Caro Diario (Dear Diary) (1993)

dear diary, i just watched a movie that has your italian cousin caro diario in it. now don’t be jealous that caro diario appears in a big old color movie, whereas you’re just a little bitty blog diary. don’t be jealous that nanni moretti puts his little diary up on the big screen and and then writes into it there, or that nanni’s so popular and witty and a real know-it-all, whereas you are typed into every day by a nobody who got caught one time with panties on his head. and finally, don’t be jealous that whereas i lie to you all the time so that the wife and kids won’t find out, nanni includes himself and his wife silvia right up there on the screen along with his little diary, and if he works up a heavy sweat, if you know what i mean, in a movie like quiet chaos, he can always tell silvia that he was just acting. although i hope that his twelve-year-old son doesn’t see him doing what he did in that one, at least not until the boy grows up a little bit more. and when, i mean if, i ever do some heavy sweating like that, i’m keeping it to myself, dear diary! you won’t need to know and neither will the wife.

besides, d.d., nanni is sort of like me – popular where he lives but who else knows him? whereas i’m popular in my backyard, but only when i’m throwing buddy his rag bone or pouring purina into his dinner bowl. so hold your head up high, dear little diary, because you know why? eyes are reading you right now! whereas in the big city down there on the flats, with its i-don’t-know-how-many libraries, caro diario is to be found only in the old carnegie free branch over by the cooling towers, on a vhs tape in a cardboard box! so sad.

nanni made caro in three parts:

part one – while he putt-putts around rome on his vespa, i am cruising pea gap on helga’s old huffy. nanni shouts beautiful slogans and that makes him grow beautiful (he says), whereas i squawk at the pickininnies and they pull on my sheet. just kidding. i pass harry and leonard sitting on harry’s porch. one day harry and leonard will be inside with the door closed and after that they’ll either be back on the porch or off to discover the world, who knows which? dillian is planting lillies in front of the church. leonarda is in the cemetery lying down on a yellow tablecloth, practicing for when she goes there and doesn’t come back. when i was in high school, there were scooters all over the place, mostly cushmans. where are they now? nanni says that there is a bridge in rome that he needs to cross twice a day (well, he can’t cross it just once, i guess, and still get back home); so i’m crossing pea creek on the huffy, dear diary, on those two-by-fours that the noxapater clan laid down after the last storm washed away their sorry little excuse for a bridge.

in part two, nanni travels around the aeolian islands with a friend who hasn’t watched tv in 30 years. my nanny never watched tv. she could stand on the tail of her bear rug and expectorate a stream of tobacco juice into a hills bros coffee can balanced on the nose of the bear, making the can ring like a bell. she would dunk the head of the bear in a pail of water once a year on easter to clean off the residue of her misses.

in part three, nanni gets sick. tumor. it don’t look good for nanni. mild spoiler: 15 years later, at 55, he’s still kicking. at first he just itched, dear diary, whereas i’ve got this godawful boil that makes me wonder how the hell i rode around the hamlet on that huffy all afternoon. nanni goes to doctors, whereas i use my special “medicine” from the pine grove half a mile up the hill. then nanny applies a poultice to the area and gives me a high colonic, though she don’t call it that. so don’t get sick, and if you want a horror film, forget saw or hostel and go find a documentary about cancer. also, quit watching so many movies and go help somebody who needs your help.

what a thinker nanni is, d.d.! you won’t catch him doing analogy or metaphor in this movie, no more than i do in you. he spits out the facts, straight onto the subtitles. although come to think of it, when he was riding around rome, there was no traffic, whereas on one of the islands that he visits, traffic is gridlocked and honking about it. could that mean something? can irony be metaphor?

anyway, thank you to duder for recommending the movie. it was good and it got me going. tomorrow, dear diary, i’m watching guadacanal diary and then taking my .22 out into the field to plink varmints. then i’m going to italy for three weeks to visit cinquefrondi, mammola, and grotteria on a rented vespa. ciào for now.

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)

***SPOILERS***

…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 http://www.kwanfamily.info/familytitles/familytitle.html.)

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.

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.

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.

Summer Palace: Chinese Thoughts On Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

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

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

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

“It’s ok,” he says.

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

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

“In China?”

“Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tillsammans (Together) (2000)

Tillsammans is a well-made sorta-comic sorta-serious feelgood ensemble drama about a communish collective located in a Swedish suburb in 1975. The collective, Tillsammans (Together), includes your couple experimenting with an open relationship in a building with thin walls, your newly-minted lesbian, your gay man, some unhappy kids, a woman taking refuge from her abusive husband, neighbors of antithetical mood looking on, politics, a woman airing out her apparatus due to a fungal infection, a man airing out his apparatus because the woman is airing out hers, so forth. Ironically, these folks become less and less together at first, but then the plot does a volte-face, with togetherness increasing amongst the group now on a deeper level than before, new connections made that everyone in the movie, kid and adult, has been missing, wants, and needs. I cannot vouch for the verisimilitude of the representation of this collective; writer/director Lukas Moodysson was only six in 1975, but perhaps he was present at the scene at that age, now revisiting his memories through his script. Perhaps that’s the reason for the movie. Perhaps Moodysson interviewed his parents for insights into the 70s.

I’ve seen Tillsammans three or four times over the past nine years and it holds up. The characterization is paper thin: all that you need to know about each member of the ensemble is sketched in moments as the soapish plot advances. But given that the dreaded staring-off-into-space motif is so often used these days to signify unknowable depths in a protagonist, who needs characterization?

Several quick points about the movie:

– It was made in Trollhättan. Which I thought was located on Discworld or in Middle Earth.

– Trollhättan here is standing in for a Stockholm suburb. It also stood in for rural Washington State in “Dancer in the Dark.” Moodysson isn’t doing dogme here, but the grainy photography, close-ups, and handheld photography remind of Von Trier and Scandinavian guerilla filmmaking, at least until the humor in the film emerges, a minute or two in.

– The writer/director’s first film was titled “F**king Amal.”

– A line about Baader Meinhof was left out of the subtitles. Conspiracy???

– It’s possible that throughout the 50s and 60s, and maybe the early 70s as well, the only Swedish movies I saw were Bergman’s. I skipped “I Am Curious Yellow,” reports of boredom outweighing my prurient interest. So now, years later, the sound of onscreen Swedish dialog still triggers Pavlovian expectations in me of conversations that plumb the depths of the human puddle of the soul. So maybe I invested the collective members of Tillsammans with more gravitas than they actually had earned during my viewing. I remember going out on a dinner date once with a young woman who had a strong Swedish accent, and it was the weirdest thing. As I sat across from her, I kept dropping into monologs about winter, Olaf Palme’s murder, Fårö, the bare trees with their bare branches, my chilblains, the cold drafts in the empty chapel where I prayed in the face of the stubborn divine silence, after cracking the ice on the water bowl in my bedroom, only to abrade my thighs with a frozen washcloth. And this was at a luau on Kauai, mind.

– I don’t recall shopping bags having paper handles yet in the 70s, as depicted in the movie. Also, the VW bus looks like it would look now, not then.

– I’ve heard it said that Eva, the fourteen-year-old in the movie, is the most adult of all the characters – an opinion that evidently originated with someone who has never lived with a fourteen-year-old girl, and mistakes angst for insight.

– It is not good to hear your partner experiencing her first orgasm when you aren’t in the room with her but she isn’t alone.

Anyway, a collective is a group the members of which share a common goal. In the case of the Tillsammans collective, the goal is political, or was in some year or other before the action begins. Hence the opening scene of joy at the news of Franco’s death. Hence one of the collective’s children being named “Tet,” after the offensive. Meanwhile, a commune is a group the members of which share a common purpose and join together to be with others who share similar tastes, thoughts, and desires. Tillsammans, though the point is never made explicitly in the film, seems to be transmogrifying from collective to commune as the movie progresses… or no. Now I’m thinking that Moodysson simply chose the collective setting as a convenient way to stage an ensemble drama, or a soap opera. The commune truths that I personally experienced are barely nodded to in the movie. (Moodysson has gone on to write/direct five more movies, none of which I’ve seen.)… Or no. Now that I come to think of it, many of the interactions in the movie actually do hinge on the facts of collective life. E.g., reassigning the relaxation/meditation room for use by a non-collective outsider; dealing with the group member who won’t do the dishes; solidarity in the face of opposing opinions… But hey! Wait a second. I just realized that this movie, made in 2000, presents the 1975 collective as if the whole concept of collective action, born in the 1960s (actually it’s been around since humans were fighting off the tyrannosauruses), has past, so that these guys are, well hell, saps for soldiering on, though Moodysson obviously cares for them (music by Abba) and probably didn’t mean for them to seem like saps. No, they aren’t saps; it’s hard to make a Swede look like a sap; a dolt, maybe, but not a sap.

What’s the difference between a soap opera and a legitimate dramatic creation based on solid characterization, anyway? The characters in Tillsammans grow and change in the course of the film; most evince conflicting characteristics within themselves, so forget what I said above about their paper-thinness. Most of the characters embody opposing ideas within themselves, automatically making them seem more real. And they deal with emotional issues emotionally, but with enough restraint to avoid bathos. There are plenty of characters, though, so a cinematic lick and a promise must often suffice in defining them via the action.

I was 16 when the 60s began and 26 when they ended. At the time, the creation and growth of communes in the U.S. seemed like a natural development in the cultural evolution of human society – a cultural maturation of 50s on-the-road into 60s pulling-off-onto-the-shoulder-and-then-taking-a-hard-left-out-into-the-Upper-Sonoran-wilderness consciousness.
I began my part in this by sharing peyote at a hot springs with a lot of other naked sojourners, thence moving on to communal life. I take the subsequent history of the togetherness movement, from the 70s to the present, as a metaphor for my life. My time in the commune began with my participation in a triangle-type relationship, but it turned out that the legs of the triangle were of unequal length. Also, it seemed that we kept slipping into two-against-one mode, and for this reason I reached out within the community to transform the triangle into a square – well, a trapezoid really, because once again I didn’t properly address the leg-length issue before acting. This caused the two-against-one dynamic to transmogrify into a three-against-one situation. Then, the fifth leg that we (I) added created, switching metaphors, a healthy hearty four-legged beast with an unhealthy unhappy wagging tail. Neurasthenically wagging, a downhearted drooping wag-twitching tail. Long story short, for every individual in the commune, multiple relationships are possible, but for one or two of the individuals it can be difficult finding a grouping that doesn’t leave you shucking the damn corn and shelling the damn peas while your groupmates are noisily making the sign of the multi-sided yam out back in the yurt.

So how could communes and ashrams seem so natural, so normal, so necessary to one generation only to then practically evaporate, leaving hardly a trace in the decades that followed. What, it was only a fad? The ideas wore out? Who’s to blame? Reagan? The rise of the NFL? The defeat of Communism? How have the young gone about dropping out and rebelling since then? As per mumblecore? Or by scoring high on their SATs and leaving for college, only to return home after graduation to clear the stuffed animals off the bed and move back in until those darned lagging unemployment indicators turn around again? The communes were wiped out by the materialism of the 80s? They were simply impractical? These experiments in cooperative living – all failures? Reagan did turn off the community-action spigot in the first year of his reign; that didn’t help, but it didn’t surprise anybody, either. And how come we’ve got to live through yet another set of stupid wars without even getting a summer of love to go with them? It’s an outrage.

I googled for area communes and discovered one listed right across town, out beyond the tank farm. I went over for a visit after reading the commune specs online: one man, one woman, one boy, one girl. If I join, we will share labor, take our meals together, start a garden after breaking up the concrete covering the backyard, and share spiritual searchings and mingle our chakras after the kids fall asleep at night. The man asked me if I had a sledge hammer and wheelbarrow. I said yes. The woman asked me about my seeds.

So if you grow up in a decade, does that make it, and the decades just before it, seem special? Do the 50s and 60s just seem special to me because that’s when I was young? Do the 80s and 90s seem unique and distinct to you now, dear reader, if that’s when you were young? While to me, the years from 1980 to 2009 are mostly an undifferentiated blur? The young, as the communes died out, abandoned free love, extended group families, and radical democracy in favor of what, the blur? Not in favor of the weblike internets, which took a while to arrive; though I did send my first email in 1981. Whole Foods? Drowning polar bears? Facebook as the new commune? Or, wait, did society just subsume everything that used to make a commune seem unique? By Jupiter, am I sitting here in the middle of it? The Big Commune?

How can there be no hippies but the proverbial “aging” hippies? What currently replaces the hippie urge? I googled “internet commune” with high hopes, dashed. The “Internet Collective” is, ugh, incorporated. Drug use? No, that’s so high school. Clothing easiness? Hey, I’m at work as I finally write this and you should see me. Those glimpses of commune life in “Into the Wild,” are they just Sean Penn’s surmise? Times are supposed to be hard; doesn’t that mean that there are plenty of post-college youth out there with nothing to do, not to mention boomers flashing back to their youthful roots, and disaffected x- and y-gen unemployed? Are intentional communities and unschooling programs and suchlike anything more than just notions?

And my God, I just realized something else. The greatest literary influence of my youth was “On The Road.” I hitchhiked to school every day. I hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S. and Canada multiple times. I hitchhiked up and down Mexico. “Two-Lane Blacktop” resides in my Top 5. But where have all the hitchhikers gone? Not to communes, that’s for sure. The only hitchhikers left are the serial killers, and they’re just doing it until somebody makes a movie about them after they’ve been executed. The nation has lost its way.

Why no hitching? Hitchhiking can be an important rite of passage. How many hitchhikers in “Into the Wild”? One. Emil Hirsch. What’s getting in the way? Improvements in mass transit? I don’t think so. Affordable gasoline? Nope. Rattletraps you can buy for peanuts? They hardly exist anymore outside of Cuba, not like the “iron” you could used to buy. Bicycles? Nope – those helmeted, costumed figures peddling along in the bike lanes are not lapsed thumbers. Freeways? And who is more afraid of whom now, between driver and hitcher? These days, as the hitchhiker climbs into the car or truck that has pulled over and sits idling, with its ominously tinted windows, will that passenger climb out later still in one piece?

An hour later: OK, I called my friend Jane. I’ve known Jane for ten years and was sort of aware all that time that her living arrangements were somehow out of the ordinary, but I never asked her for details. Turns out that she lives in a house with a name like Glow Lobster Aura or something, owning 1/8 of it and dedicated to a type of community living that involves sharing a variety of things that I for one tend to keep to myself. As I asked her about the current state of collectives, group homes, and communes in the area, she took me on a verbal tour of co-housing and alternative lifestyles locally that amazed me. Turns out that I know more folks involved in non-traditional lifestyles than I would ever have guessed. Dreams endure, though transmuted by time into modern forms. Dreams, but also the reality that living together is not easy, like married life is not easy.

But I digress.

When Moodysson made “F**king Amal,” Ingmar Bergman announced that a new master had been born. Tillsammans strengthened Moodysson’s reputation. Since then, he’s written a TV movie and written and directed five more films. After two additional arthouse flicks, he brought forth a couple of real head-scratchers (“A Hole in My Heart” and “Container”), and most recently, his first English-language effort, the globe-trotting “Mammoth.” Tillsammans won various awards, including the Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Moodysson is always interesting, but I’d say that at 40, we all hope that his future still ahead of him.

The movie’s lesson: let’s all move to Sweden, where everyone, no matter how nutty he or she may sometimes seem (refer to my next review for an analysis of Elin Nordegren), is in fact way saner than Americans are, or at least way saner than my gun-toting, tea-bagging, Palin-lovin American neighbors next door. (But I’m only raggin on the G.O.P. because I’m frustrated trying to find a good big solid incorporated Republican commune with a good big solid commune president who would keep us focused not on the weak sisters in our group but on America, love it or leave it, goddamnit, and on the uranium-mining business that our commune would operate, and on the commune’s goddamned bottom line.)