Sunday, January 29, 2017

20th Century Women (and Men)

What a rich movie!—adolescence, parent-child relationships, womanhood, manhood, family support, love, sadness, grief, American culture—and delivering this feast through imaginative film technique. Like The Big Chill, relationships, individual states of being, and personal conversations form the core of Mike Mills 20th Century Women (loosely based on his own life). The title pertains to the 15-year-old protagonist Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann’s) world of older women guiding him—his 55-year-old mother Dorothea (Annette Benning), his 17-year-old closest friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and the 24-year-old tenant in the house Abbie (Greta Gerwig). But the film is also about 20th-century men—and in both cases American women and men—for our particular culture and history have shaped us. The movie integrates old film reels, TV clips, photos, memorabilia, and magazine illustrations to set various eras: Dorothea’s ’30s and ’40s (Depression and WWII), William’s ’60s (hippie, commune days), and the film’s 1979 period with the Talking Heads and other clashing bands in the soundtrack, which includes in contrast Dorothea’s mellow music of the past.
The film deftly handles bringing us instantly into the souls of all the characters through changing voice overs—Dorothea saying what giving birth to Jamie meant to her, Jamie saying the same from his viewpoint, and the other characters, all of whom live in Dorothea’s crumbling, Santa Barbara mansion, adding their life stories and perspectives at appropriate times. While these voice overs educate us about the characters—in the same fast staccato tempo of the film clips—we watch present-day action (teens careening wildly in a bar or in a moonlit park) interchanging with the flashback segments.
This periodic, fast-clicking of images mirrors a camera shutter, and the fast motion gives the film a virtual component, a contemporary, digitally manipulated look. Car scenes driving California’s coastal road speed up like a video game, with psychedelic colors tinging the landscape. Julie’s motif of climbing up the house’s scaffolding to sneak into Jamie’s room each night, and then down the scaffolding the next morning, has the same fast-motion, computerized look. Delightfully, we are given snapshot epilogues for each character when the film ends, generally positive outcomes, or as positive as “sad life” can get.
Such filming techniques add visual and creative stimulation, but the film’s real focus and heart are in the people who live in the bohemian household and ultimately form a loving, supportive family to each other.
We are treated to fine acting that penetrates our emotions, elicits our involvement, and makes us reflect, and also laugh. Each scene is about “the individual”—his or her unique, baffling experience in life that no one else can share despite the longing to relate and be understood by another—the longing for interpersonal fusion that lasts. But it doesn’t, it never can, because that’s life. Characters are the force in this movie, and the actors ability to use their faces alone to reveal their deepest inner workings is remarkable. Dorothea’s complex character—memorably portrayed in Benning’s intense, brooding, cigarette-smoking face, parallels Jamie’s choice in love, Julie, who won’t have sex with him because it would ruin their friendship; both women are equally complex and unreachable, despite the tangible love-energy in both these male-female relationships. Dorothea clinches this similarity at the end of the movie when she says to Jamie, “Julie’s a complicated woman to take on, I’m impressed in a way.”
The movie is about adolescence and how parents and children exist in different spheres during those rocky, self-discovery years, and when love and caring are present—as they are with Jamie and Dorothea—how the two sides hurt as they try to communicate and accept each other but without much success. We are shown how the moments of pure unity and mutual understanding happen rarely and are to be treasured forever, for in any relationship such transient communion is true to life, true to love, and we can’t ask for more. In 20th Century Women, the five characters know this truth, and that’s the sad tinge to their lives, to all our lives. As Dorothea says to Jamie in their one moment of happy closure: “I guess I just wanted you to have more—a happier life than mine.” A classic parent wish.
Jamie is “raised” by women, but as we make our way through the film we understand that Jamie also makes himself. He is the one who wants to read Sisterhood Is Powerful and Our Bodies Ourselves—it’s not forced on him. He is the one who decides for himself to accompany Abbie to her important cervical cancer follow-up meeting, and he sticks by her when she gets the news that the surgery left an “incompetent cervix,” so that she shouldn’t have children. He listens to Julie in bed each night as she relates her sexual escapades and feelings. He asks her what an orgasm is like for women. He takes the initiative in buying a pregnancy test for her and seeing her through the results—negative. On several occasions he tries to get his mother to open up and talk to him about herself: “Why are you alone? Why aren’t you happy?” They are both caregivers but in different ways because of their ages and roles. And Dorothea has difficulty sharing herself. Jamie, true to his generation, has an easier time. When he explains his “errant” actions to his mystified mother, he says, “I want to be a good guy, I want to be able to satisfy a woman.” For any woman watching that scene, Jamie symbolizes the best in a twentieth-century American man.
William, the hippie, ceramicist, house-renovator tenant in his thirties is also a good and sympathetic man to women and part of the household’s communal, loving support, but he doesn’t have Jamie’s special depth. He’s partly along for the ride wherever it takes him, a free spirit, a flower child. We see this in some of the movie’s funniest, theater-of-the-absurd scenes, where Abbie plays the key role. When she goes to William’s room and asks if he wants to fool around with her, and he says, “Really? . . . yah . . . I do,” the timing is exquisite. This kind of hilarity happens again at one of Dorothea’s regular dinner parties when Abbie makes everyone say aloud the unutterable word “menstruation,” which leads to the semblance of a group therapy session where some of the characters open up about their sex lives. William butts in at the end of the surreal scene to say: “Jamie, remember, you can’t just have sex with a vagina, you have to have sex with the whole woman.” Another time, Abbie comes into Jamie’s bedroom to tell him about her drunken brawl at the bar, and Julie’s head pops up on the other side of Jamie. Abbie tries to block Julie’s eyes and ears as she whispers adamantly to Jamie: “You can’t continue letting her sleep here if she refuses to have sex with you. It’s disempowering.”
            When mother and son have their single moment of pure connection, Jamie asks, “Were you and Dad ever in love?” And Dorothea answers, “Sure . . . or um . . . maybe I thought I was supposed to be in love and scared I’d never be in love. I picked the best solution at the time.” Jamie gets his answer, but it’s also an answer for all of us about the complicated relationship of love. In this heartfelt, imaginatively created movie, we bask in eccentric but real people and real moments—we experience ourselves in a timeless, placeless way. But no matter when or where, love permeates.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Dragon Arrives!


Featured at the Boston Festival of Films from Iran, January 18-29, Museum of Fine Arts,

Dragons are from legends, from myths, from superstition, and in Mani Haghighi’s new film the title sets the stage for the story we will try to follow as challenged art-film enthusiasts. The plot—a concoction of genres—requires utter attention to the dialogue, which comes to us in speedy subtitles that flash unfamiliar names like Babak Hafizi, Behnam Shokouhi, Keyvan Haddad, Saeed Jahangiri, and Shahrzad Besharat. The names flash as either first or last names depending on the scene, so it’s difficult to remember who is who. The plot unravels via the dialogue, some of it reportage in a faux documentary style, with the director Haghighi being interviewed about how he discovered the story and made the movie. The film’s opening credits poke fun at the currently popular trend of “Based on a true story.” Those who thrive on mind-bender plots like Inception will be thrilled to take on this movie.

Qualities in Dragon mirror qualities in other Iranian films of a mythical character, White Meadows (Rasoulof 2009) coming to mind, though in Dragon the contemporary world integrates thoroughly with the primitive, superstitious, cult-following villagers on the island of Qeshm, where political exiles are sent. The three protagonists from Tehran—Babak, Keyvan, and Behnam—who investigate the island’s haunted cemetery prone to geologically impossible earthquakes, dress in Western garb in contrast to the turbaned, scarved, robed villagers. Charaki, the island’s government agent originally from Tehran, dresses like Babak in a tie and Homburg hat. But he’s lived so long among the villagers that he keeps their secrets from the regime. Suits and Homburgs on the island’s barren landscape of tawny, cavernous mountains clash with the primitive environment, but they also symbolize the vast chasm between the modern world and the island’s tribal rituals, superstition, and magic.

The movie’s predominant plot conundrum needles the mind to work out its puzzle, which is more difficult for non-Iranian audiences because of nods to cultural traditions and the Farsi language translated in fleeting subtitles. In fact, the plot is simple, linear, straightforward, but it’s ingeniously woven into politics, hallucinations, unrealities, flashbacks and flash forwards, changing genres, and an overarching atmosphere of a fantasy quest not unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that legend or fairy tale quality—mixed with eerie horror motifs and evil characters (Charaki and Almas)—creates suspense. The haunted cemetery in the nowhere land of ghostly mountains, dominated by a fantastical shipwreck littered with vestiges of former dwellers, transports us to the imaginary realm where bizarre phenomena occur.

The modern world intrudes to solve a crime: a young political prisoner (Samei) hanging from the rafters of the shipwreck only days before his release. Charaki tells Babak, sent by the intelligence agency to investigate, that it was a suicide, but Babak can see from the neck wounds that it was a murder. He tells Charaki he’ll spend the night in the shipwreck to read the dead prisoner’s books and scrawled gibberish on the walls. He also insists that the body be buried in the cemetery just outside the ship, despite Charaki’s warning that any body buried there causes an earthquake. The place is considered haunted and villagers won’t go near it. No one has been buried there for one hundred years. Babak asserts he isn’t afraid and orders the body to buried. As the night descends over the deserted, horribly eerie shipwreck, Babak settles on his cot to read and moments later an earthquake shatters the walls above his head.

Babak returns to Tehran to enlist the help of two experts—geologist Benham and sound engineer Keyvan—to solve the earthquake mystery. These two specialists first want assurance that Babak is not working for the intelligence agency. Here, with the subtitles telling the whole story in a shifting, patchwork way, audiences may lose the thread of who Babak, and his boss Saeed Jahanjiri, really are, for on the surface they appear as agents of the secret police. But dialogue and documentary reportage tell us they are actually members of a counterintelligence group known as Hozvaresh, led by Jahanjiri. Babak, Jahanjiri, and their cohorts use an arcane writing system to pass secrets to all of the country’s opposition organizations, whether communist, nationalist, or factional Islamic groups.

The plot further entangles itself through its documentary genre. The film’s director, Mani Haghighi, tells his interviewer how he first found out about the cemetery story through the contents of a metal box that showed up in his grandfather’s closet. We then watch black-and-white footage from his grandfather Ebrahim Golestan’s movie, Brick and the Mirror, which shows Keyvan working as sound engineer. Haghighi tells us that Keyvan disappeared during the shoot in 1964. It is the myriad plot detours like this—executed through shifting voices under interrogation, documentary interviews, live action, and mystery tapes turning up—that the simplicity of the plot becomes obscured. At the same time, it is all these clever accoutrements and genre layering that make the movie compelling.

No dragon ever arrives—the one supposedly living under the cemetery and causing the quakes. But a camel appears twice and symbolizes Babak’s hallucinogenic clairvoyance related to the disappearance of the murdered prisoner’s lover, Halimeh. In both cases, Babak’s encounter with the vision of a camel (who represents Halimeh’s mother) leads to the rescue of Halimeh’s infant daughter Valileh, who then appears twenty years later in the documentary part of the movie, adding a fresh piece of evidence to the story—the last puzzle piece. At the end of the movie, when music clashes and clangs loudly like the primitive village colliding with modern Tehran, we hear the baying of a camel mixed in. His voice was part of bringing truth to the fore.

The Dragon’s plot can only be understood through words, but the film’s visual aura, its fantastical, spooky setting and atmosphere keep us mesmerized: the Arabian Nights interior of the shipwreck—lit by a thousand candles—the crackling campfires in the cemetery at night, the tribal rituals with a skinned goat, the ghost-story music permeated with evil, and the supernatural noises and occurrences that mix with hallucinogenic experiences. Although films should be understood through their visual content, and Dragon cannot be understood without its language, the movie is a grand visual work of masterly filmmaking.

Cast: Amir Jadidi as Babak Hafizi, Ehsan Goudarzi as Keyvan Haddad, Homayoun Ghanizadeh as Behnam Shokouhi, Kiana Tajammol as Shahrzad Besharat, Ali Bagheri as Charaki, and as Kamran Safamanesh as Saeed Jahangiri

The Salesman

Featured at the Boston Festival of Films from Iran, January 18-29, Museum of Fine Arts

Asghar Farhadi’s new film The Salesman is a dark and deep exploration of traumatic personal violation, and how it affects close relationships in the aftermath. Similar to his Oscar-winning The Separation (2011), in which the familiar human experience of divorce takes place within Iranian-Islamic culture, The Salesman examines the universal of “personal violation” within the same framework—characters view and deal with “female temptation” according to their traditions, but all humans share the same gut response to right and wrong.

As an audience, exploring the realm of personal violation isn’t a pleasant experience, but The Salesman’s fine craftsmanship makes it possible, from sympathetic characters, to compelling scene changes and suspense, to integrating Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, in which the two young protagonists—husband and wife actors Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti)—perform as Willy and Linda during the weeks of their “violation” ordeal.

The movie begins as Emad and Rana move into a new apartment found by their play’s director Babak (Babak Karimi), but it quickly evolves that the former tenant, whose belongings are still in a room waiting to be picked up, was a prostitute. The neighbors mention how glad they are she is gone. Emad angrily confronts Babak about knowingly sending them to a contaminated bedroom like that, and his outrage is one of the numerous manifestations of Iranian morality in the film.

As the couple unpacks and settles in, one of the prostitute’s clients (Mojgan) enters the apartment and gravely injures Rana while she’s taking a shower, but he does not rape her. In fact, her head injury, caused by his temptation of seeing her flesh, may have been accidental, because as flees the scene of broken glass and blood, he leaves her a wad of money in compensation. He also forgets his cell phone and car keys. The rest of the movie concerns how Rana, Emad, Babak, and the new neighbors deal in different ways with the terrifying violation that has occurred.

Islam’s view of women and modesty influences some of the characters’ reactions, as Rana and the neighbors don’t want to go to the police because that would cause the story to become public: Rana’s naked body exposed to a man, including a second man, the neighbor, who rescued her in her unconscious state. Rana, traumatized, has nowhere to go for psychological help for the same reason—shame, modesty—and her terror of being left alone is so acute that she follows Emad on his errands or to his day-job as a high school teacher; at first she is also too disoriented to resume her role of Linda in Death of a Salesman. Emad is her only source of succor, and she refuses to let him go to the police—his choice for dealing with the crime. Their relationship develops deep stress as a result. Since the police aren’t going to be the means for Emad to resolve his own sense of violation, he must deal with justice—and his burning feelings of revenge—on his own. His method of punishing the aging, ailing perpetrator Mojgan, whom he tracks down, follows cultural norms: he will force Mojgan to admit his guilt to his family—that shame and humiliation breaks the spirit.

The movie explores the psychological effects of violation but also of being a victim. Rana’s a victim, Emad’s a victim, and in the end the Mojgan is Emad’s victim. Ultimately, we viewers digest what we already know: how unresolvable the emotions of personal violation and victimization are. They live and churn relentlessly, destructively, within us; they distract and disorganize the mind and create misery. Revenge is longed for but it can’t alleviate horrific emotion and memory, nor can justice; no remedy exists for the broiling, excruciating turmoil inside the sufferer. In Rana’s case, choosing the path of forgiveness and mercy—an act of submission and letting the guilty go free—is the only salve that might give her back a life, but is it a perpetually haunted life?

Rana and Emad are not only permanently affected by violation and victimization, each in his and her own way, but they also can never be the same couple they once were. They might survive as a couple—that’s left ambiguous—but if they do, they are changed people. Emad is harder, almost a symbol of the regime’s moral authority—he no longer laughs easily with his students but holds them rigidly to the book; ironically, as an actor once in the opposition camp, he has become like the censors. Rana has become the vision of Mary in the Pietà. We feel as “Willy and Linda” look at each other on the stage in the movie’s last minutes that the true people within those characters are diametrically opposed. This juxtapositioning of a woman’s nature as forgiving and man’s as tougher not only reflects another Islamic belief but generally, and true to the movie as a whole, a universal trait.

This handsomely shot and crafted film is all gloom and doom, yet at the same time, it speaks of a classic human experience.