Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Port of Memory

Directed by Kamal Aljafari

(Occupied Palestinian Territories/UAE/Germany/France, 2009)

Kamal Aljafari has created Port of Memory to be seen and absorbed at face value. For American audiences uninformed about Middle East history, more context would help them interpret the “current events” angle of the movie, which is about the daily existence of Palestinians in a devastated neighborhood of Jaffa, awaiting their futures that they are powerless to control. Even without a few strokes of context, the movie can be understood—listlessness and oppression exist for members of this undefined community. One of the female characters prays to Christian icons, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and crossing herself afterwards, which can be confusing for the uninitiated viewer trying to grasp which nationalities are being depicted.

The location is Jaffa, by the seaside, and sounds of the sea and seabirds form the background atmosphere, which is otherwise a battlefield silence. Late in the movie a flashback shows a real battle taking place on the same neighborhood streets—a van chased by a military truck with machine-gun fire crackling. We might guess the Israeli army chasing Palestinians in the van, but not knowing the uniforms or jeeps, and not knowing what happened in Jaffa historically—and not being told this is Jaffa, at least in the subtitles—we must take the film at face value: Battles ruptured here in the past, the place is devastated, and the lives of those still dwelling here lack freedom because of an oppressor.

Visually, the movie strives for a poetic rendering of the devastation, with slow camera coverage of patched buildings, blackened windows, and overall ruins. Interiors range from barren to minimalist to middle class. Characters are straight from life. The central woman character who makes flower arrangements for weddings obsessively washes her artistic hands, and the third time we watch her hand washing, it’s too much. As if aware of this overkill, the hand washing is the third time.

As we are told nothing and can only absorb what we see in the daily lives of several characters, we lack answers that aren’t necessary but might also deepen the film by deepening our understanding. For instance, who receives a daily plate of food on his doorstep and why? Who is the child sleeping on the couch who has never appeared before and never again after? Who are the listless men who sit or stand all day at a place that might be—or might have been—a community center; or is it a home for mentally impaired people? One of the men is a pyromaniac. Another recurring character is a crazy man on a scooter who stops every 100 feet to scream.

The principal theme running through the 60-minute movie is one family’s upcoming eviction from the home they own. Unstated aggressors (we assume Israelis) assert that the family does not own the property. The man of the house goes to see a lawyer that the audience never sees, just hears, for he is not worth seeing—he is the scum of the earth, caring only for money. We hear his voice admitting that he has lost man’s documents submitted ten years before over a different housing crisis, so that now the man has no proof that his family owns their house. The lawyer says he’ll take the case anyway, for an extortionist’s sum. The man nods agreement. We don’t know if he ever gives the lawyer money for the case, but we do witness a later scene where he goes to the lawyer’s office and it’s locked, closed for good. The man kicks the door—the lawyer was his only frail hope. As the man’s wife has said about the housing crisis: It’s our word against their word. And the audience knows as well as the family that their word is worthless against a tyrannical power.

Once the man leaves the lawyer’s building he walks and ruminates on his problem, his fate, his future. His walk leads us through the town, the rubble, a cemetery, and out to a perch over the sea where the man sits, continuing to ponder. We cannot help but think he, too, is acutely aware of the striking contrast between what he gazes upon—open, rippling blue sea and clear sky—and what lies behind him, no man’s land, a hopeless quagmire.

We see machinery building new roads on the outskirts of the neighborhood and sense that soon enough they’ll be mowing down the remnants of the battle-ruined but also ancient streets. As the man passes a wall on his ruminating walk we see papers tacked to it with beautiful calligraphy that says: We miss you. We assume this means family members lost to the past battles.

Women in the movie are practical. The wife of the man who has seen the lawyer, poses questions to her husband about what they can do, but he has no answers and no motivation to fight for his rights. In our own society, women would take the matter into their own hands and attempt to pierce the bureaucracy, the records, the courts, to obtain justice. The women on the screen have the same practicality, acumen, and potential to win justice, but by tradition they defer such matters to the man of the house.

The movie ends with images of the wasteland—the town’s crazy man riding his scooter and this time pausing to cackle demonically; the woman washing her hands as usual; and the empty rooftop where she usually hangs laundry. We stare at these images of what there is, what is left, and the hapless characters inhabiting what is left. We feel the dead weight of an existence that is not right, is not just.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Monday, March 29, 2010

I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino
(Italy, 2009)

Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore (I Am Love) achieves first-rate cinematography. From opening snapshots of Milan in falling snow to photography of exquisite palace interiors, the movie sustains compelling visual wonder. Surfaces are examined from every angle—from above or straight on, from behind a door, or through a window. The conglomerate of pictures surpasses the pages of Architectural Digest, but share that milieu: the design, furnishings, and atmospheres of people with the richest artistic taste and pockets to express it. This capturing of design and architecture through the medium of stunningly rendered photography is the film’s outstanding attribute.

Surfaces dominate for the first half of the film, the surfaces of a high-society European family. Elegant dinners and parties are the pivotal center of family life, though the patriarchs go to work running their globally significant textile company. Servants prepare food and food comes to the candlelit banquet table via black-suited waiters wearing white gloves. Women are ornaments. “Surroundings,” the delicate, elevated effects of class are what matters.

In the second half of the movie the mistress of this world, Emma (a Russian, played by Tilda Swinton) moves to the fore as the central character, along with her adored son Eduardo (Flavio Parenti). Their lives intertwine with tragic consequences when Emma breaks free from the chains of her high society role to become lovers with Eduardo’s friend who has attracted her through the high art of his cooking. That is the movie’s story, with a few other family threads weaving through it, such as the daughter Bette’s coming out as a lesbian, spurring her mother’s own break from rigid expectations. Thus from the outward surfaces of the Recchi family’s lives we move into the more interior ones—the passions, the search for love. And here the movie is less successful. The surfaces of these peoples’ lives leaves their interiors shallow, or we know so little about them from their surfaces in the first half that we don’t particularly care about their interiors in the second half, though the superb performance by Tilda Swinton elicits vague compassion for her character, who undergoes a mid-life, and also social-class, crisis. The five-minute dreamy, abstract sex scene with Emma and her young lover fails visually and becomes a contrived distraction. Eduardo’s accidental death stretches the prevailing mood of the movie and isn’t necessary for Emma’s transformation—that has happened already. Thus the last scenes patch together with little credence in a weak ending. We care about Emma, but that’s all. We understand her loss of a son but we hardly feel anything for the young man lost because only Emma has substance as a character in the movie. All else is surfaces—the surfaces of rich lives in and out. Does the director intend us to admire this world or see it as surfaces? Or, is the murky ambiguity intended, and if so, it waters down the impact of the movie. An outlook to ponder is missing; what remains is banal. Five stars for photography, no stars for story.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved



Directed by Michael Koresky

(France, 2009)

Focusing on physical and facial imagery, Michael Koresky has created a tingling film, tightly sequenced, that true to life baffles more than it answers. For instance, was the construction worker in the opening convent scenes near Paris the same face as the man who goes to jail and then, when free again, rescues the protagonist Céline (Julie Sokolowski) from her attempted suicide? Despite its frugality, the dialogue holds essential clues to this film and most viewers will miss it. Nassir’s conversations with Céline are a steady, step-by-step indoctrination into committing terrorist violence in order to fight God’s cause. But this plot remains obtuse until something disastrous happens.

What emerges powerfully in this film is an exploration of religious devotion, the search for God’s presence in the individual’s life, and how such fanaticism can lead to acts of violence against innocent people. Nassir’s (Karl Sarafidis) preoccupation with his Islamic faith differs from Céline’s obsession with her Catholic Christ. The movie focuses on Céline, her piety and her utter confusion about her feelings, her body’s sexuality, and her relationship to Christ, to God. She wants physical union with him—sex. Her emotional and psychological state leave her vulnerable to extremists like Nassir, who can preach rationally, convincingly that God wants her to act, carry on his work in the world, which is to take political action to fight injustice. “We’re his soldiers,” Nassir tells Céline . “Why not his martyrs?”

Yet, again, all of this information is cloaked in the confusion of Céline’s point of view and can be easily missed by the viewer, though it becomes vaguely understood later when a bomb goes off at the Arc de Triomphe and clearly Nassir and Céline played a role in it. Was Nassir’s brother Yassine a martyr in the explosion? If so, the clue was just too obtuse.

The movie is reminiscent of Marco Bellocchio’s exploration of Red Brigade psychology in Buon Giorno Notte (Good Morning Night, 2003). Both films study female protagonists whose mental confusion, lack of conviction, and desperation for something to lean on cause them to be the right material to recruit for terrorism.

Julie Sokolowski’s performance is exquisite. We see her in her various environments: the convent where she prays fervently, her palatial home with shadows for parents, school, and Parisian streets, immigrant neighborhoods. She moves about in a mental fog and speaks only to say true things about herself, for instance, that she doesn’t want romantic involvement with her new friend Yassine (Yassine Salihine), because she can only love Jesus. Yassine accepts this and their odd-fellow friendship develops, leading Céline to meet Nassir. The denouement slowly builds but is overshadowed by the changing expressions on Céline’s Virgin Mary face; a brilliant parallel emerges, and that is the film’s minute study of Céline obscures what is really developing, just as what is going on inside Céline clouds her judgment of reality—leading her down a wrong road.

Besides its incandescent study of human beings of deep religious faith, the movie provokes thought on contemporary society, on vast metropolises like Paris with different social strata and influences, and how religious fervor can become the handbook for supposedly righteous or heroic acts in God’s name. Nassir’s sincerity is convincing—he comes across as a good guy—so that his character offers insight into one kind of terrorist. (A distinction should be made between those of deep faith who devote themselves to peaceful work for humanity, and those who become God’s defenders using violence. Nassir tells Céline that “violence is natural; it’s in the nature of things.”)

When Céline spends time with the nuns at the convent she is called Hadewijch; she tells Nassir that she was born at the convent and named Hadewijch there. We don’t know more than this or what Hadewijch represents. Wikipedia tells us she was a 13th-century Dutch poet and mystic who wrote about “worldly courtship replaced by sublimated love to God.” That would fit Céline, but who watching the film, besides religious experts or medievalists, would know that? Yet, the symbol holds significance, for the movie asks if sublimated love to God underlies today’s (and history’s) terrorism.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Making Plans for Lena (Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser)

Directed by Christophe Honore

(France, 2009)

This movie is for audiences who love relationship movies. The protagonist is Lena (Chiara Mastroianni), a recent divorcee who is cracking under the stress of managing life and young children on her own, determinedly on her own. Lena’s increasingly serious mental state endures as the salient impact of the movie, for everything else makes the audience wonder why a feature film had to be made to show this middle class French family’s particular relationships. Additionally, soon after the beginning, it’s a nagging distraction that Making Plans for Lena is a lot like the recent A Christmas Tale, by Arnaud Desplechin. And Mastroianni stars in that movie too. Both depict French families gathering for a holiday reunion, with one parent terminally ill. The individuals’ idiosyncrasies feed the films. In Lena, the family’s caring attention to farm animals and wildlife contrasts to their inability to love each other. In both movies, the mothers and siblings treat each other in the rudest, most discompassionate terms. Is this style of familial interaction a French cultural trait or something universal to the world? The characters’ brutally cutting remarks were startling to this viewer, and they created most of the film’s tension. Since no other side of the characters was developed—except possibly in Lena, though her personality disorder defined her—our hearts could not be moved for these people (nor for those in A Christmas Tale). Instead it was like witnessing privileged but unhappy lives, dysfunctional family relationships (which is fairly universal), and nasty verbal abuse.

As if the filmmaker was aware of the thinness of his material, he inserted a long fairy tale in the flashback mode. As Lena’s young son Anton reads to her from the book that’s kept him awake, the movie fades to the real life fairy tale of a privileged medieval woman who will marry only the man who can dance longer than she. We watch several contenders dance and die, until finally one dashing young man dances with the woman until she herself collapses. If this story was intended as a parallel to Lena’s story, it doesn’t work, though it helps to explain the French title Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser (No, my daughter (my girl), you won’t dance—i.e., destroy lives). By a stretch, we might connect Anton’s attempted suicide as his ill-fated dance with his mother.

Technically the movie was excellent as were the performances. Mastroianni plays a convincing role of a woman stressed beyond her mind’s ability to cope, and the consequences of that—the incremental steps to breakdown. There is no indication that Lena’s family knows how to get professional help for their collapsed daughter-sibling. The movie ends with Lena alone to work out her problems, but how, and at what cost to her children? The movie, like the family’s love, loyalty, and support, lacks strength and resolution.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Everyone Else

Directed by Maren Ade

(Germany, 2009)

This new film by Maren Ade captures the tedium of summer vacations when regular responsibilities disappear and all that’s left is self-entertainment. When young Germans, Chris and Gitta—who met in a disco not long before—share a two-week vacation in Sardinia in the bourgeois home of Chris’s parents, the languid days create space for all the cracks in their relationship to surface. Chris (Lars Eidinger) is an ambitious architect with aesthetic ideals, now suffering depression because the architectural world finds his work too complex—he can’t get a job, or one he’s willing to take. Gitta (Birgit Minichmayr) is a feisty, funky, emotionally unbalanced and immature record label publicist. She’s likable, whereas Chris’s conceit makes him less likable. They are an incongruous couple that got involved as a result of instant physical attraction at a disco. Thus they are like most young lovers, and the movie is a trip down memory lane for lovers of any era. It’s about male-female relationships that start out one way and end up another, because over time, inevitably, grievances and dislikes arise. Some couples might have more interests, social class, or education in common than Chris and Gitta, but they won’t be spared the same kinds of conflict depicted in the movie.

Another couple, Hans and Sana, juxtapose Chris and Gitta. They come from Chris’s bourgeois world with its “polite” conventions that everyone follows. Gitta is different. She comes from the bohemian art world where brash but honest self-expression is acceptable. She’s an embarrassment to Chris, which throws her into confusion, causes her to lose her self-confidence as a woman in love. The audience is on her side—who would want to be like Hans and Sana, or Chris for that matter? Yet we wouldn’t want to be like Gitta either—her world is too half-baked and emotionally volatile. She’s satisfied to pursue pleasures in life—discos, alcohol, boat rides, sex, anything that stimulates the senses. So the movie passes the vacation days with the couple expressing passion and love followed by deep, irreconcilable breaches. The pattern continues to the last lights of the movie, for once again, in the last scene, Gitta opens her heart and arms to Chris instead of saying goodbye. He has already destroyed her but true to life she cannot set herself free just yet. Also true to life, the detested woman has propped up her man; Gitta’s energy, enthusiasm for life, and practicality (female qualities in a relationship) give Chris the push he needs to accept a local renovation job beneath his talents and ideals. Once he starts, he finds he likes the work and his motivation returns. His future has launched.

This is a movie for young audiences who love to see themselves and their relationship issues through lovers like Chris and Gitta. Additionally, at the film’s climatic moment, the couple’s complete act of love from start to finish may keep them breathless. Filming coitus graphically raises questions: why do humans like to sit in chairs as a group and watch bodies thump around until climax? Sex is so very intimate, between two people, and when performed for viewers, who watch hungrily, the intimacy is lost. Are there members of the audience like me, who don’t want to watch the arena version of sex? It loses its beauty. But obviously there’s a voyeur market out there or filmmakers wouldn’t turn out so many graphic sex scenes. In contrast, Zefferelli’s post-coitus scene of naked Romeo next to tender Juliet spellbinds. It tingles with beauty, with the moment of lost virginity for both. Chris and Gitta in no way melt our hearts the way Romeo and Juliet do, so that their sex, which is part of their pattern of love-dislike, fails to draw us in with romantic rapture.

Nevertheless, the story of Chris and Gitta is a real one and timeless. Couples intimate behavior hasn’t evolved. Besides the film’s mismatched couple theme and its passion-at-first, fault-finding-later theme, it also shows the male ego and its innate programming to crush a female partner, partly in response to the female’s strength, practicality, and ability to take on life. After the crushing, the ego regrets and doesn’t want to be abandoned, doesn’t want to lose its support. Everyone Else does a good job depicting relationships.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved



Directed by Jordan Scott
(Ireland-U.K.-Spain, 2009)

Jordan Scott’s debut feature Cracks about an English girls boarding school in 1934 flows seamlessly with impeccable cinematic qualities, but lacks depth and originality. The omnipresent music by Javier Navarrete washes over every scene with insipid melodrama and becomes a distraction. It and the screenplay, based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, cast a romantic pall over the film. From the opening scene of a dingy drifting on a country lake with a beautiful, erotic teacher (Eva Green) languidly mentoring her most talented young pupil (June Temple), everything is overdone from the setting to the costumes and make-up. An audience should not be troubled by thoughts such as: would girls in a prisonlike boarding school wear that much make-up? Would their uniforms and other outfits look that new and pressed?

The story is too predictable, perhaps because famous (and more important) stories have preceded it—A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and The Dead Poets Society. We know from the arrival of the new girl—a noblewoman, Fiamma, from Spain (Maria Valverde)—that disaster is going to happen. Fiamma exceeds her schoolmates and teacher in both beauty and talent. Will Miss G kill her because she can’t possess her, or will the jealous girls commit the deed? Suspense, like the scenario, is tacked on professionally but without originality. The lack of character development contributes to contrivance. Miss G who rigorously trains her girls (a group of ten) to be fiercely independent and unafraid of life has a complex past that is never revealed but could have been, perhaps in flashbacks that slowly make her insanity comprehensible and also deepen her character. Without such development we watch a paperdoll world that is beautifully appointed with costumes and atmospheres.

The girls high-diving into frigid mountain water—Miss G’s training technique—forms the movie’s pivotal center, and luckily, because it’s interesting to watch. As the girls soar off their perch, sail gracefully through the air, and then pierce the water—often filmed in slow motion—the moment is mesmerizing. We can even forget the implausibility of such training in hilly England in 1934.

Miss G’s hammering away of ideology to her protégés serves as the film’s intellectual theme. She is always preaching to them: Girls, stand up and be yourselves, trust yourselves, go with your desires, make your dreams come true. Your relentless physical training will release the body from the mind: Don’t think, do!

As the audience of Cracks, we periodically wonder why Miss G is always on the sidelines coaching. She is young. Where or how did her life derail to bring her to the remote girls school where she isn’t doing, or even training her body. Her cigarette smoking is one of her principal characteristics. In one scene, the school’s headmistress hints at knowing the dark secrets of Miss G’s past. She points to an old class photo on the wall, suggesting that Miss G herself attended the school; but the clue is murky with inaudible lines.

The ending lacks credence. Would the headmistress lack moral conscience to the degree of covering up a murder to save her school’s reputation? Maybe, but her switch to a diabolical mentality was sudden and out of character. Then, the young rebel Di—looking prim and determined—sails off, purportedly to Spain, to tell the truth about what really happened to Fiamma. It’s a bit ridiculous.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

White Meadows

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

(Iran, 2009)

A New Mythology?

Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows tells new stories, new myths, at least to the Western world, and these shocking episodes take place in a diaphanous white white world of sea, sand, sky, and islands of craggy rock. This all-pervasive landscape creates a mysterious, ominous, and inescapable dwelling place—ironically a prison—for the ignorant, superstitious, and black-attired islanders, who follow barbaric traditions tied to nature and survival. For instance, rains haven’t come for months, so that on one of the islands a human sacrifice is made to appease the sea, which is angry at the sky and preventing the clouds from raining. This is a salt-world, everything is overly and unbearably salty, shrouded in white, the sea and sky barely distinguishable from one another, the stillness of such monotony as to cause insanity.

In such a primitive, isolated, and confined existence (of infinite boundaries!), human discomfort and suffering lead to superstition and myths. Unanswered for the audience is the looming question: Is this world real? Is there really a circumscribed island-cosmos out there where civilization is at such an embryonic stage that these barbaric acts take place? Yes, to the stoning of a teenage boy, but what about the bridal bier for the most beautiful girl in the Bedouin-like community, who is set adrift in the sea to appease its anger? And what of the handicapped village dwarf on another island, who is sent down a well carrying jangling jars that contain the villagers’ spoken confessions? If he doesn’t deliver the jars to the fairy at the bottom and get back out of the well before the sun rises, then all will be lost. He doesn’t even reach the bottom before the sun comes up, and the village leader cuts the rope to which he’s attached.

Constructed like the Odyssey, The White Meadows follows the slow-motion routine of a central character, a kind of shaman named Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi). His job is to make the rounds of the islands and collect the tears of all the inhabitants in a tiny phial, presumably to relieve their sorrows and in some instances to heal or to create a miracle. His oars on a dilapidated dingy lap the water slowly through the white shroud until an island comes into view. At his first stop—where a beautiful girl has died and needs to be removed from the island, because even as a corpse she tortures the men’s libidos—we hear a cry not unlike that of a seabird: “He is coming!” This heralding of Rahmat’s approach sets the stage for symbols throughout the movie, many of which are never explained. “He is coming!” suggests not only a Messiah in the form of Rahmat, but also conveys humankind’s need for hope in spiritual saviors “who arrive.”

Throughout the rituals performed by each island’s inhabitants, the film unrelentingly reiterates the desolate (and yet ineffably beautiful) landscape, the unarable, barely habitable whiteness dotted with black figures fated to live there. At the climax of each barbaric act against a fellow villager (justified with “congratuations” to those who lose the family member), vocal music breaks out to the skies, intensifying the horrific human act.

A lady’s sandal turns up on the beach and symbolizes why the sea has become saltier, for it matches another shoe stashed in a demented woman’s black bag. Symbols provide answers for everything in the White Meadows universe. Later, when Rahmat makes his last stop on the island of a wealthier client, where greenery and his own motorbike exist, the hostess leaves the room, and we see she is wearing the same sandals that had been matched up earlier. But the riddle, or connection, or miracle, is unexplained. Similarly, Rahmat takes on a castaway teenager who says he wants to find his father who left when he himself was too young to know what he looked like. All he knows is that his father was a shepherd. The boy goes on to be punished for trying to rescue the bride sent adrift to sea. Rahmat is able to cut short the stoning and row away with the boy unconscious in his boat. He comes to another island, where a painter is being tortured by villagers because he saw the sea as red and painted it that way. Rahmat takes the painter away on his boat with the unconscious boy. The islander who sees them off asks, “What’s at the far end of this sea?”—underscoring the perpetual exile of the archipelago’s inhabitants.

Rahmat brings the boy and the painter to yet another island where a wild-looking man lives in a box tower on top of a towering rock, with numerous ladders leading down to the beach (reminiscent of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel). It’s like a watchtower, and indeed, as this vignette unfolds, the wild man with long white hair and scant clothing proves to be the keeper of heavy chains and ropes. Worse, he presides over a sea-grave, where hatlike tins bob on the water—a whole cemetery of hats bobbing. Is this horrible place real or imagined? What are all the stories behind the bobbing markers? Is this a grave for prisoners or islanders in general?

Are the White Meadows’ vignettes new myths featuring a crude though caring character (Rahmat) for their Odysseus? And if so, what is the message in these new myths with their antihero? The cemetery keeper in the Brueghel tower has gone insane from his isolation and begs Rahmat to stay the night. We see the dimly lit tower from the outside and hear the weeping and desperate outpourings of the keeper: “I don’t want to live alone here anymore, I want to go home, I want to go back to my sheep.” Could this be the boy’s shepherd father that he had hoped to find? If so, it’s too late, for during the night the boy has died in his chains on the beach. From the man in the tower, Rahmat has collected a large bottle of tears—no mere phial.

He pushes off to his last destination—a larger, upper-class home with a single painting on the wall and carpets on the floor to indicate its elevation; it’s the home of the woman wearing the matched-up sandals. She wheels in her octogenarian father of lordly status, and Rahmat pours the bottle of tears over his arthritic feet resting in a basin. Then the woman wheels the old man away. Rahmat pours the tears in the basin back into his bottle. In the last scene he empties the bottle into the sea.

Is it symbolic that the sufferings and tears of the poor and primitive islanders are poured over the feet of the rich man who lives in paltry vegetation and comfort compared to the others’ wasteland? As an audience we aren’t helped with the meaning of such actions and we are too foreign from the history and traditions of Iran to make ready connections.

The superlative filming of the vignettes creates gripping suspense, even though the actual atmosphere is deathly still, oppressive in its monotony, and intensified by the rocky island surfaces, hostile to human life. Aguirre, the Wrath of God similarly created tension in its quiet, sinister floating down the river. In White Meadows the atmosphere isn’t sinister but horrifically cruel and justified by hypocrisies. As a new mythology (or is it old?), the film terrifies while attaining cinematic heights; but isn’t this is what famous fairy tales do in both oral and prose form? Inevitably, audiences of The White Meadows will come away wondering how much of these fairy tales is true to contemporary life in a hidden part of the world.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Cold Weather

Directed by Aaron Katz

(USA, 2009)

Nothing could feel more ordinary or bland than the lives of Doug (Cris Lankenau) and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Doug has dropped out of his forensic studies in Chicago and returns home to Portland, Oregon, to get an apartment with his sister Gail. Sparse, banal dialogue exchanges between Doug, his sister, and their parents are incredibly realistic. Average American families talk like this—not particularly articulately, vaguely, avoiding mention of any inner troubles. Doug even appears mentally strange in the first scenes, but so do a lot of people, especially in the Pacific Northwest where convention barely exists. Unlike many drifters, Doug gets a job in an ice factory, demonstrating that he can be employed, go to work on time, and form a friendship with his fellow employee Carlos (Raúl Castillo). Then, Chris’s ex-girlfriend Rachel shows up in town, ostensibly for job training. One night, Carlos and Rachel come over to play cards with Gail and Doug, and then on another night, the foursome goes to hear Carlos as a DJ at his moonlighting job. Everything we watch on the screen is low key, mundane, humdrum, incredibly true to life. As Doug and Carlos chat at work, we learn more about Doug’s past intention to become a detective. Carlos borrows one of Doug’s Sherlock Holmes books and reads it overnight, surprising Doug. Then Carlos asks permission to go to a Star Trek convention with Rachel, and Doug assures him he has no problem with it—Rachel is no longer his girlfriend.

Thirty minutes or so into the film the audience is still watching with the kind of vague interest portrayed on the screen itself—the vague, wishy-washy world that’s so recognizable as mainstream America, especially Pacific Northwest America, where frenzied, ambitious energy subsides to barely a ripple. In itself, this is good enough material to think about, but remarkably, something else happens—a plot. Carlos wakes up Doug in the middle of the night, because Rachel is missing and he knows something is wrong. Suddenly, the latent Sherlock Holmes in Doug awakens, supported by Carlos who liked reading Conan Doyle. Together, the self-styled sleuths search Rachel’s motel room for clues and actually find some that Doug has to decipher. He takes sick days from work to solve the mystery of Rachel, and when Carlos returns to work, Gail takes up the slack. Doug buys a pipe to puff on to help him think, because a pipe had helped Sherlock.

Throughout this denouement of solving the Rachel mystery, which involves the sex trade and a briefcase full of cash, the audience has anxiety—shouldn’t these amateur detectives call the police with the clues they’ve gathered? No, maybe the police will blame the young men for Rachel’s disappearance, afterall they’ve entered her motel room with a witness (the motel’s night manager) and they’ve left their fingerprints everywhere. Later on, as Doug and Gail manage to solve the crime and make things right again, the audience wonders if their rash, heroic actions could really have taken place. A small voice answers: maybe, because people are crazy and do crazy things just like Doug and Gail, and maybe even more so in the Pacific Northwest. It’s better for the audience not to think beyond the curtain closing on that final scene of hometown, homespun success, because what happens to Rachel later—in the criminal world she’s chained herself to—remains worrisome.

This is a good movie. One wonders if foreign audiences, or other Americans unfamiliar with Portland or the Northwest, would appreciate all the nuances. Not that it would matter, just as we miss nuances in Sicilian or other foreign films. Enjoyment happens for story, character, and originality, and Cold Weather has these qualities in strong, understated measure. It leaves the impression of emerging from an “underground” tradition.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved