Criterion film a day, day 19: “Le Havre”– kitsch french culture and the invading immigrants

I think on French netflix there should be a category called “charmante” for all those cute little French films featuring cafes, baguette’s and mysterious (and mysteriously easy) women with pixie haircut. Especially as these films, with “Amelie” as their cute captain, have come to dominate a good chunk of what French film exports to the states.

Curiously or not, this idyllic Paris is devoid of minorities. It highlights a problem of what France is: Is it the atheistic, no-veil, speak-French-only dream that existed, if it ever did, when France only sent people out of its country (to Africa, South Asia) and did little to invite them in? This is certainly the France that people like Jean-Marie Le Pen and his slightly-less-reactionary but far more successful daughter Marine LePen imagine. Creepily, films that display this cute France are popular, and are the palatable dream, in a way, of the neo-Nazism of people like Le Pen. “Look”, they seem to say, “at this wonderfully white Paris.” How well we all get along in our charmingly quirky ways.

Though set in Normandy rather than Paris (the main differences being that the accent is different, there are ocean-going boats, and they drink Calvados), Le Havre begins strongly in the “charmante” genre–an older shoe-shiner gently borrows things on credit, deadpans with his neighbors, smokes, drinks, and waxes nostalgic for the old days of the shoeshine business. At the end, he goes back to his devoted wife and her deadpan household, filled with quaint fifties furniture and outmoded clocks.

Crashing violently through this dream is an African boy on the run from the police on his way to London. For no good reason (and this film doesn’t need one) other than a general tenderness, the shoeshine man decides to help him. The film simmers easily for a longtime, with a few funny moments as he tries to figure out what to do and tracks down the boy’s grandfather at an immigrant detention center nearby.

The police hot on his tail, he quickly organizes a concert to raise the smuggling money the boy needs for London, and endeavors to secret the boy off. The police, in the end, are revealed not to be wholly fascistic monsters, as is usually the case in films dealing with immigration.

It is hard to say if the film is just being subtle in its discussion of French film and the ideal of a white France, or if it is simply a sweet film uninterested in really offending anyone. Either way, it is charming, and managed to not be as saccharine as other films reaching back to a less tricky, whiter French time.

If you liked Amelie, you’ll enjoy this film, even though it doesn’t have any sexual undertones.

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Criterion film a day, day 18: Revanche

Criterion collection curates based on what films are “significant”, not necessarily which films are great. This makes their job significantly harder the more contemporary the films get: How do you judge what film is significant when its impact is yet to be settled?

The response, on some level, is to go souvenir shopping: Off to different countries to find films that are either a solid product, or films that seem particularly ill-designed for the international market–70s Japanese Samurai films (though Quentin Tarantino has familiarized Americans, at least, to these films). Revanche (French for when an avalanche goes back up a mountain, or revenge), an Austrian thriller about a bouncer who robs a bank in his grandfather’s small town, is of the former: A solid product from a country that isn’t renowned for its film industry.

The film follows a standard european formula of calmly studying the gritty of the bouncer, his eastern european prostitute girlfriend, and their ill-fated attempt to rob a bank, pay their debts and move away from their sordid life.

In their getaway, a bored small-town cop accidentally shoots and kills the girlfriend (he was aiming at the tires). Heartbroken, the bouncer decides to stay in the village, and the story, and the increasingly intertwining lives of him, his dying grandfather, and the cop and his wife becomes a strong study on revenge.

I don’t necessarily agree with the ending, as the bouncer vacillates about how to take his revenge, and find it somewhat patly misogynistic. But seeing his angry character develop and contemplate the varying paths is a fun thing to watch, and manages to get across the real emotions of revenge and grief–a step that revenge films are often crucially missing. He is angry, but mostly out of anguish, and how he handles that emotion is like watching a painfully tight closed fist slowly open.

I don’t know if it is an influential film, but it is certainly a solid product from a country better known for a wussy empire and being totally landlocked.

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Criterion film a day, day 17: My Crasy Life

My Crasy Life is a film that reeks wonderfully of 1992. West coast gang culture was a new and fascinating thing, and the film–directed by a Frenchman–reads like a foreign tourist who is suddenly really into Easy E and Ice Cube. This is a fascinating trend in hip-hop,especially in how hip-ho relates to gang culture: The primary consumers of hip-hop have always been white suburban males. Futhermore, as outsiders to that culture, but looking to attach it to their own identity, it’s always the suburban white boy who has taken hip hop way too seriously, seeing it not as a culture to be lived, but a role to be learned.

The film smacks of an obtuse outsider, but for a film that blend’s documentary, fiction and essay, that perspective and tone does not serve the film poorly. My Crasy Life follows a samoan gang in long beach, as they live the life of a gangsters (predominantly playing cards and drinking 40s, according to this film). There is little violence, but it is always hanging as a potential in the background, both in the gang member’s boasts and in intercut interviews with the gang members.

There is some quaint silliness, such as an extended sequence in which the gang members give definitions to various slang words, and a cop who is accompanied by a judgmental HAL-like computer.

Part of the reason I chose this film is that the Criterion collection, and film in general, is so dominantly white, that I’m eager for any film that attempts to portray the reality of the non-white world, and in this respect, the film is a success.

It is not necessarily critical as much as fascinated with the Samoan gang member’s perspective, but there are several leading moments that give windows into what pushes people towards gangs, white drives the culturally unique Samoans to adopt gang culture, and how they incorporate their own culture into gang culture.

I don’t think it’s a great film, but it is one that presages the experimental documentary movement of the 90s, and in the end, the film kept me interested and paying attention for an hour and forty minutes, and painted a picture, albeit a flawed, blurry one, of a culture that I previously knew nothing about.

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Criterion film a day, day 17: Walkabout and voyeurism in the outback

Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout marks the first time I’ve traveled to the down under in the Criterion Collection. There are other films: Peter Weir seems to be a favorite and both Picnic at Hanging Rock and the Last Wave are featured. But been there, done that, so I went with Walkabout–described by the overly-enthusiastic interm who writes the Hulu blurbs as a “hypnotic masterpiece”. Unless hypnosis is supposed to induce drowsiness, this film is neither hypnotic nor a masterpiece.

Two children are taken deep into the Australian by their father, who, after doing some office work in the car while his kids set up for a picnic, makes the inexplicable decision to start shooting at his children, and after they refuse to come out of hiding, sets the car on fire and shoots himself in the head. After all, it isn’t a good Australian picnic until someone shoots himself and sets the car on fire.

The older daughter recovers quickly–stepping into a parental run for her 8-year-old brother, and they begin walking back towards civilization. It makes sense that someone might delay grieving or hide the trauma for the sake of a younger sibling in such a dangerous situation, but the film barely returns to the father’s tragic hatred of picnics. It is simply an inexplicable and relatively pointless plot device.

This isn’t the only detour the film makes (its apparently based off of a 15-page screenplay). There’s an odd scene with a team of scientists all ogling the one female scientist, who is dressed like a stripper nurse. This is actually a big theme of the film–and the camera often gets distracted with the legs and cleavage of the definitely underage girl in the film. It’s clear that Roeg–who started his career as a cinematographer–is trying to get some point across, but its a lazily executed theme and just seems like the cameraman spent the whole shoot horny and lonely.

After falling asleep, exhausted, at a watering hole, the pair encounter an aboriginal man, presumably on his walkabout, who, though they can’t understand each other, decides to help them. They spend days walking with him as he hunts for them, protects them and they becomes friends of a sort.

Finally, they come across an abandoned farmhouse, and beyond, a road. They spend a few days there, and after the Aboriginal character sees white hunters wantonly shooting water buffalo, the aboriginal gets stereotypically upset. Films like this love to do this, show the native witnessing the destructive pointlessness of the white man. The only thing that was missing from this trope was a single tear trickling down his cheek.

Anyway, he decides to do some sort of mating dance and then dies. That’s how it happens–and it is about as well explained as that.

The siblings make it back to civilization and the film ends with her in an apartment, older, listening to her boyfriend talk about office gossip while she day dreams of the three of them swimming together in the desert.

Parts of this film a beautifully shot, and I didn’t actively dislike it, but it is a flimsy film with a flimsy, environmentalist message carrying with it all the vaguely condescending interest in native culture that films like this tend to have.

It’s not bad–it’s just not great. And I’m not really sure what makes this film significant in the eyes of Criterion.

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Criterion film a day, day 16: League of Gentleman and England’s self-consciousness

I don’t think that there is one nation more wholly self-conscious than Britain. This is not a criticism, but the whole country–or at least its literature and film in the last fifty years seems wholly wrapped up in its myths, its self-identity, and its fate. Not hard to understand given that the last hundred years have seen England scarred by two wars and a failing empire that forces many of its most liberals to confront a country built upon a racist, imperial past.

As Orwell noted, when it comes to the arts, England succeeds only in literature –literature being the most self-aware of artistic art forms, ignoring abstraction and dealing with the painfully real psychologies of conflicted characters fighting their memories, their identities. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (notably revamped as one of England’s myths by Steven Moffat in 2007),  to Kingsley Amis and Orwell himself, to Martin Amis, to Ian McEwan (just read Atonement), English literature has a proud history contemplating its own identity and the effect of such contemplation on its characters.

This is true on the British screen, too–a form born more out of the literature of theater, too–shows like Moffat’s Jekyll and Sherlock seem to be part of the great British tradition of re-affirming Britain’s myths, and movies like Children of Men seem as much focused on the future of the planet as they do in questioning how Britain as an elderly and retired empire deals with its unwanted immigrant children: Is there something to lose in British identity? Does being British mean being white? Or born on the Isle? Anglican?

Taking a different path, League of Gentleman focuses on the particular identity of soldiers who have returned to a war-weary nation after fighting. A particularly touchy subject–soldiers returning home are often crushed between the reality of fighting and the seeming ingratitude of civilians for whom war is not the eclipsing reality. Take one look at American soldiers coming home now, and you’ll find this especially true when soldiers are as much tools of empire as anything else.

On the surface, League of Gentleman is a great bank caper film, focused around a disgruntled Colonel forced into early retirement, who gathers about him various veterans who he selected for their criminal records. The films undercurrent becomes clear when the Colonel quickly organizes the men into a deranged sort of criminal military unit, using his house as barracks, setting up a duty roster, and expecting the men to call him Colonel.

The films satire of military bureacracy–especially in peacetime, continues, when on a raid on a military base to gather weapons, they distract the guards by pretending to be higher-ups concerned with the quality of the food. It is a mundane complaint inflated by professional ego and the fear of the chain of command to an utmost degree. Pointedly, they doubly cover their escape by using irish accents so that the raid is blamed on the IRA.

The question in the film is one that pokes at what an army is supposed to during peace time, when it serves as a vestigial organ, flaring up like an inflamed appendix. On a grander scale, what is an army–the principal way an empire is built–supposed to do when the empire starts to contract rather than expand.

The film doesn’t have any good answers, but manages to provide a highly entertaining film, while still examining the nihilism and desperate serach for meaning that comes when you are a man trained to kill during peacetime.

Wars and empires demand a certain level of patriotism, national pride, and confidence–what do these chemicals become when there is no war and no empires–do they slowly go inert, or do they linger like nuclear radiation, ghostly and poisonous. This is not a question that is unique to England, though England, to its credit, seems more willing to focus on this on a national level than other countries, and as for the answer, it is sadly, films like Children of Men may provide it.

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Criterion film a day, day 15: Tokyo Story and the pain of generational conflict

There is no relationship so happily connected to loss as the relationship to parent and child. The good parent always dreams that the child will grow with a strong moral compass, independent mind and, usually, talents greater than the parents. Of course, when the kid becomes an independent thinker, and their abilities take them out into the world, the parent feels a loss that the entirely dependent two-year-old, or even the moody teenager is not at home with them.

On the child’s part, they either don’t notice, choose to ignore, or struggle mightily with the feeling of debt to their parent: How do you pay back or ever fully acknowledge your gratitude to the people who gave up their lives and devoted it to one person. The child, too, can’t help feeling a loss as the parents get older and the tide of dependence slowly reverses until the child is more parent than the parent. The most grateful kids will relish this role.

Add to this careers, grandchildren and changing ideologies and perspectives (changing always faster, these days), and you’ve got an incredibly complex, difficult and often painful relationship to understand.

Trying to put all of this into a film isn’t easy, but Yashujiro Oju’s Tokyo Story takes a deceptively simple story and makes it into a powerful essay on the parent-child relationship.

The story follows elderly parents Shukichi and Tomi, as they travel from their small town to visit their children in Tokyo. They leave their youngest (though adult) daughter at home, and plan on staying with their son–a pediatrician. Upon arriving, they quickly learn that their son and their hairdresser daughter are happy to see them, but are busy with their careers. The daughter even goes so far as to send them off to a spa–lying to herself that what they want is a vacation, not time with their children–and then is disappointed when they return early because she needs the space for a meeting.

The only relative that takes an interest in them is their widowed daughter-in-law, who takes time to tour them around.

Running through this film is the shadows of all the sons lost in the war–and Oju makes a wise point. There is loss, and then there is loss. At no point do the two parents subject themselves to self-pity–they’re sad to not spend time with their children, sure, but happy that they are busy (if also disappointed that they don’t have the greatest careers).

The final act of the film deals with the conflicts that arise when the mother falls dangerously ill–who returns to support their father? Who actually takes the time to be at home while he deals with his wife’s illness?

The film meditatively unfurls the tricky map of parent-child relationships, and doesn’t take the easy way out to demonize one character over another–it is profound in that it is just the way that life often is, comforting in that we can understand that and see it contained in a two-hour film: It helps us understand our own lives in a way that we can’t see because we’re too close to them.

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Criterion film a day, day 14: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible

With a basic cultural understanding, it’s easy to figure out what films have been made under the rule of dictatorships: There is a suck-up attitude underlying the film, an uneasy eagerness to please, and of course, plenty of overtures to the great nation of wherever led by the honorable and infallible dictator whomever.

Unrelated screenshot of Ivan (right) about to demonstrate his support for gay marriage.

These elements are easy enough to say in Eistensteins Ivan the Terrible. Even the subject of the film, the rise to power of Tsar Ivan, the first to articulate a dream of a united Russia, fits in nicely with the expectations and demands of Stalinist Russia.

A certain liberal objection to Stalinism and propaganda aside, the Eisenstein’s effort to bring the legend of Ivan to life makes for a bombastic, enthusiastic film. The costumes are outrageous, the scenes blinged out, even the acting manages to have all of the high melodrama of silent film while not being laughable–a surprisingly and exciting balance to watch. The film was meant to be a 3 part epic chronicling the entire career of Ivan the Terrible–and this first part is a pointedly ambitious start.

“I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that”

The film begins with the crowning of Ivan as Tsar and captures all of the over-the-top pomp and circumstance one would expect of medieval rulers (like having buckets of gold coins poured over him during the crowning) make for great scenes–and a notable parallel to the excesses and personality cults of even contemporary dictators.

In another (historically accurate) parallel to the Soviet state, Ivan quickly pisses off the other feudal lords by declaring himself superior, not sharing power, and being more invested in a united Russia than in supplying and continuing all of the separate fiefdoms.

The Russian people were known at the time for their great constipation.

In a number of dramatic speeches and declarative statements, Ivan wins the support of the people and goes to war against the Kazakhs, defeating them easily. On his return home, however, he falls ill, and the story turns to focus on the machinations of the feudal lords as they debate how to topple him.

This being the first part of a trilogy, our protagonist does not die. He is, however, greatly weakened by the treachery of the Boyers, and decides to leave Moscow, declaring that he will not come back as a soldier, but only if invited by the people.

Surprisingly populist for a 16th century ruler who’d later be known for a particularly violent form of paranoia, but hey, Stalinist Russia.

Eisenstein’s homage takes a serious turn in the next installment of the trilogy, wherein a powerful army devotes his time to purges and secret police. This was a parallel that Stalin appreciated less than the first installment, and he quickly banned the film. Apparently running all of Eastern Europe means that you are no longer worried about things like irony.

The film is a template for the charisma and tragedy of all dictators: Men who have the power to outwit their enemies and dominate a nation inevitably take it too far, and in the name of what? The ease with which Ivan orders people’s executions is something past callous–to be callous means that you care enough to be mean. To him–and to all dictatorships–humanism is a waste, and human lives become commodities, bricks with which to build empires, spread  cosmologies, or feed an ego. It is not a question of leadership, it is a question of domination.

If you like epically-minded films, but have misplaced your copy of The Ten Commandments, I really recommend this film. Also, you should see Mongol, a modern-day attempt to give the Eisenstein treatment to Genghis Khan.

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