Hou's movie of the back wheel of a bicycle riding along a road. It's one of the movie's rare travelling shots, and one of its briefest. It appears when the lead character is finally making peace, perhaps, with her dead lover, and we hear her voice singing tearfully to him as the bicycle weaves. It's not a pair of bicycles as in Ozu's movie, but one alone, riding through the dark. The shot is never fully explained, although we can infer that the bike is ridden by someone bearing bad news in the movie's historical timeline, which itself interlocks with the present.

Hou's explanation for the inclusion of the Ozu clip is simple: the character in his movie is an actress and she has been told to study films from the 1950s, which is when her movie takes place. That's all. He said this in an interview in Cineaste. Late Spring is her homework.

In another personal favorite, Robert Altman's movie Nashville, Geraldine Chaplin plays a star-struck reporter from the BBC. She pesters people for their thoughts and shoves a tape recorder into their faces. In a recent interview (I wish I remembered the source), Chaplin said that, to her, the character was American, not British at all. In the movie she deliberately says "British Broadcasting Company" instead of "Corporation," a slip that a British person would be less likely to make.

Learning Chaplin's intentions has changed my impression of every scene she's in. She now seems like someone going to great lengths to look sophisticated. She's "Opal from the BBC," faking her accent. "Un deux trois quatre," she says into her microphone, first thing in the morning, before crawling out of bed.

Hou's detail doesn't change much about what we know of the character in Good Men, Good Women. Even without it, we don't sense that she's an Ozu fan necessarily; she's asleep in front of the TV. Chaplin's detail does change things somewhat, but not dramatically. We already knew that Opal is eager to meet and sleep with stars, eager to throw around her credentials with people who don't seem to care about the BBC. She's wearing a mask, we already knew. But the size of that mask is considerably larger and the character therefore more pathetic that we might have thought. She speaks with her accent even when she's alone, wandering through a field of yellow school buses.

Whether Altman was aware of what was in his actress's head — and whether Hou intended us to link the bicycles of Late Spring with other parts of his movie — is largely irrelevant. The cat is out of the bag the moment the film is released. And even if I'd like to disregard these irresistable extra-filmic morsels, it seems pretty hard to do so at this point. The body of context has just grown a little fatter.

Posted by davis | Link

Writing in the latest issue of The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann has a contrarian view of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, calling it "a braggart piece of empty exhibitionism."

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (2)
A recent guest reviewer for our site made a number of unfortunate factual errors when reviewing the new Jon Favreau/Will Ferrell movie Elf. While it is true that the Ferrell character, Buddy, leaves the North Pole on an ice floe, he does not in the process rescue an unconscious woman floating toward a deadly waterfall. The actress who our guest reviewer said played the woman, Lillian Gish, passed away in 1993 and could not have appeared in the film. While it's also true that Buddy and his new love spend a night in a department store, they do not roller skate through the store; Buddy, therefore, does not skate dangerously close to a ledge in a part of the store that is under construction. In general, the movie has far fewer perils than our guest reviewer led readers to assume. Finally, we're still investigating the reviewer's claim that the movie is a remake of Crocodile Dundee with the part of the Australian tracker replaced by an elf.
Posted by editor | Link | Other Corrections

The New York Times received a lot of attention a few years ago when its longtime movie critic Janet Maslin announced her departure. Who would fill this influential spot? Surprising everyone, the paper announced that two people would replace her, Elvis Mitchell, already a known film critic, and A. O. Scott, a book critic.

Roger Ebert had this huffy response in Salon:

Scott doesn't at this point have the qualifications of a Dave Kehr, but the Times editors apparently didn't want someone like that.... Has he seen six films by Bresson? Ozu? That's not the sort of question they would think to ask. Would they hire a book critic to be their music critic? Architecture critic? No, but that goes without saying. They probably believe, like many other editors, that anyone can be the film critic. It is the only job on the newspaper that everyone, including the editors, believe they can do better than the person on the beat.

Lucky for all of us, the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth is this year, increasing the opportunities to see Ozu's quiet movies about everyday Japanese life.

First up, a nearly complete set of prints is currently showing in the San Francisco Bay Area, some of them at the Castro Theater starting today, and a more complete set, including silents, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley starting November 23. These prints are expected to travel to other cities, if there are no complications caused by Cowboy Pictures, who is providing the prints, going out of business. Watch the Ozu site for late-breaking news.

Just think of all the film critics who will be earning their stripes at these showings.

If the prints don't come near you, you should take a look at the brand new Criterion DVD of Tokyo Story. Doug Cummings recently wrote a great review of the movie and DVD on Also, check the afformentioned Ozu site for other available DVDs.

Finally, you'll be glad to know that Ebert has since apologized to Scott, in Slate:

...full disclosure compels me to say that at the time I was extremely disappointed that Dave Kehr did not get the job (reportedly because of ageism, although who knows), and so I got smart-ass about you with Salon. The fact is, your movie reviews have been as good as your book reviews, and I am ashamed to have spoken so recklessly.

Me, I've only seen three Ozu movies, so you see I'm only halfway there. But I'm within walking distance of the Castro theater, so check back soon. This sums up my status as a movie critic. A neophyte, but an eager one.

Let's talk about Bresson another day.

Posted by davis | Link
We recently reported that studios had begun marking single frames of theatrically released film prints with patterns of dots to encourage people to record the movies. The dots are visible, briefly, in such recent movies as Kill Bill and Elf. The idea behind the so-called "clap code" is that if secret messages are encoded in a movie, people will be more likely to try to capture the film on video and take it home where they can pore over it frame by frame to decipher the hidden missive. The industry is hopeful that this will create an interest in sharing digitized movies; since each print has a unique message, fans will want to collect all of them. However, we also reported that the dots are often in the shape of a studio executive's head, which we've discovered is false. The dots are arranged into many different shapes, none of them heads, so far as we can tell. The dots themselves are round. We apologize for the error.
Posted by editor | Link | Other Corrections

It's ripped-from-the-headlines week at your local theater. Playing in many cities this week:

  • Elephant, Gus Van Sant's fictionalized account of the Columbine school shootings;
  • Shattered Glass, a movie based on the period at The New Republic during which reporter Stephen Glass fabricated entire stories;
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a documentary made inside the presidential palace during the coup that temporarily ousted Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez;
  • and Bus 174, a documentary about a bus hijacking in Rio De Janeiro.

All four of these movies are riveting. All four are important. Each one essentially tells the story behind the news and, in many ways, the story of the news: where it comes from, what influences it, and how it breaks down. Bus 174 and The Revolution show how the news media itself becomes a part of the story. The bus-jacking in Rio happened in broad daylight with a hundred local news reporters swarming the bus and capturing the hours-long standoff on tape. The documentary is exceptionally well organized and explores the story from several angles, in depth.

Like me, you may have read about the coup in Venezuela quickly in the newspaper and then forgotten it, but it comes alive in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a documentary that's both a success and a failure. It succeeds at being in the right place at the right time and showing how the opposition to Chavez used the media to sway public opinion, but it's as biased a piece of journalism as what it criticizes.

Shattered Glass is fascinating, as tales of deception often are, and is again valuable for showing what the opinion shapers of the world look like: driven, competitive, and so darn young. And look at how much trust we put in them. Stephen Glass wrote fiction for the New Republic, inventing characters, companies, and events. Problem is, he sold it to everyone, including his bosses, as fact. Unfortunately, the movie offers very little analysis of the situtation, content in blaming one guy (yes, he deserves it) and a simple flaw in fact-checking standards. But this has happened to such high-profile news outlets that maybe more depth would be useful. Still, it's a completely absorbing tale.

Of course, if analysis is what I want, am I being inconsistent when I think that Elephant is one of the most thought-provoking movies of the year despite the fact that it avoids any attempt to analyze its subject, school shootings? While Elephant isn't directly about the media as the other three movies are, what lurks beneath every second is our collective desire to understand simply and definitively why such shootings happen. This movie's rigid sampling of details implies that the whole thing is far too complex for television to analyze.

I hated the idea of this movie from the moment I heard about it. Gus Van Sant has flipped his lid again, I thought. This movie does not need to be made, I thought. Nothing good can come of this. But I was wrong. This movie did need to be made, and you need to see it. More importantly, you need to talk about it afterward. Give me a call or something.

Posted by davis | Link
2003, United States
director: Gus Van Sant

It's hard to imagine a subject more fraught with potential pitfalls than the Columbine school shooting. A movie that attempts to recreate part of that tragic day could march in any number of distasteful directions. It could be a melodrama, giving voice to the pain of the victims, but that's exploitation; we've already seen the video footage and heard the frantic phone calls. It could be an action movie, building perverse excitement out of watching two boys plan and execute a military operation, but that's irresponsible and, if it tries to condemn the violence with ominous music or a sentimental ending, as such movies often do, hypocritical. Or maybe worst of all, it could attempt to explain what has been debated endlessly since the shooting: why did this happen? But simple explanations would almost certainly appear as hollow here as they did when spit from the mouths of TV's talking heads.

Remarkably, Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a fictionalized re-creation of a portion of that day, avoids all of these traps, but not by ignoring them. Instead it boldly skirts their edges, fully aware that on some level we want all of them — excitement, emotion, and maybe most of all, explanations — but it refuses us everything. Van Sant uses the extremely formal technique of silently following students, one at a time, as they wander the school's hallways. The camera literally glides behind them for minutes at a time. Faces and the backs of heads fill the screen. He uses a shallow focus to put some of the characters in the middle of a blurry haze, individual ships sailing through narrow canals, passing in the dark, each one a story, a problem, a powder keg. The effect can't properly be called suspense, because it's not pleasurable to anticipate what we know is coming, not here. This tension is closer to dread, inevitability.

By hanging silently in these halls, Van Sant seems to invite us to look for meaning. If you were there, if you were in the hallways, or in the classrooms, or in the bathroom, or at the breakfast table, or in the car on the way to school, would you see the reasons for the violence? He slows certain actions down, leading us to believe they are important — a girl watching a boy, a boy watching a girl, a dog leaping — but are they? A mesmerizing, 360-degree pan of a boy's basement room tempts us to search the walls and the floor for a clue, for anything at all, and it gives us plenty of possibilities, but it's noncommittal, unconvinced. Is it the violent video game? The Hitler documentary? Bad parents? Bullies? Easy access to guns? In a speech to a teacher at gunpoint, one of the boys gives us what seems, at first, to be the most overt explanation, but Van Sant anticipates that this is exactly what we want and deliberately turns it over. We hear only part of the speech, without context, and don't know exactly what the boy is talking about. He says he's not going to shoot the teacher because he wants this message to be delivered, but then he does shoot the man. There is no message. So this, too, falls short of the explanation that we want. Van Sant steps up onto a soapbox, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and then steps back down without having said a word. In so doing, he calls attention not to school violence itself but to our need for patterns, resolutions, and simple logic to explain it in a desparate attempt to prevent it.

Van Sant undercuts the other near-pitfalls in similar ways. Having anticipated the shooting for a tense hour, we expect some release when it happens. We expect the pace of the movie to increase dramatically. We expect horror. Fright. Percussive music. But we get none of it. The shooting starts, but then he cuts away to more mundanity elsewhere in the school. We think we're finally going to get our chewy biscuits when the movie suddenly introduces a new character, Bennie, a large, eerily calm boy who begins a long slow approach toward one of the shooters from behind. Here, we assume, we'll get at least a scuffle. The adrenaline begins to flow. But Bennie's life, and therefore the scene, are cut short in a blink, unceremoniously, senselessly, randomly.

The search for meaning causes the movie to be something of a Rorschach test. The opening shot shows three arms jutting from the top of a telephone pole, all in the same direction, attached to their electrical lines, and a fourth arm jutting the opposite direction, with a lamp on the end. When the sun goes down, it's the one jutting the opposite direction that lights up. What do we make of this? The movie seems to develop parallels between the shooters and a well-liked photography student. He wanders the halls with his camera instead of a weapon. He prepares his photo-developing equipment the same way the shooters tinker with their guns. And when one of the shooters takes aim at a student, Van Sant cuts to the photographer who raises his camera and "shoots" the boy who has the gun, not only sharpening the parallel but introducing media into the equation. But ultimately, these parallels lead nowhere, or just to more questions. The most frequent occurrence in the movie is a brief meeting in the hall between individuals strolling past each other, interacting or avoiding interaction entirely. We're left with randomness. We're left with an inebriated father confused about the smoke pouring out of the building and grasping at the arm of his son awkwardly. (The father is played by Timothy Bottoms, who played a roller coaster bomber in 1977's Rollercoaster.) We're left with people gunned down mid-sentence, friend or foe, eeny-meany miny-mo. We're left with time-elapsed shots of the sky. We're left with physics.

Elephant is a great movie. I think. At the very least its gravitas counters the platitudes of television pop psychology, and its fractured, individual-focused narrative demonstrates that a school — with its students isolated and bouncing off of each other like atoms of a heated gas, enclosed by something that can't contain them — is far too complex a microcosm to be understood through brief interpretation.

Posted by davis | Link
Chávez: Inside the Coup
2003, Ireland
directors: Kim Bartley, Donnacha O'Briain

Pictures can manipulate opinion. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is about this fact, but it's also an example of it. Documentary filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain were actually inside the presidential palace of Caracas, Venezuela, with their cameras before, during, and after the democratically elected government was forcibly dissolved in a bloodless coup in 2002 and miraculously restored 48 hours later. Told with sympathy for the country's polarizing president, Hugo Chávez, the story behind the headlines is riveting. While the coup has the ingredients of Latin American turmoil that we've read about for ages — populist military leaders, violent demonstrations in the streets, oil barons scrapping for supremacy, barely-contained contempt for democracy — the tools of power have changed in the information age. Television stations are fortresses, new leaders dismantle government institutions while standing behind banks of microphones, and the passions in the streets are captured by video cameras.

The documentary's name (as it has been released in the U.S.) is inspired by Chávez's claim that most TV stations in Venezuela are controlled by the elites who oppose him and his "revolutionary" government. The most salient example of their control is an incident that changed much of the public's opinion of Chávez. Just before the coup, TV stations repeatedly showed damning footage of Chávez's supporters apparently firing at peaceful protesters who were calling for the president's resignation. The movie claims that because of the camera angle, it was impossible to see that the people were actually firing not at demonstrators but at snipers, and that the streets just outside the frame were empty because marchers had taken a different route. The filmmakers present footage that seems to show the missing angle.

It's an important lesson, to know the biases of those presenting the information and know how editing can omit inconvenient details, and viewers of this movie should apply it before they leave the theater. The documentary builds sympathy for Chávez by showing him as a regular guy who repeatedly talks about honoring the constitution. He encourages a crowd to read it, he hammers home its policies, and his supporters are shown telling some of the people who were involved in the coup that it will protect even them.

But the movie elides or glosses over some important details that newcomers to the Chávez vision might want to know before hailing him as a lover of freedom and democracy. The constitution that he waves to crowds in the form of a little blue book is something that he himself put in place while he was in office. In 1992, before he was president, he lead an unsuccessful coup to overthrow the elected government (the movie leaves out the word "elected" when it tells us this). And as much as he claims to love his constitution, he presses its edges whenever it helps him sustain or expand his power: he threatens the supposedly independent Supreme Court justices, telling them that the army and the people aren't going to accept certain decisions; he expands the size of the Supreme Court so he can add cronies; he takes control of the Caracas police department; and he makes it difficult for people to keep their jobs with the state-owned oil company, one of the country's biggest employers, if they sign a petition calling for a constitutionally-allowed presidential recall election. (As of this writing, signature-gathering continues in hopes of legally removing the president before his term is up.) The movie doesn't hint at this side of its beloved Chávez.

The leaders of the opposition are not necessarily democrats, either, having overthrown the government by force instead of through elections. They so embarrassed themselves with their unconstitutional behavior that even their contacts in the U.S. government could not outright applaud their actions. The U.S., however, doesn't wear its freedom-and-democracy costume well, either, when it fails to condemn a coup against a fairly elected but problematic president of an oil-producing country. In the movie, Ari Fleischer repeats the claims about Chávez's supporters firing on demonstrators and all but says Chávez brought the coup on himself. He may have. He may have ruined his country's economy with his capricious and erratic manipulation of the currency exchange rates. It may be all the more reason to vote him out, but it's no reason to get rid of democracy altogether.

This movie, then, is a mixed bag, but in the end I think movies like this serve a purpose. They show us the faces behind the news. I remember reading the news briefs about the coup in Venezuela in the paper and not thinking much about them, I'm sad to say. It was remote, abstract. But after seeing the stunning first-hand video footage and getting to know a few of the personalities and issues involved, I had a strong desire to go back through the online news archives and read more about this situation, which is where I got a very different view of the whole mess. A movie like this is not the place to get all of the facts, but it's an invaluable way to put faces to the names and passions to the black-and-white typography. We also get pictures on the nightly news, of course, but they're dumped from a satellite, not carefully pored over by filmmakers who have the time to assemble a cohesive narrative. A documentary is no more or less truthful, no more or less manipulative, than the filtered TV images, but a debate of considered arguments is preferable to a debate of sound bites, even if some of those arguments are flawed.

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The Human Stain feels like a novel that's been reduced to what are thought to be its essentials but somehow loses something in the process. I haven't read Roth's novel, so I'm partially guessing, here, but the movie seems unable to tell us what we need to know about its characters, and I blame the filmmaker's reductive method of selection from what I imagine to be in the book. Maybe book editors should be filmmakers.

When I see a movie like this, I think of Francis Ford Coppola, for several reasons:

  • He made The Godfather, certainly one of the great American movies. It's based on a novel, spans decades, and has no shortage of plot and character. But Coppola used cinematic techniques to find new themes buried in the story, themes of America, the land of immigrants and opportunity, politics and corruption, attempts at legitimacy and deals with the devil. Think of the scene in which Don Vito Corleone dies in the garden while playing with his grandson, observed from a distance through vines by a nervous camera. Life, death, rebirth. What we thought was an arc is a cycle that continues now with Michael.
  • But Coppola also made The Conversation, certainly one of the great unsung American movies. Written by Coppola for the screen, it has a thin plot that covers a short period of time and observes a single character who interacts from time to time with others but seems solitary in the middle of a crowd. Gene Hackman has very little dialog but speaks silent volumes hiding inside his translucent raincoat, behind his horn-rimmed glasses. Inside this sparse structure, the story pulses with life and rhythm, advancing when you don't expect it to. The movie is intensely quiet, using sound effects and voices like an accompaniment to its circular piano melody, and Coppola's camera knows when to look away from its characters who remain just offscreen, when to follow them like a hawk, and when to pan left-and-right in disbelief. We're left in the end with just Hackman and his saxophone, saying what need not be said.
  • And I think of the comment that Coppola wrote in his introduction to the Zoetrope All-Story collection, describing his desire for movies to be based on strong stories and for studios to cultivate literary work:

    I thought the best place to begin was with the short story, because it most approximates the dimensions of the average film. Novels tend to have too much material, but short stories contain all the basic elements that a film needs in one package: character, plot, and setting. Like movies, stories are to be consumed in one sitting. The good ones transport you, the great ones change you, and the bad ones — well, at least they are short.
    The Conversation is a short story. Although it devotes nearly all of its time to one character, that character remains something of a mystery, not because the movie fails, but because it succeeds. People are more complicated than some movies would have us believe.

Novels can't be re-coded into movies. They're something other. Novels and movies are almost a complete mismatch, and I think they are only paired because they're both consumer units. People buy individual books and individual movies, but they buy short stories only in collections. Commerce has joined art forms for its own purposes.

Now what's happened to the short film?

Posted by davis | Link

Nathaniel Kahn's documentary My Architect about his late father, architect Louis Kahn, opens wider in November. Like Stone Reader, it's a very personal search, documented by a first-time filmmaker, a search in which the real reward is the journey itself.

Both movies explore the intersections of a person's daily life and his art and revolve around the filmmaker's own feelings about the work. Kahn's movie is more successful, to me, even though it would seem he's aiming at a stationary target. Both movies suffer at times from borrowing too heavily from TV, but Kahn is more serious about the details and has assembled a more nuanced travelogue. He's less certain about where he wants his search to end up, which makes him a more credible and more likable guide.

You can listen to Terry Gross's interview with Kahn on yesterday's Fresh Air, but also be on the lookout for the movie in your area.

Posted by davis | Link | Comments (7)
2003, United States
director: Robert Benton

Maybe one of the difficulties with turning a novel into a movie — besides the obvious differences of duration and technique — is that the filmmakers have the book's characters in their heads while the audience must make do with the digest on the screen. Nicole Kidman's character in The Human Stain has dysfunctional relationships with her parents and men. Do you want to guess why? She was abused. Maybe there's more to this woman than that, but not much of it appears in the movie. She tells a bit of her past to a bird in a cage, but it's hard to pay attention to characters who do such things, no matter how heavy the symbolism. Maybe what's on the screen is a wholly consistent, merely incomplete portrayal of the character in the book. Not having read the book, I can't say, but I can say that it's an incomplete portrayal of a human being, not because it leaves parts of her life out, which it must, but because it deems those invisible aspects irrelevant. Like that of the Tim Robbins character in Mystic River, this is a life of ellipses.

Those who place books higher in the artistic hierarchy than movies often state that books require imagination and movies, because they create the images for you, do not. But I can't think of anything that requires more imagination than believing Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in these roles. They're both fine actors, as we know from other movies and even from this one, but not once did I believe that Hopkins is an African American who can pass for a Jewish American while speaking with a Welsh accent. And Kidman, no matter how much she smokes, doesn't seem like she's done a lot of "milkin'" to pay the rent. It's only Ed Harris who confounds my expectations and who at times really does seem like he'll take a crowbar to a couple of skulls and not think twice about it.

The movie is narrated by Gary Sinise, a kind of Ishmael to Hopkins' Ahab, a Nick to his Jay Gatsby. In a novel, such a narrator gives the reader an intimate, first-hand account and gives the storytelling a concrete point of view, the sober observer, but here Sinise comes across as a red herring. Perhaps the film equivalent of this kind of narrator is a hand-held camera, cinema verité. Or maybe there is no true analogue. Despite Sinise's voice-over, the movie never once appears to be from his perspective. He's just another character alongside the others.

A fair portion of the movie is spent in flashbacks to Hopkins' college days, before he picked up his accent while teaching abroad, and although I initially dreaded these hops back in time, they eventually drew me in. They make only the most dubious connections to the present-day story, but they contain some of the movie's most genuine feelings. There's also a nice moment in which Hopkins dances on a screened porch, and the camera glides along with him, outside the porch, as if he's Fred Astaire in a cage. The scene gets a little silly after that, turning into the sort of thing that appears in highlight reels at award shows, but briefly, while Hopkins twirls, the character and the movie seem to be in sync, willing to hang in the moment rather than ponder the epic purpose of the action. Like Hopkins hesitating in his car after meeting Kidman, and then deciding to damn the consequences, turn off his car, and climb into her barn, her bed, and her life, the movie is most convincing when it gives in to brief, natural impulses.

Posted by davis | Link