Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Man on the Bike: La Promesse (1996) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

La Promesse, newly released on Blu-ray by Criterion, introduced the world to the filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and their patented brand of realism on steroids. Produced during the booming economy of 1996, La Promesse, is a contemporary story of dissipated dreams and crumbling morals, told amid an unrelenting atmosphere of dank squalor. Against this unlikely backdrop, a troubled teenager unearths his own deeply buried moral compass, and transforms the dingy streets and narrow alleyways of his life into a new path to a world of human decency.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Days of Future Passed: The Combine and the Crow: Part 2

(Part One Here)

The next day while filing out of church, my father bent the ear of Mr. Barnwell, owner of the local farm supply emporium. My father described in vivid detail the combine’s death rattles, including an impressive approximation of the hideous screeching sound heard shortly before the device went totally kaput. Mr. Barnwell listened in rapt attention, hanging on to my father’s every utterance. Over the years, supplying parts for my father’s gimpy combine was a something of a cash cow for Mr. Barnwell and had contributed significantly to his children’s college fund.

Mr. Barnwell said it sounded to him like the main bearing had shot. Replacing it was not that big a job, but you would have to remove the drive shaft to get to it, which could be time consuming if you’ve never done it before. My father asked if Mr. Barnwell could get the part for him, and Mr. Barnwell replied that he was pretty sure he had the bearing in stock and would hold it for my father. Visibly relieved, my father said he’d be there first thing in the morning and thanked Mr. Barnwell profusely.

The next morning, my father decided he would try to get a jump on dismantling the combine, so he sent Eppie and me to Mr. Barnwell’s to retrieve the prized bearing. Eppie sharecropped with us and was sort of my father’s unofficial assistant. He was a hard worker, with a number of useful agricultural skills, but he had a fateful weakness for demon rum. Most days, Eppie was stone cold sober. But he was one of those guys that If he had one drink, he wouldn’t stop until the entire county had been gulped dry.

My father wasn’t sure what the part would cost, so he gave me a fifty dollar bill to cover it - Eppie couldn’t be trusted with that kind of cash - and we crammed into my father’s battered Ford pickup, careful to avoid the array of sharp springs protruding from the dry-rotted seat. As he drove the winding road to Mr, Barnwell’s, Eppie excitedly expounded on a number of topics, especially the previous night’s episode of Bonanza. As usual, he had been extremely pleased with the installment. While Eppie was a fan of TV Westerns in general, Bonanza was clearly his favorite, and the weekly doings of the Cartwright family enthralled him no end.

I, on the other hand, just sat there in a soundless stupor. I had in my shirt pocket a fifty dollar bill. In 1968, that was enough money to purchase real estate. I’d never seen a fifty spot before, didn’t even know they made them. A mere eleven years old and entrusted with the family’s entire earthly fortune. The awesomeness of the responsibility sparked a deep and penetrating introspection that made normal conversation impossible. But Eppie didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he expanded his critique to an analysis of recent episodes of Gunsmoke, including reasons, both pro and con, on whether Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty would ever get married.

I slowly realized that, if he were so inclined, Eppie could knock me in the head, swipe the fifty and, suddenly rich beyond imagination, make a quick run for the decadent glamour of Roanoke. But my dark speculation was pointless and I quickly came to my senses. The simple fact was Eppie loved me and my father, and would gladly have taken a bullet for either of us.

Eppie’s life had been difficult, but not atypical for a black man in Southern Virginia in the 1960s. Only two generations removed from slavery, Eppie was born into dire poverty and pretty much remained there the rest of his life. His father abandoned the family when Eppie was a baby, and his mother worked as a housekeeper. One day while walking to work down a lonely country road, she simply disappeared and was never heard from again. The police investigated for all of five minutes, but predictably didn’t turn up any clues. It was the height of the Depression and no one cared about a lost black woman.

Eppie basically had to raise himself, sleeping on the porches of various relatives and working long hours at local farms for a few pennies during harvest season. Eppie was drafted into the army when WWII broke out, and was promptly stationed at a Godforsaken hole in the Burmese jungle, where he remained for three miserable years. After the war, he returned and got a job at the local sawmill, where a nasty accident relieved him of the ring and pinkie fingers of his right hand.

As we pulled into Mr. Barnwell’s football field sized parking lot, Eppie looked over at me and asked, “How old are you now?”

“11, I'll be 12 next month”, I said with a subtle head shake, not fully believing that I’d reached such advanced years.

“Yeah I reckon you’re old enough,” Eppie said as he shut off the truck’s sputtering motor. “There’s something in Mr. Barnwell’s shop you just gotta see.”

“Like what?”

Eppie suddenly became as serious as the grave: “Oh you’ll see, but before you get outta this truck, you gotta promise not to ever tell your Daddy. He’d kill me and you both...”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Shock of the Real: Rosetta (1999) ✭✭✭✭✭

While there have been many coming of age films about teenage girls, it’s safe to say none have been quite like Rosetta, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Palme d’Or winner from 1999. Finally getting its long awaited North American video release by Criterion, Rosetta is a film that will shock viewers with its raw, jagged energy and unvarnished realism. Watching the film is an experience akin to having dirt thrown in your face, leaving viewers to spit out specks of grit while a destitute young woman wages war with society, her family and herself.

Played by 17 year old Émilie Dequenne, Rosetta lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a decrepit trailer park on the dingy outskirts of Liége, Belgium. Rosetta’s mother (Anne Yernaux) is an alcoholic who has given up on life, and spends her days huddled about the camper in a torpid funk. So determined is Rosetta not to end up like her mother she lives her life in a constant whirlwind of motion. Whether it’s running into town to look for work, checking on her secret fish traps, or dumpster diving for discarded clothes, young Rosetta’s nervous energy allows her not a moment’s rest. Her desire for a steady job has reached the level of obsession, as Rosetta’s sees employment as the only meaningful affirmation of her worth. While her initiative and determination may be commendable, Rosetta’s neediness and shame cause her to strangely withdraw from society, making it impossible for any well-intentioned soul to help her. The harder she tries to escape from poverty, the farther she drifts towards a life of savagery.

With Rosetta the Dardennes fully embraced what would become their defining style – derisively known “following the back of someone’s head” – and it bestows the film with an unnerving sense of intimacy and desperation. Alain Marcoen’s camera, always placed extremely close to Dequenne, renders her anguished fits and starts with the urgent chaos of combat photography. Yet our deep awareness of Dequenne’s physicality ironically serves to distance us from the character, as she remains an unpredictable and potentially dangerous cypher. The emotional walls she uses for protection cannot be breeched even by the viewer, despite our detailed knowledge of her innermost secrets. Dequenne would win the best actress award at Cannes for this performance, and her ability to lose herself in the film’s swirling maelstrom, usually with a camera lens just inches from her face, required confidence and skill far beyond her years. Her stunning work in Rosetta is nothing short of a revelation, and is an achievement of rare splendor.

Dequenne’s embodiment of Rosetta also stands as a testament to the visionary courage of the Dardennes, as the brothers approach each scene with an uncompromising eye for human seediness. Their willingness to risk their main character’s likability creates moments that successfully balance empathy with disgust, and creates a richly dense mosaic of this deeply troubled soul. The Dardennes present their story with a relentless rhythm that both fascinates and repels, intensifying their construction of a young life in flight from the wreckage of her past. Even though the Dardennes work exclusively in master shots, the contributions of their perennial editor Marie-Hélène Dozo are indispensable. Dozo’s instinctual grasp of defining moments is apparent throughout her filmography, including such non-Dardenne productions as Bénédicte Liénard’s A Piece of Sky (2002) and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man (2010). These films benefitted greatly from Dozo’s rhythmic alchemy, and her technique of extending the ends of scenes slightly beyond their logical cut points creates a mesmerizing sense of dramatic aftermath. She can up-cut with the best of them too, and Rosetta’s opening sequence, in which Dequenne is forcefully escorted from a bakery, seamlessly combines several takes into a montage that organically establishes Rosetta’s fierce and destructive stubbornness.

Previously unavailable to North American viewers, save for a few sporadic showings on the Sundance Channel, the long and frustrating wait for Rosetta on disc has finally ended. The intervening years have not diminished its emotional wallop, and indeed the perspective of 2012 has given this tale of class struggle an added resonance. Rosetta was made in 1999, during a period of relative economic plenty. In these days of lingering devastation from the 2008 financial crisis, it’s not hard to imagine a world filled with scruffy young Rosettas, struggling to survive in a landscape devoid of opportunity and basic compassion. Here, Émilie Dequenne embodies the combative nature of society’s forgotten souls. And while her desperate scenario has played out innumerable times in the years hence, the Dardennes present her story with such stark and brutal frankness only the most callous viewer will remain unmoved. Rosetta disturbs, haunts and mystifies, and remains an unrivaled cinematic excursion into the somber realm of the ultra real. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Criterion Collection: Le Havre (2011)✭✭✭✭

Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is a charming and engrossing fable – a sort of Fractured Fairy Tale for adults – that interprets one of today’s most contentious political issues through the director’s distinctly eccentric prism.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Trail of Fears: Meek's Cutoff (2010) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Those seeking a traditional shoot-em up will be disappointed in Meek’s Cutoff, a brooding, existentialist western from director Kelly Reichardt. Told as a patchwork of quietly desperate moments, the film is about 3 pioneer families and their meandering attempt to cross from Missouri to California, led by the shady guide Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) who may or may not know what the hell he’s doing. With each turn of their covered wagons’ wooden wheels, the exhausted band find themselves deeper in the barren vastness of the arid west, with dwindling supplies of food and fresh water

Meek’s Cutoff captures the brutal slog faced by the pioneers without a hint of the traditional romantic heroism, rubbing the dust, heat and discomfort of the undertaking deep into its characters’ faces. Along the way, young Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) learns a lot about the gullible weaknesses of her new husband (Will Patton), and the shadow of a massive nun-like sunbonnet cannot hide her mounting disappointment. As the wagons trudge on, Emily’s encounter with a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux), sets off a chain of events that will prove to be the group’s salvation or its final destruction.

It’s always tempting - and unfair - to assume feminist messaging in a film directed by a woman, and while Meek’s Cutoff is vague and allegorical in many aspects, there’s no doubting Reichardt’s sexual politics. The upright, macho men leading this journey have made a grand mess of things, a thesis easily transportable to America in the 2000s. Meek, a grizzled Wild Bill Hickok type, may talk a good game, but when it comes to actually leading he couldn’t find his own saddle-sore butt with a flashlight. Yet, since his orders are barked in a gruff baritone, the sheepish party that hired him follows on. The men often meet to discuss strategy; their mumbled deliberations mixed low and unintelligible to both WIlliams and the audience. As circumstances turn dire, a vote is taken on how to proceed, but only the men weigh in while the women stand quietly aside.

With a stylistic approach reminiscent of Malick mixed with Weerasathakul, Meek’s Cutoff ultimately asks many more questions than it answers. The pioneers, after an urgent prayer for guidance, find their quest for survival has gone beyond simple food and water as Manifest Destiny collides with the metaphysical. Their few options range from violence and xenophobia to a blind faith in the goodness of humanity. And like questions of existence, Reichardt’s final resolution may be beyond our understanding.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Days of Future Passed: The Combine and the Crow: Part 1

My father was a farmer, which meant that he spent an inordinate amount of time pretending to be a mechanic. Farm implements, whether they are churning up metric tons of flinty earth or slicing through acres of tough wheat straw, are subject to enormous stresses, and therefore often fail at critical moments. Or as my father would say, “Crap always breaks when you need it the most!”

He was, of course, stating the obvious, for most specialized agricultural equipment is only needed a few weeks - in some cases days - per year, and mechanical objects generally do not go on the fritz when they are sitting idle. His pre-war vintage combine, a hinky, Rube Goldberg device designed by a sadist, spent 48 weeks out of the year huddled comfortably under a nice dry shed. It was only during June’s annual grain frenzy that the rusting hulk was pulled into the sunlight where my father would gingerly coax the rickety contraption into operation.

If my father was somewhat lacking in mechanical repair skills it was due to all these exotic, newfangled gizmos that had suddenly become necessitites. When he started as a professional sodbuster, all one needed was a mule and a sharp stick to lay in an acre of tobacco and a few rows of sweet corn. And if the mule came up lame one day, one’s sturdy wife would don the harness and cultivation continued as a family affair. But as agriculture became more competitive and government programs encouraged more productivity, farms became larger and tractors were needed to produce efficiently. And with tractors came a bevy of new attachments and implements of ever increasing size and mechanical complexity.

My father was a believer in the magical power of axel grease, and he compensated for his weak understanding of machinery by brandishing his grease gun with flair and precision. He purchased the gooey unguent in 10 gallon steel buckets that - to me anyway - seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds when filled to capacity. My job was to follow him around with the grease bucket when he was in the full sway of lubrication fever; my young shoulder blades audibly cracking in strain.

In my father’s mind, before any attempt was made to waken the ancient combine from its lengthy slumber, every fitting on the finicky apparatus had to be generously larded with grease. It was a sound practice certainly - it had been almost a year since the device last wheezed with life, plenty of time for some part of the mechanism to seize - yet it was a ritual that held a deeper meaning for my father. It was part of a deal he had with God. If my father showed the Almighty that he was making an effort at the one bit of maintenance he knew how to do, then the Good Lord should respond by allowing the monstrous doohickey one more year of operation.

But Yahweh is a very busy fellow, with little time to supervise the inner workings of antique, jack-legged gadgets, and some years my father’s celestial bargain was rendered null and void before the harvest’s completion. One Saturday afternoon, with a humdinger of a thunderstorm approaching and less than an acre of wheat to go, the cursed combine began to shudder and shake and violently eject shafts of straw. With the end in sight, my father bravely tried to venture on; golden wheat stalks painfully bouncing off his back like the spears of an angry warrior tribe from a Tarzan movie. But before he reached the hedgerow, the ironclad behemoth emitted a skin crawling metallic shriek followed by a thick cloud of oily dust. Clearly, the combine had given up its ghost; raptured onto purgatory’s scrap heap. As black clouds gathered in the west and the wind stiffened, my father stared up into the darkening sky, his wet gray eyes a cauldron of anger and frustration. The King of Kings had once again welched on their deal, and I do believe this devout and saintly man had a brief glimmer, a fleeting moment, of existential doubt.