Woof (Sun Dogs)

Before beginning this review, a tip of the hat to sun dogs, aka parhelia, those common bright circular spots on a solar halo. Sun dogs are “an atmospheric optical phenomenon primarily associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight by small ice crystals making up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.”

Also, a little love for the Arizona Sundogs in the Central Hockey League and for a few favorite dog movies: snow dogs, rain dogs, desert dogs, moon dogs, straw dogs, stray dogs, reservoir dogs, dish dogs, lawn dogs, dead dogs, rabid dogs, chilly dogs, sleeping dogs, miracle dogs, road dogs, old dogs, dealing dogs, tap dogs, angry dogs, war dogs, catwalk dogs, deck dogs, top dogs, lost dogs, trinity dogs, urinoir dogs, bad dogs, barking dogs, fence dogs, devil dogs, gift dogs, good dogs, hot dogs, performing dogs, sea dogs, restricted dogs, society dogs, trained dogs, tokyo dogs, training dogs, wild dogs, zombie dogs, prairie dogs, and a dog’s dog.

And to note that Kingston is overrun with dogs. Dogs of all colors but of similar size. Dogs tough in body and in spirit; wary dogs, but not as wary as the cats; and hungry without exception. No other Caribbean island that I know of, and that includes the DR, has such a wealth of stray dogs. I don’t remember seeing any at all on Trinidad or Barbados. There might be a thesis for someone in this.

So. Sun Dogs. A documentary filmed in Jamaica, Minnesota, and Scotland. Stray dogs and huskies. Scenery. Socially responsible slum scenes. More scenery. Talking heads. Easy-listening and upbeat get-the-juices-flowing we’re-having-fun it’s-sunny-and-warm-down-here trust-what-you’re watching Jamaican music. Accents. When is the last time you heard white folks talkin with heavy Jamaican accents? It’s fun. More scenery. 90 minutes.

First time out for the director of the film and for the director of photography. The director of photography did a swell job.

About cynical movie reviews: The world is full of cynicism. It leaks into our lives. We can’t avoid it. The demands of the 24/7 newscycle breed it, for example. In the world of cinema, a director starts out to make a movie – something caring and responsible, but also fun – a movie about saving a few strays, canine and human – a movie that might give Jamaica a little boost that it can surely use – and invariably some sorehead comes along and eyeballs the whole project and all the good work that it entails, and treats it as if it were some hack job with a (barely) hidden personal commercial agenda. If this sort of thing disturbs you as much as it does me, read no farther. Or further.

But again, that beginning: Jamaica. Lush. A paradise. Happy tourists. But lots of poor Jamaicans. One of the poorest countries in the world. Wouldn’t it be cool to gather up some stray dogs from the slums of Kingston and train them as sled dogs?

There is a line between silly/stupid/entertaining and silly/stupid/toxic. Which side of that line are we on here? Assorted talking heads ensue, alternately dour and avuncular. “No harm done, no humans or animals injured during the making of this documentary. You will be entertained.” Or, “Brudda, if you want a movie about the social ills of Jamaica, don’t queue up a movie about dog sleds on wheels.”

Or is it that the first ten minutes of this movie are just utterly wrong? Is the director tone deaf? Is she oblivious to the dissonance created by juxtaposing a bunch of comfortable white guys talking about a crazy-but-fun idea with the sights and sounds of a nation of seriously freeped-up black Jamaicans? Saving a few strays who are left to represent the poor of the island by doing a little cart-pulling? Is this film like a movie made in a veteran’s hospital, forgetting the amputees and brain-damaged patients while focusing on the pigeon-racing project out back? Is it like working for PETA in the middle of a holocaust? That is, is this a priority thing? Not to say that you can’t collect stamps during a genocide, but if you want to make a philately documentary, please leave the death camps out of it.

Whoa. Let’s not go off the deep end here. Instead, let’s just ignore the intro and restart 10 minutes in.

But, no. At 20 minutes, we’re back into it. The dogs go to school. Segue to problems with the education of children in Jamaica. Talking heads. But, hey, a lot of great closeups and, as mentioned above, I realize that I can’t remember ever hearing heavy in-country Jamaican accents falling from Caucasian lips. It’s like grandma acting rasta. Different. And horseback riding. Diverting. So just watch the damn movie and worry about the poor later? Take the ride? Dog interest, musher training, social conditions on the island, sledding as sport, Carribean history. A Jamaican pu pu platter of subjects.

Sigh. I paused the movie to take a minute to find out who is who or whom here and why I should care, and why instead of righting social wrongs these old white guys are fooling around with dog sleds on wheels. In other words, sadly, I decided to follow the money.

Some years ago, businessman Danny Melville (a guy with a John McCain vibe, I thought), the first old white guy to speak in the movie, tripped over a metal frame with wheels in a fabrication shop in Edmonton, Canada, while shopping for dune buggies. An employee in the shop told him that the thing was a snowless dog sled. Warm-weather dog sledding is picking up around the world because of global warming – rig racing, canicross, dog scootering, bikejoring – an ecological silver lining. Refer to my reviw of Out of Balance for more good news along these lines.

Anyway, the notion of a Jamaican dog sled team came to Melville on the spot, as he tells it. With the success and noteriety of the Jamaican bobsled team in mind (Cool Runnings, the Calgary Olympics), Melville swung into action. We see him for the first time in Sun Dogs at the beginning of the movie, his idea implemented, dogcarts in action. Following that quick, upbeat, life-is-good montage of beautiful scenery and happy poverty-stricken island inhabitants that I noted, with a rousing Jamaican beat urging us to jump up and dance, Melville speaks with great earnestness about this crazy sled-dog idea of his, and then Jimmy Buffet pops up to endorse him, with a quick cut to Buffett performing in front of a crowd of ten thousand or so, to remind us that this isn’t some washed-up bum we’re listening to, so pay attention. Then quick shots of endearing mutts in harness, with folks cheering them along in some unknown sunny context, a woman getting her shirt autographed by Buffet, dog urinating on tourist, so forth. Melville, sitting by the dog pens in a casual open-necked shirt, a personable sincere old duffer with a neat white beard, tells us that his plans include touring dog teams, sled racing, and promoting Jamaica to the hilt. “Sustainable” teams, that is, which means that they’re to pay their own way, mutts or not.

Melville tells us that he also had the idea of making a movie about the dogs, the day after he had the idea of starting the sled dog project – a feature-length cartoon, maybe, with Jamaican mutts racing against Russian Mafia huskies, something for Disney Pixar to implement. That would work! Samples of such a cartoon are cut in throughout Sun Dogs. Behind Melville in the frame, folks mill about in a country setting. Jamaica must project itself into the world, the dog sleds will help, so forth, Melville tells us. He’s a loquacious guy.

Brand Jamaica. 2.5 million visitors a year. More shots of happy people, turquoise water. But then serious talk by the government’s national image-and-identity advisor: the country and the people don’t benefit from the tourist proceeds; annual revenues are funneled into the pockets of others, others who remain unnamed by the advisor onscreen; we presume that offshore leisure-based corporations and the upper-tier Jamaican rich figure into this. Next a serious word from the executive director of Jamaicans for Justice, Dr. Carolyn Gomes. “We’re the best at what we do, be it criminality or murder.” Deadpan. Next a serious word from a member of the bobsled team. Then serious words from Wilmot Perkins, talk-show host and perhaps the strongest public voice regarding the dysfunctional understanding, behavior, and social problems between races on the island. Gist: Jamaicans are bright, energetic, full of promise, but led astray. Shots of bright, energetic, but glowering poor citizens in the slums. Then all of this again, with similar but different words. Melville deplores the situation along with the rest. The music has become exceedingly somber by now. Somber. Then Melville explains that the dog sled project is just another zany idea of his, so that people will shake their heads and say Jamaica! (Ok, this makes no sense, but the man is just riffing.) And people will say, Why didn’t I think of that! (That is, “Melville has scored another win.”) Now the music picks up again. Jamaica! And with the music appears a shot of the sign at the entrance to Melville’s Chukka Cove. Adventure Tours. Experience the Real Jamaica!

Danny Melville’s dad bought Tropical Battery back when Jamaica was protected from U.S. companies by high tariffs. The company manufactured vehicle batteries and enjoyed a monopoly on the island. When the tariffs began to be removed, the Melvilles left the island, with only Danny remaining to run the business, which in due course went downhill as the competition moved in. Melville also purchased 50 acres of undeveloped land in St. Ann in the early 80s and subsequently started an equestrian center at Chukka Cove. He hoped to lure dressage and polo enthusiasts away from Argentina and the UK, but failed. At this point he contacted his sons, away at school in Florida, and told them that he could sell everything or they could come back and help him try to save the businesses. Andrew and Mark returned to the island and joined the company.

Long story short: the battery company switched from manufacture to import and bounced back, and the family got into the soft adventure business. If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you’re familiar with soft adventures. You get a great price on the cruise itself, but hopefully you’ve factored additional costs into your vacation budget, because at each port you’re confronted with a variety of extra fun activities, each at a sometimes-fancy price. If you’ve tubed or taken a canopy tour or rode a horse on Jamaica or in the Dominican or Belize or various other locations, there’s a good chance you’ve paid the Melvilles something for the privilege. Expansion. Gaming machines. Evolving relationships with cruise lines. 500 or so horses. 500 or so employees. Over a billion a year in revenues from a number of interlocking companies shared with long-time business partners, and that’s not counting the auto-supply business.

See, the thing is, I’m sitting here remembering the ruined wreck of a home at the edge of the Yaque river where it curls through Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Santiago is the DR’s second-largest city. On December 11 in the early morning, as hurricane Olga brushed the island, Tavera dam workers upriver decided to open all six floodgates, fearing a dam failure that could kill thousands in Santiago. This sent 1.6 million gallons of water/second into the river.The lives of the family of ten living in the house that I visited were snuffed out by the water roaring downstream in the dead of night. And the members of that family weren’t the only casualties. For months after that night, folks have come to the edge of the cliff above, standing along Av. Mirador del Yaque to look down on the wreckage below. For many of the poor, it was no more than luck that they lived far enough from the river’s edge to escape drowning. This was the second time in the year that this happened. I spoke to more than one upper-class resident of Santiago who, privately of course, were not sorry to see the mostly ramshackle buildings along the river washed away, along with the poor living in them.

If a movie, documentary or otherwise, wants to add footage meant to raise the consciousness of viewers about the plight of so many in the Caribbean, whether the film be documentary or drama or cartoon or science-fiction flick about life on Venus, I for one will cut it some slack. I will not say “Ok, I get it. Move on.” However, if the footage is doing no more than wrapping one more big-business vacuum cleaner for middle-class dollars in a flag of righteousness, then burn the film.

I found plenty to savor in Sun Dogs: young men conversing quietly in a lilting Jamaican English that almost required subtitles; the enlistment of Newton, a poor young man living in a tin shack, to be a musher; Newton applying for a passport; Newton visiting Twig, Minnesota in the winter, to see snow for the first time and to learn about real dog sleds and sledding; Newton eating a fig newton; Jamaican  music in the snowy north; Newton learning to drive and later taking his boss’ car without permission, totaling it, and being banished, sent back to sit on the plank in front of his shack; the enlistment of Devon Anderson, then, to train as Jamaica’s first musher, getting the dog sled 101 crash course from sledding experts from Twig; serious Scots commenting seriously on Anderson, over to Scotland from his island to theirs to compete in his first sled race and to win the “Came the Farthest” prize; Anderson at the end of his race exhausted with one dog from his team out of harness and on the sled tucked into an emergency dog bag; first class photography, great color, great closeups; driving around Jamaica on the wrong side of the road; a call to renowned dog sled trainer Alan Stewart in Scotland;  and, of course, the recruitment and training of the dogs. Several dogs picked out at the pound. The dogs’ names appear onscreen in big yellow letters – so that you can remember to ask for them when you come down? Scenes of the dogs being introduced to the dogcarts and other wheeled conveyances that they will pull. Benji the scared hound. The biggest dog, who doesn’t relate to the other dogs. I remember hearing once that if a dog doesn’t learn social skills early, it can’t learn them later. Guess that doesn’t apply to this big dog, because apparently he does, after first gnawing one or two of his mates.

The last movie that I reviewed as a Spout Maven was Africa Unite, a Palm Pictures documentary in which the Marley family journeys from Jamaica to Africa in search of peace and/or treasure. Sun Dogs is also a Palm Pictures documentary, wherein stray dogs replace the Marleys but remain in Kingston. Chris Blackwell, the founder and head of Palm Pictures, and David Koh, head of acquisitions and production, negotiated the financial terms of the movie with Andrea Stewart and Danny Melville. Stewart produced as well as directed. Blackwell, Koh, Leigh Ingleby, and Melville were the executive producers (i.e., they put up the money). Palm Pictures nailed down all worldwide rights to the movie. The rumor is that the third film in this Jamaican documentary trilogy, nearing completion, is Spawn of Love, about the homeless illegitimate children fathered by rich white men vacationing at island resorts and sneaking away from their spouses at night for a few moments of forbidden love. Sign me up for the trifecta!

Blackwell also founded Island Records back in 1960 (he’s 71) and signed up an unknown Bob Marley, earning a reputation as the man responsible for the popularity of reggae. I didn’t deal with the question of personal financial gain in the case of the Marleys and Africa Unite, although some other reviewers did. At the time, I was more interested in the dynamics of holding a conference meant to be liberal and democratic in an illiberal country. If I had examined the financial aspects of Africa Unite and the movie’s effect on future iterations of the event, I might have mentioned that after the first edition of it in Addis Ababa, in October, a Ghanaian delegation came to Jamaica to discuss business opportunities between the two countries. Alexander Melville attended the talks and the second Africa Unite was held in Ghana four months later. However, I’m not aware of any other particular connections between Melville and Blackwell, which might argue for taking Sun Dogs as a fun movie and letting it go at that.

Danny Melville started Chukka Caribbean Adventures in 1983.  It’s now the largest land-based nature adventure tour provider in the region, offering more than thirty tours in Jamaica, The Bahamas, Belize, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The business sells more than a quarter of a million adventure tours to cruise and hotel guests every year, including canopy tours over the jungle, mountain-to-sea cycling, river kayaking, a horseback ride and swim, and a Bob Marley retrospective bus trip. Plus, of course, the Jamaica dog sled Experience. “With a commitment to deliver the highest quality tours with well-trained guides and stringent safety standards, Chukka takes pride in showcasing the natural beauty of the Caribbean through unique and sensational experiences and providing opportunities for local residents and businesses.” (chukkacaribbean.com)

Chukka Cove, where it all started, caters to horse lovers who stay on the estate’s landscaped grounds, near the stables. There are six two-bedroom villas, each suitable for four guests, each with a veranda, plank floors, and the feel of Old-Country gentry. Meals are prepared for you on-site. Nickering, and presumably barking, can be heard through open bedroom windows in the moonlight.

The Melvilles are businessmen and make no bones about the fact. When Danny had the sleddog idea, he approached the thing as a money-making proposition from the start and is clear about that throughout the film. “It’s good business,” he says. (N.b., I’m paraphrasing these quotes from memory and notes.) “We’ve got an unexploited brand.  If we can be successful, like the Jamaican bobsled team, the tourists will become ambassadors for us.” (Here in the movie a quick clip of the bobsled team, stars of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.) “You know, you have to believe in it and dive into it wholeheartedly. Tourists will go home and say, ‘I went dog sledding in Jamaica!’ Of course I hope to make a profit: the Jamaica Dog Sled Experience. Our dogs come from the local pound – because, you know, if Jamaica didn’t have the image of being crime-ridden, violent, and poor, it would fly. So, dog sleds pulled by strays, after they’ve been neutered and vaccinated for rabies, that’s the good news. Listen, after Devon’s first race, we were in the Indian newspaper. We were in the Australian newspaper.”

Tourists trot past on Melville horses.

Guests first receive an orientation on sled-dog racing and how the Jamaican team was formed. They also get a lecture on the stray situation in Jamaica. (A percentage of the tour fee goes to the JSPCA.) Finally, visitors get to meet, hug and pet the dogs and learn their personal stories before receiving instruction on mushing technique and heading out on the three-kilometer trail around Chukka Cove Farm.

“This is going to help the dogs because you’ll soon have everybody wanting to get a dog to train them to pull a sled or cart,” says musher Anderson, standing with dogs milling around his ankles. “And eventually, we’ll get rid of the stray dogs on the street.” 20 down and 35,000 to go.

“The Jamaica Dog Sled Encounter at Chukka Caribbean Adventures, home to the only dog sled team and dog sled tours in the Caribbean, is offering children between 6 and 12 years a complimentary Jamaica Dog sled Encounter, with one child free per paying adult. The tour includes a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, and to Island Village for shopping, plus complimentary lunch at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.”

Bottom line on the movie, if not the tour: If you’re more interested in the dogs in particular, or the mushers learning about and training with the dogs, or social and economic conditions on the island, or the physical aspects of the island itself, or the sport of dog sledding, or Caribbean history in general, to the exclusion of interest in the other elements of the movie, then you will not get much of what you crave and will probably feel impatient, dissatisfied, and that your time has been misspent. On the other hand, if your interest runs to the conception, inception, nuture, and support of a fledgling business, then the dogs, mushers, and scenery provide a little spice, or spoonfuls of sugar, to the business; that is, as aids in getting you to hear, learn, and internalize the root message, or hook. Stewart might have been making her first feature-length film, but her backers knew exactly what they wanted and what they needed from the film and there is no doubt that they vetted her work every step of the way to make sure that they got what they wanted. A little local color; a story line that takes you out behind your resort hotel room and not to the Iditarod; a little upbeat music; a break from the intensity of Rick Steves; a story arc of “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Come down and ride on one,” not “Dogs learn to pull sled -> Compete and win/lose.”

I thought about calling the director about this movie and asking her where her head was at when she made it, and how much “input” she got from  Melville and Blackwell and Koh, and Leigh Ingleby (audio-visual interests and arts funding), but I didn’t because I’m conflict-shy and a question like that might really piss her off. Instead, I called Dr. Gomes at Jamaicans For Justice. She impressed me in the movie and I felt that I could trust her answers. I missed her twice at her office but she was kind enough to return my calls. After a few introductory niceties, I asked her if she had seen Sun Dogs. She had. I told her that I was calling with one question in mind, namely, that although the film raised some questions about social justice and poverty in Jamaica, it struck me more simply as a commercial for one more “Caribbean adventure” from a large leisure company, an adventure which, so far as I could tell at present, hasn’t materially aided the poor of the country. So, Were the sun dogs in fact, in her view, of some use as a pro-social force on the island? It took a while for me to get all that out. She listened in silence and her reply, as it struck me, was stony. She said that she had consented to be interviewed for the film and that she had answered the questions put to her to the best of her ability. Period. No love shown by Dr. Gomes for the sun dogs.

So come on down for a ride ($100 adults, $76 children, or $352 plus tax for a family of four if you don’t find a coupon to use in advance, or buy a package of adventures). The dogs pull in, say, $1000 an hour, ten hours a day, 350 days a year, two sites. A modest $7 mil a year. Overhead costs: kibble. An unknown percentage of the net returned to the JSPCA, which from the looks of it hasn’t been spending it on glitz at the pound. The ride is a nice addition to the many adventures in many locales that help put the Melville enterprises over the billion-a-year mark.

We can hope that Newton is not still sitting on his plank down at his tin shack.

If you do decide to go on down and stay at Chukka Cove Farm, you’ll know what to expect after watching this movie. The north-central coast of Jamaica. Turquoise ocean. Lush hills. Magnificent waterfalls. Cool mountain rivers. The poor of the island changing your sheets and refilling your wine glass at dinner.

Good. I got all the way through the review without using the word “infomercial.”

Summer Palace: Chinese Thoughts On Love

Spoiler Alert: If you want the ending of Summer Palace to be a surprise, read no further.

After watching two hours and twenty minutes of cigarette smoking in yet another Asian movie (see also my comments on the subject in my review of Drifters), I finally bestirred myself long enough to fish up the following news bites:

“Guiyang, China — Here’s some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health. Cigarettes, according to China’s tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers. They also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.”

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today. Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them. Even in China’s medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.”

“There is no market more important to the tobacco industry and no nation posing more challenges to tobacco control than China. With 350 million smokers and 1 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, China is the biggest challenge in international tobacco control.”

Summer Palace begins with its heroine Yu Hong (Lei Huo) at home in her village. Her boyfriend doesn’t have much to say to her, but he does urge her to try his imported cigarettes. Now I know why; he’s concerned about her health.

Anyway.

As much as I admire and respect Pauline Kael’s reviews, which appeared in the New Yorker for years, nevertheless, I began to take some of them with a grain of salt as she approached the end of her career, because I had the feeling that by then she had simply seen too many movies. She began to dismiss the familiar too quickly, or so it seemed to me, and began taking an interest in the unusual instead, whether the unusual in question merited her interest or not. I was thinking about this while watching Summer Palace because the film is a staring-off-into-space-athon and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m in the same boat as Pauline – seen too many – at least as far as this type of dialog-eschewing personal-interaction film is concerned. Have I seen too many anguished protagonists gazing moodily into the middle distance to react to the heroine Yu Hong as director Ye Lou would have me react? What is Yu Hong thinking, up there on the screen? Which way will she jump?

Why the pain? Is that the thousand-yard stare of a stunned brain I’m seeing, or a portal into her seething emotions? Can I apprehend and empathize with and finally appreciate her internal struggles or will I just shrug them off, always assuming that I can figure out what they are in the first place?

In American movies these days, the strong silent type is typically a man with limited acting skills who ends up pulling and using a gun or otherwise kicking major ass after being pushed too far. The problem with the silent stare in a movie with intellectual pretensions like Summer Palace is that as the film wears on, the protagonist can literally do or say anything and we’re obliged to take it and like it. Consistency cannot be an issue, since we can’t know for sure what the character has been thinking. The consequent action is the result of deep thought, we presume, or mental instability, or, as they say, whatnot. Or perchance the character will do nothing in the end, just continue to stare.

I watched an episode of The Wire just before watching Summer Palace.
Dense dialog, dense narrative. Corruption in a city where in the final analysis nothing is going to change. Meanwhile, in Summer Palace, one billion people undergo a decade of profound and radical change as the regime gradually opens into an authoritarian economic system. Scant dialog, scant narrative. Ironic.

And speaking of not talking to each other – during sex, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), Yu Hong’s main squeeze in the movie, wears earphones. Call me old-fashioned!

Non-dialog reaches new heights in a scene where the lovers are floating on a lake in a rowboat. This is one of those couples-in-a-boat-wordless-montage scenes, only this time, after stretching out interminably, the scene goes no-dialog time-lapse into the night with a full moon rising. Yu Hong will probably tell her diary that she
and Zhou Wei were talking into the night, after watching Zhou Wei rest on his oars for eight hours, smoking.

And then, back at the hotel after languishing in the boat, sex. And then, “Zhou Wei? I think we should break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” This is the signal to us that whenever things seem to be going well in the movie, Yu Hong will turn away and step off the curb into traffic, metaphorically speaking. An example of the viewer not knowing what is coming, not being a mind reader.

I believe that Yu Hong was still a frosh at this point. When I was a frosh, I had a couple of painful wordless dates but they didn’t end with me wearing headphones. Or not wearing them, either.

Waiting for the dialog in a film like Summer Palace is like reading a Henry James novel. He doles out the spoken words most sparingly – dialog was the crest of the wave, I think he said – but most of the time I was deep under water, longing for any sign of a set of quotation marks, on pages of solid print often missing even a paragraph break. I’m speaking of his late novels.

If director Ye Lou were making Casablanca here instead of Summer Palace, Ingrid Bergman would step into Rick’s Cafe with her husband, sit down at a table, and smoke and drink beer without speaking to Paul Henreid or anybody else, while Bogart stood at the back of the room, alternately staring at her and looking away, smoking, wordless. Their eyes would meet once. Later, at the end of the movie, after a clinch, Bogart would stare into her eyes and say “What next?” and Bergman would drag on her cigarette and look away, and he’d look away, and she’d look back but he wouldn’t, and she’d reply, “What next?” Then she’d look at him looking away some more and then one or both of them would turn and walk away. Lights up.

Lei Huo does a nice French inhale or two (or Irish waterfall, if you prefer) in the movie, while not talking, I’ll give her that. And there is a scene in a car where she and Zhou Wei drive, with lots of staring. He stares ahead. She stares ahead. Then she stares at him while he stares ahead, and that was good, her staring at him. That scene had some juice, wordless or not. Plus, they were filmed dead-on from in front of the windshield with the car vibrating from its motion, the most realistic such scene that I can remember seeing.

Director Ye Lou, a 43-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors (the Fifth Generation, growing up during the Cultural
Revolution, was more familiar with the rural than the urban), which also includes, for example, Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000), Xiaoshuai Wang (Drifters, 2003), and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). There is a definite trend in many Chinese Sixth Generation movies to skate over narrative and dialog (see, for example, The Wayward Cloud). Obviously, I need to be in the mood for this.

In Ye Lou’s case, the lack of dialog seems to grow out of his philosophy of film.

“I want Lei Huo to be the character, not pretend to be the character. If she’s just pretending, even if she’s a very competent actor, she’ll still harm the character, because the audience will just see her as a very good actor.”

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

This reminds me of Olivier’s reply to Hoffman, who was using The Method in Marathon Man to get into character and asked Olivier about the technique that he used to do the same. “Dear boy,” Sir Lawrence replied. “It’s called acting.”

Because to ensure that Lei Huo will “be the character,” Ye Lou provides her with virtually no dialog – he can’t presume, you see – and, unlike in a Mike Leigh film, she doesn’t trouble herself to develop any herself. Which
leaves us to divine what’s going on in her noggin by the expression on her purposely expressionless face. Lei Huo says “the character is like me in real life. She’s going to break my heart” but this doesn’t help me, since
I don’t happen to know Lei Huo personally. She’s a force though, with her nose often a little red.

But. Having said all that. It’s true that throughout the movie, once she gets to university, Yu Hong tells us what she is thinking by reading excerpts from her diary in voice-over. However, her thoughts as verbalized do
not illuminate; they merely reiterate the non-look on her face. Viz, after meeting her one true love for the
first time and dancing with him to “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” (neither of them speaking, needless to say):

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable. That’s how I saw things when we met. You came into my life. You are my most refined friend. It’s very simple. I knew the
moment I saw you that we were standing on the same side of the world. And then we talked the whole night long. For all that, there are troubling aspects to our relationship which can’t be reduced simply to pleasure or lack of it. I want to live more and more intensely. It’s clear to me, nowhere more so than in our relationship, because there are times when I’m clearly imposing my will on you. If one takes desire lightly, action will be
constricted. It was through love that I understood this. There’s no getting around it. There are only illusions. Illusions. Those lethal things.”

This load is dropped on us at one go, intercut with tracking shots of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), her new university lover, walking and gazing but not speaking. Perhaps they talked the night away and we never saw it, but more likely all the talking is being done directly into the diary. The message: the course of love never did run smooth. I think I can say with assurance that I never dated and danced and talked the night away
with a girl who had these thoughts running through her mind.

The dictum is “Show, don’t tell.” Here we have the opposite. The silence doesn’t show and the voice-over diary reading tells constantly.

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

“As soon as love touches you, life is knocked off balance.”

“True love can only appear at the most intense moments of anguish and suffering.”

Later one of Yu Hong’s lovers says, “You’re so simple. You’re different from other women. You’re simple and straightforward.” He obviously did not get his hands on the diary.

Of course, there are language and cultural issues here. In the absence of a gloss for the subtitles, this is where you pause the movie and turn to your spouse or significant other, if he or she happens to be from China,
to solicit some cultural and linguistic input that might help you pick up on the nuances in those diary entries and in the dialog and action in general. Because these are our fundamental hints about what is going on in the
minds of the characters and the hints are just enough but not more than enough to mute any surprise we might feel when, at the apparent height of their happiness, as they lie full-frontal (a Chinese first. Fifteen years
ago, kissing was hardly allowed), staring up at the ceiling with the camera aimed down at them, Yu Hong suggests that Xhou Wei get circumcised. Why? he asks. (Xiaodong Guo speaks as quietly throughout this movie as
anyone I can remember speaking on film without actually whispering.) Yu Hong replies, Because it would be less painful. Who told you that? he asks. My professor, she says. Why did he tell you that? Because, she says, we were making love. This puts an immediate damper on the couple’s romantic outing. Yu Hong follows an old romantic convention and walks away from happiness whenever she chances to encounter it.

Another quick scene that might benefit from a little cultural interpretation: Yu Hong is sitting in a public park next to a basketball court, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He’s late. She’s watching some young men play a pickup game. Her boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, hops off, and apologizes for being late. Suddenly, an outcry. He’s parked on the court or on a part of the street serving as the court. Immediately there is a struggle and he gets a shiner and scraped cheeks. The young woman joins in the fracas. The problem is, the conflict is instantaneous and obliquely shot, so that it is impossible to tell what’s happening, exactly. The scene feels clunky and staged, which is strange considering that it follows several quiet and evocative scenes that open the movie. Surely this doesn’t mean that Ye Lou doesn’t have the chops to handle a little action, action as majorly simple as this? He obviously isn’t a fan of Hong Kong movie brawls, but I’m thinking that I’ve missed some cultural nuance in the scene that might help account for its amateur feeling.

And one more word about taciturn actors: we don’t even get diary entries from Zhou Wei. He drives away from Yu Hong at the end of the movie without a word but with, we presume, extreme regret (though his face doesn’t show it). Who knows why?

Earlier, hanging out in Berlin because that is what the director did after he got out of school, separated now from Yu Hong, his true love, Zhou Wei sits next to a young Polish woman. The two are gazing out at a Berlin
wasteland. One presumes, on the evidence of the movie so far, that they are casually intimate, perhaps lovers.

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

Pause for some gazing and brow-wrinkling by the girl.

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

Gazing in tandem. I like it that the man from China and the woman from Poland are conversing quietly in German. Xiaodong Guo continues to speaks in a too-cool quiet voice.

“It’s ok,” he says.

I figured that that was going to be it for the scene but after another bit of gazing, she asks him if he has a girlfriend. He says that he does. We feel the painful significance of this terse reply. Where is she? the girl asks. Somber piano notes.

“Very far away,” he says in German with a Beijing accent.

“In China?”

“Perhaps.”

“Where are we right now?” the girl asks. Zhou Wei exhales cigarette smoke. She says, “In Berlin?”

What she means by this, I have no idea. The first time I watched the scene I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time I was liking it. At least they were saying something to each other, even if it didn’t make any sense.

The director wanted to make an organic movie that grew, as if alive, and that involved the actors. What are the implications of this for the movie’s story? Is “organic” code here for “no plot,” or “no narrative,” or
“juryrigged narrative arc”? The makers of Manda Bala, which I just reviewed, went on a five-year hunt for a story with limited success. Ye Lou didn’t take that long, unless you count the fact that he’s been thinking about this film since his graduation from film school in 1989. His struggle is evident, though, in the same way that Jason Kohn’s was in Manda Bala – nurturing a hope that something will crop up. A failure of ability or imagination or no failure, but simply the constrictions on storytelling imposed by the original vision. The suicide in Summer Palace (wordless), and its wordless aftermath (serious staring off), and the abortion (wordless), and Yu Hong getting hit by a car, and some of the sex, and most of the rest of the staring-off-into-space in this film could have been eliminated, to the film’s benefit, by replacing it all with a little sharp dialog. Having said that, the movie never dragged for me; the two hours and twenty minutes it ran felt like less.

“I don’t want a construction, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says the director. In his opinion, the story would naturally end with the events in Tiananmen Square in ’89, which occur halfway through, but he must
show the consequences of Chinese economic and political development with respect to the students during the ten years that follow. He wants his film to live and it appears that in his view, forcing it into the straightjacket of a story would kill it. “One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn’t possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.” I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m oblivious to
metaphor in film. To the extent that the lives of the students in the decade after Tiananmen stand in for the economic and political developments in the country, the film doesn’t work for me. The director says that it’s a
melodrama, not a political statement; some commentators think that Western viewers will take the movie as a melodrama while Chinese viewers will react to the representation of China ten years ago. I got the melodrama and not so much the mood of that country in the 90s.

Regardless of my issues about dialog and narrative, I have nothing but respect for Ye Lou as a maker of movies. He made Weekend Lover in 1995 and then Suzhou River without permission, in 2002. Suzhou River won prizes and was praised as “exhibiting the most eloquent and
effortless command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom yet.” The Chinese government then put him out of business for two years. Ye Lou takes his movies seriously. After making Purple Butterfly in 2003, he did Summer Palace and was hit with another suspension by the government in 2006, for five years this time, because he entered the movie at Cannes
without permission. A sacrifice like that requires us to take second and third looks at his filmmaking philosophy. As does the praise for Summer Palace from the likes of A.O. Scott and David Denby.

“I’m just a director. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to get into boring politics in my films. Many Chinese directors practice self-censorship because of the tight controls. But I think this is fatal. Directors must be free. So I say to everyone when we are working, ‘Let’s forget censorship.’ That’s why there are always so many troubles after the film. But while I am shooting, I am very happy… In my opinion, in its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn’t free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can’t express your opinions freely, you can’t accurately judge the value of other people’s words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.” Summer Palace was withdrawn by the producers at Cannes after the Chinese government’s reaction to its release.

The movie had more film-making resources available to it than most Chinese films. Scenes were shot in six different cities, through four seasons, with rain, wind, and summer heat. (Do Asian movies do rain best? It can come down in buckets. Rashomon – now that was rain.) To make this romance about the youth of his generation, Ye Lou returned to the same dorm rooms he had lived in at university. If I returned to the dorm rooms that I lived in at Occidental and Tufts and dressed them to match the time that I was there, and then filmed moments of political, cultural, and physical awakening in them that matched my own, I expect that the results would resonate powerfully with me. Wow. But probably not with anybody else. Would this cloud my judgment around the dramatic and esthetic issues that arise while making a film? I know nothing about Beijing University and the Summer Palace next door to it, other than that the school’s interior looks a lot like a hard-used middle school I used to know in the toughest neighborhood in Detroit.

Similarly, after college the peregrinations of the students reflect the director’s own post-graduate travels. Zhou Wei hies off to Germany (Ye Lou met his wife in Berlin), Dong Dong to the U.S., the others to large cities in south China. We see the wall in Berlin coming down, Gorby, Hong Kong reverting to china. But there are two hundred cities in China with a population over one million and I can’t name three of them; the director’s
scheme of moving south city by city to indicate, metaphorically, the opening of Chinese economic policy in the 90s (it having always been easier to operate in China the farther south you went) was lost on me. Perhaps if these students had started in Detroit and headed down to St. Louis, and then Nashville, Texarkana, Santa Fe, and Venice Beach, and Italy instead of Germany, I might have registered more fully the zeitgeist presented in the movie. I was talking to a couple of young people the other day who are working in online data acquisition in Boston. They’ve been having the feeling lately, after a couple of years in private industry following a lifetime in school, of “This is it? This is what it means to finally be an adult?” Questions which anyone in this movie would understand. At university in Beijing in ’89, everything seemed possible. The world could be changed. In the second half of Summer Palace, the former students learn that this feeling was an illusion, something that Yu Hong realized much sooner.

The ’90s were a time of confusion for many twenty-somethings in China. The characters in Summer Palace spend a lot of time acting confused. I take the point. There is old China here but there is also Coca Cola in the big red bottle on the ferry, and this is the first time I recall seeing a mainland China gas station. It wasn’t self-serve. Just off the freeway. Had a mini-mart. The thing about character confusion is that, in the absence
of dialog, it can edge into boredom, aimlessness, and ennui, which can then translate into boredom for the viewer, especially if the viewer doesn’t knit. It occurred to me to wonder at one point about the difference, if any, between the boredom of childhood, the boredom of adolescence, that of young adults, of parents, of the middle-aged, of seniors, and of pet dogs. And whether the boredom engendered by a bad action flick is the same as or different than the boredom caused by an art movie with a bad case of the longeures. These are questions to pursue in a later review, when a truly boring movie comes along.

Mick LaSalle in his podcast the other day said that the key to an effective romantic sex scene (as opposed to the other types of sex scene) is to make sure that longing precedes it. This is a forte of current Chinese
filmmakers. They tell love stories, with all the difficulties so often attendant to them, and they seem to specialize in longing. Consider the movies I’ve mentioned above, or any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. Summer Palace begins with an entry in Yu Hong’s diary:

“There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I can only call it love.” Love blows in like a wind, and it’s an ill wind that blows no good. With fifteen minutes left in the movie, Zhou Wei learns that Yu Hong is married. The longing on his part takes a final, major step up.

You’ve got to look long and hard to find this kind of movie in the West. Romantic comedies, sexual-attraction movies, historical romances like The Age of Innocence from time to time, but modern longing and romance? Not so much. This is not to say that most of Yu Hong’s sexual activity is meant to be romantic. Instead, she says in her diary, “It’s only when we’re making love that you
realize that I’m gentle.” She teaches a number of men that she’s gentle by using this direct method. She has tried countless other ways but has chosen this special direct method as the most efficacious. I have a feeling
that the word “gentle” does not do justice to Yu Hong’s original conception, but one way or another, it’s all about her trying to be accepted as good and tender. Thinking back, I’m wondering if any of those women I knew
were just trying to show me that they were gentle. Question: Does longing for one person make sex scenes with someone else work? Yu Hong, for example, while longing for Zhou Wei, finds love with Wu Gang (at least until “material poverty can only lead to resentment”). Hmm, now that I think of it, most of the sex in the movie involves longing for someone absent.

Li Ti (the suicide) wouldn’t allow anyone to love her for fear of hurting them. “Love is like a wound in the heart. When it heals, love disappears. Or never existed.”

Ye Lou calls Summer Palace a melodrama, not a historical study. Most of its two-and-a-half hours is spent examining love, watching young men and women in love, trying to explain love.

Ye Lou: “Then love is like a leaf in the universe. if the universe were a tree, love would be a leaf on the tree. And we can glimpse at the shape of the universe by looking at just one leaf. So I can just depict the love. Once I’ve protrayed the love, I’ve portrayed the universe.”

Well, if I see an elm leaf, I can’t tell you what the trunk of the tree looks like. Does Ye Lou succeed in explaining love, or are we simply peppered with notions?

“Why was it that nothing he had said to me or done to me could prevent my heart from going out to him,” Yu Hongs says. I never spotted Zhou Wei actually saying or doing anything in particular to her, so I take the
question to actually be a statement. The director has said that love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond events, that it can’t be restrained, that we can’t demand anything of it. We can’t expect it to bring happiness, or marriage, or a long and happy life together. He says that emotional torment takes time, a lot of time, to resolve. For Ye Hong and Zhou Wei to come back together and stay together, the director says, would have taken them another decade of longing and would have taken him another hour of screen time. Now I don’t feel so bad that they didn’t get back together.

So, a movie about love. What do I take away from it? If you’re in love and you have sex repeatedly, it doesn’t lead to boredom, as in real life, but to unhappy longing for your absent partner. Or vice versa. I hope the director has had better luck with love than his characters in Summer Place, because, in this movie, not to lower the tenor of the review, if love strikes, you’re f**ked.

Not a movie to see with your mom, or your priest (Madeinusa)(2006)

This review contains spoilers (but first, a bit of business. I contacted the star of Madeinusa, Magaly Solier, to let her know that I have formed the Magaly Solier Fan Club and am its charter member and president. (No, there wasn’t one already, unbelievably.) When Magaly comes to the U.S. on tour following the completion of her current project, I will host the meet-up with her and will offer to take paid time off from my job and personally supervise her activities in this country. Stand by for more details. Meanwhile, you can learn more about Magaly at her Myspace page. (In the first scene in Madeinusa (pronounced Ma–den–OO–za), Magaly, who comes from Huanta, Ayacucho, Peru (check your map of the Andes; it’s off Highway 3, north of Ayachcho – the highlands area where Shining Path was at its worst back in the 90s. We should be sensitive about this when chatting with Magaly at the meet-up (brush up on your Spanish) because she would have been a child at the time of the most violent incidents in that internal Peruvian struggle. The writer Maria Vargas Llosa did research on the involvement of the Iquichanos in Sendero Luminosa violencia and I presume that Magaly is of Iquichanos blood. She speaks Quechua in the movie and the director and writer of Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (30 years of age, lives in Spain now; this is her first movie), is Maria Vargas’ niece. When I meet Claudia, the first thing I’m going to ask her is how she met Magaly, who was just out of high school at the time and had never been inside a movie theater, much less done any acting, before starring in this movie. All Magaly has to say on the subject is “El destino puso en mi camino a Claudia Llosa, quien cambió mi vida y me llevó hasta el cine.”), is seen putting out rat poison (if you’re going to use that shotgun on the wall, have someone hang it up there at the beginning of the movie. In Madeinusa, in addition to the initial poison-spreading, we get several camera shots from the perspective of dead rats and on several occasions Magaly’s sister, played by Yiliana Chong (for my views on beautiful young women with names like Cheung or Chong, refer to my review of Clean. As mentioned there (I didn’t include Rae Dawn Chong in that review, but everything I said there goes for her too), I was founder and president of Maggie Cheung’s fan club until, as part of my settlement of the bogus harassment and stalking charges lodging against me by her, because she took the terrible advice of her manager, and the restraining order that the judge subsequently imposed, I had to give up my presidential position and membership in the club. The gears of justice ground slowly but exceedingly fine in the matter and after two years of litigation I was lucky to get off without pulling any hard time. That’s love in Hollywood for you. I can only hope and pray that Magaly’s new manager (Lalo Ponce (did she have to sign with a manager named “Ponce”?)) doesn’t give her any advice like that), tells Magaly and the gringo from Lima, Salvador (played by Carlos J. de la Torre, one of the two professional actors in the movie (the other is Jaun Ubaldo Huamán, known in S.A. for his comedic work (speaking of which, every good movie needs at least one unforgettable scene and Madeinusa provides it when Cayo, Madeinusa’s father, played by Huamán, takes out his wife’s red earrings, which she had left behind when she ran off to Lima and which Madeinusa prizes above all things, and, furious as he is that the gringo has beaten him to his daughter’s virginity, which he has waited and wanted to take for so long and now has just missed by an hour or so, and drunk, sitting alone in the town’s little bar, he drops the earrings into a glass of whiskey, fishes them out and sucks them dry, lays them down on the bar and bends forward and pounds them to pieces with his forehead, and then picks up the remains and gnaws and chews on them before dropping what’s left into his coat pocket to wait there for the climax of the movie (you can rape me but keep your filthy paws off my mom’s earrings). Huamán, who chews the scenery from act one onward, now chews the props.). This is one of those movies with so much drinking that you just want to join them and pour it right down your throat straight from the bottle instead of sitting there like you are, drinking it out of a jam jar with a little jam still in it.) and coincidentally born in Santiago, D.R., where, as I mention in my review of Sun Dogs, I was staying in the neighborhood that he and his dad came from before he moved to Lima with his mom.  In the movie, any white guy from Lima is a gringo.) that rat poison brings good luck, so that we know from the git-go that somebody is going to be eating rat poison before we’re done. Chong is the oh-so-sassy one. If I didn’t have any morals, I’d be founding her new fan club as well as Magaly’s (“Did you see his eyes?” Magaly says of the gringo. “Why should I?” Chong says. “They are lighter, like in the magazines,” Magaly says. “And yours are the color of your shit, so don’t get excited,” Chong says. Sassy.).) and she appears to be a grown woman. In the next scene (her name in the movie is Madeinusa, by the way (“Madeinusa” is a normal given name in rural Peru, as are names such as Usanavi, Jhonfkenedi, and Marlonbrando. Western influence acting strangely on native culture. The title “Madeinusa” might mean something beyond being the name of the protagonist; if so, I have no idea what; when Madeinusa sees it (“Made in USA”) on the tag of Salvador’s T-shirt, she reacts, but what she’s thinking I couldn’t say. (Claudia sidesteps the question of symbols in interviews, symbols which in Madeinusa if and where present do not obtrude, by saying that they depend on the viewer. “What they read on the film depends on their own subjective universe. But I’m the type of person that thinks that when somebody have an emotional reaction on a subjects, it because, deep inside, something is moving. No body reacts on nothing.” (Kudos to her for taking on interviews in English.) As a viewer who remains oblivious to most metaphor and symbol in film, and pooh-poohs especially symbols discovered by the director, by accident, post-facto, like the frogs in Manda Bala, I’ve let any hint of allegory and message slide by here, not to be mentioned again in this review. And there are no bits of magic realism, either. The town is real, the film in parts could function as a documentary, every character projecting psychological depths. Buñuel has been invoked, on a literary foundation that Uncle Llosa could appreciate. (Claudia locates the action (conflict between the old and the new) in a small town in the mountains, during the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which is dubbed “Holy Time.” God is asleep, Jesus is removed from the cross and blindfolded, and sins go unrecognized and unpunished until God wakes up again. This sounds somehow familiar to me, but maybe that’s because I grew up in Turpentine, Mississippi, where God was often asleep for more than just a long weekend, and that’s back when everybody was a Democrat; Christ knows what it’s like there now. But Father Bob assures me that nowhere in the world does the Church really permit such sin-free weekends, regardless of local pagan folk beliefs or the size of a parishioner’s tithing remittance. As far as he, Father Bob, knows, anyway. The director and her helpers spent seven months designing the religious procession that starts the sleeping-God time, and the costumes worn during the weekend’s religious ceremonies, and designed the look of the village (Manayaycuna (“the town no-one can enter” in Quechua), located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca), Madinusa’s house, so forth. I think I read somewhere that Indiana Jones got his hat idea from a trip to a village like Manayaycuna. The hat wrangler for the movie did a helluva job.).), she speaks to her older sister Chale (Yiliana) in the voice of a child. I’m wondering at this point- here at the start of the movie (of course, before contemplating founding a fan club and hosting a meet-up!!), is this a child who looks older than her age, almost adult from certain angles, or an adult with the voice of a ten-year-old, or what? Long story short, Magaly is playing a fourteen-year-old but was twenty when she made the movie. She’s twenty-two now and still has that little-girl voice. (In addition to her film work, which includes Ms Llosa’s second film, in which Magaly again stars, La Teta Asustada, Magaly has been in Josué Mendez’s Dioses (Perú 2007) and in Fragments of Grace (a German/French, Belgian production). She has also signed with Phantom Music Group and has performed in a concert or two. She does a little singing in the movie, not American-Idol quality, but two songs that she wrote, which I can picture entertaining us while we sit on a rock in the mountains waiting for the next llama cart to come along. And for those of you, by the way, who might be interested in joining the fan club but have a problem with the fact that in the movie, as a fourteen-year-old, Magaly gives herself impulsively and rather graphically to an adult male and then later that night, with some resignation but not much, to her own father, I would point out that she was dealing with Claudia Llosa’s script; that is, a story written by a Lima native who has been living in Spain for some years away from her institutriz. As far as Magaly was concerned, the doings on the set were probably as foreign and weird as those written by someone from Mars. I’m not taking her behavior in the movie personally. (Per the plot, a young geologist from Lima is stuck in the village over the weekend because a bridge is out farther up the road. Madeinusa gets the idea that he could take her to Lima where she can find her mother and escape the pending attentions of her father. So she gives it up to him, no sin, instead of to her father. When she pulls down her unmentionables in a dark alley in invitation, the geologist gets local religion on the spot. Come to think of it, I believe that one of my Peruvian friends, who will NOT be in the fan club, might have come from Manayaycuna, the dog.). (Which reminds me that one critic presents the lamebrained idea that Claudia set out to combine beautiful photography, third-world indigent cultural references, and a modern plot with a twist, not so much to make a good and entertaining and satisfyingly-understated-but-deep movie, but instead to make a commercial movie that would sell internationally. Note to this reviewer: If you want to make a movie that sells in the U.S., DON’T DO BANUEL IN THE  BACKYARD OF NOWHERE WITH A BUNCH OF NON-ACTORS. Without the good offices of Film Movement, this film would currently be enjoying an exclusive run in Puno Province at the world’s only llama-cart drive-in, the Titicaca Starlighter. Even with Film Movement, every local metroplex in the U.S. will have returned to the dusty earth from whence it arose before Madeinusa ever plays there. Jerk.)) Could it be that the voice of the star, as much or more than his or her looks, influences me? I remember that I couldn’t get enough of June Allyson. (Oh, and speaking of misguided reviewers, I also emailed the critic who found the film well-directed but unbearably dull, and asked him if the multiple sex scenes with blood included, the head-lice combing and squashing, the ground glass in the knees, bathing in a washtub, baldfaced pig theft, cast of hundreds, drunken spitting contest, mountain scenery, dead-rat flinging, corpse abuse, townwide mutual simultaneous public wife-swapping, necktie cutting with pointed scissors at the throat of the tieless gringo, sweeping a dirt floor, great fly foley, human clock (old man flips card every minute. White cards when God is awake, red cards from 3 P.M. Friday when Christ dies until 6 A.M Sunday), red-white-and-blue Andean color-coordinated female styling, cow piss, Christ coming off the cross blindfolded, foaming-at-the-mouth poisoning death scene (you can rape me but keep your filthy paws off my mom’s earrings!), and another data point supporting my theory that just as every French movie contains the word “personne,” every Spanish-language movie contains the word “preoccupar” didn’t liven things up for him enough to avoid the “D” word, but it turns out that he mostly reviews for Fangoria, so nothing I say is going to change his mind. Dude is desensitized. Roger Ebert once wondered in a review, “How is it that the same movie can seem tedious on first viewing and absorbing on the second? Why doesn’t it grow even more tedious?” His guess: “Perhaps it helped that I knew what the story offered and what it did not offer, and was able to see it again without expecting what would not come.” That is, the first time through we’re sometimes watching a movie that isn’t really there because input is perturbed and shaped by expectation. For example, the first time I watched Old Joy, which is about two guys who go off into the woods and spend some time together and then go home, I had seen so many horror movies, and Deliverance, and such, where folks go off into the woods and then bad things happen to them, that all the way through Old Joy I was waiting for some bad thing. The movie wasn’t about anything like that. In some sense, the two guys could have spent that time at the seashore or walking around Manhattan. Second time through, I could listen, hear, see, enjoy. Likewise, in the movie Sounder: dad, boy, and a big buzz saw. I kept waiting for somebody to lose a body part. Didn’t happen. I laughed at the opening sequence in Walk Hard, which runs a bunch of those scenarios past us without result before finally pulling the trigger. As for Madeinusa, knowing that it was a low-budget work filmed in the highlands of Peru as the first effort of a young woman from Lima, and seeing in the opening scene a young indigenous woman preparing and distributing rat poison whilst at one point picking up a dead rat by its tail and flinging it away, I slipped into viewing-third-world-documentary-style mode and was not expecting and for a while did not pick up on the fact that I was watching a droll, sly, sophisticated, sacrilegious little riff by a director/writer of wit and intelligence, who had assembled an expert crew (Raúl Pérez Ureta (who shot the film on HD digital video. This prize-winning master has been working more outside of Cuba lately, in Argentina, Colombia, and Peru. He does himself proud here), Patricia Bueno, Susana Torres, Eduardo Camino, Roxana Rivera, Miguel Rubio) to realize her vision. I wonder if her uncle read the script. He’s been on a few film-festival juries, including Cannes. Seven of his books have been made into movies, including one that he directed. I’d also be interested to know how Spanish vs Peruvian influences are manifest in the movie. (Visit http://www.cinencuentro.com/ for a sample Peruvian film blog.) Back in the time of violence there was a law that required a Peruvian movie to play in the theater before a foreign film could play. This created a huge demand for short Peruvian films and caused a lot of youngsters to be trained by filmmakers such as Francisco Lombardi, good news for the future of film in Peru.).) A good movie.

Win big $$$ playing games: E-@thletes (2008)

Jonathon Boal and Artem Agafanov made the documentary E@thletes at a time when competitive team-gaming seemed ready to expand into a new world of professional competition. The film presented, at the time they released it, a cutting-edge view of two teams out on the road, just before both teams joined a new league. By the time I watched the movie, league play was already into its second season and the film had become, for me, a how-it-all-happened tale. By the time I began writing this review, the league was out of business and team gaming had returned to the state it occupied before Boal and Agafanov began their documentary. And now, much later than that, in the midst of an economic slump, I have no idea how electronic gaming, competitive or otherwise, is faring. Holy cow. Will anyone ever see the movie? Will anyone ever read this review? If I fall over in the woods, will anyone ever hear me go?

Whatever. Video-game revenue outstripped cinema ticket sales long ago, and then passed DVD rental sales. Companies spend millions developing new games, betting that one hit will pay for all their flops and make a profit for the company. Innovation is somewhat restricted these days by corporate rules, but it creeps in once and a while anyway. Amateur developers can now create new games using free tools, and deploy them to consoles and handhelds, not just desktops. Prize-winning opportunities for kids playing video games began to increase as gaming revenues increased. Even with the huge dip in revenue during the 08/09 recession, year-to-date totals at the end of July, ’09, stood at $8.16 billion. A huge, young demographic with plastic in its back pocket is whiling away the Generation Y hours in cyberspace, guns and other weapons in its paws.

e-@thletes highlights one consequence of the sloshing about of gaming dollars back in 2006 – the growth in pro gaming. The film follows two teams of young men paid to hit the road and compete at tournaments offering cash prizes to the winners. Ever been on one of those 5-day, 32-country tours? The movie includes a team tour of China with a film montage of, say, 10 cities in 100 seconds. (More than 100 Chinese cities have a population greater than one million, by the way. America has 9. The 100th largest city in the U.S. is Boise. Lot of folks living in China.) And speaking of seconds, the filmmakers shot something like 20 hours of film at a tournament and cut it down to less than 60 seconds for an opening clip in the movie. The filmmakers were in their early twenties when they made the movie; Boal began it as a final film-school project. Micro budget: some money from Intel for services rendered; travel and motel costs picked up by one of the teams; some money from dad. In seventy zippy yet professional minutes, the film interleaves interviews with the members of two Counter-Strike teams, their parents, scenes of team travel, competitive gaming action, and the obligatory talking heads – six of them.

Counter-Strike is a first-person shooter video game that pits a team of counter-terrorists against a team of terrorists in a series of rounds. Each round is won by either completing the mission objective or eliminating the opposing force. First-person shooter (FPS) games are a genre featuring weapons-based combat viewed as if seen through the eyes of the player.” That is, on one level, E-@thletes is a frag movie that features shooting, bombing, and killing. We don’t see enough of it to get excited, however.

e-Athlete: Someone who enjoys computer games (too much). Often possesses a grandiose sense of self. “I don’t get out much. I pwn noobs on the net because I’m an e-athlete.”

The two teams: Team 3D, the well-funded top-dogs, and CompLexity, a diverse bunch gamers brought together by a lawyer with a gaming vision and some personal money to invest in the future of the sport. A climatic match between the two teams awaits us at the end of the film. When the filmmakers chose these two teams to follow, they chose well. The movie has a nice arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Intel-sponsered Team 3D was the first professional Counter-Strike team outside of Europe and Asia. 3D’s motto: “Desire. Discipline. Dedication. Intel.” A 3D team manager keeps the boys in line as they squabble and mostly beat other teams. Squabbling teammates are always of interest in sports, but hard to get on tape in a documentary, including this one. At one point, a team captain is deposed and replaced, but nobody dishes for us onscreen. I was reminded of the 70s documentary An American Family, wherein we follow the Loud family for hours and hours and then, in a hard-to-hear couple of minutes in a restaurant near the end, the mom and dad suddenly agree to get divorced, and I’m like, What? Where did that come from? But no tape to rewind in those days.

You can find E-@thletes on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and its own site but it isn’t mentioned in IMDB. Boal told me that when the movie was finally finished and ready for release (post-production took a year), he and Agafanov decided to focus their distribution efforts on the gamer community and its various websites. I’m guessing that, based on the google hits for the movie, as befits a gamer flick, most viewers downloaded it via one torrent or another. When Boal and Agafanov submitted it to IMDB, it wasn’t accepted because of its limited distribution, but the film added the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival to its resume after that and if the makers ever take the trouble to resubmit, it’ll probably get listed.

As I mentioned above, even though, at this point, the movie is way past being stop-the-presses current, it’s structured with a narrative that suggests we’re getting the current poop – perhaps an error in the director/editor’s emphasis when applied to such a a fast-evolving environment. To wit: the two teams are introduced as the best, the cream of the crop, the only two sponsered teams in a world of gamers. We are told that it’s becoming possible to earn a living playing video games. As the movie comes to an end in 2007, a gaming league is created and we watch a draft of gamers at the Playboy Mansion to populate it. The league, The Championship Gaming Series, was owned and operated by DirecTV. This was an international electronic-sports league based in the U.S. and then “expanded to every continent except Antarctica for Season Two.” The league expired suddenly after two seasons. compLexity went away, came back with different players, drama ensued, the founder retired, all ancient history now. At the end of the movie, the founder of compLexity is quoted as saying that if the league fails, there won’t be another to follow it. I’m no expert on gaming, but I think that various leagues did follow the failed CGS, but they’re all gone, too, now, I think, except for Major League Gaming. Gamers making six figures have come and gone… though by the time you read this, who knows? With gaming generating billions, somebody is still getting rich, I presume. My mom’s lifelong best friend was Nolan Bushnell’s mom (Nolan created Pong, the first video game, and Atari, and Chuck E. Cheese, and something else after that, and lives about two billion dollars up the hill from me here). As girls, his mom and my mom grew up on adjacent farms. Shouldn’t that be worth a few million to me, Nolan’s mom’s best friend’s kid? Even just a lousy million? But no. Nothing has rubbed off on me but a plate of potato salad that his mom insisted I eat the last time I saw her in Utah. Tasty!

Anyway, my only negative about this well-made film: the documentary is structured, on one level, as a genre sports film. The established corporate team of winners, touring the world, idolized, pulling down the $$$, is challenged by the upstart misfits, who come together and begun to win. As is traditional in this type of movie, the rivalry is hyped throughout and brought to a climax with a major showdown at the end of the film, just at the dawn of the new era of league sports. Then, unaccountably, as the two teams engage in their final struggle, instead of descriptions of the match with on-screen illustrations, the docu’s talking heads pipe up and tell us… well, I have no idea what they were telling us because I was trying to watch the frigging match! (I consider this not a spoiler, but a warning of impending disappointment), which was 1-0 and then, all of a sudden, 9-5 (a match can take hours) and then, oops, it’s over. This is a climax? But I took consolation in the fact that the extras disk had a feature on this final match. When I watched it, however, it consisted of shots of all the players sitting at their keyboards, no shots of the screen action, what they were seeing, what they were doing, how the match was progressing. No final-game narrative.

None of the detail and tension experienced while watching the Dynamo and Itkakuskaya National Chess teams battle it out over 20 boards in Oblasteskva Stadium.

Five talking heads appear rhythmically throughout the movie, explaining, as experts, that… well, I can’t remember what they explained. Something about kids and video games? Are video games still called video games? 137,000,000 Google hits. Electronic games = 74,500,000 hits. I wonder what single search term in all of English garners the greatest number of Google hits, and how many hits that is? What’s the hit limit, if any, for Google? More than one trillion pages are registered. Anyway, the talking heads comprise authors and the editor of GotFrag Magazine (http://www.gotfrag.com/portal/story/36956/ Don’t believe anything I say about gaming; read GotFrag instead), all the heads serious onscreen but none dour. Serious because they’ve got books for sale on the subject; not dour because, after all, the subject is video gaming. I have not read any of their books, though I did trouble myself to price them all on Amazon (“Smartbomb,” “Gameboys,” “Got Game,” “Everyting Bad is Good For You”), and could have had the lot, used, for a mere $16.76 plus shipping. I subscribe to “To The Point,” “Left, Right, and Center,” “Planet Money,” and sundry other talking-head podcasts, and listen to them daily. From this I infer that I like talking heads. So why can’t I remember word one of the offerings of this E-@thlete bunch (Aaron Ruby, Mike Kane, John Beck, Steven Johnson, and Heather Chaplin)? Hmm. I haven’t read any of the books written by the talking heads I listen to every day, either. Or remember in particular what they’ve said. In fact, I’m reminded of what happens when I am made to sit through a sermon in church. I understand the words that I’m hearing, assuming that the sermon is spoken in my native tongue. I understand the concepts. The meaning of the sermon as a whole, however, the import, usually eludes me; or perhaps I elude it. Sermons. They’re meaningless to me. I don’t forget what I’ve heard; in some sense or other I just don’t hear anything in the first place. A sermon is something that comes between the songs – often occuring annoyingly at the same time as a ballgame on TV. From this I gather that talking heads must be talking to or arguing with each other, as in the podcasts that I listen to, for me to hear and understand and remember what they are saying. I will listen to and ponder the pronouncements of conversing talking heads, but not to a lone talking head talking at me. I might also still be annoyed at Sun Dogs for using a legitimate people’s activist talking head in an infomercial designed to further enrich the rich at the expense of a couple of poor dogs.

I was in a documentary once, by the way. Up on the big screen. High on a rock wall, free climbing, facing death, sweat running off my back, muscles on the verge of failure, blue sky above and thin air below! I checked out the audience during a screening and spotted a few mouths hanging open. Wow! And then, wtf, the rock wall, with me on it, was suddenly replaced by my parents’ kitchen with my mom standing in front of a sink full of dishes, brow knit and her going on about how I was raised to be responsible and how much I meant to the family and what was I doing taking my life in my hands when I should have been out in the shantytowns going door-to-door proselytizing and converting the inhabitants of Burkina Vaso (formerly Upper Volta) instead of traumatizing her and my dad and my sister by climbing without a rope, without, well, without a net, after all that she and my dad had done for me. Then my dad, down in the rumpus room behind the bar, just shaking his head, doleful, pointing to my trophy from the debating-society championships, pointing to the family Bible signed by Billy Graham himself, dad taking a drink from his highball glass and clinking the cubes. So the parents that appear in E-@thletes? They support their kids; but conflict being the essence of drama, this means – no drama. One dad, a Canadian documentary maker himself, does intone “Some nights when Griffin didn’t come home at all, I’d go looking for him, usually ending up downtown in his favorite video game place. In these, the opium dens of the 21st century, an elctronic hook deep in the brain of harmless killing…” Spoken like a true parent! Let’s keep in mind that these young adults are sitting in front of a screen for, say, five hours a day, clicking a keyboard with their left hand and moving and clicking a mouse with their right in order to win a kill-or-be-killed video game. Where’s (where’re?) the sunlight and fresh air? Where’s the vitamin D and exercise? Where’s the organic Vegan cooking instead of pizza? The good news: the rooms aren’t smoke-filled. Steroids don’t enhance performance. Or, wait a minute, what about drugs? Are these young men (no sign of a female gamer from start to finish) all jacked on some pill I’ve never heard of? That kid who chewed a hole through the linoleum floor when he lost – was that drug-induced behavior? We don’t know.

If you enjoy shooter games and, watching these young competitors, feel a sudden urge to spend some time sharpening your skills with a view toward winning a little prize money, permit me to remind you that even if you don’t currently play tennis, for example, if you’re in reasonable shape you can go buy a racquet, take a few lessons and shortly become the best tennis player on your block. Dedicate your life to the game and you might, in time, become the best player in your town, if your town isn’t too large and you’re not already too old. But that’s about it. You can eat, sleep, live, dream, and pray about tennis 24×7, juice up, study with John McEnroe, bribe the line judges, and still, somewhere in your county, nevermind your state, you will encounter a 13-year-old of either sex who will clean your clock. That is in the nature of the human body, the psyche, and sporting competition. So is it also with e-gaming.

End note: The movie does not deal with cheating, a fact of gaming competition that could command a documentary of its own.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

“Precious” is a small independent film about an illiterate pregnant teenager, the mother of a Down syndrome child who was fathered, as was the young woman’s impending second child, by the teenager’s mostly absent father, who is married, but not to her mother. The movie is a basic position-the-protagonist-at-the-absolute-bottom-of-the-pile-and-then-let-her-work-her-way-up-and-out-of-the-dark-to-some-kind-of-success-but-with-a-step-back-for-every-two-forward-though-you-can-see-she’ll-eventually-make-it-which-brands-the-movie-a-feelgood-picture-even-though-you-feel-bad-during-the-rough-parts-and-worried-during-the-smooth-parts-because-you-know-more-rough-parts-must-be-coming-soon-type-of-film.

That clunky title? Originally titled “Push,” the movie generated buzz and has won 32 awards (last time I checked), including the Grand Jury prize and Audience award at Sundance and a Special Jury prize for Mo’Nique, plus a 15-minute standing O at Cannes. Lionsgate announced that it was buying “Push” on February 2, ’09. On February 6, Summit Entertainment opened the Dakota Fanning sci-fi action flick “Push.” Confusion at the box office ensued. Lionsgate then changed the title of its property from “Push” to “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” to avoid further audience problems while at the same time retaining the buzzworthy “Push” word where it could still be seen by moviegoers attuned to its festival kudos. Plus, the movie’s director, Lee Davis, and the book’s author, Sapphire, are tight; it took him more than 10 years to talk her into letting him do the movie, so maybe putting her name in the title was one more way to say thanks.

I read Push and watched Precious (via a screener from the Spirit Awards) the first time through in parallel. My copy of the book is a short 140 pages and the movie runs about 110 minutes, so I’d read 14 pages and then watch 11 minutes of the movie. Later, checking out some reviews of the movie by folks who hadn’t read the book, I could see how knowing the book helped me avoid some misconceptions about the intent of the screenwriter and director while watching the movie. More about this later.

Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), variously a performance artist, poet, teacher in Harlem, and writer, was, I’m delighted to say, in her late teens and present in San Francisco as a hippie during the ’67 Summer of Love, the passing and loss of which I was recently bewailing in my review of Tillsammans. Lofton chose the name Sapphire because she wanted to be taken as a scold, not a diplomatic individual like her mother; those of you familiar with Amos and Andy will recall the Kingfish’s wife Sapphire, a scold indeed. I thought that Lofton might have had her in particular in mind when she chose the name, but she has said “Well, my given name was Ramona, and I just didn’t have any use for it. I took the name Sapphire at the height of the New Age movement, when everybody was a gemstone. At one time in African-American culture, the name also had a very negative connotation. Sapphire was, like, the evil, razor-toting type of belligerent black woman, which was somehow attractive to me, especially because my mother was just the opposite.”

Precious, the eponymous protagonist in the film, was twelve, at the stove cooking, when her first labor began. When her mother realized what was happening, she knocked the girl down and kicked her hard in the head. The title “Push” references Precious’ pain during the subsequent delivery on the kitchen floor. With her pushing came intense pain, pain similar to that attendant to her struggles in the film to emerge into the adult world (her teacher tells Precious to push herself, tells all of the students in class to push themselves, as they learn to read and write); or as Sapphire puts it, “Pushing is about that very basic, primal female energy of bringing forth life. There is something very aggressive and assertive about being a female. We’re taught to be very laid-back and passive, but if we’re to survive, if we’re to move forward, we have to have that pushing energy.”

Sapphire moved to NYC in ’77. She lived for 10 years in Harlem, and watched and listened to and taught a generation of kids as they grew up, kids whom she first knew as eight-year-olds, who were eighteen when she moved. She presents Push, the book, as the classroom writing exercise of a sixteen-year-old young woman who has recently elevated her literacy skills, though not uniformly, from those of a third grader to those of, approximately, a seventh grader. The book is a first-person narrative related in idiom, which Sapphire pulls off in stretches, sometimes long stretches, to good effect. Sapphire published her book in 1996 during Clinton’s first term, looking back at the Reagan/Bush era in 1987. She wrote the book at the age of 46. She credits Alice Walker’s “the Color Purple” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eyes” as the two books that made “Push” possible, by opening the door to the subjects that it treats. “I saw a complete generation grow up while I was living in Harlem. I moved into a building in ’83 and moved out in ’93. The children who were seven and eight when I moved in were seventeen and eighteen when I moved out. I saw girls who had their first babies at fourteen. I listened to someone I had gone over a little primer with talking about her friend who got shot.”

The book is prefaced by two epigraphs: an inspirational passage from Wordsworth regarding the least of nature’s works, and the Talmudic “Every blade of grass has an Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ In other words, whoever that blade of grass, that least of nature’s works, turns out to be, she’s going to make it in the end, one way or another. If any doubt of this remains, the book’s first page includes “My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. Guess ’cause I don’t know how far I’m gonna go with this story, or whether it’s even a story or why I’m talkin’; whether I’m gonna start from the beginning or right from here or two weeks from now. Two weeks from now? Sure you can do anything when you talking or writing, it’s not like living when you can only do what you doing. Some people tell a story ‘n it don’t make no sense or be true. But I’m gonna try to make sense and tell the truth, else what’s the f**king use? Ain’ enough lies and shit out there already?” Or, as I took this passage, “I’ve learned. I’ve learned to write and I’ll tell you how, and by the way, anything in this life is possible.”

The Precious screenplay was written by Geoffrey Fletcher, 39, who graduated from Harvard and Tisch School of the Arts at NYU ten years ago, created some film shorts in the 90s, including “Magic Markers” in 1996, which John Singleton saw and suggested turning into a feature film. That never happened, but after years of trying to break into the business, writing while working at odd jobs, Fletcher received a call from Precious’ director, Lee Daniels, who had seen “Magic Markers” too. Fletcher wasn’t the only one to write a screenplay based on the book, but his adaptation was the one that Daniels chose. Challenge and reward. The chance of a lifetime. There is something in this story similar to the inspiration built into Push. Fletcher hewed close to the line in converting the book to screenplay. He produced a script faithful to Push in every way (with one misstep). Said Fletcher, “The book was perfect. It’s hard to improve on perfection.”

This is a nice clip of him in modest-yet-delighted mode on the red carpet.

Fletcher’s screenplay displays the same modesty that he himself does on the red-carpet. He is gentle with the book and makes, I think, a satisfying decision in the film’s first scene. I’m guessing that while not wanting to bookend the movie, he was looking for a way to adumbrate the fairy-tale happyish ending of story, as, I believe, Sapphire does in the book. The essence of the film is prefigured in the first sixty seconds exactly: a red scarf hangs from a lamppost in Harlem, 1987. A breeze dislodges the scarf and it drifts downward while the movie’s protagonist, Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe), imagines that a beautiful woman, perhaps her fairy godmother, perhaps that Talmudic grass angel, is bringing the scarf to her and draping it around her neck as she stands smiling, neat and well-groomed. That is, Precious dreams, and the stuff of her dreams will be given to her by a fairy godmother, or the godmother’s two stand-ins, a school teacher and a social worker, by the end of the movie. And in the other bookend, Precious passes the scarf on to another young and abused child like she had been, herself now a fairy godmother herself for her own and other children. Of course, these minutes of filmmaking were lost on me the first time around, but it’s sort of neat to know that they are there to find later.

Gabourey Sidibe is the core, the heart, the four elephants standing on the giant tortoise holding up the world of this movie. She was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, raised in Harlem, daughter of a Senegalese cab driver, and she was 26 playing 16 when the movie was made. The director Lee Daniels is all about casting and on this one he went through a whole process with his ex-boyfriend Billy Hopkins (co-parent with Daniels of Daniel’s nephew) to find the right Precious. Casting calls all over the U.S., American-Idol-like tests and auditions. Selection of 10 candidates, none with acting experience, all sent to acting boot camp. But meantime, Daniels wanted Sidibe’s mother to audition for the mom role in the movie; Sidibe’s mom is a street performer in New York. She declined to try out but sent Gabby over and David forgot all the rest and signed her up. (Or a friend called Gabby at college as she was cramming for an exam and told her about the chance to audition. Or both.) Davis says that he interviewed 400 young women (I take that with a grain of salt). After Gabby auditioned, doing as well as the ten he had chosen, she suddenly turned into a Valley Girl, telling him how much she loved Monster’s Ball. In that moment, he realized that using one of the 10 that he had chosen would be exploitation, because the 10 were all the real Precious, whereas Gabby “could bring a voice and articulate Precious’ journey in a way that the others would not have been able to do.” I don’t know what this means.

Lee Daniels, who is 50 now, has a story to tell. It’s not all true but it’s about the gay boy from the ghett-o. “I’m a little homo, I’m a little Euro, and I’m a little ghetto.” Comes to L.A., gets a job as a receptionist in a nursing home, starts his own business. Manages some talent, including Nastassia Kinski. Raises some money for Monster’s Ball. That’s what he did and does, raised and raises money. More producer than director. Goes gangsta, and gets into casting. Took The Woodsman to Cannes (I recommend it); put Mos Def in it. He cast Def, Sean Combs, and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, had to fight for Berry, and she won an Oscar for it. Mo’Nique denies that she said at the time, “why did he cast that skinny light-colored bitch?” but she’s on record with it.

Daniels also wanted to direct. I bailed when watching his first attempt a year or two ago, The Shadowboxer. That’s the one where Cuba Gooding, hit man, is hooked up romantically with his dying stepmother, Helen Mirren; they’re raising a child. Somewhere along the line, I maxed out on Gooding, maybe for good. I didn’t take Shadowboxer seriously – didn’t know anything about its pedigree and thought I was watching schlock (maybe I was; I’ll probably never know, unless somebody dictates that I watch it again). Mirren says that she was walking down Houston Street one day, looking down watching for holes not to step in, and this wild looking dude with hair out to here came up to her, introduced himself, told her he loved her work, and that he had a movie part for her. In time, she signed up for it. She says that she loves working purple.

That was Daniels’ first movie. He’d been after Sapphire for years to give him the rights to Push and when she saw The Shadowboxer, she gave them to him. He didn’t have an easy time finding the $$$ to let him direct again but the man can raise money. He scored 8 mil off an unlikely rich couple in Denver. After Push’s success at Sundance, Oprah and Tyler Perry got on board and money ceased to be an issue.

But I digress. Another word about Fletcher’s screenplay: after the sixty-second opening, we see Precious in middle school, wearing the scarf, and she introduces herself in voiceover. Voiceover is Fletcher’s initial solution to the problem of transferring 140 pages of first-person narrative to the screen. The difference is, for a page of narrative we might get a sentence of voiceover together with Andrew Dunn’s visuals. I took the book’s narrative and the movie’s voiceover almost as internal monolog, thoughts that don’t advance the action but build the Precious character. For example, Precious explains her situation in school: she’s two classes behind, sits in class without speaking, fantasizes about the teachers, but first and foremost waits for change, hopes for change, questions why she’s in the illiterate, stuck state that she’s in. Watching her as a mostly unspeaking student at her desk in the back of class, it might be hard to guess at this turmoil in her mind, or at least to exactly impute to her the thoughts invested in her by Sapphire. I found myself at the outset automatically augmenting her sparse voiceovers in class and her silence in the principal’s office that followed with feelings and a mindset that I imagined her to have. That’s what we do with a character who doesn’t say much, right? Furnish her with some interior dialog ourselves? The interior dialog I was providing, it turns out, minimized her anger, confusion, and angst, which is spelled out in the book.

That is, in the first ten minutes of Precious, we see her (a) in math class, slugging another kid to maintain order, while telling us in voiceover that the teacher likes her and that she’d like to marry him; (b) in the principal’s office, being expelled from school for her second pregnancy; (c) at home, cooking for her mother; (d) still at home when the principal comes from school to tell the two of them about a special program called Each One Teach One that would be ideal for someone with excellent math skills, like Precious herself.

After I proceeded to invest Precious with that part of her persona not visible onscreen in (a), (b), (c), and (d), making her a teen with a gentle spirit, eyes perhaps not yet on the prize, so forth, I then read the first fourteen pages of Push. Samples that provide a glimpse into aspects of Precious Jones’ actual mindset:

(a) “First day, Mr. Wicher say, “Class turn the book pages to page 122 please.” I don’t move. He say, “Miss Jones, I said turn the book pages to page 122.” I say, “Mutherf**ker I ain’t deaf!” The whole class laugh. He turn red. He slam his han’ down on the book and say, “Try to have some discipline.” He a skinny little white man about five feets four inches. A peckerwood as my mother would say. I look at him ‘n say, “I can slam too. You wanna slam?” ‘N I pick up my book ‘n slam it down on the desk hard. The class laugh some more. He say, “Miss Jones I would appreciate it if you would leave the room right NOW.” I say, “I ain’ going nowhere mutherf**ker till the bell ring. I came here to learn maff and you gon’ teach me.” He look like a bitch just got a train pult on her. He don’t know what to do. He try to recoup, be cool, say, “Well, if you want to learn, calm down–” “I’m calm,” I tell him. He say, “If you want to learn, shut up and open your book.” His face is red, he is shaking. I back off. I have won. I guess.”

Precious maintains order in the class, but she can’t read and every page looks like every other page in a textbook to her, unless there are pictures. She acts out with Mr. Wicher because she doesn’t want him to know this. Underneath her toughness is worry and concern. But either Fletcher or I or both of us together softened that toughness in the book onscreen. So that while I watched Precious, heard what she said, saw how she acted, all the while, without quite being aware of it, as I say, her thoughts were being supplied by someone of different age, gender, education, and culture – me – furnishing her interior consciousness with these thoughts, constructed on the spot not by her brain but by mine. I imagined what she was thinking and feeling. Reading the book, told by her in the first person, she was obviously a great deal angrier, aggressive, confused, and, well, physically grounded, than what I was supposing out there in my seat. That is, Sapphire draws her so.

(b) In the movie, in the principal’s office, Precious says only that she’s pregnant because she had sex and that it isn’t fair that she’s being expelled. My take, produced for her in my brain at that point: she’s respectful, carried along by events. In the book: “I reached over the desk. I was gonna yank her fat ass out that chair. She fell backwards trying to get away from me ‘n started screaming, “SECURITY! SECURITY!””

(c) As I watched Precious take some abuse from her mother in silence onscreen, I figured she was just outclassed by the older woman, especially with Mo’Nique pulling out all the stops, whereas on page 11: “My hand slip down in the dishwater, grab the butcher knife. She bedda not hit me, I ain’ lyin’! If she hit me I will stab her ass to def, you hear me!”

(d) Finally, when the principal visits her home, in the book we get “That white bitch… that hoe… that c**t bucket…” In the movie “I felt warm..” In the book “My heart is all warm – half of it at least – thinking about Mr Wicher say I’m a good student. The other half could jus’ jump out my chest and kick Mrs Lichenstein’s ass.”

My point here being that while newcomer Gabourey portrays Precious with a certain grace and Fletcher eases up on the language in the voiceover narrative, it’s good to know how tough this particular cookie really is. Once she has a teacher and a social worker to talk to, the Push narrative backstory is transferred in large part to dialog. This means we wait till we’re well into the movie to learn some of the facts of the case, facts that help us understand Precious and what she’s had to deal with. It’s halfway through the film, with her in the alternative school, that she awakens in her thoughts, comes to, understands for the first time that she’s in fact lonely and has always been lonely, outside the circle, and that now, part of the time at least, at last, she isn’t.

Why did Daniels and Fletcher dial back the anger in the first half of the movie, which they did, along with the sex, Precious’ disabilities, and her momma’s proclivities? Too raw for a middle-class cineplex audience? Too heavy for the Oscar voters? Simply easier to make the movie with the larger bumps and spikes and sharp edges buffed down? The movie was hard enough to watch as Daniels made it, never mind trying to duplicate Push. I did notice that the first time through, I was paying more attention to the gory details, whereas the second time through I was more taken with, for example, the pacing in the first classroom scene with Ms Rain and the girls, which brought a lump to my throat. Or did Daniels and Fletcher dial it back? Maybe others in the audience picked up on Precious and her true mindset right from the jump, and for them the movie’s mood in the first half was angrier and more chaotic than it was for me. Mo’Nique clobbering her daughter. How many pages of angry words is that worth? When Precious slaps around a classmate in the alternative class, what does the book have to match the sudden percussive energy that jumps from the screen? The movie eliminates a nightmarish shelter scene, yes, but replaces it with something even stronger: after her baby is born, in the book, Precious goes home but when she steps through the front door, her momma “charged me like fifty niggers” and she runs for it, never going back; in the movie, she goes in and lets her mom hold the baby, and the physical violence in the movie peaks minutes thereafter.

FANTASIES

Precious deals with stress by distracting herself with fantasies. The first of these in the book is related by her as she trances out on the street, thinking about sex with her father: “I fall back on bed, he fall right on top of me. Then I change stations, change bodies, I be dancing in videos! In movies! I be breaking, fly, jus’ a dancing! Umm hmm heating up the stage at the Apollo for Doug E. Fresh or Al B. Shure. They love me! Say I’m one of the best dancers aint’ no doubt of or about that!” Daniels uses the dancing but lightens up the initiatory cause, with Precious being pushed down from behind by a boy in the street.

Later, when her teacher Ms Rain suddenly asks her to read: “All the air go out my body. I see bad things. I see my daddy. I see TVs I hear rap music I want something to eat I want f**k feeling from Daddy I want die I want die.” Daniels stays right with it, gets experimental here with blurred images of Patton’s mouth talking about reading, Precious’ mother calling her a dumb bitch, images of pigs feet cooking on the stove, Precious’ father on and over her telling her she’s as good as her mother, baby, a TV screen. Daniels doesn’t back off, except… Where sex is concerned, in movies as opposed to books, fantasy or no fantasy, my rule of thumb is that when the screenwriter, following the original author, starts describing the actual fluids involved (excluding There Is Something About Mary) and dripping, squirting, smearing, and ingestion therewith, we have left the main line and will find ourselves way over there in Unrated forget-that-Oscar territory. If the sex in the book were put onscreen, the director would be presenting visual material currently available only in movies produced in the San Fernando Valley. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true when we’re talking about gender-specific morphology. Daniels keeps the sex abstract.

My other rule of thumb is, books are more familiar and comfortable with the hidden areas of the human body than cineplex and festival movies are: in the movie, before the first day of Precious’ new school, she takes a shower and we see her hand reach out from behind the shower curtain to pick up the toothpaste and her toothbrush; in the book, “I go splash some water on my ass, which mean I wash serious between my legs and underarm. I don’t smell like my muver.”

My other other rule of thumb is, Caligula bombed and Malcolm McDowell hasn’t recovered from it since, Heroes and Blue Thunder notwithstanding: in Precious, mom is in bed, working it, and calls to Precious to come up and help out, and Precious starts up the stairs, complaining voiceover to indicate that she doesn’t approve, scene ending with a decorous blackout; in the book, mom whacks Precious with a frying pan, makes her cook for two hours, makes her eat till she’s sick, and then gets seriously inappropriate with her. (I’d have paid to watch Daniels and Fletcher deciding how to deal with this one. They settle for giving the audience a laugh by having Precious imagine that she’s in Two Women with her mom, both speaking subtitled Italian.)

Back to the idea that to explain Precious’ mindset as presented in her Push notebook, and to sand down the sharp edges of the book, Fletcher, Daniels, and cinematographer Andrew Dunn choose to use images, along with some abbreviated voiceovers, to replace multiple pages of text. Is this effective? For example, Precious takes a placement test. Since she can’t read, the test doesn’t go so well. As she’s walking away from the Hotel Theresa in the movie, she says “There’s always something wrong with these tesses. These tesses paint a picture of me with no brain. These tesses paint a picture of me and my muver, my whole family, as less that dumb. As ugly black grease to be wiped away.” This stands in for three pages of text explaining and then explaining again her feelings of emptiness, invisibility, and worthlessness. Does the job get done? I’m saying that Gabby and Dunn get it done here.

In the book, once Precious’ son is born and she continues to advance in school, the world beginning to open to her, her fantasies recede, to be replaced in moments of stress by the alphabet. Daniels and Fletcher are slower to let go. We get just a hint of her use of the ABCs to de-stress in the movie. Instead, when Precious escapes from her mother with her baby, her and Abdul both still in one piece, and she looks into a church and imagines herself singing with the choir, it’s a nice scene, with terrific, moving music, but I don’t think that it made any kind of dramatic sense. Movie’s got some great music, though.

And when her momma shows up with news of her poppa’s death, and the cause of death, Daniels throws in a fashion-shoot fantasy. Again, no dramatic sense. By this time, nine months later, Precious is in another place. In the book, she stays present in this scene until later, and then hears a song as if in a nightmare, and despairs. Some critics found this particular fantasy sequence silly and pathetic. Ouch! Not pathetic in the least, but woefully misplaced.

THE NEW BABY

The baby Abdul arrives at the 60-minute mark and spends one quarter of the movie as a newborn and one quarter as a nine-month-old. Is the baby anything more than a prop or mcguffin in the film? The reason I ask is that I’m remembering those days and weeks and months that follow the birth of a new child. The diaper changing, the packing and repacking of the diaper bag, the scheduling, the domination of the lives of others by the new arrival. Newborns can rule the roost (pace Trainspotting). Perhaps not at first when the little things just sleep and eat, but once they begin to develop their little baby managerial chops, watch out. (If that’s just my cultural experience speaking and in some cases a baby can arrive without making a ripple, then such a baby would automatically qualify as a prop in a movie, right?) Abdul keeps it strictly on the DL. In the book, when Precious learns that she’s sick, she doesn’t mention whether or not her baby is sick too, for 55 pages! It’s how you know it’s a prop; at least in the movie, that particular question is handled without delay, but in a way that allows the baby to remain a prop, not a character.

If a baby is there so that its prop double can be pitched onto the floor with a thump by the evil momma, and so that its prop double can tumble down the stairs with Precious’ prop double, whereas the scene doesn’t even occur in the book, does the baby still count as a character? If Abdul is there to help illustrate the protagonist’s psychic growth, does it still count as a person? Precious is spurred by Abdul’s birth to move away from her mother, to further bond with her classmates and teacher, to promise to teach her son all the things that she’s learned from a museum visit. She’ll hang colors. She’ll read to him every day. She’ll put up pictures. She’ll teach him to count. She won’t be like her mother. She’ll tell him that she’s not dumb. And, yes, now she’s starting to miss her first child, too. Meanwhile, she’s got a backpack, a bag, and a bundle to carry. It’s all a quibble, but it just made me smile to compare the little quiescent package onscreen to the semi-overwhelming actual presence of an actual nine-day-old. Whatever Precious does with Abdul offscreen, Daniels doesn’t let it interfere with the story. Like in those romantic comedies where the protagonists have high-powered jobs, which they are shown doing for a couple of frames in the beginning, until the plot kicks in, after which, not so much.

At the end of the movie, no denying, with Labelle singing It Took a Long Time on the soundtrack to jerk my tears, as Gabby walks down the street with Mongo and Abdul, I did notice that the boy was wearing some sort of rudimentary mittens that I thought were cool.

INSPIRATION OR EXPLOITATION?

I asked several folks leaving the theater what they thought of the movie, what they took away from it. Typical response: “Inspirational. Shows the triumph of the human spirit. That a girl with so much against her could keep going, could make it, even knowing that her days were numbered (this was 1987, when AIDs was a death sentence; no significant treatment), well, it tells you that we all have things to live for. That’s just the way it is in real life and if Precious could make it, anybody should be able to.” So is that the way it is in real life? A monster for a mother, an absent father who impregnates his daughter twice, total social isolation for the girl because of her tendency to trance out from the trauma – in the book, she explains how she would arrive at school, sit down at a desk in able to.”

Precious, illiterate, poor, abused by mom and dad – abused, reabused, and then chronically, habitually, serially, and with malfeasant malice aforethought abused – would go to school and sit in the back row paralyzed, and remain there until it was time to go home, urinating in place at least once a day. Her teachers, hearing the runoff, would at first be worried for her and caring, then pissed off (irony), while the principal would tell them, Just be glad she isn’t doing anything worse. And I guess we know what that would be – where was I? Oh, right, older than all the others in her class, socially isolated by substance and circumstance, Down syndrome child, HIV, all visited on one resilient individual – Faced with this, would or could one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, keep it together and win out in the end? In other words, this movie will inspire me how and to do what?

Does exploitation have to be volitional? And anyway, Daniels himself has said that he worried at Cannes that he was exploiting his people. What’s the difference between exploitation and art? The idea behind exploitation cinema is to amp up any or all of the dramatic aspects of the material to drag us into the theater. “Good” and “bad” considerations with respect to artistic elements are not an issue. As a consequence of this focus on increasing the drama, exploitation films are rarely worth much, artistically speaking. So why are folks going to the theater to see Precious? The awards buzz? Or is it because they’ve heard how raw it is? Mo’Nique going over the top? Themes of incest and classroom drama? Daniels says, No, I wanted the abuse in there because my father beat me. Tyler Perry says that his father beat him. Oprah says that she was abused. Mo’Nique was abused by her brother for years. Hey, they’re just getting the word out, they say. It’s not about making a buck, although Daniels does say that Perry is the only black success story in Hollywood (what about John Singleton?) and he’d like to be the second; he’d like to make some real money. Lack of control of the arsenal of dramatic weapons in the service of testifying is not the same as cynically employing those weapons on the cheap to turn a quick buck.

Also, let’s remember that “Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is included in the movie’s title: not some potboiler, but Push, winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award, the Book of the Month Club Stephen Crane Award for the First Fiction Novelist Award, the Mind Book of the Year Award (UK), the New York Library Books for the Teen Age Award (pretty raw for teenagers?), nominated for the NAACP IMAGE Award for Outstanding Literary Work of Fiction. Fletcher wasn’t starting with chopped chicken liver here.

It’s confusing, though. Matt Damon. Mathematical genius. Straightened out by Robin Williams and Affleck and Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgård…wait, what, he was in that? The guy is everywhere… Small movie, introduced at the end of the year. Wins the Oscar. And Stallone in First Blood – just leave the dude alone, but no, beat on him and beat on him until he’s gotta win out. And now, Gabourey. Talented in math, according to Mr. Wicher. Able to learn to write, and write the award-winning Push, while having a baby and fending off Godzilla. How’m I supposed to know when they keeping it real and when they exploiting me? As I already said, talking about Fletcher dialing it back from the book: does that mean he’s going anti-exploit or does it mean that Daniels wants to cross over to the non-exploitable, no wait, the exploitable audience to increase tix sales? It’s a damned multidimensional spectrum of dramatic film values.

Is the movie lurid (i.e., causing shock or horror)? It’s hard to shock and horrify these days, but let’s just say yes. Armond White says that Daniels has lurid purposes. Is the film’s advertising and promotion sensationalist? Does it overstate the lurid subject matter (or a big star or special effects or sex or violence or romance), without reference to quality? Let’s say no. Checking a list of greatest exploitation films, I find Blue Velvet. The exploitation label doesn’t necessarily equal “poor quality.”

Should I take the exploitation arguments as straw men used by critics to display their choleric chops? “After this post-hip-hop freak show wowed Sundance last January, it now slouches toward Oscar ratification thanks to its powerful friends… Winfrey, Perry and Daniels make an unholy triumvirate. They come together at some intersection of race exploitation and opportunism. These two media titans — plus one shrewd pathology pimp — use Precious to rework Booker T. Washington’s early 20th-century manifesto Up From Slavery into extreme drama for the new millennium: Up From Incest, Child Abuse, Teenage Pregnancy, Poverty and AIDS. Regardless of its narrative details about class and gender, Precious is an orgy of prurience. All the terrible, depressing (not uplifting) things that happen to 16-year-old Precious recall that memorable All About Eve line, ‘Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at her rear-end’…Daniels is hoisting his freak flag.” [Armond White]

White spills a lot of negative ink making his point, which seems to be that we can’t trust the audience to appreciate the metaphorical hyperbole rampant in the movie. The audience he was sitting with at the New York Film Festival did not seem to get it, for example. But this seems sort of like hating on porn because it might turn some folks on. Armond, go watch Redacted with the Venice Film Festival audience again as punishment.

Not to beat this to death, but among the critics’ other concerns: “An impeccably acted piece of trash — an exploitation film that shamelessly strokes its audience’s sense of righteous indignation.” [Ed Gonzales] “In offering up their heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation, they’ve created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn.” [Dana Stevens] “In their admiration of Precious’ strength and resilience, these people also implicitly accept the status quo.” [Raina Kelley, being glass-half-hey-it-shouldn’t-be-half-f**ing-anything!] “So to Sidibe, I say: Congratulations on Precious. And my hope is that you get a handle on your health.” [Alicia Villarosa, telling Gabby that she’s too damn fat] “Denigrates step-mothers, step-daughters, mice, pumpkins,…” Oops, that one’s about Disney’s Cinderella.

So hold on. Is Precious character-driven? Because if it is, then it’s probably not exploitative. Is that true or false? Whichever, yes, it is character-driven. Or at least, its main character is driven this way and that in an oscillatory way. “Precious” indubitably contains dramatic elements at a high pitch. Does this make the film an “exploitation” effort? Did I actually write “indubitably” and “at a high pitch”? Credit where credit is due! If somebody else wrote that and I cut and pasted it in my notes and then forgot that it wasn’t mine, my apologies to you, whoever you are. Plagiarism is an ugly thing. In fact, I apologize at a high pitch! But to answer the probably plagiarized question, no, it does not make the film an exploitation effort, because if, as in “King Lear,” for example, or “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the drama arises organically out of the plot and mise en scene (in the larger sense of the spiritual meaning of the emotional atmosphere of the piece) and the truth of this world, then artistic considerations can be applied to it, and this is the case with “Precious.” I’m pretty sure I wrote that, because it sounds like pure bullshit, but Christ, who knows? If I did write it, I just made it up. But saying it another way, if mom cuts dad’s throat because it’s on a checklist, that’s exploitation; if she does it because in the course of the action he really, really, pissed her off, that’s art.

If not exploitation material, then…poverty porn? First there was plain old porn, then torture porn, food porn, and now poverty porn. Is non-porn porn just a way of labeling our habit of pushing limits out far enough to make them cease to exist? So that poverty porn is no more than one more “Whoa, what was that?” Slumdog – was that just cartoon Tom-and-Jerry Roadrunner poverty? What distinguishes porn from legitimate artistic screwing? Is it about how you, the viewer, react to it? The greater the engorgement of the nether bits, the less the artistic merit? Whereas the greater the engorgement of the brain, the greater the artistic merit? That is, there isn’t enough blood to go around, at least if you are normally endowed. (Male-centric argument alert.) So does this test apply to poverty, porn versus art? No, because we are dealing with the heart, hard vs soft, rather than the other parts, hard vs soft. If you heart softens, it’s art; if your heart hardens, it’s porn. How did my heart react to “Precious”? It definitely softened.

Reminder: the movie dials back the sex and violence. Though, talking about shock and horror, that upchuck scene – the volume, the quantity – I’m wondering if that wasn’t real? And how come in all my schooling I never had a teacher who was remotely like Paula Patton? Stand and deliver! What I’m asking is, is this exploitation, because where was MY teacher like that? I had, my word, how many teachers? But wait a sec, now that I think of it, my second grade teacher, she qualified. But we moved and moved and moved that year and I was in five different second-grade classes before ending up back where I started, by which time she was married and her name had changed and even in the second grade I knew what that meant. If I ever get a chance, I’d like to ask Daniels how he directed Paula Patton; for those of you who have seen the movie, she had those weird pauses throughout; let me know if you know why she was doing that.

I did work with a couple of social workers who matched Carey in the movie, though. The eligibility workers were all normal human beings, but there were a couple of social workers who existed on a whole different plane of Paula Pattonesque zonedoutatude. In several interviews I’ve seen, Carey has been at great pains to explain that she isn’t that ugly, thus ruining a good thing.

Did Daniels cast Patton and Carey, glam, in part to contrast them with Gabby? No, he wanted Helen Mirren first for the social-worker part; his casting is all about personal connections, with Mirren, with Carey, with Mo’Nique. He made Carey promise to scour off the makeup before coming to work. She tried to sneak in a little blush once, without success. A little shadow was added under her eyes and on her upper lip, as befits a hard-working social worker. Returning to the question of imputing thoughts to the unspeaking, I had Carey in the place of the angels, unlike some others who took her as overworked, numbed-out, and on some level or other indifferent.

WEIGHT

So much for the mostly fat-blind/weight-blind portion of this review. Where does the protagonist’s avoirdupois fit in? Most descriptions of Precious Jones, in book and movie, include the word “obese” or the word “fat.” Contrariwise, I have yet to encounter a description of Gabourey Sidibe as fat. “Comfortable with herself,” yes; fat, no… Uh oh. As I mention below, I just ran across “hippopotamus-like.”

For the record, Mo’Nique runs 260, Gabourey 325.

So answer this. If I describe Precious with the words “illiterate,” “welfare recipient,” “sexually abused,” and “fat,” what is the relationship among these four words in your mind, or in the mind of the average viewer? How does that relationship differ according to who the viewer is? Why is that fourth adjective so often joined to the other three in movie reviews? Is that fourth adjective, the adjective of shape, tainted by its three neighbors? How is it tainted in text by its close association in other sentences with “unmarried teenage mother of two,” Down syndrome,” and “incestual abuse”?

Answer: unconscious guilt by association.

Let it be noted that Gabourey Sidibe does not wear a fat suit in the movie, but she did get some pregnancy padding in front. Sapphire has said that she made Precious fat as a dramatic device to increase her isolation. Isolation from her peers, we presume, but does that obesity also isolate her from some of those of us watching? I haven’t heard Gabourey herself described as isolated. Sapphire is not fat. Daniels has said that he viewed fat people as unclean and not very smart, but that he has a heavy sister who always has a line of men waiting, and that since making this movie, his heart has changed, and he sees fat in a whole new, Shallow Hal light.

I’ve let this review just sit around, and in the meantime, Gabourey in interviews has said the same thing: Hey, this could all be about a thin girl. Couldn’t it? Huh?
Check out Mo’Nique in Phat Girlz, if you haven’t seen it, for an anodyne to the fat-lashing on display here.

In the book, Precious is big, but her mother is bigger, adding to the domination, her mom making Precious eat, beating her up. In the movie, not so much. Gabby looks like she could handle Mo’Nique ok if she got her wind up.

RACE

So much for the mostly color-blind portion of this review. If issues of race have crossed your mind more than once or twice while reading the text above, don’t blame me. Comes now the portion where a writer of one racial background contemplates the racial elements of an artistic creation suffused with the spirit of a racial group not his own. In addition to Sapphire, Fletcher, Daniels, Gabourey, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Carey (has a black grandfather), Kravitz, and Mary J. Blige on the soundtrack, Oprah and Tyler Perry got their names added to this project as well. That’s a black movie. (However, the first $8 million for the movie was coughed up by Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, who are not African-American. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn and editor Joe Klotz aren’t either.)

I was raised in the Jim Crow South, where, for example, little white kids avoided black drinking fountains in the same way that they would avoid an unclean toilet (well, except that the country boys would take comics to read in the outhouse whereas town and village boys, when they encountered an outhouse, got in and got out as quickly as they could, due to the black widows down in the hole), so I figure that the deeper regions of my cortex have probably been permanently compromised by that growing-up experience, for which reason I misdoubt my judgment when dealing with subjective matters of race. Nevertheless, questions remain to be asked here.

But my God, has it come to this? I’ve got to pussyfoot? How’m I going to write my Raisin in the Sun review? How’m I going to criticize Wong Kar-Wai when I need to?

Does this movie reinforce outdated black stereotypes? Daniels has said that he felt a little embarrassed at Cannes on that account, felt that he didn’t want to exploit his people, but then decided that post-Obama, it was ok. Variety: “Claireece’s face is a monument to the racial crimes of the past 400 years.” Huh? Wha? The movie opens with Precious sitting in a classroom full of faces, mostly African-American. Were they all monuments, or just her? Did all the rest of them fail to board the racial-crimes boat? Or is Claireece’s physiognomy lurking back there like a damn Easter-Island statue, a historical reminder as the rest of us move on? But no, yeah, let me look across my office here at Ben’s black face. Yes, hmm, yes… It could be a monument to racial crimes, too, even though Ben came out head of his Harvard Law class and his grandfather owns an island and everything on, in, under, and above it, and the foothills all around. But Ben’s got a receding hairline too young, and somebody broke his nose playing football.

Repeating a paragraph from above, if I describe Precious with the words “illiterate,” “welfare recipient,” “sexually abused,” and “black,” what is the relationship among these four words, in your mind? Why is this fourth adjective so often joined to the other three in movie reviews? Is that fourth adjective, the adjective of race, tainted by its three neighbors?

Answer again: unconscious guilt by association.

If the protagonist is obese, illiterate, poor, and abused, and happens also to be black – blacker than anyone else in the movie, in fact – is that a casting happenstance of no import, or a statement by the director? If a statement, what statement? Sapphire, Fletcher, and Daniels are, inescapably, telling a tale about those to whom they have cultural connections. Daniels in particular goes on about coming from the ghetto, even though he didn’t. Sapphire has said that she made Precious as unattractive as possible in order to rule out any romantic
considerations and to isolate her as much as possible. Naturally I immediately googled “Gabourey’s boyfriend” but got
no hits. (Later: while this review languished, yes, now she’s got a boyfriend. And she’s wearing Tadashi Shoji. “Ashley Olsen hugged me for a long time – like rubbing my back and everything – and said, ‘I am so proud of you.’ How cute is that?…God, there are so many hot dudes in Hollywood right now. I’m such a fanny, fanny girl. Bradley Cooper. How hot is he?…I heard a rumor that President Obama knew who I was. You know, because Oprah is all up in his shizz, so I think that he might be aware of me.” Fame has come to Gabby. And she’s now saying some of the same stuff I say here.) But I don’t remember a single instance anywhere, in the trades, in reviews, anywhere, where Gabby herself is described as unattractive, or even as “fat” or blacker than most. Harper’s uses “overweight.” Note: Daniels has said that he is prejudiced against African Americans darker than he is. Precious’ take: “She lighter then some Spanish womens but I know she black. I can tell. It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.”

So, “fat” and “blacker” are to be taken as pejorative?

A sixteen-year-old finds herself facing adulthood with two children and no resources. She is bound by her illiteracy, poverty, and mental confusion, caused by years of parental abuse and educational neglect. Now, by her own efforts, fortitude, intelligence, and luck, she takes steps toward, what, improvement, a better life, self realization, spiritual and intellectual growth, hope. Is the message then “Even if you’re fat, poor, illiterate, and black, there is still hope?” What’s wrong with that message? What if you’re slender, middle-class, literate? Does color still matter? How about fat, poor, illiterate, and brown, yellow, red, or white? Help me out here. Is the message: One hundred and fifty years of continued racism by the white majority following the end of the Civil War has led to Precious’ condition, but, bad as that condition may be, it is not irreversible in a case or two, here and there? Does it matter that the teacher who helps Precious is cafe au lait in color? Daniels take on the black question is to say that the movie reflects his own life, in the sense that his uncle killed people and all black people are not good.

Would this sort of racial shorthand still be true if used in a movie about any other race, or is it a black-only thing? Would I let my own race off the hook when encountering a race tag in conjunction with, say, “trashy,” “cheap,” and “drunk”? Do several centuries, or millenia, of racial injustice and persecution and immigration affect the answer? Basically, does Black bring anything specific to this movie? If the author, playwright, director, and stars were all white Iowans, would the story change? We get a snapshot of Harlem and one aspect of life there, as we might of Omaha, say; there are without doubt economically challenged areas in Iowa.

My guess: race doesn’t matter in this movie, in any of the senses I’ve just mentioned, even though racism in plenty still exists in the U.S.

It’s a black movie, though, and a New York Harlem movie. Precious’ alternative school is located in the Hotel Theresa, which was a cultural center back in the ’50s and ’60s. The hotel is located at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard (7th Avenue and 125th Street). It was the first major hotel to accept black guests (true or false?). Fidel Castro stayed there when he came to speak at the U.N. James Baldwin said that a black person growing up in Harlem doesn’t hate white people, just doesn’t know who they are. Precious doesn’t leave her neighborhood until she’s sixteen, when she takes her first trip downtown to the incest survivors’ meeting. The movie is idiom-strong; the language will age out, not to the detriment of the film, we hope.

In the theater where I saw Precious the second time, the audience was two-thirds white, one-third black. Whenever Mo’Nique did something especially horrific, the two-thirds cringed and the one-third laughed. One possible explanation for this reactive bifurcation: the white audience was all oh my god life in the ghetto, whereas the black audience recognized an over-the-top fairy tale and savored Mo’Nique’s rendition of the wicked mother in it. Extreme white reaction is to be found in a number of right-wing tea-bagger reviews of Precious: “Aha! Just as I thought! The movie should be re-titled ‘Better Off Dead.'” No sense of humor.

While I was procrastinating: “Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met with howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority —and relief — it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.” [Armond again – Well, Armond, I’ve got one data point that says you got that right.]

I spent a couple of years working in AFDC back in the 70s. One client that I remember out of thousands was a young woman who came in for the first time to provide some verifications or other – maybe she needed a social security number for her unborn baby or a note from her mother that she was paying rent. Anyway, the young woman showed up at the branch office where I was working that day, listened to me for a second or two, and interrupted to say, “why are you putting me through all these changes?” (Slang at the time for “Why are you hassling me?” Seems like I don’t hear about “changes” much anymore.) She was third or fourth generation in the program and her grandmother and mother both had active cases at the time. I said, “It’s just that every once in a while you’re required to update the proof that you’re eligible.” “Proof that I’m eligible?” she said. “I’ve been proving that I’m eligible since I was born. When do I get to stop?”

GENDER

In addition to these questions about body type and race, what is this movie – scripted, directed, shot, and edited by dudes – saying about women? Everyone in the movie is female, except for a bit part for a math teacher and Kravitz showing up briefly as a male nurse. And a glimpse of the dad in a fantasy, of course. And a couple of dudes hanging on the street, ready to push Precious down just when she’s getting excited about alternative school.

Sisters keeping a sister down, helping a sister up, men out there somewhere, mostly just f**king things up.

“I made this movie for my girls,” says Daniels, referring to the actors, I think. “People read so much into Precious. But at the end, it’s just this girl, and she’s trying to live.”

Brother helping a sister up.

I wondered during the movie why Precious several times acted mean to a young girl in her building. It’s so that later, in the final scenes, when Precious writes that she’d like to be thin, light-skinned, with long hair, and Ms. Rain writes back that she, Precious, is beautiful just as she is, and she looks in the mirror to confirm it, she can signal her complete transformation to the good by passing on her magic scarf to that young girl (who now has a black eye and a mean, heavyset, Mo’Nique knockoff of a mom) she had blown off before.

Sister helping a sister up.

WRAPUP

“Did it make you cry?”

Now, some will say, well, it was horrific, but I didn’t connect to Precious on an emotional level. Yes. That was me the first time. It’s like a ferris wheel. The first time is all about the view; the second time is about the person sitting next to you. The first time through the movie, during the ups I dreaded the downs that I knew were coming, cause the drama was constructed that way and everybody knew it. It’s like if you went to the Roman Coliseum in the old days and watched one gladiator kill another and you don’t connect to it on an emotional level because you’ve seen it before, but then you go home and watch it again on the Roman Empire Sports Channel where you get some backstory on the contestants, and then watch the fight again in slo-mo and even though you know how it’s going to come out, the closeups and the interviews with the dead guy’s mom and dad and wife or wives and kids and grizzled old Burgess Meredith trainer… well, you just get choked up a little.

When Precious leaves her mother’s home – or flees from it, with household objects bouncing off her, halfway through the movie, some energy goes out of the film; the second half isn’t as tight or harrowing as the first. Same as Snow White needs the evil queen, Precious needs Mo’Nique. Fortunately mama returns twice, to drop the bomb needed to counteract Paula Patton’s sweetness and light, and then to perform her Oscar-winning monolog.

Observations:

– With this performance, Mo’Nique joins the Ellen Burstyn Look-how-bad-I-can-look-without-makeup-or-anything Requiem club.

– Those who had problems with this movie all seemed to take it literally, but I just watched So weit die Füße tragen (2001), in which an escaped Nazi prisoner walks across Siberia and then takes a hard right to Iran (long walk, took years), and that was a true story, so maybe this isn’t a fairy tale after all.

– Gay issues get a nod, as Precious puzzles over a lesbian classmate that she likes plus her lesbian teacher dandling her son, vs her learned prejudices – courtesy of Sapphire and Daniels, both professedly bi.

– Workfare takes a hit.

– “Oscar Bait” – A film released during the last two months of the year with a big cast and “important” subject matter to attract the attention of the Academy. (Urban dictionary)

– Favorite passage in Push: “I want to live so bad. Mama remind me I might not. I got this virus in my body like cloud over sun. Don’t know when, don’t know how, maybe hold it back a long long time, but one day it’s gonna rain.”

– Book and movie together, greater than the sum of their parts.

– There are an awful lot of homeless, addicted, and mentally-ill folks out there and that’s no fable.

At the same time that I saw Precious, I also saw Sugar and Le Grande Voyage, two movies that present the human condition in a world full of humans of many types, no bad guys but plenty of poverty, struggle, and spirit, with the gentle but demanding message that we are each a part of some greater whole, from which we take but to which we owe. Switching from the grace of these films to Precious, where the glass is more than half empty, prompts me to reopen the question of exploitation. I’m thinking that Fletcher the playwright backed off Push as much as he could, perhaps in search of the soul found in these other movies, perhaps just writing like a middle-class guy. A theory: the less that happens in a movie, the deeper the meaning, down to a certain minimum of happeningness, beyond which meaning begins to fade away again. Examples: Independence Day – a lot happens; it means nothing. Le Grande Voyage – a lot of driving; arguments; humanity; deep meaning. Sleep – the Andy Warhol film in which John Giorno sleeps for five hours; it means nothing. And Precious? Stuff happens, maybe a little bit too much stuff; but meaning is there, plenty of meaning. Is the story creditable? Not relevant. This isn’t about real life. The writer, screenwriter, and director have constructed a parable or folktale or work of art meant to demonstrate a triumph of the spirit, and that it does. Question: can a parable contain as much meaning as life itself onscreen?

I’m personally awarding Gabby and Mo’Nique prizes for their work in this movie. Oscar nominations will surely follow. Mo’Nique does such a great monolog at the end of the movie that several folks I talked to said that she showed her humanity and her previous actions could now be understood if not forgiven. I noted the names of those who said this, as I plan to borrow money from them soon. There are stretches in the book and movie that make that evaluation impossible for me, including Mo’Nique’s manipulative behavior during that monolog (in the book monolog, she allows Carl the daddy to remove the Pampers and proceed; Daniels didn’t make Mo’Nique go that far). Sapphire wrote the mama and Daniels filmed the mama as such a monster that no sad monolog can save her. But! That final scene in the welfare office should end with Mo’Nique standing up and accepting the statuette. It’s designed for that. Even better than Viola Davis’ monolog, nominated for similar reasons.

The final scene, with Precious carrying Abdul and holding little Mongo by the hand, walking down a crowded street with the faintest smile, Labelle singing It Took a Long Time, yeah, I teared up a little. And then the dedication: “For Precious Girls Everywhere.”