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November 24, 2015


with A Note on Documentary Filmmaking

Des glaneuses1857, Jean-François Millet  
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Just as portraiture is the original mode of photography, so documentary is the original mode of moving pictures. A movie camera records an event in motion: a trolley barreling down a street, an athlete tumbling through space. The earliest documentaries, due to late-19th century technical limitations, could capture only a few moments in time, but as technological improvements freed recording duration, newsreels became a staple of the first couple decades of the 20th century. The one I always think of as serving the dual purposes of recording an important event for posterity and screening an event as news, is the solemn funeral cortège of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, after his assassination in Sarajevo, the spark that ignited World War I.

Funeral cortège of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, July 4, 1914 
From that time on, influenced by circumstances of wars, world-wide economic depression, fascism, the Cold War, natural disasters, and political and civil unrest, journalistic photographers and documentarians have worked at developing an ethic for how to present the world as it is. Between 1907 and 1930, Edward S. Curtis pursued his photographic opus, The North American Indian. In the interim, movie travelogues of exotic lands (sometimes called scenics) like Curtis's 1914 In the Land of the Headhunters, gained in popularity. Curtis composed his filmic scenes just as he composed his still photographs, tableaux for the camera carefully constructed just as models and objects had been  for paintings. Robert J. Flaherty took broader liberties in his romanticized 1922 Nanook of the North, subtitled "A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic."

Subsequent filmmakers took issue with Flaherty's artifice, giving rise to avant-garde movements in the 1920s that professed to a higher documentary truth. Arguably, the most notable of these was the Russian director Dziga Vertov, whose Kino-Pravda group -- literally "Film Truth" -- produced a newsreel series, sometimes with a hidden camera, that focused on everyday experiences and, for the most part, eschewed reenactments. Vertov's 1929, 68-minute Man with a Movie Camera was a visual manifesto of his political and aesthetic cinematic philosophy: to present "life as it is," "life caught unawares," yet he did so, with the valiant efforts of his wife Elizaveta Svilova in the critical role of film editor, through some of the most arresting effects ever committed to film.

With the economic disruptions of the late '20s and early '30s through the war-time trauma of the '40s, fascistic and leftist ideologues alike employed the documentary mode for propagandistic purposes, e.g., Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 Triumph of the Will for the Third Reich and Frank Capra's 1942-1944 series Why We Fight for the United States government.

Poster for Dziga Vertov's 1929
Man with a Movie Camera
In 1955, ten years after the Allied liberation of Europe that ended World War II, Alain Resnais, a central figure in the French New Wave movement, made the hauntingly melancholic reverie on Hitler's concentration camps, Night and Fog. Night and Fog might be called an anti-propaganda film, diametrically opposed to the agitprop of government commissioned "documentaries." Resnais worked in collaboration with Jean Cayrol who had himself survived the Mauthausen-Gusen camp. The film is divided into 12 sections beginning with contemporary footage of the abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek camps, eerie in their silence, and proceeding with stock footage, first from Nazi documentation and then from U.S. Allied forces documentary records. The effect is a chilling indictment of the SS and a reverent testament to the interred. Nothing so jarring as a reenactment mars Resnais's supplication to conscience.

Technical advances -- light-weight, quiet handheld cameras and portable synchronized sound capabilities -- encouraged post-World War II filmmakers to approach documentary filmmaking in new ways. In the 1950s, French anthropologist Jean Rouch developed a film philosophy of Cinéma Vérité, which sought to impose an ethic on the line between fictionalization and documentary in a style now called ethnofiction (enthnographic docufiction). The difference between Rouch's approach and what Flaherty had done in Nanook was that Flaherty's dramatization served to romanticize (melodramaticize, if you will) his subjects whereas Rouch's dramatizations served the loftier aim of political indictment. Rouch's 1958 Moi, un noir is considered a seminal work of ethnographic storytelling and is hailed as one of the signal influences on the French New Wave movement, whose auteur directors were emerging simultaneously: François Truffaut's The 400 Blows was released in 1959 and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless in 1960. Rouch insisted, in a way that Curtis had not acknowledged, that the very presence of the filmmaker interferes with the documentary record he is attempting to capture -- cameraman as de facto agent provocateur, so to speak.

In North America, Direct Cinema grew out of Rouch's influence and his concerns regarding reality in relationship to the inevitable manipulations of the filmmaker. Yet, whereas Cinéma Vérité often involved staging, even provoking subjects, Direct Cinema's aim was for subject and viewing audience alike to have no awareness of the camera's presence, and one way to lessen the sense of the intrusive filmmaker was to eliminate the voice-over narrator.

Direct Cinema was born in 1958 when the National Film Board of Canada released Québécois Michel Brault and Giles Groulx's Les raquetteurs, which documents a convention of snowshoers in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Les raquetteurs and Groulx's 1961 Golden Gloves, about three Montreal boxers in training, had a direct impact on the British-born Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles in the United States. Leacock's  first documentary, Toby and the Tall Corn, aired in 1954 on CBS's Omnibus, where Leacock met Robert Drew, an editor at Life magazine who specialized in the candid still picture essay. Drew was interested in a less verbal approach to television reportage, without interviews. Together Leacock and Drew interfaced a tape recorder and a mobile quartz camera with the design of an Accutron watch (which uses a 360 hertz tuning fork instead of a balance wheel as the timekeeping mechanism), thereby enabling them to synchronize the two machines without cables.

In "Richard Leacock: Bearing Witness," Brian Winston, who has written extensively on documentary and ethics, says, "Leacock was the catalyst for the development of the m  odern documentary, liberating the camera from the tripod and abandoning the tyranny of the perfectly stable, perfectly lit shot – as well as the straitjacket of ‘voice of god’ commentary."

Drew formed Drew Associates, which produced Primary in 1960 (shot by Leacock and Albert Maysles and edited by Pennebaker) "the first film in which the sync-sound motion picture camera was able to move freely with characters throughout a breaking story," John F. Kennedy's and Hubert Humphrey's respective Democratic primary campaigns in Wisconsin. Seven years later, in 1967 (the same year he shot the footage for Monterey Pop), Pennebaker's monumental portrait of Bob Dylan, Dont Look Back (created from footage shot in 1965), would be released.

Albert Maysles was a psychology professor at Boston University and head of a research project at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1955, CBS gave him a camera with which to record a research project abroad. The resulting film was the drably titled Psychiatry in Russia. His younger brother David also studied psychology at Boston University but began working as a Hollywood production assistant in the mid-1950s. By 1957, the brothers had become a team, shooting documentaries behind the Iron Curtain. In 1960, they joined the burgeoning Drew Associates. The Maysles are best known for Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975), though their combined individual filmographies, along with their collaborations, reveal a staggeringly impressive oeuvre. Among my favorites is Running Fence (with Charlotte Zwerin), which chronicles the challenges Christo and Jeanne-Claude faced to install the 1976 environmental work in northern California.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 1976 Running Fence
Sonoma and Marin Counties, California
It is hard to measure the legacy Direct Cinema generally and Drew Associates in particular left to documentary filmmaking. As Winston notes, "Direct Cinema's style of handheld, available-light and long-take synch shooting, with no added effects, swept aside all other documentary modes for a quarter of a century, and to this day, such filming is what the public thinks of as documentary, dismissing alternatives as unethical or inauthentic."

Fourteen years after Resnais's Night and Fog, Marcel Ophüls' The Sorrow and the Pity was released in 1969. The film chronicles the collaboration between the Vichy government and Nazi Germany, and though The Sorrow and the Pity contains historical footage, its investigation relies on numerous contemporary interviews with those involved: a Jewish diplomat, a German officer, French collaborators, and resistance fighters among them. Organized into two parts, the first centers on an extended interview with Pierre Mendès France, a Jew who had been Secretary of State for Finance under France's Popular Front government and was arrested by the subsequent Vichy government. The second part centers on Christian de la Mazière, an aristocrat, journalist, and member of the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS. Though Ophüls did not associate himself with any particular documentary philosophy, he used "a characteristically sober interview style to resolve disparate experiences into a persuasive argument"* with The Sorrow and the Pity and documentaries like The Memory of Justice and Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi.

When most people think of the word "documentary," they think of the observational mode, the approach that Leacock, Drew, Pennebaker, and the Maysles played a pivotal role in establishing -- and the approach that Errol Morris would play a pivotal role in transforming. With his groundbreaking investigation into the unjust conviction and imprisonment of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer, Morris's award-winning documentary The Thin Blue Line made an indelible impact on subsequent documentarians. First, Morris again introduced reenactments but did so based on meticulous examinations of witness statements and testimony. Second, he developed a recording style that grew out of happenstance. On the day of the final interview with David Harris, the man (the film argues) who shot the officer, Morris's camera broke down. He resorted to a run-of-the-mill recorder for the interview, and for the finished cut of the film, shot a tape recorder from various angles from which he created a montage over which the voices from the tape were superimposed. From that serendipitous misfortune, Morris developed a technique he first employed in Fast Cheap and Out of Control (1997) that his wife later termed "interrotron": Morris behind a curtain staring into a camera that in turn feeds into a teleprompter-like device through which the interviewee looks directly at the camera.

In his commentary on his documentary on Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time, Morris makes a critical distinction: "You don't judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth. You judge it on whether it attempts to find the truth and makes you think about what the relationship between the movie and the truth may be. Truth is never given to us on a platter."

An intimately personal approach to the documentary has emerged with the turn of the 21st century, and just as Agnès Varda is credited as the mother of the French New Wave, we might credit her as the architect of this subjective, autobiographical approach to documentary with The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès.

One of the best recent explorations of this approach is Sarah Polley's 2013 documentary, Stories We Tell, in which Polley tries to tease out the "truth" of her mother's intimacies. "When [Polley] found her answer, and talked to her father and siblings about it," Mary Jo Murphy writes in the New York Times, "she became fascinated with how each of them was 'telling the story and embellishing the story and making the story their own.' The act of telling the story, [Polley] said, 'was changing the story itself.'"

Polley knows that most of us, “We do get stuff wrong and everything is kind of subjective. That’s part of who we are as human beings. We tell stories as well as we can but generally kind of sloppily even when we’re trying our hardest.”

Agnès Varda has always been interested in documentary, narrative realism, social commentary, and feminist concerns. Her name is legendary as one of the pioneers of the French New Wave, and her career is remarkable in the stature of her achievement not only as the only woman in a '60s movement dominated by men, but as one of its inspirations, along with cinematic modernist forerunners Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, and Alexandre Astruc.

The young Agnès Varda, c. 1960s
The French New Wave can roughly be broken into two groups, the Cahiers du Cinéma and the Rive Gauche. The Cahiers du Cinéma takes its name from the magazine founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca. As a cinematic movement, it is characterized by the director's distinctive creative vision -- "la politique des Auteurs," Truffaut called it -- and the critical evaluation of the ensuing mise en scène: a realistic visual style -- a verisimilitude of staging, blocking, lighting, set dressing, costuming, et al. -- an auteur employs to carry the narrative.

The Cahiers du Cinéma group included Claude Chabrol, Godard, Éric Rohmer, and Truffaut. Rive Gauche, or Left Bank Cinema, directors held a more traditional view of cinema as another facet of the literary arts. Though they tended to be older than their Right Bank counterparts, they too were interested in technical experimentation. The Rive Gauche group included Chris Marker, Resnais, and Varda, as well as Jean-Pierre Melville, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Both groups identified with the political left, and those political concerns emerge in the subjects their films explore. The Cahiers du Cinéma magazine became progressively political throughout the '60s until, by 1970, it reflected a decidedly Marxist ideology. It continues to be published today but with a less political agenda.

Varda's 2000 film The Gleaners and I (literally, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, meaning the gleaners and the female gleaner) is a singular documentary: part social commentary, part travelogue, part history and wide ranging art historical project. part memento mori. The Criterion Collection says Varda describes her style as cinécriture, or writing on film, "and it can be seen in formally audacious fictions like Le bonheur and Vagabond as well as more ragged and revealing documentaries like The Gleaners and I  and  The Beaches of Agnès."

My first encounter with Varda was the compelling 1985 Vagabond or Sans toit ni loi -- literally "without roof nor law," a play on the French idiom "sans foi ni loi," "without faith nor law." The film follows a peripatetic young woman, destitute and homeless, wandering the French countryside. The film opens on her frozen corpse, then flashes back to her last days. Varda approaches her desperate subject not as a picaresque literary figure but as a real young woman, alone and adrift in an indifferent landscape, sans any element of satire.

Subsequent to Vagabond, I have sought Varda out on DVD, most recently The Gleaners and I, Varda's first foray into digital film. She traversed the French countryside from September 1999 through May 2000 with a handheld camera. "These new small cameras," she says, "they are digital, fantastic. Their effects are stroboscopic, narcissistic, and even hyper-realistic."

The documentary that came out of that journey is personal in the extreme and like any meaningful art, an exploration of the universal concerns of the human condition: We all eat, we all lay waste the bounty that is ours, we all make human connections, we all hoard material objects just as we collect and preserve in memory our sense of who we are, and, of course, we all die.

As her entrée into France's breadbasket, Varda opens a lexicon, the seminal French Larousse Dictionary, where we learn the verb "glaner" (to glean) means not simply "to gather," but to gather after the harvest. The definition is accompanied by etchings after Jean-François Millet's 1857 Des glaneuses (The Gleaners), the original of which hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Varda locates the practice of gleaning historically, first, as an activity that by definition is the gathering of what has been left behind and second, as labor relegated to women and carried out among them collectively. Within this context, Varda brings her inquiry forward to our own times and mores concerning bounty and waste, indulgence and want. "In the towns of today as in the fields of yesterday, gleaners still humbly stoop to glean. But men have now joined with women in gleaning. What strikes me," Varda says of contemporary gleaners, "is that each gleans on his own. Whereas in paintings they were always in clusters, rarely alone."

Des glaneuses1857, Jean-François Millet  
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
An 1877 painting by Jules Breton at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras, is famous not only because it shows a lone figure but also because, unlike the stooping postures in other representations, Breton's gleaner stands nobly upright, her sheaves not in her apron but borne upon her shoulder. Varda visits the painting, and herself has her portrait photographed standing proudly upright with her sheaves, like Breton's La Glaneuse, across her shoulder. "There is another woman gleaning in this film, that's me (se moi)," and indeed, Varda sets out to glean the gleaners of every stripe in our own time, steering her crew south to the Beauce region between the Seine and the Loire, known as the granary of France.

La Glaneuse1877, Jules Breton 
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras
Beauce is renowned for its wheat, but "the harvest being over we'll focus on potato gleaning instead." A potato farmer tells Varda, "Some people are quite pleased when the machine malfunctions." We rely on the efficiency of contemporary harvesting equipment, but in our dependence, we sacrifice intimacy with the land. Worse, we have developed certain (some might say peculiar, even perverse) expectations about what our food should look like. A grocer explains that "In supermarkets, the firm [potatoes] are sold in containers of 5 1/2 to 11 pounds, and these have to be a specific caliber, of a specific size. So we dump anything bigger." Twenty-five tons of viable potatoes are abandoned each harvest just because, by arbitrary commercial standards, the produce is considered "misshapen." Varda is particularly taken with those "deformed" in heart shapes, which she collects to use in a lighthearted montage. Because so many potatoes are dumped, "The practice of gleaning has reappeared," a farmer explains. In a single day, volunteers for a charity salvage almost 700 pounds of perfectly good potatoes. "Same with cauliflower," another man tells Varda, "fruit and vegetables in other regions, but here it's potato country and we take what we can find."

Her crew travels to a gypsy caravan where Varda asks if they know they can legally gather dumped potatoes, and it turns out they do not. Nearby homeless people dwelling in tiny camper trailers not only glean from fields but from dumpsters behind supermarkets filled to brimming with food cleared from grocery shelves. "We're not afraid to get our hands dirty," one explains. "You can wash hands."

Varda stops to visit Édouard Loubet, "the youngest French chef to have earned two stars in the Michelin guide." Loubet owns Le Moulin de Lourmarin and Le Galinier de Lourmarin in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, but he gleans herbs and fruit for his restaurants because he wants fresh ingredients rather than refrigerated produce from Italy. Varda, by including the master chef Loubet in her film about detritus, juxtaposes the homeless with an elitist cultural attitude toward food.

From Provence, Varda makes her way to the great terroir of Burgundy, where she stops to contemplate Rogier van der Weyden's Beaune Altarpiece (c. 1445-1450) whose subject is the Last Judgment. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy commissioned the Flemish artist to create the altarpiece in 1443. Comprised of fifteen paintings on nine panels, six of which, being hinged shutters, are painted on both sides, the altarpiece depicts the realms of the divine, the earthly, and the infernal.

Rogier van der Weyden's Beaune Altarpiece, c. 1445-1450
Varda focuses on the latter. Whereas a traditional rendering of the Last Judgment would depict demons and fiends tormenting the accursed, van der Weyden has painted tormented souls whose anguish is rendered only through their contorted expressions and postures. Varda speculates on the punishments meted out for gluttony before turning her gaze to notice that no gleaners are in sight, even though the grape harvest has just ended. A Burgundian cafe owner explains that gleaning differs from picking: "You pick the fruit that hangs but you glean things that sprout." One gleans grain; one picks olives and almonds and figs.

Rogier van der Weyden's Beaune Altarpiece, c. 1445-1450
Vintners and farmers have made picking in Burgundy illegal. One vintner explains that "If you want your wine to be ranked as a vintage, the yearly production is limited. That means you can only produce a certain quota per plot." The rest is left to rot, vintners wary that pickers will harm their vines. Like vineyard owners, fig growers purposely throw fruit deemed unworthy to the ground to molder, ensuring enforcement of the injunction against picking -- even after harvest.

Modern harvesting equipment leaves abundant sprouted crop behind -- cabbages and tomatoes -- and though Burgundians have managed to criminalize picking, French penal code allows for gleaning with impunity "from sunup until sundown" as long as it occurs after the harvest, explains Mr. Dessaud, Varda's "lawyer in the fields." Varda finds an old law commentary with an edict from November 2, 1554, "which says just the same as today. It allows the poor, the wretched, the deprived to enter the fields once harvesting is over. Old documents talk of the poor, the destitute, but how are we to consider those who want for nothing and glean just for fun?" Varda asks Dessaud. "If they glean for fun, it's because they have a need for fun," he reasons.

In the countryside of the Jura region, Varda encounters the Nenon family, in the hills near Apt, who "present a special case of picking. The vineyard they found was wholly abandoned." In this region, after November 1, they are free to take the harvest to save it from wild boars and birds.

In the fruit groves of Arles, the foreman of Cape Farm tells Varda, "We often allow gleaners to come in after our pickers, provided they remain 10 yards behind." Another fruit grower explains, "We can't prevent people providing themselves with apples once we have finished harvesting. So we proclaim an official gleaning period, we take [car] registrations down, if it's a moped, we ask for a Xerox of the owner's ID...."" "Isn't it a bit over-regulated?" Varda asks. "Once people are registered, they can take 400 pounds, I don't mind, even if it's a whole lot," he says by way of explanation. Gleaners can even enter greenhouses once the harvest is collected.

Though the island of Noirmoutier is known for its causeway and for the delicate, almost extinct La Bonnotte potato, with its distinctive salty, earthy flavor derived from its cultivation in the algae and seaweed laden soil, Varda visits to talk to local oyster gleaners who scour the beaches after rough storms and very low tides have dislodged oysters from their beds and washed them ashore. She's told they "go in as soon as the storm has abated." Oyster gleaning is legal within certain parameters, though the gleaners almost purposefully seem to have a vague notion of the actual terms of the law. Is one to stay 10 yards away from the poles marking the beds? 15? 25? Is the maximum number of oysters per person 7 pounds? 11? "Seven pounds of clams and 11 pounds of oysters, something like that," says one. "Three dozen [oysters] per person, but surely they take more than that," says another.

Throughout her travels, Varda interviews artists who incorporate the discarded into their work. Having considered gleaning and picking, she  explores loading up, "retrieving heavy objects people get rid of," an artist who makes images from salvaged material explains. He defines himself equally as a painter and a retriever. "What's good about these objects is that they've already had a life, and they're still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance."

Passing an abandoned factory on one side and a shop with the sign "Finds," Varda notes, " 'Curios' is common, but 'Finds' is more inviting." Lo and behold, inside she finds a painting of gleaners, a charming amateur picture that combines "both the humble stooping of Millet's Glaneuses and the proud posture of Breton's Gleaner. "The painter," Varda surmises, "had an old dictionary at hand. Honest, this is no movie trick. We really did find these Glaneuses purely by chance. The painting had beckoned us because it belonged here in this film."

Varda loads up her serendipitous treasure and heads to the Ideal Palace of Bodan Litnianski. Litnianski immigrated from Ukraine to France around 1930 at the age of 17. He worked as a bricklayer and mason, then served France in World War II. After being released from a prisoner of war camp, Litnianski returned to France and settled in a house in Viry-Noureuil, near Chauny, in the Aisne department of northern France. Once he had decorated the exterior of the house with all manner of objets trouvés, he "started building totem towers made of scraps he found in dumps and brought back in his trailer hooked to his moped." "It's solid stuff, you know," Litnianski assures Varda, "very solid. I'm a brickmason. I like dolls, they're my system. Dolls are characters."

The Ideal Palace of Bodan Litnianski, c. 2000, Viry-Noureuil
Varda visits the French assemblage artist Louis Pons who describes the detritus from which he creates his work as "my dictionary, useless things. People think it's a cluster of junk. I see it as a cluster of possibilities. Each object gives a direction, each is a line, picked up here and there, indeed gleaned, and which become my paintings. The aim of art is to tidy one's inner and exterior worlds," Pons says. "I make sentences from things."

Ma ville, 1970, Louis Pons
Varda turns to Mrs. Espie, her "lawyer in the streets," to understand the French statute on abandoned objects. "The law on gleaning doesn't apply to these objects. 'Res derelictee' are ownerless things, since the owner's intention has been clearly expressed: they have deliberately abandoned them. ...[T]his property can't be stolen since it has no owner." People salvage appliances from the streets to repair or repurpose, and some glean TVs for copper wire. Varda investigates the Waste Ground artists of Villeneuve Sur Lot, a collective that creates domestic-themed tableaux resembling large-scale dollhouses from discarded refrigerators.

In Prades, Varda interviews a man only identified by his green rubber boots. He tells her, "I have a job, a salary, a social security number. Salvaging is a matter of ethics for me, because I find it utterly unacceptable to see all this waste on the streets." Back in her own Montparnasse neighborhood in Paris, Varda finally introduces herself to a man she has repeatedly noticed in the wee hours after her street market closes down. He eats as he gleans, like a ruminant grazing through the vendors' leavings. Interviewing him over a number of weeks, Varda learns he is a former teaching assistant with a Master's in biology. For whatever reason, he now sells street papers and maps in front of the train station. For eight years he has lived in a shelter many miles away where fully half of the mostly immigrant residents are illiterate. For six years, for two hours every evening, he has been teaching them to read and write in a basement classroom he has arranged for his tutees' convenience. "I'm not part of the school system, I don't get paid for it." "Meeting that man is what impressed me the most," Varda says of her cinematic journey.

"The other high point is quite different in kind." Varda talked the Musée Municipal, Villefranche-sur-Saône into bringing out a long-neglected painting by Pierre-Edmond Hédouin, which Varda had only seen reproduced in black and white. Gleaners at Chambaudoin, fleeing the storm was first exhibited in 1857, the same year as Millet's Des glaneuses. The curator and her assistant carry the large canvas outside as a storm gathers, the gusts and thunder audible on the dialogue track, while on the canvas Hédouin's gleaners run from a darkening sky, sheaves over shoulders and above their heads, their skirts pressed against their bodies by the wind. "To see them in broad daylight, with stormy gusts lashing against the canvas, was true delight."

Glaneuses à Chambaudoin/Gleaners  Fleeing Before the Storm, 1857, Edmond  Hédouin  
Musée Municipal, Villefranche-sur-Saône
In the course of her travels, Varda has made a stop at the Domaine de la Folie, Côte Chalonnaise, a 16th century estate that has been in the Noël-Bouton family for three centuries and is considered a leading Burgundy wine producer in Rully. "The domaine is unique in the Rully [appellation contrôlée] in that it is...northernmost...and its 32 acres of vines are the highest in elevation. Moreover, all but one of these vineyards are monopoles (a fact that leaps out in the context of Burgundy). Lastly, unlike the main body of vineyards in the central part of Rully to the south, this northern end of the Montagne de la Folie sits on the same vein of limestone as the commune of Puligny-Montrachet, just over three miles away."

Jérôme Noël-Bouton explains that his grandmother was the daughter of Étienne-Jules Marey. At the time that Noël-Bouton's grandmother, Marey's daughter, married a Bouton, the estate had fallen out of Bouton hands. Marey bought it and returned it to the Bouton family.

But Varda has not come for wine. Marey was not a vintner but a physiologist and the inventor of chronophotography, a process by which several phases of movement are recorded onto a single photographic plate. Noël-Bouton shows Varda the tower Marey built to house his still camera equipment. "He set up wires," Noël-Bouton explains, "and waited. Animals or birds went past triggering the camera. That's the hut," he says, pointing to another structure, "from which, with his chronophotographic rifle, he broke down the flight of birds." Marey published La Machine animale (Animal Mechanism) in 1873. Eadweard Muybridge published his Photographic Investigation in 1897 in an effort to prove Marey's contention that all four hooves of a galloping horse, for however brief a moment, are together off the ground.

"He was a visionary," Varda says of Marey. "He analyzed movement before Muybridge and the Lumières. He is the ancestor of all movie makers."

"Marey's experimental pictures and film bits,"
Varda says, "...are pure visual delight."
Finally, throughout her film, Varda superimposes a second narrative, for, after all, her title is The Gleaners ... and I. She made the film when she was 72. Aptly then, in a documentary exploration of what comes after the farms' and vineyards' harvests, after the groceries' expiration dates, after use and wear have consigned material objects to dustbins, it is only fitting that Varda punctuate her rumination with a parallel narrative that gleans her own physique for traces of mortality. Like the chiming of a clock, at intervals Varda trains her inquiry onto herself. "My hair and my hands keep telling me that the end is near."

"And then my hand up close,.. this is my project: to film with one hand my other hand. To enter into the horror of it. I find it extraordinary. ...I am an animal I don't know."

"One night when the bulky refuse is thrown out, I drove around with François [Wetheimer]," a friend who scored Varda's 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn't and who likes rummaging. Varda reports he looked at an empty clock and turned it down. "I picked it up and took it home. A clock without hands is my kind of thing. You don't see time passing," Varda explains, as her visage, like a pendulum making a sweep in one direction only, moves across the tableaux into which she has situated the clock.

The compactness and portability of her digital camera have allowed Varda to look and see and film in new ways. "I'll walk my small camera among the colored cabbages and film other vegetables which catch my eye. On this kind of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it's what I have gleaned that tells me where I've been."

Agnès Varda visiting the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras

*Armstrong, Richard, et al. The Rough Guide to Film: An A-Z of Directors and Their Movies. London: Penguin, 2007. 399-400.

The Gleaners and I is available from Netflix DVD and Instant Play, Amazon. It can be purchased from Zeitgeist Films,

Medina, Jennifer. "Getting Ugly Produce Onto Tables So It Stays Out of Trash." New York Times 23 November 2015. Online.

November 11, 2015


As has been Hollywood's wont for too many years now, come January (and February and March) the big-box multiplexes get hit with bombs the studios are just trying to recoup some production costs on. This year it was Black Hat (which took the thrill out of the thriller), Focus (which took the sting out of the con), and Chappie (which took the doom out of dystopia). There was Kingsman: The Secret Service looking like it longed to spawn a franchise, which we can only hope it will not, and the unfortunately titled second installment of the teen trilogy Divergent -- Insurgent, beyond awful in its utter lack of narrative or anything resembling imagination. In the BoaTS category, Al Pacino and Annette Bening made the unlikely Danny Collins shine, but even Helen Mirren could not salvage Woman in Gold, which barely limped along.

It is a sad state of affairs when it has to be said that Cinderella was the first good movie of the year. Kenneth Branaugh did a lovely job, though I found the stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) a bit over the top. Lily James is a perfect embodiment of Ella and Richard Madden suitably handsome. Cate Blanchett gives the Wicked Stepmother psychological depth, and when you say, "Fairy Godmother," it's a given Helena Bonham Carter be cast. Watching the pumpkin and its attendant goose and mice and lizards transform into and out of carriage and driver and footmen was worth the price of admission. On her deathbed Ella's mother tells Ella, "Have courage and be kind," a message Ella repeats to herself whenever tempted otherwise. There are worse lessons to be learned.

Recently I found myself at a small gathering among people with whom I was only mildly acquainted or had never met. In small talk (a talent I lack) one of the latter opined, "There just aren't any good movies anymore."

I hear this a lot, and it always makes me angry. It has become the default statement people make when the subject of movies comes up in conversation. What's worse, it is said in a tone meant to convey the speaker's acute discernment. I believe people who hold this opinion are part of the movie devolution problem, and my rejoinder to the "no-good-movies-anymore" assertion is to declaim, "Yes, there are. YOU just don't go to them." On the evening in question I checked myself ("Have courage and be kind"), but as Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply observe in a recent New York Times article, "Hollywood Is Producing Higher Highs, Lower Lows," "For months, American moviegoers have either been going big or staying home." For months, people? For years!

I do not live in New York, L.A., or Chicago where movie goers have the chance to see most everything they desire. I live in one of the more populous U.S. cities, but that doesn't translate into much meaningful cultural substance. I am very fortunate that the locally-owned theater chain reserves one venue for films that never make it to national multiplexes, but their audiences are typically small, and, when it comes to foreign films, likely to be very sparse indeed. As a consequence, fewer foreign films are billed each year. If an obscure film becomes an Academy Award contender, I might get to see the contender in January... or February... or March... or maybe not at all in the theater especially, again, if it is a foreign film.

That meant I had to wait to see 2014's Inherent Vice, A Most Violent Year, Cake, and Still Alice in the theater until 2015. All four of these films might be characterized as "dark" in one way or another and thus less salable to a mainstream audience. It was an even longer wait for Mr. Turner, Wild Tales, Leviathan, Clouds of Sils Maria, Two Days and One Night, and Mommy. I have a wide-ranging circle of acquaintances -- academics and professional artists and musicians among them -- hardly any of whom went to any of these movies unless they reside in or around New York, L.A. or Chicago. Some go out of their way to travel to see new releases, and some view these films later on DVD or Pay-For-View. Still, some films, like the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, despite previews here, never made it into our theaters.
Same with documentaries: The Salt of the Earth, Lambert and Stamp, and Dior et Moi were all late comers, and despite the wide range of subjects among them -- Sebastião Salgado's social documentarian photographs,  The Who's unwitting managers, the self-effacing haute couture designer Raf Simons who took over House of Dior in 2012 -- neither the social justice advocates nor the rock aficionados nor a former costumier saw any of the three.

Back to Barnes and Cieply's NYT article: "[I]f [audiences] keep behaving that way [i.e., going big or staying home], 2015 may set new marks for both hits and misses — while leaving a hole in the middle, where Oscars are typically born." That Oscars often go to "the middle" is proof the Academy rarely has an interest in recognizing quality and depth. A look at the winners of the first decade of the 21st century reveals some powerful and deserving pictures such as The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men, but it also turns up The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, A Beautiful Mind and -- really?! -- Gladiator. (I'm looking at the lists and the runners-up aren't that noteworthy either.) Going further back: Shakespeare in Love, Titanic (aaarrrggghhh...), Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy.... I'll stop there.

With the exception of Titanic, none of these are bad movies, but they are not films that should be on anyone's 100 best cinematic achievements list. "[I]n both [September and October]," Barnes and Cieply continue, "high-profile, midrange films that were being closely monitored as awards prospects flopped — among them Sony’s The Walk, Universal’s Steve Jobs and Warner’s Our Brand Is Crisis." Now, I saw all three of these films, and to think that any one of them is being considered  an "awards prospect" is depressing. I liked (the vertiginous) The Walk, but John Marsh's 2008 documentary Man on Wire is infinitely better. Unlike Steve Jobs devotees who felt the actor was miscast, I thought Michael Fassbender was terrific -- as was Kate Winslet, by the way -- and I would have no qualms with accolades for their performances or for Aaron Sorkin's script for that matter or for sound mixing or some such, but in no way should Danny Boyle's film be in the running for Best Picture. On the other hand, Our Brand Is Crisis is a shallow, cynical mess that manages to side-step any ethical considerations its story might pose and should not be considered for Anything. At All. Ever.

So what does interest the Academy? Barnes and Cieply's next paragraph reflects the Academy's criteria, noting the Bond franchise's opening weekend take for Spectre, "the most expensive 007 installment ever, costing Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Eon Productions roughly $400 million to make and market," (Does this strike anyone other than me as obscene?) was "down sharply" from 2012's Skyfall, though it took in "an additional $223 million overseas, breaking records."

The October box office "belonged to The Martian," according to Barnes and Cieply, whereas September had been driven by Hotel Transylvania 2...." I can see the appeal of The Martian -- I know I had fun -- but Hotel Transylvania 2? This brings me back to my "no-good-movies-anymore" opinionators and the blame I cast on them for the sad state of contemporary cinema. The little old lady at the soirée chewing my ear probably took her grandchildren to Hotel Transylvania 2 but did not see Jimmy's Hall, Sicario, Black Mass, Experimenter, Beasts of No Nation, 99 Homes or Freeheld (the latter two being a double opportunity to see Michael Shannon performances), all of which were right here in River City concurrent with Hotel Transylvania 2's duration.

I admit to a warm feeling of  schadenfreude learning that the "more commercially oriented" Pan, Rock the Kasbah, The Last Witch Hunter, Jem and the Holograms and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (none of which I saw) were "wipeouts" at the box office. That said in 2015, tons and tons and tons of people went to Jurassic World, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and the aforementioned Hotel Transylvania 2 (also none of which I saw) and then walk around saying, "There just aren't any good movies anymore."

Coming up on December, the odds are a wee bit better that a few "no-good-movies-anymore" people will go to The Danish Girl, Macbeth, LegendCarolYouth, Brooklyn, Room, SpotlightSon of Saul, or The Revenant -- not to mention the foreign films and documentaries that even this late in the calendar have been held back from us. Ah, heck, that's just pie in the sky.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth

October 27, 2015


Ramin Bahrani may be our sharpest cinematic critic of the capitalist machine that is the present-day United States. His characters work hard within a system designed to crush them; then they compromise their ethics to survive in a world dictated by the almighty dollar. Bahrani's vision is cynical, but, in a different way, Hollywood's tendency to edit out the disenfranchised is cynical, too. In movies not exclusive to Nancy Meyers- and Judd Apatow-esque vehicles, and in television series like The Good Wife, Madam Secretary, House of Cards, etc., affluent characters inhabit sprawling, well-appointed homes with no hint as to how they get dusted and vacuumed, how toilets get cleaned, how beds get made, laundry washed, yards manicured. Where are the housekeepers, the gardeners?
Set for Nancy Meyers's 2003 Something's Gotta Give
We see the servants in old movies on TCM, in period pieces like the eponymous The Help, and in depictions of ridiculously rich people like multimillionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher, but affluent characters in present-day Southern California, New York City, Washington, D.C., et al., despite their tacit claim to "middle class," betray their upper class status through pretentious set-dressing alone. A willing suspension of disbelief, especially in the week-in/week-out of serial television, where we feel more intimate with characters than we might in a two-hour feature film, is required to never once wonder who cleans the house. For some reason, the entertainment industry is loath to be honest about the domestic workers necessary to make wealthy fictional lives realistically hum. Bahrani's characters are the invisible people -- taxi drivers, cart vendors, salvagers, farmers, carpenters. Many are immigrants. All yearn for the American Dream yet vary in their vision of the grail.

Bahrani's first full-length feature, Man Push Cart (2005), is a painfully literal Sisyphean tale. We meet Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) before dawn as he carries an airtank to a food cart depot, wrangles his cart up streets and down -- but mostly up and up and up -- to a corner in midtown Manhattan. He exchanges greetings with fellow vendors, preps coffee filters with grounds, sets out muffins and bagels, arranges tea bags in paper cups stacked for efficiency. Customers begin to arrive, friendly regulars, impatient passers-by, and a suit who recognizes Ahmad as Pakistani. "Yeah, from Lahore," Ahmad acknowledges. "Me, too," the suit says in a sort of solidarity. Those are the first 5 minutes, and the routine will play itself out over and over and over in a metronomic cadence for the next hour and a quarter, each rotation accompanied by a short musical phrase reminiscent of tolling Islamic calls to prayer.
Ahmad Razvi as Ahmad in Man Push Cart
Ahmad lives an hour's subway ride away in a Muslim immigrant, Brooklyn neighborhood. His day starts at 3:00 a.m. and ends after dark in the depot where he washes the cart down for the night before the subway ride home. For reasons we never discover, he has immigrated to the United States. We do learn he is a widower with a son in the custody of his mother-in-law. The fellow Pakistani customer, Mohammad, hires Ahmad in Ahmad's off hours to paint his loft apartment, where Mohammad recognizes Ahmad as the Pakistani rock star who recorded a CD in Lahore. When Mohammad lends Ahmad $500 to pay off his cart, the moment seems it should feel propitious but feels ominous instead. As Ahmad makes the final payment, the seller tells him to insure the cart first thing, foreshadowing the story's denouement.

Ahmad is the first in a line of characters who, as Roger Ebert, an early champion of Bahrani's work and the dedicatee of 99 Homes, said: "Like so many Americans who work low-wage jobs...his work essentially subsidizes his ability to keep on working."

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 20 blocks of junkyards that comprise Willet's Point, Queens, "The Valley of the Ashes." In Chop Shop (2007), Alejandro (Ale), a Latino street orphan, lives there, scraping by on the good graces of Rob, the owner of the auto-body shop where Ale works. Rob lets Ale (Alejandro Polanco) live in the shop's corner nook, and when Ale finds a job for his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) at a neighborhood food truck, he gets her to stay with him. She's 16, he's 12; she's finished 7th grade, he's never been to school -- but he is street-wise and wary beyond his years.

When Ale's friend tells him about an old food van his uncle is selling, Ale's dreams open to the possibility of a new life. Yet, it doesn't take long for Ale to realize it will take more than he makes to come up with the $4,500 to buy the van. He takes up a second job in a chop shop owned by Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi of Man Push Cart). Izzy, too, needs money, and when Ale inadvertently sees her with a trick, the knowledge saddens him, but survival does not admit the luxury of sentimentality or judgment.

Ale buys the van before Ahmad can explain it will cost $10,000 to pass inspection. Ale's world closes in again. For Ahmad in Man Push Cart, insurance is beyond reach; for Ale in Chop Shop, bringing the van up to code is beyond reach. Bahrani shows us only a slice of his characters' lives. We can only imagine how they have been tested before we meet them, what their journeys have involved, what obstacles they have overcome to reach what seems will be the turning point, the grail they have worked and worked and worked to find until it is just within reach, only to be snatched away.
Alejandro Polanco as Ale and Isamar Gonzales as Izzy in Chop Shop
Bahrani's characters are not blameless, but their guilt derives more from naïveté than willful villainy. They are burdened not only with the cost of the means to make a living, but with a dearth of time. The structure of the classic quest narrative allows the hero interludes of rest to regain strength between trials. Because Ahmad and Ale are always working, they can never revive, as much because they have no time as because they have no money. They are prevented from playing by the rules: filing for business certificates; applying for employee ID numbers, certificates of authority to collect sales tax, mobile food vending permits, insurance coverage; passing food protection exams ($114 in Queens); registering as self-haulers with the DMV; acquiring the required equipment for commercial vehicles, etc. Like Sisyphus, they wake up to the same ordeal day after day as though trapped in some cruel cosmic joke.

That indifferent cosmos pervades the Piedmont plateau of the Appalachian range midway between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains where Goodbye Solo (2008) is set. The man in the taxi, a curmudgeonly 70-year-old named William (Red West), asks the cabbie, a garrulous Senegalese immigrant named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) who likes to address people as Big Dog, if he, Solo, will take him, William, to a place called Blowing Rock in two-weeks time for $1,000.

Solo takes an irrepressible pleasure in life, but his usual exuberance is tested when his wizened passenger poses this bargain for a one-way fare. The implication transgresses the foundations of Solo's world-view centered around family and mutual support. He determines to change the course of the old man's resolve, dragging the reluctant William into his daily rounds and his own dysfunctional family -- that is, into life. In contrast to William's resignation, Solo is studying for airline steward certification, a challenge he faces with resolute optimism. What unfolds between this odd couple is an unlikely bond, and a meditation on the moral commitments genuine friendship entails.

That a suicide constitutes the most hopeful of Bahrani's films seems ironic on its face, but Bahrani says, "Solo is...a complex man, full of flaws, who comes to learn...from his encounter with William. Ultimately Solo must find the courage and strength to love his new friend selflessly in order to help him do something seemingly horrible, or leave him to face it alone."

Souleymane Sy Savane as Solo and Diana Franco Galindo
as his stepdaughter Alex in Goodbye Solo
Just as the pre-dawn labyrinthine streets through which Ahmad wrangles his cart, the chop shop jungle of Willet's Point, and the mist-filled atmosphere of Blowing Rock are all silent, ambient characters in Bahrani's first three films, so the rolling Iowa plains become part of the dramatis personae in At Any Price (2013), an allegory of the shifting American ethos through the mirror of three generations of Iowa farmers. The first three films peeked into immigrant lives on the fringes. At Any Price brings hypocrisy home to roost.

At Any Price trains its lens not on immigrants, but on the rural people we romantically like to think "made America great" alongside their urban manufacturing counterparts. For those not engaged in the agriculture economy, the popular imagination limns "corporate farming" and "family farming" as morally antithetical. Though it is true that "Large farms with over $1 million in sales account for only 4 percent of all farms" in the U.S., the balance mostly functions in a hybrid system of contract farming: the farm is family owned but operates under powerful corporate authority. Many state laws prohibit corporate farming, but the fuzzy distinction between "corporate" and "contract" creates a legal gray area that effectively allows corporations to farm in those states through contracts with local farm owners.

With the exception of Red West in Goodbye Solo, Bahrani cast nonprofessional actors in his first three features, but for At Any Price, he turned to professional actors with Dennis Quaid in an outstanding performance in the central role of Henry Whipple. Henry has spent a lifetime working the land. His aging father Cliff (West again) has handed the reins of the family farm to Henry, who has been trying to bring the operation into the 21st century and preserve it in the face of what contemporary agribusiness has become. Henry's son Dean (Zac Effron), hoping to escape the farm for good, has fantasies of a life of celebrity and reckless excitement as a racecar driver.

The 1966 Farmall 1206D Tractor was International Harvester's
first U.S.turbocharged diesel engine and the first two-wheel drive
to exceed 100 horsepower.
Cliff is wont to remind his son of the hard physical work farming used to be, yet Henry faces challenges of his own. Unlike his father, for whom a Farmall 1206 would have been state of the art technology, Henry stables air conditioned, self-steering combines with electronic sensors, GPS, and computer monitoring systems and foots the mortgages for the upwards of $250,000 each costs. Additionally, he and his neighbors are contracted to agri-business corporations and are bound by the laws that protect the corporate patents. Henry subsidizes his farming income by working as the local sales rep for one of those corporations (a stand-in for Monsanto/DuPont/Syngenta) that genetically engineers the seed he and his neighbors plant. What his customers don't know is that while Henry sells them the new strain for planting each spring, he has stashed last year's harvested seed and saved himself a small fortune in the bargain. Trying to explain to his son's girlfriend the Catch-22 big agri has created by manipulating the law to its profit advantage, Henry simply says, "They've patented life."

Speaking with Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, Bahrani explained his desire to focus on Iowa corn farmers and debunk the romantic myth of the bucolic family farm: "These are not small farmers getting crushed by the banks, these are multimillion-dollar farms destroying each other, because they have to, to stay alive. And that was very different from what we think about farms. I found it very telling about where we are." Truth is thorny, and we share culpability for refusing to understand it in its complexity.
Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple in At Any Price
With 99 Homes, Bahrani takes his examination of the American Dream into the foreclosure mania that swept pockets of United States suburbs. Some places were particularly hard hit, one of which was Orlando, Florida. Bahrani structures this film as a tightly wound suspense thriller. Real estate broker Rick Carver -- embodied in Michael Shannon's nuanced performance -- needs 100 foreclosure deals to go down on 100 homes before he can make an even bigger haul on 1,000. The final showdown takes place at the metaphorical 99th, a house not owned by Frank Green but mortgaged to Frank Green, for the bank, not Frank, owns the house. It is a critical distinction that 99 Homes dispassionately makes. "Home ownership" is a signal part of that woolly American Dream. As ubiquitous as credit card debt is in the U.S., some stigma attaches to excessive credit balances. A mortgage, on the other hand, has typically been considered desirable (e.g., tax code favors a mortgage deduction).

Rick Carver is based on David J. Stern, the now disbarred real estate attorney who came to be dubbed the "foreclosure king." In 2010, the relentless investigative reporters Matt Tiabbi of Rolling Stone and Andy Kroll of Mother Jones broke the story of Stern and Florida real estate fraud. "The foreclosure lawyers down in Jacksonville had warned me," Tiabbi begins, "but I was skeptical. They told me the state of Florida had created a special super-high-speed housing court with a specific mandate to rubber-stamp the legally dicey foreclosures by corporate mortgage pushers like Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase. This 'rocket docket,' as it is called in town, is presided over by retired judges who seem to have no clue about the insanely complex financial instruments they are ruling on — securitized mortgages and labyrinthine derivative deals of a type that didn't even exist when most of them were active members of the bench. Their stated mission isn't to decide right and wrong, but to clear cases and blast human beings out of their homes with ultimate velocity."
Michael Shannon as Rick Carver in 99 Homes
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a single father supporting his young son as well as his mother (Laura Dern). After being evicted by Carver, Nash goes to work for him. Despite his better angels, Nash gets sucked into Carver's scheme for the same reason Carver has pursued his ruthless line of work -- he needs to survive and support a family. Carver's father, a carpenter, scraped by until he died; Carver has no intention of following in those footsteps.

In preparation for his films, Bahrani immerses himself in his subjects' lives and milieus, sometimes over a span of several years in what sociocultural anthropologists call participant-observation. For 99 Homes, he, Shannon and Garfield all spent extended periods of time in Florida -- day after day in the rocket docket courts and nights in cheap motels populated by "gangbangers, prostitutes, day-laborers and normal middle class families.... [families who are] not broke but with part-time jobs, living in motels, and so many kids...that school buses have to get diverted to take them to school," Bahrani told Candid Magazine. "[O]ne night [Garfield] told me he'd met a day-laborer in a Home Depot parking lot who practically [told] him the story of the film although we'd already written the script." Because the real estate scandal became the only game in town, the day-laborer, after being evicted, himself became an evictor. His story was not unique, a fact that made framing the film in black and white, good vs. evil impossible, even irresponsible. As Bahrani warns, "[I]t's important to remember that despite [Carver] being the devil, the actual villain in the movie is the system. [Carver] is just the child of the system...." When he went to Florida, Bahrani says, he thought he was going to make a social drama, but the world he found said, "No, you're not. You will make a thriller, you will make this Faustian story with a social heart because that's what it is. We all carry guns, there's danger at every corner, every door we knock on has danger, every place we turn to has opportunity for corruption and scams." That's the real American story.
Andrew Garfiield as Dennis Nash and Michael Shannon as
Rick Carver in 99 Homes

October 20, 2015


It's that time of year when the Steven Spielberg contender is released to adoration. This year it's Bridge of Spies, the 17th Spielberg movie I've suffered out of the 30 he's directed to date. I have only seen the first in the Indiana Jones franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I have not seen Jaws (1975); Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) of which Spielberg's segment is #2; Jurassic Park (1993) or its sequel (1997);  A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – I took issue with Spielberg being handed a Stanley Kubrick-conceived film; Minority Report (2002); War of the Worlds (2005); two I've never heard of: 1941 (1979) and Always (1989); and 2002's Catch Me If You Can, the only one I might consider seeking out. I have (groan) seen all the rest. Why? So I can defend my position against Spielberg as the worst highly acclaimed director of all time.

Let's take The Color Purple (1985) as an arbitrary starting point. Good god, man – it takes more than a bucket, a mop and a good cinematographer to turn a hovel into a bucolic cottage set amidst billowing fields of sun-dappled wildflowers. Then there's the requisite, manipulative John Williams score. Midway through, as I heaved yet another sob, sinuses swollen, I was ready to strangle the both of them for so artificially wrenching emotion out of the audience. Schindler's List (1993)? What's with that fleeting little girl in the red coat who keeps showing up in the frame? Is she a metaphor? If so, a metaphor for what? Then in 1998, the inaugural film in what we might call "Spielberg's Tom Hanks Era," Saving Private Ryan: Quit telling me it is the most realistic depiction of war ever captured on film, because anyone who makes such a claim has not bothered to see Bernhard Wicki's 1959 The Bridge, Elem Klimov's 1985 Come and See, or Patrick Sheane Duncan's 1989 84 Charlie MoPic.

In 2011, I subjected myself to both Spielberg holiday movies. The Adventures of Tintin starts out remarkably true to the wonderful Hergé creation, but instead of using one Tintin story, Spielberg proceeds to mash up three (“The Crab With the Golden Claws” [1941], “The Secret of the Unicorn” [1943] and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” [also 1943]). Tintin is a child journalist who, attended by his Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, is forever finding himself called to distant shores to solve inscrutable mysteries. Spielberg makes no attempt to mine the sharp geopolitical parody that was the raison d'etre for many of the Tintin stories. Instead, Hergé's intrepid character and the graphic charm of the ligne claire (clean line) style he pioneered are soon mauled when, no longer able to contain himself, Spielberg lets loose an endless animated CGI orgy. The youngsters in my audience began to crawl out of their seats and into the aisles to tune Spielberg out altogether and lose themselves in their own imaginations. Usually scornful of restless audiences, I sympathized while trying to stifle one sigh of annoyance after another. Writing in London's The Guardian, literary critic Nicholas Lezard rued, "Coming out of, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape."
Young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy come to the rescue
of Professor Calculus, who has invented a machine that destroys
objects with sound waves. He is the subject of kidnapping attempts
by the competing European countries of Borduria and Syldavia.
Published in 1956, the story reflects the Cold War tensions of the 1950s. 

Then came War Horse right on Tintin's heels, with yet another John Williams score and good actors playing caricatures for Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame-tear-jerker effect. The horse is about the only player in the film Spielberg was unable to turn into a stock character. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI.

Daniel-Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes... distracted, I started to wonder which big-name actors would NOT appear in Lincoln (2012). I was also annoyed that virtually every African American in the film was expected to look supplicatingly at all the nice white people. (In all fairness, for once I liked John Williams' score.) I was gratified, therefore, when, after the torrent of laudatory reviews, I ran across a critical opinion in The New York Times editorial pages (not the Movies Section, mind you) by Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. Lincoln is determined, Masur argues, "to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role."
Almost 180,000 African Americans fought in the Civil War,
constituting about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army.
Source: William A. Gladstone. United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867 (1996) 
So this weekend, it was Bridge of Spies, in which Spielberg moves from World War II (Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) to the Cold War and turns again to Tom Hanks (because, as NPR's Bob Mondello pointed out, Jimmy Stewart wasn't available). Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the attorney appointed to defend Rudolph Abel, the Soviet KGB spy captured in 1957. (Mark Rylance's performance as Abel is reason enough to see the film. It is masterful.) Donovan is then saddled with effecting Abel's trade for Gary Powers, the young U-2 espionage pilot shot down over the USSR (which occurred in 1960, but the film compresses the historical events). Into the bargain, Donovan works to include an American graduate student enrolled at the Free University of West Berlin who, caught in the eastern sector just as the first stones for the wall are being laid (which historically was 1961), is being held without charges by East German police. It's the Cold War and no one but no one believes a Soviet spy should be handed the luxury of a trial. The film is built around the flag-waving premise that what has become the U.S. "justice" system is restored to the U.S. Justice system by the Stewart/Hanks patriot. Flouting attorney/client privilege, an FBI agent insists that Donovan reveal whatever Abel has said to him:
FBI Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd): We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don't go all boy scout on me. We don't have a rule book here... 
Donovan: You're Agent Hoffman, yeah? You're German extraction. My name's Donovan. Irish. Both sides. Mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. It's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book and don't nod at me like that, you son of a bitch. [I don't think the violins soared, but this little speech certainly gives the cue.]
Center: Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan and
Amy Ryan as his wife Mary in Bridge of Spies
On the positive side, when it came time to score the film, John Williams was in the hospital so the score was composed by Thomas Newman – serviceable and it spared the sinuses. On the set direction, let me admit that I criticize directors who overdo period set-dressing. Take Clint Eastwood's Changeling, for example, which takes place in eve-of-Depression 1928. The streets are filled with overly restored vehicles sleeker than they looked coming off the factory floor; the costumes are straight out of wardrobe undistressed; and all of the office and domestic accoutrements are just so. In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg errs in the opposite direction. A veritable army must have been deployed to comb every prop shop, flea market and hoarder's attic for authenticating decor and accessories: Vernon Ward/Paul Jones-esque botanical prints and period knickknacks abound as do cigarette packs, ashtrays and advertising matchbooks. There are atomic saucer desk lamps, a Bakelite radio, pastel plastic snap-on hair curlers – and in the final sequence, the children in front of the black and white television set eat TV dinners. There must have been a checklist. Let's see, what might we have forgotten? The Swanson TV dinners are not sitting on folding TV trays. Missed that one! The filmmaker is so anxious for us to notice these details that we keep getting pan or cut shots to close-up, but the close-ups are a problem because everything is in as-found condition when it all would have all been brand new in post-war 1957 America. The motel room where the young U-2 pilots are given their secret mission would not have looked like a flea bag. The Danish modern knock-off furniture would not have been chipped and the vinyl upholstery would not have been sagging.

Spielberg has clearly modeled Donovan's family on Father Knows Best. The son (Noah Schnapp) is all Leave It to Beaver earnestness; the daughters (Jillian Lebling and Eve Hewson) suitably vulnerable; and Donovan, a jovial and tolerant dad à la Ozzie, is protective of his indulgent and devoted wife Mary à la Harriet. Mary (Amy Ryan) dons the same string of pearls June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Margaret Anderson were never without. She wears eyeglasses in one scene only, presumably to establish that the prop manager was able to come up with period spectacles.

Bridge of Spies is designed to tap our nostalgia – at least the heartstrings of those of us who are boomers – while at the same time suggesting how bad the Soviet "evil empire" was. Yet it never penetrates its veneer to convey the ubiquity of the fear the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation provoked (despite a scene of tearful youngsters as their teacher shows them a "Survival Under Attack" type government film). If it wants to establish some sort of parallel between the Cold War and Putin's recent annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and his interventionist tactics in Syria, it misses the mark and merely drapes itself in superficial patriotism and family values rather than confront difficult questions posed by the realities of the contemporary world.

Writing about Lincoln in the February 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine, Thomas Frank called Spielberg out in no uncertain terms. I will confine myself to the last two paragraphs here but recommend the entirety:

"Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already  – Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad – and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

"If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don't stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists – that's a task for a real auteur."

Substitute "Bridge of Spies" for "Lincoln," and Frank's is an excellent review of Spielberg's latest "historical" effort. What Bridge of Spies says about the political zeitgeist – about prisoners at Guantánamo Bay who, unlike Abel who served just over four years of his sentence, will never see a trial; about the deleterious effects of recent Acts of Congress like the Patriot Act (2001) and Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United (2010) –  what the movie says about the current moment in relationship to that Constitution Spielberg is so eager to romanticize, is zip.