The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Full disclosure: I haven’t read “My Wicked Wicked Ways,” so I’m taking Errol Flynn at face value in this movie. What he did behind those fake castle walls I don’t know and I don’t want to know.

I faced certain hurdles in reviewing the movie:

1. Erroll Flynn looks like my shrink in his younger days.

2. Sir Guy of Gisbourne is played by Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone). You can tell all through the movie that he knows stuff he isn’t saying; I mean, he’s Holmes, you know, thinking, always thinking… Any minute he’s going to take Robin aside and give him a good talking to.

3. The movie is Ivanhoe with no Ivanhoe. What does this mean? No jousting!! (Actually, the movie was to start with a jousting scene, but it got dropped for budgetary reasons.)

Nonetheless, I am prepared to describe and discuss the film. First thing: it has held up over the years. Made in the first decade of talkies, it’s still fresh (it was the top grosserof 1938). The new Technicolor process is more than fine (Dr. Natalie Calmus was on set to handle all color issues). We should only see color like this today. Second thing: that’s Claude Rains under the bright red wig and blond beard. A corrupt senator in Washington, yes; a police chief in Casablanca, yes; a Nazi, sure; but this? Third thing: Rains is eating a pomegranate in England in the 1100s; but that’s ok; pomegranates are mentioned in the Song of Solomon – I’ve heard that Prester John himself brought pomegranates to Great Britain. I didn’t notice what else was in that fruit bowl – bananas?

The movie begins when an old poacher skewers a big buck. The nobles are about to stretch the poacher’s neck when Robin rides up and saves him. With the nobles gone, Robin, up on his horse, tells the old guy, “Fetch the deer.” This is a 200-pound buck. The old guy would have to drag it by one hoof. Presumably it’s dressed out when Robin carries it in later, nimbly,  and dumps it on Prince John’s table. (The exterior shots are done in the California hills near Chico. The forest doesn’t remind one of England, but it does have big oaks in it and it’s dressed up enough not to seem irredeemably Californian.)

Cut to the banquet hall. The first thing to notice is how clean everybody and everything is. Reminded me of Samuel Goldwyn, who insisted that his sets be clean. When Dead End was being made, and the single set was meant to reflect slum conditions, he kept patrolling it, picking up litter, to the discomfiture of the set dressers. Goldwyn would have loved this movie. Immaculate. But who wears chain mail on their head during dinner?

During his escape, after he finishes spouting off in front of the prince, Robin the dead shot unaccountably puts two in the door frame when he could easily have skewered Rathbone. And this paragraph is my nod to Patric Knowles, who plays Will Scarlett in his red getup. No fighting for him. He carries his lute and he and Robin laugh and jest. Ok, maybe there is a little tension with Will when Robin and Little John get it on with the long staves and knock each other about and end up fast friends, but then Robin and Will are back walking side by side again, big grins on their faces. If only Maid Marion hadn’t shown up.

Maid Marion gets the Casablanca line about how England is bigger than just Saxons and Normans. As someone points out, the Saxons were happy (and grimy), living with their pigs, before the Normans showed up. Or am I thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? And by the way, no language problems between the two groups in this one.

Forget Korngold’s musical score, especially Robin Hoods’ March. Recycled by Korngold from 1919. But when the trumpets are lifted in a line, with banners hanging from them, and the trumpeters give a blast, do we ever hear the real thing, or is it always the trumpets in the studio orchestra?

[Spoiler] Robin wins the archery tournement. Did they really have those big, multicolored bulls-eye targets back in the 12th century?

Robin and Maid Marian kissing: After all you hear about the Hayes Code, it seems like you’d be lucky to see anybody kiss anybody in the late 30s, but Robin and Marion smootch it up more than once. I like it onscreen with the mouths closed but you could see, when they pulled back from each other dry-lipped, that they were both wondering, Is the audience going to settle for this?

One of Hollywood’s Top 5 swordfights ensues. But Rathbone will be back, with his deerstalker on his head!

Did this movie make me want to go out and nock up an arrow? No. But next time I’m in Chico, I’m going to stop and remember Merrie Olde Englande.

Üç maymun (Three Monkeys) (2008)

My postman stuck the Turkish movie Three Monkeys into my mailbox just as I was leaving for the unemployment office. While down there looking for work, I asked some of the others in my line why a country on the other side of the world would be named after a big ugly edible bird like that? Most of them told me that the bird was in fact named after the country, not the other way around, because Turkey is where the bird came from. Benjamin Franklin wanted to designate the turkey as our national bird, imagining, I suppose, the turkey to be an indigenous fowl. The first edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanac featured an eight-page spread on meleagris gallopavo and its habits, habits which he took to be worthy of emulation by an entire nation and which he strove to imitate, in certain particulars, with several of his more intimate associations while abroad in Paris acting as a representative of our fledgling government, to the vast amusement of the French. Please don’t write me about this, not if you already lit me up for my review of “Prodromos Oikonomopoulos,” which dealt with the question of Greece vs Grease.

Three Monkeys arrives as a Cannes prize-winner for its director and an Oscar candidate for best foreign film, and tells a story with the message, Don’t accept a jolt in prison as a stand-in for your boss just to make a buck, not if you’re leaving behind a “restless” wife and a son who needs your strong hand in order to keep him from getting drunk and beaten to within an inch of his life out on the streets of Istanbul. This tale is burdened in Three Monkeys with no more plot than that which you might find powering a Superbowl commercial; no more plot, that is, than that in a music video. At first, there appears to be a plot – as when it appears that you’ve happened upon an archaeopteryx in your backyard when you find a couple of its bones and get all excited, but then realize that the whole lizard-bird isn’t there, just two drumsticks and a wishbone, which probably came from KFC – so that your dreams of opening a museum in your garage dissipate in the same way as the plot of this movie, the director having a couple of ideas and his male lead in the movie, Yavuz Bingöl, lauding him later in interviews for his fantastic editing job, whereas in truth a story of some sort is there but the plot has gone missing, or never was. Turkish prison? there is more prison in one episode of Arrested Development than in all of Three Monkeys; in other words, for example, the wife does not come to prison and press her bared self against the glass of the interview room for the benefit of her husband (although later, be warned Christian viewers, she does something similar). If you want plot, go hence. Contrariwise, do you meditate? Do you sit staring at the bubbles rising through the lighted but fish-empty water of the 3x3x1 aquarium in your rumpus room? Are you depressed, finding it difficult to move, so that you sit immobile for long periods of time on your divan? If so, you will find the pace of Three Monkeys in accord with your life vibe. How long can one hundred minutes seem? That depends upon whether you are holding your breath or sinking into an REM sleep state. You can walk out of a museum after you’ve seen enough, and go back later for more: with that in mind, I watched Three Monkeys in ten ten-minute sittings, as episodes. Ten minutes of carefully made cinematic art onscreen seemed just about right for me, the audience in my viewing area. At the end of each episode I wanted more; I never felt restless; I appreciated the photography without getting tired of it, although every once in a while I found myself wanting a voiceover, such as “These walls were built in 1581 by Suleyman Egrip” or “The Argo sailed on the historic water that you see before you 3,000 years ago, bearing Jason on his quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Years ago, when I went exploring local urbanscapes with my daughter, helping her break in her new used cameras, back in the day of film and the home darkroom, we always ended up in weedy backlots, on streets lined with ramshackle rundown buildings, industrial landscapes, the interesting rather than the beautiful. Nuri Ceylan, the director of Three Monkeys, is a photographer first, with an interest in the interesting. Istanbul has been accumulating interesting for two thousand years. Ceylan is also an auteur, which means that you’ll sit through his long takes and like it. In Three Monkeys, the family’s livingroom window looks down upon the Bosphorous, where ply myriad tankers and freighters. You know you’re experiencing a long take when you find yourself looking away from the immobile faces of the actors to check on the progress of the boats in the water, which are not, to put it mildly, in any hurry. Please don’t write me about long takes, not after my piece on Antonioni and how he was only kidding.

A reminder of the difference between plot and story, courtesy of E.M. Forester: The king died and then the queen died: story. The king died and then the queen died of grief: plot. That is, a story is a series of events; a plot is a series of events presented so as to provide you with theme, emotion, and drama. Three Monkeys presents a series of events; theme, emotion, and drama are left in the hands of the actors’ facial muscles (mixed metaphor or just weird?). According to Bingöl, Ceylan chose the final story from among various possibilities via his edits; one presumes that actions and motivations are somehow connected, so that changing actions will change motivations, but that isn’t a problem if mum’s the word dialogwise.

Homework: watch any random movie of the 30s or 40s and notice how there is a lot of plot.

Screenwriting 101: Foreshadowing. “You’ve got to pass those university exams this time.” “OK.” Two pages later in the script: “So, you failed the exams.” One page after that: boy arrives home beaten bloody. It’s what happens when you don’t pass the university exams.

At the end of ’08, the top ten grossing films in Turkey, to the amazement of many, were all Turkish. This has not happened in some time. Meanwhile, American films in Turkey took it on the chin. As a result, new production money has begun flowing back into the Turkish film industry. The top ten were all action and comedy movies. As in the U.S., the majority of Turkish moviegoers view moviegoing as a species of entertainment, as opposed to an artistic activity such as eyeballing the Mona Lisa. The entertainment factor in Three Monkies requires that you be entertained by the oblique, the elliptical, the tickling of your arty bone not your funny bone. What does it mean to watch a movie that is a real downer anyway? Why do we do it? Is it entertainment or an artistic enterprise or both? Ceylan’s films are “low-grossing” because of the bone that they tickle and the bone that they don’t. His “Distant,” also a competitor at Cannes, was seen by less than 00.3% of the Turkish population. He couldn’t sell Three Monkeys to Turkish TV – too slow. Turkey has a young, go-go consumer economy, coupled with a crippled intelligentsia. After a 1980 military coup, tens of thousands of leftists were imprisoned, tortured, sometimes murdered. Intellectuals were forced underground and the country hasn’t fully recovered yet. But humanistic-moviely speaking, Turkey’s serious films are beginning to share some of the weight we’ve seen in Iranian cinema lately. So Three Monkeys isn’t going to show up in your corner metroplex anytime soon – we’ll discuss movies vis a vis the U.S. intelligentsia in a later review. Presumably, Ceylan’s successes on the festival circuit and with critics worldwide will translate into future production money for himself, and with Three Monkeys he does take a step in the direction of the commercial with the movie’s plot, such as it is, and with his decision to use professional actors.

By the way, expect no humor in this review! I won’t chortle over the pain and suffering and misbehaving and just plain general agonization of the characters in this movie. The anger. The death. The brow-knitting. Played out on a foundation of diegetic sound – birdsong, thunder, passing trains, clocks ticking, snoring – and gorgeous, fastidious and photographically photographical photography, so that squalid life will be experienced as an ironic* expression of the ineffable beauty of the universe, objectified in and around Istanbul and instantiated in the mom, dad, and son as portrayed by the three (professional) lead actors. No, no smilin. And what happened to Ceylan’s vaunted humor? “I do see humor in even the most tragic situations. I think humor is always the brother of tragedy or sad things; and I think that with humor, tragedy becomes more convincing.” So why the Droopy Dan in Three Monkeys? Mr. Gloomy Gus. My theory: Ceylan is 49, at the bottom of the U-shaped curve of happiness. You won’t find a director over 60 making a movie like this. Gloom, not unwonted for Ceylan, but sans smiles, unwontedly hangs on his idea of a plot here. Could there be a little Orhan Pamuk-envy involved in this, Ceylan’s fifth movie?

*Turks/Irony: How does Turkish culture deal with/relate to irony? Unfortunately, googling “turks irony” gets you numberless hits re turks/kurds, turks/armenians, turks/iranians, turks in germany, theyoungturks (U.S. anti-Bushites). Lots to be ironic about if you’re a Turk, in the context of Asia Minor, but we learn nothing about the irony of being a Turk at home in the Turk’s own living room, with garbage barges passing out beyond the window. (Did I mention the fabulous weirdness of that apartment house, by the tracks, by the shore?)

Anyway, what I’m getting at is, are you familiar with the U curve of happiness? You start out happy in life and, statistically speaking, become increasingly unhappy until you reach your late forties. Thereafter, you begin to grow happy again over the years, assuming that you don’t die in the meantime. Applying this phenomenom of human development to filmmakers, we might expect to see them produce their least-happy films at the bottom of their individual U’s. Ceylan was 47-48 when he turned off lugubrious with Three Monkeys. Coincidence? I don’t think so. “You put all the dark, bad sides of yourself into the films, and so you get rid of them – or at least control them in a better way.” Hope it worked!

Following up on this thought with a couple of our greatest directors:

Kurosawa at 46 makes “Donzoko” – “His picture of several dreary people thrown together in what appears to be an urban slum or flophouse… Without moving out of the one room for the first hour and a half of the film and then going no further from it than the shabby courtyard outside, he puts his actors through a series of snarling and whining colloquies that express their despair, humiliation, anger, frustration, and grief.” (Bosley Crowther, NYT)

Stanley Kubrick at 47 makes “Strangelove.” Humans as fools, plus the end of the world.

Howard Hawks in his mid-forties – WWII. The Big One. I guess that whatever movies Hawks made or didn’t make during this period just didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared with the world’s death-struggle at the time.

Ingmar Bergman at 47 makes “The Silence” – “After a prolonged, convulsive attack, Esther implores God to allow her to die in her own homeland. In the end, she is left to die, alone and suffering, in a strange land: unanswered prayers by an absent God.” (Acquarello)

Please don’t write to me about the U curve of happiness, not after my last Sidney Lumet prediction.

Perhaps because Ceylan features the downbeat here, coupled with a dark and distinctive cinematography, the “noir” and “neo-noir” words have been bandied about. We’ve got to put a stop to this before “noir” becomes a word as useless as “awesome.” Noir films are typically crime dramas or psychological thrillers. The plot of a noir movie is complicated, ambiguous, with twists and turns. Noir characters are conflicted antiheros, trapped in situations that force them to make desperate or nihilistic choices. Noir characters can’t resist temptation. Three Monkeys isn’t a crime drama, although crimes are committed. It isn’t a thriller; making us wait for angry, gloomy, cogitating family members to snap and run amok, or not, doesn’t qualify the movie as a thriller, more as a nervouser. Three Monkeys has a plot easily fit into a TV Guide capsule description – not so twisty. An envelope stuffed with money shows up, a noir totem, but goes nowhere. Family members in Three Monkeys may be conflicted, but they aren’t antiheroes, they’re common folk, and they aren’t forced to make many choices, they’re free to drift into the bad decisions that Ceylan has ready for them, dramaturgulated to keep the ball rolling. There are character flaws in each family member that might lead to ruin, but in Three Monkeys there seem to be psychological counterweights in operation as well. Noir characters find themselves in hopeless situations; the mom, dad, and son here aren’t happy, but their situation is by no means hopeless. I myself happened to perceive a little hope at the end of the movie. Call me crazy, but show me a final shot in which a man is one inch high, silhouetted black against a stormy sky, before a distant sea, surrounded by, enveloped by windy gray nature, and for me there is something of hope strong in the image. Ceylan grew up in a tough, fightful multifamily setting and he emerged in one piece, as may these characters, who draw on his past. Note that Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller were not noir playwrights. Note that noir visuals include in-you-face light and shadow; Ceylan uses light, shadow, and every other tool in the photographer’s toolbox, in all sorts of digital HD ways. The femme fatales in noir would never contemplate suicide, like mom does here. Femme fatales play the hero for a sucker. You’ll never see them crazed, agonized, and making a complete fool of themselves in the particular way that mom does here, mom who isn’t cruel, just dishonest and dissatisfied. And no magical realism in noir. No Garcia Marquez moments. No imagined scenes followed by, oops, real ones. Ok, enough about that.

My general theory has been that gloom increases the amount of dialog in a film, but Three Monkeys is a study to the contrary. Ceylan is known not only for slow, but also for taciturn. I’ve written before about directors who avoid dialog, so I won’t go there again. And I won’t go there to “go there” again. Ceylan makes a veritable tone poem of a movie here, cinematographically and diegetically speaking, immaculate, but he turns his back on dialog, especially after the 80th minute. He can write questions but he doesn’t write answers. Is this because he trusts himself and the D.P. behind the lens, but does not trust himself as a writer (he writes the dialog with other family members). Is there something ironic about a moviemaker who specializes in closeups focusing on the expressiveness of the human face and then leaves us to interpret the results as we choose, while the characters go wordless? Films that rely on sight more than sound are often ambiguous, but here we go beyond ambiguity. How would I know what these characters are thinking? They’re Turks. I don’t even know what my spouse is thinking and she’s 100% USA American. I mean, I know what she’s thinking when steam comes out of her ears, but I’m talking about when she’s staring-off-into-space here. I’m talking about when she calls me a moron. Well, maybe then I know. But in Three Monkeys, we’ve got a family of inhabitants of a country with, as I’ve said, the name of a bird. This isn’t my brother Frank. At least let Ceylan write dialog like “I look angry because, being Turkish, I am operating under a rather different social imperative than the one with which you Americans are familiar.” Even I could do that. Sure, I can guess what any character is thinking, even Natetodamax, but in fact, any action that an actor takes will perforce be consistent with the fact that, having kept his or her mouth shut, any action is now possible. “Turks are generally practical people, but they have difficulty in putting this into action. We combine German business discipline with the practical Turkish mind.” Oh, well, that’s OK then. Example: at the 8 minute mark, the boss asks his driver to take a fall for him. The driver behind his mustache stares off this way and then that way, no expression, and finally, when prompted by his boss or by Ceylan offcamera, I forget which, says, “OK. No problem.” So is there Turkish stuff I need to know here? Is there machismo at work? Management/worker labor issues? Genetic fallout from the conquering Turks of yore? Translation tweaks from a non-Indoeuropean language? The Koran?

Ceylan’s excuse, at least a couple of years ago: “I don’t believe in words. In general, people lie, they don’t tell the truth. The truth lies in what’s hidden, in what’s not told. Reality lies in the unspoken part of our lives. If you try to talk about your problems, it’s not that convincing. People try to protect themselves; everybody has something they want to hide. They try to hide their weak side. When they tell you a story, they make themselves the hero of that story. So without words is better, and it allows the spectator to be more active; he should use his own experience.” Uh huh. My boss asked me to confess to making a pot of African CongoBlaze Superforce Coffee in the No-Caff pot. At first I said No! but then, so that the boss could solve the case and look good, I said yes in exchange for her commemoration mug from the ’03 Sales event in La Brea. A critic’s take: “This film paints a haunting portrait of existential solitude, one in which the images speak louder and often more forcefully than do any of the words. Mr. Ceylan doesn’t write speeches or flatter the audience by offering us more information than he gives his character. His scenes play out to the natural rhythms of life.” Uh huh. Even silent movies had the title cards with info on them like “I’m thinking that I should smack her.” Chaplin was silent but he wasn’t slow. He did not spend a lot of time staring off into space so that we could appreciate the composition of his shots in the meantime. Oh, hell, maybe I’ll just write this review without any further dialog. If Ceylan can do it, so can I.

“Never happen.”

“No, I can do it.”

“You dope.”

“Aw, nuts.”

Alright, alright. I’ve hired my friend Maurice, who does a great Shakespeare imitation, to go visit Ceylan and sit him down in front of King Lear. Ceylan, you use sound, you use pictures, now write the damn dialog or hire somebody who can.

Can you imagine Bergman saying, “I’ve decided to stop writing dialog because nobody ever tells the truth?” The fact is, writer-directors write the scripts that they are capable of writing, neither more nor less.

Don’t write me about this, not after the feedback I got when they published that dialog of mine about Life, Death, and the Human Condition between a box of Cheerios and a box of Kix.

And actually, Ceylan isn’t really so bad. His characters do talk to each other. They do ask questions, raise issues. They argue. They shout. They do tell us what’s on their minds. At least, for the first 80 minutes, and after that there is enough emotion floating around to keep us informed by osmosis. Ceylan is never as wordless as some of the 6th-generation Chinese directors, like Xiaoshuai Wang and Lou Ye.

Ceylan dialog that would not be heard in a Hollywood movie: “You paid 5 billion lire for this car?! I was in jail for nine months and didn’t spent 900 million the whole time!”

Ironic moment in the movie with respect to this theme: a man seems to be talking but his lips don’t move. Anti-antidialog.

Having dealt with the slow, the silent, and the gloom – maybe to excess, when in fact a sentence on each would have sufficed, since the heart of the movie is somewhere else – let us now celebrate the principle reason that this movie won Ceylan the director’s prize at Cannes – its cinematography by Gökhan Tiryaki. An extended shot of a car driving away through the woods at night, which opens the film, by itself might be worth the price of admission. Ditto some of the best, if not the best, skyscapes I’ve seen in a movie. I live where there isn’t much sky and where there isn’t much going on in what sky there is. For me, there can’t be too much sky in a film. Ditto too much Bosphorus. Ships riding on the same water as the Greeks on their way to Troy (more or less) and the Persians on their way to Greece (more or less). Ditto trains and their tracks, decrepit apartment buildings, rotting concrete in Istanbul. Ditto uncomfortable attempts at sex in a small room, a heckava mosque, and father-and-son mustaches. The digital world of color, light, and shadow impossible to obtain with traditional film. Differential focusing. Surprising camera angles. Plus, I used to collect coke bottles; now I collect foreign movies that have coke bottles in them, like this one; and speaking of bottles, what better sign that the world is going completely to hell than that plastic water bottles, the ultimate in pollution, are to be seen everywhere, from the Turkish countryside to the magical island of Lost, which can move but can’t shake off its plastic bottles. Regarding cinematography, sound, and plot, Ceylan has been accused of overdetermining. Overdetermining is when the dad’s words are followed by a thunderclap or when we see a montage that includes a train entering a tunnel, a rocket lifting off, and a sprinkler suddenly spurting (a montage from Naked Gun, but you get the idea). A couple of times I did wonder if and when the temptation to employ more and more digital editing to achieve photographic effects might overwhelm this director. Some of his shots are such that, if you don’t happen to be in a charitable mood, they might strike you as goofy. I’m thinking of that argument scene from fifty yards away, for example; made me imagine that the two actors were tying up the 7th green with me looking on and waiting impatiently to play through.

Ceylan said that he would use professional actors for this movie. The mom, Hatice Aslan, has done a lot of work in TV; the male leads were both born in Istanbul, but Aslan is from Sivas, high on the Anatolian plateau, a town/city that has been around since before the Hittites and is the primary source of Kangal dogs. “Beyond Kayadibi the country dogs were the largest and most savage of any I had met. In theory you are entitled to defend yourself against them, even to the point of killing; but in practice may not do so, except at great subsequent personal risk.” (1917) The dogs defend their flocks against wolves and jackals, but I digress. The dad in the movie, Yavuz Bingöl, is better known as a musician: “Acting and music, these are not fields which necessarily nourish one another. I am more at ease when making music and am not that comfortable as an actor, although I guess I could say I picked up acting pretty quickly. I never felt like I had to get special lessons on acting or go to any acting school; I just act while trying to feel the actual characters I‘m playing… Actually we had worked with a few alternatives in Three Monkeys, so I really had no idea what sort of film would emerge in the end… It is a film full of surprises. It can make viewers perceive all sorts of different things ” Translation: “Hey! Ceylan managed to cut together a story that made sense of all that.”

Actor’s note: a thick black mustache can be a big help, especially when you’re grabbing your wife by the hair in bed. Homework: compare Sam Elliot’s movies, made with and without the stache.

Acting Excercize 101: You’re sitting in a chair with your purse on your lap. Your cellphone rings in your purse. The phone is playing a love song with ironic lyrics. You must fumble for the phone, trying to extract it from your purse, for the length of time required for the first verse of the song to complete, but not the chorus. During this time, you must register embarrassment, confusion, resignation, suprise, etc., because the phone is interrupting your important conversation with someone. Mercifully, the camera turns away from you for the last half of this exercise, so that only the frantic sounds of your rummaging will be heard. Note: the purse will not be large. Later in the movie it will take your hubby about 10 seconds to do the same thing.

Acting Exercise 102: You’re sitting on a bench in a train station, dressed up. You’re staring off into space. You look concerned. The audience tries to figure out what you’re thinking. Look more concerned. Now look more concerned. When you’re absolutely sure that you’ve got the audience’s attention, vomit.

Acting Exercise 103: Stare off into space without smoking. Hey, where’s the cigarettes? This is Turkey. Turkish tobacco? Camels? Hello? No cigarettes, as mom, dad, and son hang out down by the water. No smokes at the Turkish wedding. We get a glimpse of the son with a butt in his fingers at minute 49, two brief moments of puffing by the dad, and then the dad, finally, smokes a fag at the very end of the movie. Turkey passed a no-smoking-in-bars-and-restaurants law at the start of ’08; did that have something to do with this, or is Ceylan just a health nut? A valuable prop tool has been ripped from the fingers of his actors.

Critics who were watching a different movie: “The script is right up Will Shakespeare’s alley.” “Astute psychological insights.” “A subtly-twisty yarn.”

Finally, the monkeys.

There are no monkies in this movie.

The three monkeys? Hear No, See No, Speak No? What happened to Act No and Think No? What do the three monkies mean, anyway? There are folks who collect these monkeys. Do they know what the monkies are supposed to signify, or do they just have a monkey jones? There is a market for these monkeys. Is there a three-monkies carving in your crazy uncle’s footlocker down there in the basement? Got a three-monkeys statue, cup, or commode up in your attic? There is no scene in the movie in which the three protagonists sit side-by-side in the three-monkey pose, so don’t wait for that. (“monkies” = 32 million hits; “monkeys” = 38 million hits.)

Three-monkey explanations:

1. The monkeys remind us not to be snoopy, nosy, or gossipy.

2. The monkies are associated with Vadjra, who commands us to stay away from places where immoral acts are taking place. If we do not hear, see, or speak evil, we will be spared evil. If we aren’t exposed to evil, we will not reflect that evil in our own speech and actions.

3. The phrase describes someone who doesn’t want to get involved, turning a blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved.

In an interview, Yavuz Bingöl goes for #3: “This three-monkeys rule is at play around the world in human relations. It seems to have taken root in people in the sense that there is a What’s-it-to-me? mentality ruling over people. In fact, I believe this mentality is one which is reflected in human relations or imposed on people as a result of capitalism. Faced with wars, natural disasters, and various crises, people continue to play the role of the three monkies. But actually, we are all passengers on the same ship, and this ship is sinking.” Strange words coming from the guy who, as the dad in the movie, lays on the “What’s-it-to-me? What’s-it-to-me! I’ll-show-you-what’s-it-to-mother-freaking-me!” throughout the film.

Those film critics who have addressed the monkey question seem in general to interpret the title in a similar sense: “A film that’s driven less by action and active decisions than by the hope that consequences will somehow just fade away.” Where did this notion come from? The fact is, Ceylan advances the story by having mom, dad, and son ask, answer, confess, react from start to finish. A Turkish speaker once told me that Turkish word order is opposite to that of English. Does that inversion extend to the meaning of movie titles? Some evil is spoke; some is not spoke. Some evil is heard; some is not heard. Some evil is seen; some is not seen. There is a keyhole scene. The See No chimp glues his eye to it? (Regarding inversion: the principal protagonist in this film is named Eyüp. The co-writer of the film is Ebru. Three Monkeys spelled backwards is Eerht Syeknom. Just sayin.)

Mom, dad, and son don’t want to get involved? I’m guessing that the actors were left to devise their own motivations. There isn’t much motivational narrative on offer in the dialog. Ceylan’s material tends to be autobiographical; perhaps he wasn’t sure of the motivations of his own family members either. But I see no turning of the blind eye here. Since this is a dialog-lite movie, it’s the No Thinkin monkey that you’d expect to get the biggest workout, but no, mom, dad, and son never seem to stop thinkin, from start to finish. You know how when somebody drinks throughout a movie, you want to go have a drink afterwards? Or when somebody eats noodles throughout a movie, you want to go eat noodles afterwards? When this movie concluded, I wanted to go somewhere dark and think till I sweat.

The point being, the mom, dad, and son at times do not speak evil, but at other times do speak evil. At times, they look away from evil but at other times they look at it. They seek it out. They hear it and sometimes react and sometimes refuse to react. So which type of monkies are they supposed to be? The moment the dad gets out of prison, he’s asking about the money, he’s visiting the grave of his dead son with his living son and policing the area, he’s asking pointed questions about his wife and her behavior. Dad imagines mom about to jump, doesn’t stop her. Sees her about to jump, stops her. This does not fit the ignore-it monkey template. The son goes out and gets beat up. He embezzles his dad’s money. He does worse. He does not ignore his mom’s behavior. Hears the bedsprings of evil. Here comes the smell of evil: cigarette smoke in the bedroom of a woman who doesn’t smoke.

Or are mom, dad, and son each one particular monkey? The son would be, let’s see, he sees and speaks evil; doesn’t hear evil? The mom speaks and hears evil and doesn’t speak it? The dad hears and speaks evil, never sees it? Seems like a stretch.

Another possibility: the three monkeys are represented by the three men in the mom’s life. If that’s the case, we’re going with monkeys qua monkies.

Or is Ceylan’s point that the three should behave like the monkies but don’t? No, because they do monkey-act in crucial ways. The movie is referred to as a “family secrets” drama, but neither dad nor mom nor the son seem to have any secrets from each other, not with a house full of those keyholes and bedroom and bathroom doors with frosted windows in them, something I haven’t seen before. Plus all that thinkin the three of them do. Or is it that they keep secrets from everybody else but not from each other – do these three monkeys actually get together when we’re not looking and let it all hang out?. Mom, dad, and son do take action; all three attempt to change their circumstances. For father and son, family, above all, comes first. For the mom, not so clear. But they all take action.

Spare me the mumbo jumbo about this family’s lack of moral grounding and how it’s a comment on the greater society.

The mom’s clinging to her affair? This comes right out of the blue. Foreshadowing exercise: have a character look intense and troubled and then have him or her go ahead and do anything that your plot requires. “Troubled” can translate to any action, so that’s OK.

Suppose that you title a movie “The Golden Rule.” What does that suggest? That everybody breaks the Rule and suffers? Or breaks it and ironically prospers? Or follows it? Or that it’s about Krugerrands or suchlike?

Instead of “Three Monkeys,” how about “A Ruminant, a Stoat, and a Young Hyena”?

I don’t mind trying to figure out what it all means if I believe that it all means something in the first place. There is forgiveness here, that I know. It’s obscured but in the end, for me at least, the film opens onto the future.

Don’t write to me about this, not after my exegesis on The Three Stooges vs The Holy Trinity.

In the end, let’s give Ceylan the last word: “I think we do it in life, also, many times — every one of us. We play three monkeys.”

In this movie, Ceylan does not go full monkey.

If you liked Three Monkeys, you might also like “Yol” (1982), a Turkish film about rural Kurdish life.

Drifters (Er Di) (2003)


…but if you’re planning to watch this film for its narrative arc or for the final resolution of its principal plot points, I wouldn’t recommend it to you in the first place.

In the backstory, a young man (“Er Di” or “Little Brother”) tries to immigrate illegally to the U.S., fails twice, finally succeeds as a stowaway, meets a young woman in America, and fathers a child. After several years, he is reported to the INS by the young woman’s family. He’s deported and returns to his hometown, a fishing port in Fujian province, across the straits from Taiwan.

The movie begins after he’s been back awhile. He meets another woman and commences a desultory romance with her (and I do not use “desultory” lightly, as only well into their relationship, at 1 hour, 9 minutes into the movie, does he look over at her and say, “What’s your name?”). But otherwise he languishes, to the distress of his parents and older brother. The maternal grandparents bring his child back to China for a visit. The boy is now five. The young man, aimless, drifting, tries to see the boy. The grandparents refuse any contact between father and son. Conflict ensues. Eventually, the grandparents return to the U.S. with the boy. The young man’s oldest brother cannot sire a child and so the boy in America is the family’s only heir. Even if the young man fathers other children, the boy in America will be the oldest brother in the family for his generation, which means something in Chinese culture. The young man must seek to retrieve the boy from America. He and his new girlfriend set out, stowing away, on a dangerous trip that could take a year to complete.

Speaking of taking a year to complete, be warned that “Er Di” is a slow movie. Two hours pass quietly as it plays out, drifting past on the screen. If your tolerance for slow is limited, plan accordingly. Forewarned by a previous Maven review, I waited until I was in the right frame of mind to watch it. That is, until I was in the mood to sit back and meditate on the scenery and political significance of the film during those long stretches when Little Brother stares into the middle distance and smokes. I didn’t clock him, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that half the movie consists of Little Brother (Long Duan in his first role) staring and smoking. He smokes alone and he smokes with others, who smoke along with him. Belmont, California, just banned smoking in privately owned multi-unit condos and townhouses (that is, you can’t smoke in your own house). Fujian is located far from Belmont. When I asked a Chinese friend why there was still so much smoking in China, she said, rather defensively I thought, “Hollywood movies used to be full of smoking!” No fears for you RJR stockholders.

Anyway, some movies work fine just as a pleasant surprise. That is, you the viewer go into the theater or sit down in your BarcaLounger knowing nothing about the film you are going to see in advance, and you have a good time with it. For example, some years ago the spousal unit and I went for a hike one Saturday out in the middle of nowhere, braving ticks, nettles, rattlesnakes, the heat, and the ninth month of her pregnancy in order to do a little birding in unfamiliar countryside, and then we picked up a couple of Big Macs and smuggled them into a small local theater in a rural town nearby for an afternoon matinee. Something called “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” We sat and watched it and ate our burgers as it unreeled. No prior knowledge required for enjoyment. But for the on-the-go Hollywood-trained film fan, Er Di is not that kind of drop-in-and-enjoy movie.

The movie’s title also signals that some foreknowledge may enhance the viewers enjoyment. “Er Di” translates as “Younger Brother” in Mandarin. Er Di is the nickname of the young man, the movie’s protagonist. The title alerts us to the fact that there may be cultural issues and resonances in the film not readily available to the Western viewer. For example, I remember being surprised when I found that “father’s older brother, father’s younger brother, mother’s older sister, and mother’s younger sister” were among the first characters to learn in my 1944 Chinese grammar book. And I noticed the other night that the character for elder brother’s wife is #2190 on the list of 3000 common Chinese characters. A table of family-relationship terms extends from the great-great grandparent’s generation to the great-great grandchildren’s generation. (Refer to

With so many different words used to identify family members and their position in the family hierarchy, we can expect Chinese culture to contain unspoken subtexts in a plot such as the one outlined above – specific family relationships that bear on elements of the drama in ways that might escape the uninitiated Westerner. This is just something to keep in mind when “explaining” the movie to someone else.

The American title, “Drifters,” applies, one supposes, to Er Di himself, as he is becalmed, depressed, paralyzed. Or because he is adrift between two cultures: the modern world emerging now in China and the proletarian culture that has persisted in Fujian.

I hope the title is not meant to refer to those in the movie who are moving to the big cities to find work or are immigrating sub rosa to the U.S., acts of bravery and desperation that are far from “drifting.”

I was reminded of Chinese/American cultural differences multiple times throughout the movie. For example, Little Brother, sitting at the kitchen table and eating a meal with others, or out at some small cafe with friends, casually spits bits of food – stems or gristle or whatever – onto the table in front of him, beside his bowl. This is something that would seem unusual at my kitchen table, my spousal unit’s opinion of my table manners notwithstanding. I asked several Chinese friends about this, wondering whether this spitting was a statement by the director about Little Brother’s current state of mind. My friends told me that you wouldn’t spit at a nice restaurant, but that in a home kitchen or at a casual foodstand, country folks spit whenever and wherever it’s convenient. (For more than you want to know about spitting in China, refer to a page such as this one.)

On the other hand, the “older child living at home” motif doesn’t seem so different, China vs U.S. What is it with the adult child who comes home to live with the parents and doesn’t contribute? Perhaps jobless and broke but not looking that hard for work? Never missing a meal unless still in bed? Slow to help with chores? I’m not saying this is always the case with kids living at home, of course, but as a motif in the movie, this kind of behavior on the part of Er Di causes the father to go off in rage once or twice. And more than one parent has watched in amazement as the evening meal winds up and the grown child gets up and saunters off, leaving any cleanup to his elders. The human animal, slow to mature… but this is ridiculous.

However, I digress… Er Di pronounces twenty or thirty words in an hour and fifty-seven minutes. Why so laconic? In many romantic comedies, the director keeps the plot wheels spinning by not allowing the protagonists to simply tell each other things that would clear up their conflict. Not the case here. And in some movies, the writer and director are simply not up to creating adequate dialog, so they rely on meaningful glances from the actors to get the job done. The writer/director of Er Di, Xiaoshuai Wang, a 41-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors, which also includes Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000) and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). Wang made five films before achieving international success with Beijing Bicycle (2001). Er Di, his eighth film, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Prix Un Certain Regard but failed to win any prizes. His eighth film, Shanghai Dreams (2005), won Cannes’s Prix du Jury award. So we can assume the actor is not laconic as a consequence of directorial dialogical incompetence. Instead, his silence makes a statement and I take that statement to be a political one.

How laconic is too laconic, anyway? Silent man – the cowboy, the uncommunicative husband, the tough guy – are common in the movies. They convey their thoughts by taking action. Likewise, he who has suffered some tragic loss may do a lot of staring and jaw-muscle bunching. We the audience are trained to tolerate this, up to a point. However, if enough characters ask the silent one questions that go unanswered, and we know that the director could provide answers if he wanted to, at some point we have to sit back and think of other things. Otherwise we’re just batting our heads against a directorial wall.

This point arrived for me at the one-hour mark in this two-hour movie. Little Brother’s big brother, who is involved in local government, leans on him to come to a “workshop” meeting and talk to the youth of the town. There is a widespread belief among the young that the U.S. offers easy women, luxury, and high-paying jobs. They don’t believe the local government officials, including Er Di’s big brother, who try to tell them differently. One young man, Monkey, has died recently after stowing away. Big brother tells Er Di that if he will explain to the young men that the U.S. is not so hot and that stowing away is very dangerous, they will believe him. So, we’re at the meeting. Big brother introduces Er Di and then leaves the hall so that Er Di can speak freely. The young men shout questions at him: are the U.S. women really easy like they say? Is there easy money in America? Did Er Di have to wash dishes? Etc. Er Di sits, wordless, staring off into space, looking troubled. The young men urge him to speak. I’m perking up now, waiting for the monologue: coming to America, what that was like, the perspective of a small-town Chinese man arriving over the big water. Speak, Er Di, speak.

But noooooo… Take that wordless angst and like it! And I’m all, Xiaoshuai! Throw me a bone here!

So that’s when I knew for sure that that’s all I was going to get in this movie. Er Di’s girlfriend looks at him and says “You know what? You’re strange.” No lie.

And it happens again. The police arrive to talk to him about his conflict with his father-in-law. They just want to discuss the situation and get some answers to a few simple questions. Good moment for a monologue. Er Di lights up a cigarette, fixes gaze on distant object; cat’s got his tongue.

The question then becomes, having read this review this far – Thank you! You are among the special, lucky few! – how do you plan to spend the time in this movie during which a static camera stares at Er Di as he stares at nothing at all and works his way through several decks of Marlboros? (Marlboros are very popular in China.)

Some suggestions:

1. Take in the sights and sounds – A smaller Chinese coastal fishing town, to include streets, alleys, vendors, cemeteries, travelling traditional Chinese opera, bikes, motor scooters, a big bridge, scows and freighters, long thin red ceremonial incense sticks, real rain. Bay mud. Adidas sweatshirts. But no automobiles. None. Wang has thrown two hours of celluloid up there with no cars in it. This could not happen by accident. Why has he done this? In one shot, as the camera follows beside a bicycle and motor scooter, several vehicles whoosh behind. There is a glimpse of red metal. A horn is heard honking. Is Wang emphasizing the town’s economic doldrums? Can it be that there are really no cars?

To continue: simple bare home of the low-income with linoleum floors, small lived-in kitchen, white tile, age, mosquito netting. Plus an upper-class home still pretty sparse. An auteur shot with the protagonist getting up from the table in the cafe and going outside, the camera, unmoving, watching the others at the table as they turn to look out the window, and Er Di himself, seen out there through the window beyond the table, as he bonks himself on the head in distress and the others jump up and run out and we’re left alone in the cafe looking across the empty table and out through the window as the friends gather around the wounded Er Di on the ground.

And in the midst of the quiet, the director does take a moment from time to time to wrangle back your attention via, for example, the girlfriend taking off her blouse in Er Di’s bedroom, or the frequent appearance of the F word in the subtitles (three words together in Mandarin mean the same thing), or a fight between Er Di and his father on one side vs the police on the other. And speaking of Mandarin, it’s still striking to me to hear, in the coursing flow of the language, the words Mama and Baba jump out.

2. Practice cinematical meditation – I remember reading a treatise on “moving meditation” once. T’ai Chi is the best-known form of this art, although the version I was reading about had to do with walking – which, according to the expert author, is much more difficult than standard navel-gazing and other types of ommm meditation. Now, wait for it, there is “movie meditation.” As Long Duan in this, his first film, stares off at eternity, lips reminding you of Tiger Woods’ lips, your eyes must go soft. Wine, beer, or a big bong will help. The film’s music is soft, minor key, sufficiently western to encourage the odd daydream.

3. Conjure with the life questions that occur to you – economic, social, political, legal – as Xiaoshuai Wang lays out a slice of the world for your consideration. A few possible points to ponder:

The child is an American citizen visiting China. The American legal system has forbidden Er Di from spending time with his son. The local cadres think it proper to enforce this ruling. However, Er Di’s father reminds him of heaven’s mandate, which is that a father should be with his son. Er Di’s friends point out that after all, they are in China, not in the U.S. Er Di’s proper action vis a vis his son?

The girlfriend says to Er Di, “You’re supposed to look better. You’ve been to the U.S.” Does she have a point?

Er Di’s friends are leaving Fujian for Canton, Shanghai, and other urban centers where jobs can be found, or are stowing away like he did. Should he remain with the family, helping with the struggling family business in a depressed area, or go with his friends to Chinese boom centers, or return to America illegally?

And what’s your take on illegal immigration? Recently I drove down to 5th and Main and picked up a man to help me clean out my gutters. While we worked, we spoke in Spanish. I asked him how he got to the U.S. from Guatemala. “I walked,” he said. He started out with his family’s savings and by the time he crossed the border into the U.S., he had spent all of it on bribes. Now, he lives in a small apartment with a group of other men like himself and sends whatever he makes back to his family. In Guatemala he had been a welder but there was no work. Now he is doing casual day labor off the street corner. Should I report him instead of hiring him?

Meanwhile, the Hershey’s plant in Oakdale, California, closed this week. Moved to Mexico. The plant workers are now jobless, out in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley with no jobs anywhere near them.

And I noticed that a farm in the next county just moved lock, stock, and barrel to Mexico because there is a severe shortage of field workers around here this season. They were scared off. Plus, more and more field workers are switching to city work, as it pays better. Another farm is using inmates from a nearby prison.

Half my co-workers live in India.

In the film, Wang represents the local Chinese government as helpless and/or oblivious to the plight of the workers, while on television during the film, commentators speculate that China’s entry into the WTO will bring a better life.

The final scenes in the movie make it clear just how hard it is going to be for Er Di and his girlfriend to return to the U.S. As they sat belowdecks in a scow, waiting to endure the suffering that is to come, the movie finally got to me. In general, I take it as a given that the world is going to hell, but most of the time I manage to ignore that fact. Once in a while, however, a movie comes along that rubs my nose in it.

Men at Work (2006)

Four men in their fifties, driving back from a ski trip in the mountains. Late morning. They banter as they head for the city in a shiny new black Peugeot SUV, anxious to get home in time to watch a big game on TV. They’re all dressed for the slopes, in good humor, gabbing in that ironic, guy-talk way about work and women. From their conversation, it’s obvious that they’ve known each other all their lives. Three of them work together in a multinational advertising agency. The fourth is a dentist.

One of the men is on his cell phone, talking to his daughter in L.A. She has just given birth to a baby boy, the first grandchild for the group. One of the other men in the SUV will be traveling to L.A. soon with his new wife. “Is there anything he can bring you from here?” asks the new grandfather. His divorced wife is already in L.A. with their daughter.

The four men stop at a turnout on their way down the mountain, so that one of them can answer the call of nature. While parked, they notice an eight-foot-tall free-standing rock at the edge of the turnout. They decide on impulse that it would be fun to push the rock over and watch it tumble down into the lake far below. For the rest of the movie, they try to move the rock.

The film is based on a story idea by Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s most influential filmmaker (A Taste of Cherry (1997), Crimson Gold (2003)). Mani Haghighi, the 38-year-old writer/director of Men At Work (Kargaran mashghoole karand), received his B.A. in philosophy from McGill University in 1991, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Guelph in 1997, and an M.A. in cultural studies from Trent University in 2000. His grandfather is Eberahim Golestan, an important writer and filmmaker in Iran. I’d like to know how the story idea passed from Kiarostami to Haghighi – perhaps over dinner one evening? At any rate, Haghighi is on record as trying hard to resist the pressure on Iranian filmmakers to emulate the Kiarostami touch. Haghighi wants to introduce new styles of cinema into Iran. Haghighi: “When you say Iranian films, audiences expect 1.) a child, 2.) preferably, a child looking for something, and 3.) set in a rural context.” Men at Work is his second feature-length film. Later, when he made Abadan, he was criticized by the Iranian film board for making a movie that “wasn’t Iranian enough.”

When Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” opened, there was some discussion about whether her celebrity would overwhelm the film. It didn’t. A similar question occurred to me as I watched Men At Work, because although the men could be returning to Denver from Aspen, or to L.A. through the San Gabriels, they are in fact descending into Teheran, with Iraq just over the horizon to the west. Could I watch a movie about ordinary men living their ordinary lives with ordinary concerns that seem so similar to my own, without being influenced by the U.S. Administration’s current posture toward Iran – the accusations, the general vitriol, the naval buildup in the Gulf, and especially the ongoing trainwreck in the country next door? As I started the movie, its livingroom seemed crowded with elephants, to torture the metaphor.

In the event, the first time through, the elephants set up a certain dissonance between what I was seeing onscreen and my mental image of the region and its people. Political questions distracted me. The second time through, however, having learned the characters’ names, professions, and basic histories, and having admired the scenery, which is spectacular, and having sorted out a variety of questions that arose for me during the first viewing, I found that my preoccupation with Iran qua evil-axis member had dissipated. No horns, pitchforks, or AK-47s visible in the movie. Instead, there was something quite heartening to me about watching these ordinary men grappling with middle age in a context perfectly understandable to me. An anecdote that one of them tells the others, which includes excellent English that they all understand, and California Dreamin by the Mamas and the Papas blaring from a car radio, add cultural linkages between the actors and the typical U.S. viewer. (Although one of the four did look a little like Saddam. But then, another resembled Richard Gere, and another, a cross between Richard Dreyfus and Freud. All four men are important in the Iranian film industry; none are principally actors.)

I read once that most Iranian films take place outdoors because there is a rule that to appear in a movie, a woman must keep her head covered, and filmmakers do not like to compromise their work by having women appear in their own homes with their heads covered. Don’t know if that is still true, but since this movie is shot at a mountain turnout on a cold winter day, the fact that all the women (in thoroughly modern clothing) had their heads covered didn’t stand out as a cultural identifier.

A moment that does highlight cultural differences: the men want to harness a donkey to the standing rock so that the donkey can pull the rock over. The donkey’s owner points out that if the rock falls over, it will plunge down the cliff with the donkey still attached to it. One of the four men points out that the fate of the donkey is in God’s hands. Although this line of reasoning is played as farce, it isn’t Hollywood farce (for the Hollywood equivalent, refer to Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction).

Do the rock and the men’s struggles to topple it comprise the elements of an allegory? Perhaps. Is the rock a symbol for an inflexible government? For a stultifying, immovable patriarchal system? Do the men’s struggles represent the simple idiocy of the male animal? An allegory in the cinema requires that the viewer accept the situation as it is, plus accept it as something else again. No problem doing this for Men At Work. Every individual action is natural; the complete situation is absurd. The presence of allegory and symbol didn’t engage me, but it relieved some pressure for me as I watched; it let me sit back and enjoy what I was seeing while I played intellectual hooky from that aspect of the film. At no moment was a correct interpretation of the symbolism in the film important to me. The rock is simply the film’s mcguffin. It’s job is to hold the four characters in place long enough for us to spend some time with them – time well spent in this case.

…A break here to note that there is digging with shovels in Men At work. Have I ever seen a hole dug realistically in a movie? The shovel comes out. A few spadefulls of dirt are turned over. Cut to a nice big hole and a sweaty actor with the shovel. When I go out in the back yard, a couple of licks and I’ve got my first blister. I remember no actors complaining about blisters from digging in a movie.

The film is made on DV and cleanly transferred to 35mm. Gray and black mountains, silent, unmoving, snow-covered on top, masses in the distance, with orange and red and gold strata miles wide running on a diagonal across the screen in the foreground.

The musical score is uncredited in the English titles and on IMDB, but is beautifully done – solo piano in a minor key with an electronic vibe, alternately spritely and contemplative.

The focus of the film is on the weight of accumulated history felt by men of this age. There has been disease. A new generation is entering the world. Careers have peaked. Marriage is history, not future. One of the men is divorced, recuperating from surgery, and lonely. One has a wife who is terminally ill. The wife of the third is a woman in her twenties, a beauty the age of the man’s daughter; the marriage, if in fact they are really married, is not expected to last very long. The fourth man says that his wife hangs out with “a collection of 50-year-old crazy women.” He meets an old flame at the rock, a woman of spirit and energy who reminds him what he missed when he let her get away; and then she is gone. The director cares about these men. He handles them with respect onscreen. The fact that he probably knows them all well in real life and that they are all fifteen years or so older than he is and well-travelled in the industry adds power to their presence in front of the camera, mentors to him behind it.

I had the sense that in the movie, for these men the past was as important or now perhaps more important than the present or future. I thought of Rupert Murdock, in his late seventies as he buys Dow Jones, and Sumner Redstone, in his eighties as he wrestles with his daughter over Viacom policy and tries to dump his 44-year-old wife. What percentage of men keep moving into the future; how many slow down and become permanently embedded in the past? Whatever the future holds for the four men in Men At Work, in the universe of the movie there is no future. It is the past that is present onscreen, in their conversation and in the aging and history marked in their faces.

Men At Work concludes with an unironic, touching ending that embodies the final innocence I’ve experienced in many of the Iranian movies I’ve seen.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

*** This is mostly not about the heart, but that other place ***

Directed by and starring Asia Argento.

A mother (prostitute, substance-abuser, stripper, so forth) regains custody of her 7-year-old son, wrenching him from the arms of his loving foster parents. (If I were Knoxville, Tenn., I’d protest the representation of Child Protective Services in this movie.) Road trip ensues, with predictable results: boy sleeps in bathtub; boy doesn’t eat nourishing meals; boy does drugs; boy sees mom on the pot; on the couch in undignified poses; doing it in bed with various johns; boy is molested; made to dress in girl’s clothing and then re-molested; runs away; is brought back; sees low-budget dream visions, as Argento appears to be carrying some heavy Mediterranean Catholic baggage; interacts with name actors in bit parts; shows some acting chops; so forth. Amy Sidaris was born to play this mom in an over-the-top, campy, tasteless indie. “The Heart is Deceitful” could have been that movie – almost is, in fact, though not on purpose. But here we’re stuck with Argento instead of Sidaris

From the first shot of Argento I’m asking myself, is he supposed to be the boy’s mother for real and he’s going to do the whole movie in drag, or is he the boy’s transgendered father, or what? Too much lipstick, ridiculous fifties John Waters outfits, male-style fluffy armpits, shaved shanks, vascular hands. My gender speculations last through the whole movie because even after it becomes clear that Asia is going to go all the way as a woman, there are lots of scenes where lowlife guys tell him how beautiful he is and then show him that they mean it, the guy-on-guy action adding texture to the film.

When Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti and Jeremy Sisto (Rachel Griffiths’ crazy younger brother in Six Feet Under) show up in a flick like this, are they just doing somebody a favor or do they need a little work, or what? Sisto gets to rage and shout for 30 seconds, but then the meth lab blows up. Please tell me that they used a stunt double in burnt-flesh makeup to do the part where he stumbles out of the wreckage, smoldering, and stands in the road with his arms up a la Platoon and then drops to his knees and then keels over onto his face on the pavement. Ouch. Needing a little work is one thing, but dude, this is debasing. (Do meth labs in movies ever not blow up?)

Warning: We are teased with interior shots of a totally tricked-out, pimped-up 18-wheeler and Asia might have saved the movie right there by pausing the narrative and taking us all on a detailed tour of the rig. But no. Probably saving it for the sequel.

Checking my notes for the moments where I laughed out loud: guy holding cowboy hat over parts before whipping boy unmercifully; gratutious thumb-sucking by mother and son; red rubber crows; West Virginia House of the Lord; Asia Argento, Rome-born scriptwriter, saying “I’ll have another, I reckon”; John Robinson’s accent; scrubbing “down there” with a big scrub brush; huge pile of potatoes to be peeled; the market that in a later scene becomes a hospital.

Things to like: Tennessee locations; a decent rain scene; great tattoos all around; Ornella Muti.

After watching the movie, I checked IMDB and discovered to my amazement that Asia Argento is actually a woman.

Regarding the title, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” (Jeremiah 17:9) – better would have been Lamentations 2:11, “Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people; because the children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city.”

Watch it drunk.

O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (The Year My Parents Went On Vacation) (2006)

***** SPOILERS *****

The Year My Parents Went On Vaction tells the story of a pre-teen boy in São Paulo, Brazil, separated from his parents during a military coup in 1970. As the army takes over, the country is distracted in part by Brazil’s successes in the World Cup of that year (sort of like following the pennant race or NFL football in the U.S. as the country’s financial system implodes). The movie is pleasant, never dull, well shot, with a delicate score that adds to the feelings of sadness and loss inherent in the plot (the director threw out the first score written for the movie; Beto Villares then did it over and got it right).

TYMPWOV begins with a mother and father taking their son to grandfather’s house in São Paulo. The three are riding in a VW bug, ’65 or earlier. A Brazilian friend suggests that for verisimilitude, they should have been in a Renault or Citroen, because the bug was the inexpensive car of youth and the lower middle-class; her family always drove French cars. Be that as it may, the movie’s streets are rife with vintage bugs and VW buses, though I did spot a Renault or two. I mention this because the first car that I bought and paid for with my own money was a new ’67 bug from Belmont Motors in Massachusetts, powder blue. It has been sitting since 1981 or so in a succession of company parking lots, progressively degenerating until, paint gone, wheels seized, flowering weeds growing from dirt caught in the chassis crevicles, it looks so bad that I was ordered to have it towed off the property because it had become an eyesore, at least to one sorehead in the company who remained anonymous – the bug’s engine refusing to start, a hole in the floor threatening to release the battery under the back seat like a bomb dropped from its bay at the first speed bump, the windows opaque as my glasses in the Turkish bath down the street. Fortunately, my son stepped up and volunteered to restore the car as a hobby. He abstracted it on a flatbed towtruck via Raul’s Towing Service to his driveway, where it sat, partially disassembled, for a week or two before the city, at the behest of neighbors or a cruising patrol car, ordered him to remove it. He rolled the poor thing into his garage, wheels now at least freed, out of sight behind closed doors, and since then he has ordered replacement parts from an unending list. He tells me that there are two sources from which to obtain these parts: (a) a quality manufacturer somewhere or other, or (b)Brazil. You want quality, you go to the quality manufacturer; you want cheap, you go to Brazil. I don’t know if that’s true or not but when I replaced a bumper a long time ago, it had a “Made in Brazil” sticker on the inside surface. One tap by another vehicle and the bumper folded up like an origami noodle. Also, curiously, ’67 door handles are unavailable. But the point is, if you’re a bug lover you might want to give TYMPWOV a little love for that reason if for no other.

Director/writer Cao Hamburger and his co-writer, Claudio Galperin, were both born in São Paulo in 1962 and were eight years old when General Emilio Medici engineered his coup. Hamburger’s parents “went on vacation” at that time, but only for a few weeks. In this movie, Hamburger and Galperin share some of their childhood experiences growing up in the cultural melting-pot of São Paulo. Hamburger’s father came from a German/Jewish family that emigrated to Brazil before World War II. His mother was of Italian/Catholic stock, though both parents were non-religious scientists as he grew up. He says that he began thinking about São Paulo’s mix of cultures and his roots while living and feeling like an outsider in London, another city where races and nationalities mingle. According to Hamburger (and my Brazilian friends), Brazil is deeply divided over socio-economic class issues (the rich, a small middle-class, and the poor) but is accepting of emigrants; he refers to Brazilian culture as Samba culture – “Samba” here meaning, roughly, “let’s all dance together.” In fact, Hamburger started out with all sorts of ideas for the movie, but while making it settled on the idea of enjoying the brief periods of sunshine in life on a cloudy day. The movie was made on a medium budget by Brazilian standards. Since the success of films like Central Station and City of God, Hamburger says, funding opportunities for cinema have gotten a lot better. He used professionals as well as non-actors from the community, which in the film is a conservative Jewish neighborhood. Today, Hamburger says, this neighborhood is Korean, but since he is exploring his own roots, for the purposes of the film it remains Jewish. Hamburger spent four months finding an empty apartment building to use for the shoot; the movie was filmed completely on location.

So often in making a movie, the director starts out with an idea and massages it until a theme for the film is produced. This process can extend over years with input from editors, writers, friends, family, and assorted other sources while the director chases funding, as I describe in my review of Manda Bala. Hamburger’s initial inspiration was to examine the mixture of cultures in Brazil, and from that grew the idea of examining a year in the life of a boy growing up in the same time and place that Hamburger and Galperin did. During the making of the movie, the military coup and contemperaneous world-cup excitement in the film emerged, according to the director, as metaphors for life. It seems to me that some of these metaphors crop up post-production but perhaps I’m just metaphor-blind or metaphor-averse. Does a movie metaphor count if it’s discovered after the movie is finished? Does it count if a reviewer invokes it, rather than the director? I do like the way that Claudia Llosa, for example, disavows metaphors in her Maven-reviewed Madeinusa, a movie which could easily be weighed down with them. I’m guessing that Hamburger’s military coup and World Cup would remain in the movie whether Hamburger deemed them metaphors or not. As it is, he has one more thing to talk about during interviews.

Anyway, the coup represents a dark day and the World-Cup victory represents a shaft of sunlight breaking through the gloom of that day. The dark day is life under the military regime and the sunlight represents those moments in life that you must embrace in order to get through the bad patches – did I just nest a metaphor within a metaphor there? The life of goalies in general is also a metaphor in the movie, but if the victory is a bright shaft of sunlight, what is the goalie? A meteorite the size of Oshgosh? Who knows? The gray day/sunlight metaphor, applied to my own personal life, would be like at my work, where my boss would be dictator General Emilio Medici, and out of the grinding gray of morning I would emerge at lunchtime to sit down across from Izzy Vulvano and beat his pants off playing Magic and using my special red and black deck. Also the movie is about dealing with our loneliness and our connections to others, how we make them and break them and move on. Is the movie itself a metaphor for that, or just a movie about that? Also, the director does not agree that soccer is the opiate of the masses, exploited by the junta in this case to maintain calm. Hamburger is going for gray day/sunshine here, not gray day/opium. And having mentioned Manda Bala above, note that this whole movie unfurled without a kidnapping or fried frog in sight, but only because the whole country is under siege from an autocratic military dictatorship rather than a scourge of corrupt politicians and kidnapping-for-profit criminal thugs.

Strangely, Hamburger’s soccer metaphor gets turned on its head at the end of the movie. Irony? Another layer? Or just part of the movie that doesn’t conform to a simple, stumbled-upon talking point? I thought about calling Hamburger and asking him, but nobody likes a wiseass.

When the metaphorical army arrives in Michel’s neighborhood and starts dragging young men out of their union offices in São Paulo, clubbing them and hurling them into vans while the boy’s parents are in hiding, it occurred to me to wonder whether such scenes are automatically more powerful when filmed in the country where they are supposed to have happened, in the language in which they happened, by victims or the relatives of victims of the evils portrayed. Or, for a subtitle-hating country like America, could such a scene be made more visceral and moving if shot in Hollywood for U.S. consumption? For example, would Der Untergang or The Lives of Others have retained their energy or even gained some, if they had been made, shot for shot, in the U.S. with U.S. actors instead of Germans? Ennio De Concini tried it with xxAlec Guiness playing Hitler but I think we can agree that that didn’t work as well as Bruno Ganz doing it. Being a cinema snob, I would say without cavil that it is intuitively obvious that the Brazilian version of the coup or the German version of Hitler’s last days cannot fail to have an innate power, if well enough done, that a U.S. version could never match. But hold on. Summer Palace provides a dramatic take on Tiananmen Square and the events there in 1989, yet I’ve heard plenty of squawking (from round eyes) about its failure to do justice to that historic conflict. Would a movie about Tiananmen, made along the lines of The Last Emperor, fare better in the U.S? Could Gettysburg withstand a transfer to Japan; if Kurosawa made it, might it even improve in the eyes of the Japanese? Or in the eyes of American viewers as well? How to assign metrics to questions like these? It’s easy to just say that the better the filmmaker, the better the film, for all informed viewers of taste. Do the French still love Jerry Lewis? Are Hollywood blockbusters still the biggest grossers all around the world? And children in movies – does the fact that the child is native to a country foreign to the viewer and speaks a foreign language have any effect one way or the other on that viewer? Rather than approaching these questions from first principles, maybe the thing to do is to evaluate a hundred movies or so, make a call on each, and examine the results for trends.

And speaking of children, how do they learn to act so well? Or isn’t learning involved? Teens act in high-school drama classes and plays – they’re learning something there, I guess. They act in community theater, especially in locations where drama in the schools is being cut. Adults go to drama school, but often act badly in films anyway. And yet I see movie after movie in which children act just fine (Mother of Mine, Wondrous Oblivion, Birth, Kabluey (where the kids are caricatures, but good caricatures.) On the other hand, that kid in The Dick Van Dyke Show… ouch.). Is aging an antidote to natural inborn talent? As we grow up, do we lose our ability to act? Or are these children, who seem to be acting so well, actually not doing much at all? In TYMPWOV, is the boy mostly just running around, looking upset, and playing with his tabletop soccer set, or is he interacting with others and… well, acting. I called the Stella Adler School in Manhattan to ask these questions, but the woman I spoke to told me that the youngest students they enroll are 14-year-olds (eight Saturday classes from 10 to 6, $800. No waiting list.) I asked the woman if the under-14s I see in the movies have been trained, or if whatever they show is just natural ability. She could only surmise. I asked if the Stella Adler Saturday classes have produced some success stories; she said yes, but didn’t name anybody I’ve heard of. She didn’t have much else to say about younger children and their appearances in movies, so I called a school out in the Valley (Sherman Oaks) which takes kids as young as 8. Sherman Oaks is up the 405 from Santa Monica, just over the hills from Hollywood. The fellow I spoke to told me flatly that every young person onscreen today has taken classes. He listed graduates from his school now appearing in Desperate Housewives, Everyone Hates Chris, etc., etc. (Classes from 10 to noon on Saturdays.) Agents and casting directors visit frequently, nominally as “class assistants,” but actually trolling for talent; or maybe just trying to make a living. For example:

****For Young actors:
Howard Meltzer
Hannah Montana Casting Director
TV Intensive – Saturday, October 4th

In each class session, the children work on a scene. In addition, there is instruction in preparation, auditioning, so forth. Camps and career-placement services are available. I asked the fellow whether children start out with talent and then lose it, or whether talent is distributed among children in the same proportion as among adults, and if so, what the classes might add to that. According to him, we’re all natural-born actors. As children, we play-act all the time, but as we age, we forget how much fun that acting can be. Acting classes, like organized sports, are just a modern way of letting children continue to have fun. And just as you won’t be playing in the NFL or NBA unless you associate yourself with an organized program, just so you won’t break into Hollywood without connections. Plus, I’m now getting casting calls for some reason.

Hamburger claims to have auditioned more than a thousand children looking for his stars in TYMPWOV. When he found the boy and girl that he wanted for the leads, Michel Joelsas and Daniela Piepszyk, he changed the script to fit them. Joelsas had never acted in a movie before (like Magaly Solier in Madeinusa, who had never even been in a movie theater when Claudia Llosa made her the lead in her movie). Hamburger says that Joelsas had talent and other characteristics of his personality that helped him to compose the character, such as “his shyness, his introspection, his curiosity about life, and his strength.” And his “intelligence and a sense of observation. And he had strong charisma. He’s also got a certain shyness and an inner strength.” Hamburger introduced all the children in his movie slowly to the characters that they were to play, perhaps Mike Leigh-like. There was improvisation. None of the kids saw a script during the shooting of the movie. So no acting class there, unless you count Hamburger’s direction; TYMPWOV argues for inborn talent, but only in one in a thousand or so. “The way I work with them is the most important element. I treat them as intelligent people. They are not children. They are spiritual, intelligent human beings. What I look for in casting children is charisma and talent, but, more than that, I want smart people. There is a very natural sense – especially the kids with their reactions…We worked a lot to have this very natural feel, but there is a lot of work behind it.” So roll the film of Michel’s audition. What the heck did this kid have to do when he came through the door, number 1013, with Hamburger languishing there in his director’s chair, in order to get picked boss boy? Bark like a dog? I coulda been a contender? Put on blackface, fall to his knees, and sing Mammy? We’ll never know. Now my niece – those auditions are brutal. She crawls on her belly like a reptile. They badger her about her tattoos. Surely there were tattoos in Shakespeare’s time, weren’t there, even if they weren’t coupling ferrets over You Suck! in red and green on her shoulder blades?

When I say that the kids were fine in the movie, I just mean that I watched the movie and never found myself thinking, “This kid is acting.” What they were actually doing onscreen, I wasn’t exactly paying attention to. Sometimes in a movie I do think about what the child is up to: when Cameron Bright gets into the bath with a naked Nicole Kidman in Birth, I found myself speculating about how that was accomplished without breaking any laws. When Dylan Baker has a talk with his son in Happiness, about Baker’s pedophilia and his abuse of the boy’s sleepover friend the night before, I knew in advance that Baker was actually talking to the air and his son’s reaction shots were filmed later. But in general, I don’t sit watching for signs that actors are acting, child or otherwise. Mary Badham and Phillip Alford in To Kill a Mockingbird? How much were they given to do? Can’t remember. Scout narrates the movie, but as an adult. Are kids mostly asked to just look worried, or angry, or confused? How often does a kid have to laugh in a movie? What’s the story on kid monologs? 726,000 Google hits for “kid monologs,” including the following from Henry V:

BOY: As young as I am, I have observed these three swashers. I am boy to all three; but all three, though they would serve me, could not be man to me; for indeed three such antics do not amount to a man. For Bardolph, he is white-livered and red-faced; by the means whereof ‘a faces it out, but fights not. For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword; by the means whereof ‘a breaks word and keeps whole weapons. For Nym, he hath heard that men of few words are the best men, and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest ‘a should be thought a coward; but his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds, for ‘a never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk. They will steal anything, and call it purchase. Bardolph stole a lute-case, bore it twelve leagues, and sold it for three halfpence. Nym and Bardolph are sworn brothers in filching, and in Calais they stole a fire-shovel. I knew by that piece of service the men would carry coals. They would have me as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves or handkerchers; which makes much against my manhood, if I should take from another’s pocket to put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave them and seek some better service. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up.

Wow. Maybe Michel laid that one on Hamburger.

When I think of “bad acting,” am I just reacting to bad line readings? In Son of Rambow, the boys have a lot to say and every once in a while I’d raise an eyebrow. In TYMPWOV, Joelsas and Peipszyk and the other kids are required to show their chops as follows:

First twenty-five minutes: Michel (Joelsas) is the only child in the first quarter of the movie, except for a brief interaction with Hanna (Piepszyk). He plays by himself, asks his parents questions, looks out the car window at the big city and, by the way, narrates the film creditably. Sustains hugs from his parents. (As a child, I was hugged by a woman in a play once and I had to stand there and take it with a smile.) This is a good-looking young man. The camera loves him. So he walks, runs, waits, frowns at strange food, pisses in a flowerpot. It all looks real to me. I guess that’s acting.

Second twenty-five minutes: Michel gets slapped, runs away, cooks in the kitchen, kills time around the house. Now some face time with Hanna – mild dialog – but since I don’t speak Portuguese, how can I evaluate their line readings? Rats. (And by the way, watching the movie, I mostly couldn’t distinguish Portuguese from Yiddish; be nice if the subtitles would indicate which was being spoken – and ditto for Swedish and Finnish in Mother of Mine). At 39 minutes (out of 100), Michel meets Hanna’s friends, three boys. They refer to Michel as the goy. Ten minutes of ensemble child acting; all five seem a little stiff, but they’re just meeting each other for the first time, so maybe in real life they would be stiff. Will the stiffness persist? Now Michel settles in with his neighbor, the elderly Shlomo next door, and makes friends throughout the neighborhood. He’s not asked to say much by Hamburger, but he does a lot of worrying about his parents, running around the neighborhood, so on. At the halfway point in the film, the World Cup begins.

Third twenty-five minutes: First World-Cup match with everyone watching; Michel spending time alone again in the apartment; then with a whole crowd of kids – minimal dialog; back home at the one-hour mark. Second match. Polish Jew, Italian Jew, Greek, African, German Jew, Hamburger really pushing the melting-pot theme. Local soccer game. Narration by boy. He wants to be a goalie. Another World-Cup match (sees first with Shlomo, second at the union, third with the old women. Local kids game with Michel as goalie. Piepszyk gives him a gift in a one-on-one scene with dialog. Michel goes to synagogue.

Final twenty-five minutes: The kids do an excellent acting job at a bar mitzvah celebration. And then some acting by Joelsas, as he helps a young union member hide from the army and secret police. Emoting, face to face with an adult! Some intense moments. Then more alone time for the boy, now coping with his worries in a more mature way than at the beginning. And the final soccer match, and more perfect-pitch behavior from Joelsas. And drama to wrap up. The boy has charisma, for sure. I believed him, from start to finish, and the other kids too.

And lest I forget, every time a goal was scored, everybody whooped and waved their arms in the air and I wondered if all the women in Brazil were shaving under their arms in 1970. According to a Brazilian I asked, the answer is yes. Looks come first in Brazil, she told me, and that includes proper underarm maintenance.

The Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen: Citizen Kane

I was reading the comments for a movie review the other day and one poster identified the film under discussion as “The worst movie I’ve ever seen.” I googled the sentence because it seems to me that I’ve been seeing it a lot lately. 19,700 hits.

Some of the movies deemed “the worst ever”: 10,000 BC, Open Water, Meet the Spartans, Twister.

If Twister is the worst you’ve seen, viewer, then let me warn you that there are a lot, a mighty lot, of seriously terrible movies out there that you’ve somehow managed to miss up till now.

Some of the google hits turned out to be for “not the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” but still. Other worst-seens: Wanted, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ladder 49, Legends of the Fall.

It’s a strange world that we live in.

So my question is, how many of these posters list a movie as their worst, but then do it again, and perhaps again, serial worsters, naming many of the  movies they see? Pathalogical worsters. Are these movie-watchers caught in some downward spiral vectoring them toward cinema Hell? Or do they also keep encountering their best-ever? Is every movie that they see either the best or the worst or the most or the least, or were these folks just having a bad day, or are they just lonely and wailing for help or for a little attention, or is hyperbole now a plague in the U.S. that has given us, for example, a major political party for which everything under consideration is either perfectly good or perfectly evil? How does Limbaugh rate his movies, or is he even allowed to go out and see movies?

“The worst movie I’ve seen.” 15,800 hits. A guy names “Benjamin Button” as his personal worst. Gets some agreement from other commenters but also some violent flames. Best ever/worst ever struggle breaks out over Button. They walk among us, these comment-posters, seemingly normal humans.

There are sites that do prompt for your worsts, asking “What’s the worst movie you’ve seen?” Nothing wrong with that. Moths to the flame. “The worst movie ever made.” 63,200 hits. I’ve got no problem with legitimate contenders for worst, or with the fun of trying to pick that worst flick. Zardoz, Showgirls, Gigli, Ishtar, Cleopatra, The Hottie and the Nottie, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the Turkish Wizard of Oz, and many many more, all legitimate contenders. But the googled worst-made list also includes Spiderman 3, Black Hawk Down, Southland Tales, I Am Legend, Lions and Lambs, Star Wars episode III, etc. Were these the picks of hotheads, or the challenged, or those unclear on the concept, or iconoclasts in want of an icon, or simple knuckleheads, or some species of the disgruntled?

I can name my worst pain and my worst breakup with a girlfriend and the worst President of the U.S. in my lifetime. I’m no worst hater (or wurst hater, either). I personally don’t have a worst movie but I suppose I could name a few candidates. The question is, are all the posted “worsts” true candidates like my own, or are they exposing a septicemiaized vein in the body cinematic?

“The worstest movie I’ve seen.” 2 hits. Talladagea Nights, Signs. Thirteen circles of movie inferno and we’re down at the bottom here, in the worstest, the icy lakes of Hades with their movie reviewers frozen in ice up to their padded hips, along with the future shades of Will Ferrell and M. Night Shyamalan.

Note also that there are chuckleheads who name Citizen Kane the worst, as per the title above. And speaking of the worst, Google also yields: “The Bible is the worst book ever.” and “The worst book in the Bible? Okay, this won’t be easy. There are only three books in the bible that have more good stuff than bad.” and “To the faithful in particular: what’s your least favourited/most hated book in the ‘good’ book?”

“The worst movie I have ever seen.” 28,200 hits. Watchman (of course), Son of Mask, Last Days (the van Zant flick).

“Most awful movie.” 1,430 hits. The Fifth Element, Snakes on the Plane (I’ve only seen Snakes on a Plane…), Burn After Reading.

“Most terrible movie.” 704 hits. State of the Union, Slumdog Millionaire (of course), Driven, The Door in the Floor.

“Baddest movie.” 1,230 hits. Nah, bad is good.

“Rottenest movie.” 9 hits. Tropic Thunder (because of the r word), Lost Souls, Blazing Saddles.

“rottnest movie.” 2 hits. Cool Runnings, The Lion King.

These are the worst posts I’ve ever read.

Ten Canoes (2007)

[Ten Canoes takes place long ago. The contents of this review pertain to Aboriginal life as it was then, before any contact with non-Aboriginal peoples. I’m not an anthropologist, so the information presented here as fact may be wrong or vastly oversimplified. Take it all with a grain of salt and feel free to correct via comments.]

As I watched “10 Canoes,” I was reminded of a book I first read 40 years ago, “The Tiwi of North Australia.” The Tiwi live on Melville and Bathhurst Islands, 25 miles north across the water from Arnhem Land, where “10 Canoes” was filmed.

I’ve revisited the book from time to time over the years because of its fascinating description of Aboriginal marriage and dueling practices, both of which are on display in this movie.

Having watched “Ten Canoes,” I’m ready for a few sequels. Let me explain why.

The movie begins with a narrator describing where babies come from:

“I came from a waterhole. Looking like a little fish. Then my father came near and I asked him for my mother. I wanted to be born. My father pointed out one of his wives. That’s your mother, he told me. I waited till the right time and I went just like that into her vagina.

“Then my father had a dream. That dream let him know his wife had a little one inside her. That little one was me.

“When I die, I will go back to my waterhole. I’ll be waiting there to be born again. Like a little fish. It’s always like that for my people.”

Peculiar to the Australian Aborigine is the belief that every pregnancy is caused by a spirit. The father is not physically involved (although in the explanation above, he is given some management responsibilities). For the Tiwi, a consequence of this belief in conception via spirit is that every female not only ought to be married, as in most cultures, but in fact has to be married, or betrothed, from birth to death without exception and without gaps, so that there will always be a father on hand whenever a pregnancy should occur.

Australian Aborigine tribes practice early and age-stratified marriage. With the Tiwis, all female babies are betrothed by their fathers at birth. This practice has a considerable impact on the culture of the family group, hunting band, and tribe.

A father will not betroth the newborn girl to some newborn or very young boy – that is, to someone her own age. Far from it. Fathers betroth their girls to up-and-coming twenty-somethings who will be at the height of their powers when their brides arrive, ready for marriage, at the age of fourteen or so. The girls’ fathers will be growing old by then and will want to benefit from the goodwill and power of their new son-in-laws. Or, a newborn might be betrothed to a man currently powerful in the tribe, for some instant credit to her father.

The result of this system is that a man will be in his twenties before a first girl is betrothed to him, and then he will have to wait until he is almost forty to marry her. Furthermore, if he isn’t an up-and-comer in the tribe, no father will ever betroth a daughter to him at all.

Because young women are married to older men, they frequently became widows. In this case they must remarry immediately. Their father typically has less say in the matter this time around, if he’s still alive. The widow herself can try to exercise her own will in the matter. The brothers of her deceased husband have rights as well, as do her own sons, with regard to who will be her new husband. Bachelors in their twenties and thirties thus have a chance for a wife, albeit one usually older, perhaps much older, then they are. In one example in the literature, two twenty-somethings who are friends marry each other’s widowed mother.

In a setup like this, patience becomes the order of the day for all the young men. Every woman is married or betrothed but every man does not have a wife. Some young men have several girls promised to them; others have none. But even those with promised wives must wait for years to be married to them. The young men are forced to be bachelors, presumably celibate. This in a culture where sexual activity begins at an age that would be shocking to Western sensibilities (well, until lately, at least).

In general, the older men are always on the lookout for any encroachment on their prerogatives (and wives) by the younger men. Disputes arise. The young men never attempt assignations with the young wives at night, when each band is gathered together; but during the day, when the women are out gathering and the older wives have trouble keeping track of the younger wives every moment, young men and women can get together. In the movie, we see a younger brother (not Tiwi, but my knowledge of Tiwi customs informed my reactions to the movie) repeatedly trying to “visit” one of his older brother’s wives. At first, this sort of behavior results in prolonged back-and-forth arguments between campfires at night. If disputes remain unresolved and become serious enough, the young man in question may be required to leave and move to another band. Otherwise, matters can move on to a process of legal resolution. In the movie, the problem has not yet reached this stage and the older brother is keen to see that it doesn’t. Encroachment by the younger men threatens the whole marriage system, so it can’t be tolerated by the tribe.

Legal action, which takes the same form in all types of dispute, is also represented in the movie, where restitution by one tribe from another is demanded for an accidental killing. This action takes the following form, referred to variously as a duel, payback, or makaratta: the accused stands waiting while representatives of the offended band or tribe throw spears at him until blood is drawn. When this happens, the dispute is concluded. The accused is allowed to jump, duck, lean sideways, and otherwise dodge the spears, but his feet must remain in approximately the same place the whole time. (The North Australians hadn’t invented the spear thrower or boomerang, but did elaborate the throwing spear beyond that of the southern tribes.)

In the case of a dispute between an old man and a young man about one of the old man’s wives (the most common reason for legal action), the young man is faced by the old man and his spears. In baseball terms, the distance between the two men is about that from home plate to a spot halfway between the pitcher’s mound and second base.

Ideally, the young man will dodge a number of spears, showing off his athletic prowess and then, to keep from embarrassing the older man, will take a spear cut on the arm or leg to end the encounter. Because we’re dealing with human beings here, plenty of variation is possible with what actually happens. A badly thrown spear can bounce off the ground, come up, and break a leg. Or a proud and rebellious young man may refuse to be hit. Or he may bring a spear or throwing stick of his own, to demonstrate his anger at the old man (and use the spear or stick to block the spears thrown at him, but not ever to be thrown itself). In this case, other old men will join the first and the young man is liable to be seriously injured or killed. But the marriage system must be upheld, which means that in the end, the old man must always triumph.

In disputes between groups of men, both sides will comprise men with spears, all throwing at the other side at once. Wives are often involved, weaving in and out among the men. A woman is as likely to be hit as a man, but whomever is hit, once blood flows the matter is settled. Since most of these disputes are intratribal, there will exist a complex web of interrelationships between all the men involved, on their own side and with the men and women on the other side as well. This is because women often marry outside their clan and because young men often leave their band to follow their mothers to a new clan, or because they’re forced to leave their band after some dispute.

Now add in taboos and a belief in ghosts and other spiritual activity in everyday life, and we have the materials present for an endless series of dramatic films. Once the viewer is up to speed on the basic facts of Aboriginal culture and daily life, these can be as entertaining as anything made in Hollywood.

Include a little backstory to limn relationships, some boy/girl contact (rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17, depending upon the desired audience), a ghost or two misbehaving, and the final, essential showdown with spears, and we’ll have some interesting sequels to “Ten Canoes.” Perhaps the new film school in Ramingining will make them.

What we lose with a series of dramas like this is that sense of the human being as a strange and mysterious creature, which is often present when we’re watching members of an unfamiliar culture in action for the first time. However, (1) when watching the unfamiliar, we tend to replace the unknown with the known anyway (e.g., in the U.S., brother lusts after other brother’s wife. If she’s willing to divorce and remarry, only the jilted brother’s anger, and perhaps that of his extended family and the children, will cause repercussions. The whole community isn’t going to rise up to prevent the new union.), and (2) the more deeply we understand a new culture, the more deeply we come to appreciate the ways in which we humans are all the same, as well as the ways we can be profoundly different from each other. The tradeoff is worth it.

A side note: Watching “Ten Canoes,” I found myself looking for some hope for humanity in the future. That is, as the movie progressed, I searched for fundamental human traits in the Aborigines that Western culture might have lost on its way to destroying the world. But no. They’re like us. Would probably destroy the work just like we are. I found no hope.