LET’S GO TO THE MOVIES!
The Square dir Jehane Noujaim
Last January, Egyptian-America filmmaker Jehane Noujaim and her crew literally landed in Salt Lake direct from Cairo and drove to Park City to reach the Sundance Film Festival theater `where The Square was premiering as the house light came up after the first screening. They took the stage still in their travel clothes to answer questions from the cheering audience. The Square went on to win the Sundance audience award. Exciting yes, but the structure was a mess. Over the course of the next eight months, as Egypt continued to be in turmoil, The Square crew kept shooting and Jehane and her editing crew began to craft a documentary that shows the difference between citizen journalism (YouTube postings) and a finished documentary that would never be seen as yesterday’s news.
The structure, as she said at the NYFF, came from what she had learned from D.F. Pennybaker and at the Sundance Institute – find and follow the characters, which she did. The result is documentary filmmaking at its historical, crafted, insightful best. The viewer follows the ever-evolving story through the eyes and words of the people in The Square that Noujaim has chosen to follow. We get to know individual people from religious to secular factions, women and men, young and old; we experience with them the unfolding events. We learn what the Arab Spring means in Egypt and the shared hope for a human revolution. We learn from the actual people camped out in the Square, not talking head reporters, and from the filmmakers themselves who also all met each other in Cairo’s Tahir Square.
12 Years a Slave dir Steve McQueen
Brit Steve McQueen is the toast of the film press at the moment. However, I think he has stunted critical thinking by his aesthetical choices in this important film. His very clean and bloodless representation of the horror story of slavery in the US allows the viewer to actually distance himself from the visceral and
emotional impact of the true story of a freed slave living in upstate NY in the 1850s. The slave was convinced by two foppish, bounty hunters into returning to the South where his former owner and vile racist family claim him as their property.
Like his previous work, Hunger, and Shame, this film reflects McQueen’s obsessive fascination with power, pain, and suffering. It is true we have seen slavery spectacles from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind told from the white society point of view and little effort to authentically represent a slave’s point of view. Critics are speaking of McQueen’s cool, perfectly performed, exquisitely landscaped (and it is) as the great breakthrough in authentic storytelling. McQueen, as he has in previous works, shows us, almost as an intellectual conceit, the cool depiction of pain as if he were the Marquis de Sade watching the vile, yet ordinary, cruel racism of the Southern white ruling class as the norm rather than the exception. In theory yes, but aesthetically, no. McQueen cannot get out of his well-known art world installation sensibility; aesthetics trump reality. What both Quentin Tarantino and Lee Daniels understand is that real life people feel. This creates tension and allows empathy. They both fuse feeling with insight while McQueen stays in the post-modern mind-body disconnect. His actors all rise to the level of the angry script including a revelatory mirror held up by Alfre Woodward to Clarence Thomas tokenism. McQueen’s distancing construction of the horror and suffering through his artist’s eye and intellect simply lacks heart. Yes audiences will react in harrow but only as set up response, not in the kind of devastation art can invoke. Too bad because this angry script in the right hands could.
Blue Is the Warmest Color dir Abdellatif Kechiche
Given the raging storm over the explicit lesbian sex scenes after winning the Golden Palm this year at Cannes and hearing how differently men and most women see the film, I asked Barbara Hammer to share her insights . Hammer, a Westbeth resident is a feminist film director, world-renowned for making the first explicit lesbian film in 1974, Dyketactics, and for her trilogy of documentary film essays on queer history Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995), History Lessons, (2000) in addition to award winning narrative experimental shots and features
JF: Blue is about the sexual awakening of a high school student spellbound by a blue haired female artist in Lille, a mid-sized city in France (think Atlanta). Based on Julie Maroh’s French language controversial, award winning, graphic novel Blue Angles (just published in English), Blue is not pornographic. It is shocking because even in our sex-saturated culture, heterosexual sexual coupling is standard in almost every contemporary narrative film. Lesbian sex has been hidden except in the world of male fantasy and the porn that fuels it. In Blue, it is full frame, intimate, seemingly real and highly erotic, if still from a male point of view. While the bodies rolling around are not as graphic as rumoured, Blue is much more than sweaty bodies.
Abdellatif Kechiche is a director of note. His Secret of the Grain had me convinced that these were real working class people and not actors. Yet in fact, it was a narrative not a document. His Black Venus seemed to me to fetishize an African woman put on display in 19 century Paris. In Blue, he replicates high school student interaction and the sometimes thoughtless group. He captures the closeness of outsider gay teens and their secret world of clubs, friendship, and survival tactics. The subtle class differences of the bourgeois artist and the ripe, besotted student threads the storytelling. The actual French title is in fact Adele Chapter 1 and 2, the beginning of a journey into adulthood, not an end.
In France, it is taken for granted that teenagers have sex and the age of consent is realistic unlike the puritanical anti-sex religious right policing here. See it with eyes wide open!
Barbara Hammer: The sex? Whew! Blow me away! Sex like you’ve never seen it in 70 mm. The plot? Young girl falls in love with older girl and suffers break-up drama later when dismissed for another. Original story! However, the depiction of class difference was superb. The structure? Crowd interludes put in place to predictably follow hard-core sex or cat fights. After all, where can you go after gorgeous body scenery but to the mass of humanity on the street? But who does not love young supple nude bodies. And then, the setting: who does not love French countryside? The acting? Amazing work by Adele Exarchopoulos with the Louise Brooks mouth. The composition? The depiction of bodies choreographed like paintings. Strong work here! The cinematography? Gorgeous three shot reflection scene of Kechiche opening the film to the kind of sex cinema I love with the camera right there between the participants. No doorway voyeur shots here. Still, leaving the film I felt like I had watched soft-core French pornography. I always think sex is a wonderful part of our lives but I missed seeing other desires like the drive to create, to play, to study, hey, even to think. What film am I talking about? Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche starring Léa Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. The break out film that won the Pale D’or at Cannes is a ground-breaking luscious portrait of young sex? Now, please, could we have a graphic display of those of us still lusty in our seventies I hope I haven’t dissuaded you from seeing this “Kiss, kiss, sunlight through the lips” sumptuous dining film. You will never see spaghetti eaten like this again!
WHEW! There are so many quality films this month I would like you to see that I could fill all the pages of WestView with recommendations. These include Dallas Buyers Club with Matthew McConaughey once more staking a claim for the most risk taking American actor we have. God Loves Uganda, a chilling study of the new wave of Christian colonization of Africa. Steve Coogan’s Philomena, a scab-lifting expose of nuns and their fear of pleasure and sex and the 50 year old secret held by one woman on a mission played unforgettably by Dame Judy Dench. Finally, a treasure hunt doc for the real Betty Page, America’s naughty but nice pin-up and what really happened to her. These and others I will discuss online at jimfourattsreeldealmovies.blogspot.com. Please join me there.