Brief impression: “Summer of Sam”

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

If Spike Lee’s underrated (I would argue) ‘Summer of Sam’ is more concerned with the effect that the year-long Son of Sam killing season had on the general atmosphere in New York City during the summer of 1977, then I wonder about the scenes featuring Michael Badalucco as the titular figure; I wonder about the presence and the significance of these. Are they intended as periodic reminders of the ‘madman’ whose relatively simple acts had an entire city by the throat for twelve whole months, or are they part of a narrative device by which the concurrent ratcheting of tension in both the character-drama storyline and that of the crime-thriller feed into and feed off one another? Perhaps they are simply obligatory inclusions of an individual in a film whose overall existence is largely dependent on that very individual. Once the film comes to a conclusion though, it is clear that the explicit depiction of the true killer is a kind of dramatic irony: Adrien Brody’s Ritchie, one of the film’s key characters, is increasingly believed to be the Son of Sam by his ‘friends’ on account of his adopting the confronting dress code and lifestyle of the late 70s British Punk establishment (though anyone who knows the actual name of Son of Sam would realise that poor mohawked Ritchie is innocent,) with some fairly unfortunate consequences.

Each time Berkowitz is shown thrashing about in his morbidly lit abode, being tortured – presumably – by the voices chewing at his brain, or when Lee follows Son of Sam or his silhouette from behind as he stalks his human prey in the darkened streets and shrubs, there is almost undeniable deliberateness to the way his identity is concealed. Now while it is common practice to shroud dangerous and shadowy characters in mystery, either for purposes of suspense or to create a sense of otherness, the portrayal of the killer in this film highlights the frustration and tension inherent in his behaviour, or at the very least it seems that this is the case; that he is a wound-up, frustrated man with no other conceivable outlet but the barrel of a pistol. The strong sense I get is that this man is not so far removed from the ‘regular’ folk on whom he preys. Vinny, Ritchie, Ruby, Dionna, Joey and the rest of the cats that populate Throgs Neck, the section of the Bronx that serves as the film’s setting…these characters are all in some way trashing around their own personal hells, victims of their own personal demonic forces, their own 2000-year old black dog (an entity to which Berkowitz actually attributed his crimes): whether it’s Vinny and his irrepressible, wandering eye which finds him repeatedly cheating on his gorgeous wife Dionna, or Ritchie’s immersion in various subcultures that may or may not weigh on him but which certainly contribute to his being ostracised and viewed with undue suspicion, ‘Summer of Sam’ is bold enough to draw parallels between the psychic struggles of these characters and  Berkowitz’s rage, confusion and enslavement to his violent urges.

Spike Lee has always been a filmmaker who appears obsessed with the psychological complexities – no, the schizophrenia – of the cultural broth that is New York City, the psychosocial inferno that is created when ethnicities, generations and disparate value systems not only co-exist but frequently clash. In ‘Summer of Sam,’ Berkowitz is less a character than he is a personification of a community’s state of mind at a particular time in its history. Now, whether or not this film successfully explores exactly what state of mind the city of New York was in during this period is a difficult assessment to make, but there is no shortage of first-hand testimony of the fact that the late-seventies saw New York going through a very rough period indeed. Perhaps Berkowitz’s reign of violence was simply one of several possible outcomes; maybe it was even somewhat ineviable. That being said, this film is not so much an exploration of his crimes as it is one which uses his crimes as a way in, a way into the soul of a little section of the Bronx in the summer of 1977.

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Brief impression: “A Face in the Crowd”

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

All of a sudden Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterwork seems that much less original. Of course, there is a rich history of great films being informed by other great films, but Elia Kazan’s 1957 gem pre-empts ‘Network’ so thoroughly that it is simply hard to ignore the latter’s indebtedness to the former. Strangely, while both films dissect, by way of dogged satire, the phenomenon of cult of personality and its place in popular media, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ may be a much more apt commentary on the current culture of ‘following’ and being followed than a film of its age has any right to, particularly nowadays during which it seems to take less and less for one to acquire a posse or legion of fans and adorers, whether in the flesh or otherwise.

In ‘Network’, news anchor Howard Beale’s dwindling audience share only skyrockets once his impending axing flips his switch and turns him into a crazed or perhaps pseudo-crazed mad prophet of the airwaves, one who seems to echo and articulate the frustrations of the average television viewer in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate United States of America. In contrast, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ gives us Andy Griffith in a loose-limbed, powerhouse performance as song-singing drifter Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, a self-professed “just a country boy” whose small-town charm, charisma and latent narcissism is snapped up by sharp-eyed Arkansas radio promoter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal in perhaps the performance of the picture) only for him to snowball into a national television sensation. It turns out that there’s just something about this fella Lonesome that millions of Americans seem to love, so much so that he wields an immense influence in fields that your usual TV personality perhaps ought not to. Sure, Rhodes may very well have been a composite of the Elvis Presleys and Buddy Hollys of the day (as well as media personalities like Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey), but beyond the effect Lonesome has on his legion of screaming adolescent females, this film takes a peek into the socio-political implications of a personality this big and this self-assured. Rhodes’ mentorship of a presidential hopeful is a sad reminder of how personality can and often does supersedes policy and principle in The People’s choice of a leader.

Preventing this film from floating off into the stratosphere where overly brash satires that sadly disappear into a vortex of their own cynicism go to die is Kazan’s dedication to a sort of grassroots realism that tends to wheedle its way into his generally baroque approach, acting almost as a sobering reminder that the mythical heights to which Lonesome Rhodes rises in the film do not exist exclusively in a world of cinema and fantasy but in the same world that is home to the everyday, the average. This is perhaps no more evident in Lonesome’s grand homecoming when he is treated to a routine by the local high-school cheerleading team (a slight call-back to the forbidden sexuality in Kazan’s previous film ‘Baby Doll’). The choice of interweaving of candid-looking, almost verité shots of the small-town American crowds that have come to see their local hero with more staged and stylised depictions of Lonesome’s antics and reactions seems to suggest that there is an element of mutualism at play here; that Lonesome satisfies his fans’ need to adore, to worship, to elevate as much as they feed his need to be adored and worshiped and elevated. The truth of course is that this not quite mutualism or commensalism but a kind of mutual parasitism whereby both parties feed off each other to satisfy needs that do not in any way benefit either of them in the long term.

But for all the socio-political commentary, as is true of a great deal of Elia Kazan’s work, ‘A Face in the Crowd’ is great entertainment in the broadest Hollywood sense: it’s classical rise-and-fall storytelling that moves at a cracking pace, populated by the faces that have a certain star quality. This picture is one strong piece of evidence in favour of the idea that a film can package intelligence and insight in a snappy, flashy package of song, sass and swinging style.

Brief impression: “Manakamana”

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Aside from the incomprehensible technical prowess it must require to craft some of his sculptures, the genius of Ron Mueck’s work – most of which depicts not mythical deities or surrealistic peculiarities but what one might call “average human beings in various states of vulnerability” – is that it renders the commonplace inexplicably captivating; no, hypnotic. It was only on viewing a Mueck sculpture that I realised, perhaps with a slight shudder of inward-directed horror and shame, how rarely I consider the physicality of my fellow humans with any degree of vested interest, with the slightest bit of genuine, unadulterated curiosity. Even those whom I consider beautiful, sexy or pleasing to behold only tend to register in my mind as a combination of features, broadly speaking: nice eyes, full lips, hourglass figure, ample bosom, a stately pair of legs; even in as intimate a situation as sharing a bed with such an individual, how often do my eyes scour every inch of their face in simple wonderment, as opposed to focusing on the moistness of lips or the shimmering of eyes? Of course, it is not often that one is offered the opportunity to visually explore the raw, physical humanity of another person, one whom they encounter walking down the street or sitting in a café or travelling on the train. But how often have I thought to myself “if only I could study the very pores on this individual’s face, only then would my curiosity be satisfied?” This is the magic of Mueck’s sculptures: opening one’s eyes to the endlessly fascinating bodyscape of the human creature, stirring up latent curiosity or curiosity which previously did not exist and, in doing so, dragging the beholder from their cocoon of self-interest and propelling them into a state of social and spiritual receptivity that may pave the way for greater empathy. Similarly, this is the magic of a film like ‘Manakamana.’

The Manakamana Cable Car runs between Cheres station in the Chitwan district of Nepal and Manakamana Temple located in the neighbouring district of Gorkha. Since 1998 the Austrian-imported cable car has transported locals, tourists and cargo over and across the surrounding valleys and mountain ranges, back and forth, from nine in the morning to five in the evening when the system shuts down for the day. The average trip from Cheres to Manakamana takes roughly ten minutes and for a touch under two hours Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab dare to subject viewers to eleven uncut, static shots depicting exactly eleven trips between the two stations. It is evident after a handful of these segments that the filmmakers probably shot a wealth of footage and that the final cut of the film is comprised of a considered selection of trips shot in different cable cars at different times as opposed to it being eleven consecutive journeys in one particular car. One of these segments actually takes place in a cargo vessel transporting a bunch of goats through the Nepalese sky, recalling – whether tongue-in-cheek or not – ‘Sweetgrass’, a film also produced by HSEL. Apart from the goats, the subjects are largely locals going about their daily business or on pilgrimage, though there are some English-speaking tourists and a trio of young, blackclad, long-haired Nepalese metalheads, for a touch of variety.

Interestingly, thirty-plus minutes into the film, long after I found myself subtly hoping and pleading for the film to offer up subjects other than locals quietly exchanging everyday banalities or sitting in utter silence for minutes on end, the metalheads appeared on screen. But by this point, ‘Manakamana’ had taught me how best to watch it, how best to appreciate what it had to offer, which was (and continues to be) the opportunity to be simply and selflessly fascinated. Rather than being a cute little bit of cinematic tourism that seeks to provide a box-ticking portrait of the cable car and the various types of passengers it services, ‘Manakamana’ is an anthropological exercise, albeit one which requires nothing more than patience, curiosity, but mostly a generosity of spirit of the kind that is rarely allowed to exist let alone thrive in a decidedly impatient and breakneck world. While the gently rocking landscape outside the cable cars is splendid in its natural beauty and soothing in its repetitiveness, and while there are endless moments of raw human behaviour in each segment that are both funny and sobering, it may very well be that ‘Manakamana’ is less about what is projected onto the screen and more about what it demands of the willing audience member, which is ultimately empathy in its purest form; the selfless desire to appreciate and perhaps understand the existence of another. Like Mueck’s sculptures, ‘Manakamana’ constructs a situation in which patrons are given the opportunity to do that which either time, social decorum or both prevent them from attempting or even considering.

Much as Ron Mueck’s sculptures were a sobering experience for me in highlighting, on my part, a disappointing lack of curiosity about things, ‘Manakamana’ challenged me to consider why it is that sitting quietly in the presence of a stranger can be so uncomfortable. I suspect it has to do with the fact that inquisitiveness of this kind – being selflessly interested in others and their plights – has become so darn unnatural. Perhaps it has always been. If so, bravo to ‘Manakamana’ and other such work that seek and strive to undo this state of affairs one film and one viewer at a time.

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