The Cow (1969)

Written by: Gholam-Hossen Saedi, Directed by: Dariush Mehrjui 

TheCow1969CoverMy latest trek to the video store led me to stumble upon a work called The Cow. There was something instantly endearing about it: it’s simple, yet striking box art, and it’s comedic premise (which I will not elaborate on here). Upon doing further research I found out the work is considered one of the great pieces of Iranian cinema. At the time of its creation, the film was blocked by (the then monarchic) Iranian government, the reason supposedly being that Iran was eager to present itself as a modern country, and a black and white film about village peasants did not exactly fit that image. The film’s subsequent international success, and Iran’s subsequent change of governments, however, changed it’s fate, helping to establish director Darius Mehrjui as a leading figure in Iranian cinema.

Mehrjui described Italian neo-realism as a key influenced of his, emphasizing the principle that filmmakers should try and create a reality specific to their characters, rather than aspire to meet some more “objective” conception of reality. The idea of this, is that directors who take this approach end up creating a work with a universalist feel to anyway. Viewers who enjoy the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Fiddler on the Roof will find familiar strong points in The Cow. Perhaps “village films/literature” should be recognized as a genre in their own right. The kind of village seen in The Cow is defined by an everybody-knows-everybody dynamic. This in turn makes the quirks and struggles of individual villagers a collective problem.

The film’s central character, Hassan, has moderate similarities to Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, a striking combination of affectionateness and gruffness, and of course, a close relationship with a cow. While Hassan does not burst into song or engage in long polemics with God, in one key way he is far quirkier than Tevye. It is the meeting of Hassan’s quirk and the film’s village dynamic that makes the work so effective. In another kind of film, Hassan’s behaviour might make him repellent to others, or at least the but of jokes. The Cow, however, is notable in that Hassan’s neighbours treat him to active compassion. The cliché goes that it takes a village to raise a child. In this word a village raises a man, while as much possible, not infantilizing him.

Perhaps this review has been devoid of specifics. The Cow, not unlike A Ghost Story is a film with an excellent premise, but with little else in its favour that doesn’t factor into the synopsis. I therefore recommend The Cow as in important, at times endearing piece of cinematic history, but if you can, don’t read the blurb before viewing.

 

Borgman (2013)

Written and Directed by: Alex van Warmerdam 

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            In its early days, this website has explored a number of variants on the horror genre. Get Out was “woke” horror; Colossal was subtle-alt-woke-horror; and My Cousin Rachel was…well, was it horror?

Borgman is yet another category on this list. It can be described as obvious horror, or rather, incredibly obvious horror. The horror in this work is so obvious that perhaps the film isn’t a work of horror at all.

Borgman follows a team of murderers. We see the efficiency with which they operate, but we are never allowed to understand why they do what they do. The film also follows a wealthy suburban/rural family which includes a mother, father, three children and an aupair. The premise of the film is simple, these two groups of characters are brought together, and we can only assume things will not end well for at least certain members of the family.

Borgman’s intrigue thus doesn’t lie in its horror—which is simultaneously under and overstated, but in its other mysteries. Richard, the father (Jeroen Perceval), can be aggressive and is an unabashed elitist racist. The contrast between Richard and his orderly, but caring artist wife Marina (Hodewych Minis) is particularly noticeable. Petty conflicts exists elsewhere in the family, for instance, Marina’s chiding of Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), the au pair, over her work. While tensions ultimately rises between Richard and Marina due to the efforts of the killers, audiences are nonetheless left to wonder whether a comparably intense story could have developed in their absence.

Without the serial killers Borgman could tell the tale of Richard and Marina’s search for a gardener. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but film festival fans would no doubt enjoy seeing a Paterson-esque pseudo story of a borderline-incompatible couple trying to hire a gardener, while their kids and au pair live normally on the sidelines.

With the serial-killers, Borgman transforms, not so much into a horror film as into a horror painting. Borgman is not a film one watches to tremble as one gradually anticipates what it’s horror will be. Instead it presents viewers with a quaint country landscape coupled with a portrait of domestic life; and scattered with a number of violently mischievous little demons.

Borgman is not a work for the faint of heart, but it is not something to be avoided simply because one is put off by horror films in general. If you want to see The Gift, but with less suspense, or Holy Motors, but with (somewhat) less graphic violence and more of a coherent story line, this unapologetically macabre film is right for you.


 

Fences (2016)

Written by: August Wilson, Directed by: Denzel Washington

Fences_(film)            As I gradually began the process of catching up on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best picture, I was both struck (and not surprised at all) when I recalled the lack of buzz drawn by Fences; the story of the family life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an African-American garbage collector living in 1950s Pittsburgh.

Fences is not a ground-breaking story about being black, poor and gay in America, nor is it a visually stunning homage to ambition and failure in Hollywood. But while Fences lacks the “wow-factor” of its Oscar-nominated peers, it has a distinct voice all the same. The film is adapted from a theatre-script, a script that playwright/screenwriter August Wilson seems to have left largely in tact. The action primarily takes place in front of an ordinary, brick-walled backyard, reminiscent of a stage-set. When a new character arrives, it’s usually with the opening of a door and an introductory line, reproducing theatrical style entrances. And, just as if the film was a play, its set only changes occasionally, forcing the actors to breathe life into the story with their performances.

Upon re-watching fences I came to understand why, in comparison to its Oscar competitors, it was not a great work. The script relies heavily on foreshadowing and exposition, meaning attentive viewers can predict where the film will go as early as its opening scene. This non-subtlety, however, is more than made up for by the impassioned, bantering-style in which the characters deliver their lines.

Troy, for example, spells out what his underlying psychological motivations are, but he does so with in his own, unforgettable way. A former negro-league ballplayer, he regularly complains about how he was better than white major-leaguer George Selkirk. Referencing Selkirk was a strong choice on August Wilson’s part, given that both now and, in all likelihood, in the 50s Selkirk was not exactly a household name (though Yankees fans may recognize him as the Canadian who succeeded Babe Ruth in right-field, performing decently, though not comparably to his predecessor). Troy’s contempt for Selkirk, along with his numerous other informed and not-so-informed baseball references (eg insisting that a black man will never make it with the Pirates, wilfully ignoring Roberto Clemente), contributes to his status as a distinct, well-rounded character; which makes up for the fact that many of his lines are overly expository.

Troy’s story is one of a marginalized man who deals with his oppression by reproducing it in his household with him as the alpha. Despite being a union man who speaks ill his boss, Troy applies a pull-up-your-boostraps approach in his dealings with his two sons, and a patriarchally-domineering attitude towards his wife. Fences, however, cannot be reduced to being a socio-political analysis of the behaviour of a certain kind of man. For much of the film Troy’s jabs at the career choices of his sons are delivered with cockiness, but not anger. And when Troy orders around his wife (Viola Davis) he does so light-heartedly, knowing full well that she won’t let him control her. Washington thus envisions Troy as a character who is troubled, stubborn, and idiosyncratic, but not tyrannical. This portrayal makes Troy’s story engaging, tragic and mysterious, even as the lines on the page are written to be a bit predictable.

Despite its shortcomings, Fences should be remembered as one of the more engaging films of 2017; think of it as a tonal mid-way point between Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, but with a noticeable amount of intersectionally-conscious socio-political commentary. If you’re looking to see some theatre without…well, going to the theatre, or if you share Troy’s view that George Selkirk is the embodiment of racial injustice, why not give Fences a try?

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Taking_woodstockWritten by: James Schamus, Directed by: Ang Lee

Bob Dylan…The Rolling Stones…these are the mythic figures in the world of Taking Woodstock; their auras shape the movements of the characters. Yet, strangely enough, in the world of Taking Woodstock, we never see the faces of any Woodstock act, let alone Dylan (who didn’t perform at the actual event). As much as I enjoy cameo depictions of historical figures (such as the Presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler), taking Woodstock’s non-inclusion of musicians is an important artistic choice.

Rod Stewart, a last minute-no-show for Woodstock later said “seen one outdoor festival, you’ve seen them all.” If Taking Woodstock were about the actual musical icons of hippyism, it likely would have had to find magic where there was none; magic in performers playing songs for the umpteenth time that in themselves may not have contained very much counter-cultural wisdom. Instead, Schamus and Lee have created a film that captures what really made Woodstock a historically important event: its organizers and audience.

The film’s story is of the underdog ilk. On of its underdogs is Elliot Teichberg (stand-up comedian Demetri Martin), the young president of his (miniscule and folksy) town chamber of commerce, who attempts to save his family’s motel business by bringing Woodstock to rural Whitelake, New York. The underdog motif goes beyond Elliot, however. Elliot’s whole generation are underdogs, who gather to collectively form what will be known as Woodstock, despite the anger of Whitelake’s residents.

Watching Taking Woodstock in the age of Trump, sheds fresh light on some of the film’s features. The Teichbergs are a Jewish, and when Whitelakians become unhappy with the looming prospect of hippies destroying their town ,some of them express this by turning to anti-semitism. This is mirrored in how the rise of open bigotry in Trumpian America has been accompanied by a rise in anti-youth language (the bashing of “special snowflakes”).

But could there be a film like Taking Woodstock about this generation? What are millenials? Millenials may be defined by their critics who see them as phone-addicted, entitled, whiny avocado connoisseurs, but do millennials have an internal sense of identity? A common cause? Perhaps not, but the hippy generation(at least in our historical imagining) certainly did. Taking Woodstock’s saviours are thus not Dylan and The Stones, but the young people who idolized them; young people who champion peace and love, and stand strong in the face of opposition from older generations.

Taking Woodstock’s approach of telling the story of a generation comes at a cost. The film has a good ensemble of characters including an alienated, hippy-haired veteran, a transwoman security guard (portrayed not unproblematically, but still positively), and Elliot’s eccentric parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). None of these characters are developed or used enough due to the film’s lack of a story line beyond the festival’s happening. This underdevelopment is perhaps most problematic in the case of Elliot’s mother, a very-stereotypical Jewish matriarch.

Elliot’s character also remains shrouded in mystery, due to his character’s toned-down personality. The real Elliot Tiber (born Teichberg) was gay and attended the Stonewall riots. Taking Woodstock portrays Elliot as a diplomatic figure who can mediate between generations. Elliot’s preference for the ways of his generation, over the conservatism of older Whitelakeians is always depicted as awkward and subtle. Therefore when he kisses a man at a Woodstock party, it comes across more as him participating in an awkward dare than a sincere, liberating, and euphoric expression of his sexuality.

Elliot’s toned-down personality is nonetheless textually and politically significant. Despite his articulateness and relatively-straight-laced behaviour, even he is not fully able to bridge the generational divide and win the respect of older Whitelakians. This contributes to the film’s exploration of intergenerational conflict, and seems particularly relevant in a day and age when social-media has allegedly allowed us to live in political-bubbles, that make it even harder to speak persuasively to our political adversaries or even acknowledge that they exist.

Taking Woodstock is slightly on the long side, and does not have a story that will blow viewers away. At the same time, it is not dull, and its regular introduction of new, charismatic characters will keep viewers engaged, while the film submerses them into its broader celebration of counter culture and the generation that embodied it.

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

Written and Directed by: Damien ChazelleGuy_and_Madeline_on_a_Park_Bench_Theatrical_Poster

At the time of its release, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was compared to (early) Jean-Luc Godard films. Were it released today (and simultaneously still released in 2009), this work would be called the proto-La La Land. As with writer-director Damien Chazelle’s recent breakout, Guy and Madeline is a musical-ish simple love story that pays homage to jazz. If you take La La Land, take out the color (literally), take out the theatre-story-line, and take out the latter film’s most intense emotional and introspective moments, you get Guy and Madeline.

 

During the lead up to Moonlight’s almost-denied-victory at the 2017 Oscars, La La Land was portrayed by some as predictable-white-nostalgia, in contrast to Moonlight’s conscientious brilliance. While, broadly speaking, this was a fair point to make from a critical-race perspective, it’s not a great way of understanding La La Land, a film that has less of a message or an ideology, than its critics make it out to have. La La Land, is not so much a story as a moving sculpture: a diorama of dazzling dance numbers set against Hollywood stars navigated by characters exploring a variety of jazz and Broadway sounds, while participating in a love story that is just nuanced enough to be interesting.

 

This understanding of La La Land is reinforced by Guy and Madeline. La La Land tells a simple, bittersweet love story; Guy and Madeline tells a bittersweet love story that couldn’t be simpler. La La Land featured just enough songs to be considered (by some, not me) a musical, rather than a quirky film with random musical outbreaks; Guy and Madeline drifts even further from the “musical” label, featuring numerous songs that feed the film’s jazz aesthetic, but do not directly forward its plot.

 

The (non-spoiled) story of Guy and Madeline is simple: sometimes there is love, sometimes there is heartache, but there is always jazz (unless you’re that one character who doesn’t appreciate jazz).

 

It would be wrong to say Chazelle’s film making is devoid of nostalgia; a black-and-white film about the popular music of bygone decades certainly fits that bill. But, as with La La Land, Guy and Madeline is not a film you watch to be passionate; it is a film you watch simply to be. It’s a film that casts aside the distraction of color, and, with its constant zoom-ins on the smiles (and grimaces) of its characters, invites viewers to enjoy and share in their simple pleasures (and frustrations). When Guy joyously lists composers, some viewers may hear ordinary dialogue, but others may share in his moment of ambition and passion, recalling their own mundane “adventures” in the world of music fandom.

 

The film’s subtlety makes its highlights easy to miss without a re-watch. The titular scene is silent and brief, but the ordinary role played by Guy’s small, light-colored, trumpet case, makes the scene one of the film’s highlights.

 

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is not written to be popular cinema, but it’s not inaccessible: it’s deceptively simple. Viewers looking to “lose their heart in Cincinnati” (or New York, or Boston, viewers will get the reference), or simply study Chazelles small, but excellent, cannon, should check

Carol (2015)

Written by: Phyllis Nagy, Directed by: Todd Haynes

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Carol, one of the most praised films of 2015, tells the story of a romance between two women (one upper class, one class-ambiguous) in 1950s New York. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the film’s selling point is no doubt that it’s an LGBT story set “back in the day” (“There were…like…lesbians back then….woahhhh dude!!!”). While it can certainly be argued that simply making a film like Carol is important, given Hollywood’s under-recognition of LGBT-centric cinema, the film’s greatness stems from its execution, not its premise.

 

Carol shows homophobia in a light many viewers may not anticipate. Had Hannah Arendt not already coined the term to refer a situation far more sinister than what is depicted in Carol, I would describe Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s struggle as being against a banal evil.

 

Carol does not live (what by modern standards would be considered) an openly gay lifestyle. She speaks with refined posh-ness, and her public dates with Therese (Rooney Mara) are not outwardly romantic. On the other hand, Carol’s “closeted” mannerisms, can also be understood as the refined affect of a high society, 1950s New York woman. To put it simply, it is hard to tell when Carol is mundanely living a suppressed existence, and when she is mundanely living a lavish one.

 

Furthermore, by the standard of her era, Carol is not all-that-closeted either. Amongst those who know her, her sexual orientation is an open secret. Viewers might expect Carol to be chastised by Jerry Falwell-type preachers or to be regularly subject to slurs and revolted stares. Carol, however, is victim to no such behaviour. Instead, homophobia only rears its ugly head when the legal system is brought into play. Carol’s orientation comes under scrutiny because it allows her legal opponent (whose identity I will not reveal) to invoke a “morality clause” against her. Even then, the clause is introduced and discussed calmly. Rather than being an expression of true “moral” revulsion, it is used as a tool for the assertion of misogynistic (more than homophobic) domination.

 

Carol’s sexual orientation causes her hardship, but it is not the kind of hardship viewers will anticipate. Carol does not suffer as a result of having a sexual orientation that society refuses to accept. Rather, she suffers because her sexual orientation is something that society seems nearly ready to accept: but nearly is far from good enough. Her opponents may not denounce her, but still nonchalantly marginalize her as “immoral” when it is convenient to do so. For instance, when Carol and Therese discover that of one of the film’s secondary antagonists has been spying on them to expose their relationship, he makes no righteous tirade about how they are living in sin, but instead makes an empty apology, explaining that he is doing his job and he wishes them no ill will.

 

Hate speech and violence are nasty parts of history that have defined many bigotries including homophobia. Carol, however, challenges viewers to look at another element of systemic bigotry: the dispassionate, banal evils of people using the law and “doing their jobs.” This “toned down” analysis of marginalization allows Carol to engage in deep social criticism, while still telling a strong narrative that’s not overwhelmed by its ideological ambitions.

 

Margaret (Extended Cut) (2011)

Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

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A drama teacher once told me that a good way to go about playwriting is to take a metaphor and run with it. I don’t believe I am making any radical assumptions in saying that playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s piece is built around the metaphor of the theatre. The film’s final moments feature stunning shots of New York’s metropolitan opera house. One of the central characters’ struggle for connection and authority is shaped by her career as an actor. The central character is said to have no interest in acting, and yet we even see her working behind the scenes in a school play, before participating in a distinctly theatrical bonding activity.

 

One could take things a step forward and say that the central metaphor of Margaret is the over-dramatization of one’s story, as in one of the film’s (many) striking scenes, protagonist Lisa Cohen is accused of just that—playing up her struggles at the expense of others. Viewing Margaret in this light makes it a good companion piece for Lonergan’s later (more successful) film Manchester by the Sea. Both are stories about dealing with guilt and grief: one told from the perspective of an outspoken, big city teenager, the other from the perspective of an emotionally-suppressed man returning to the small town of his birth. One could also go so far as to say that Manchester by the Sea is the story of Margaret “antagonist” Gerald Maretti (to say why would spoil the film).

 

But to call Margaret a film about over-dramatization, about self-aggrandizing, would be to miss another element of Lonergan’s style—his neutrality. In its three hours, the film finds times, amongst other things, for characters to debate Israel-and-Palestine. The debate is believably written, and I certainly think the pro-Palestinian side comes out looking better. But the function of this debate is not to teach a (non-sequitorial) political lesson, but to show the complexity of what it means to “root” for or against real humans. For instance, we see the mostly likeable love-interest of Lisa’s mother, make a soft-spoken, articulate intervention on behalf of the Palestinians, only to make a brief, but unsettling anti-semitic slip-of-the-tongue, when he is about to “win” the debate.

 

The allegation that Lisa is “over-dramatic” is similarly portrayed in a neutral light. Lisa, 17, is unquestionably overdramatic (and perhaps drama seeking) in her tendency to yell, argue vociferously in her classes, make questionable spur-of-the-moment decisions, and, most centrally to the film, advocate passionately for a cause mere days after having held an entirely different moral viewpoint. At the same time, Lisa’s recent-life is unquestionably shaped by trauma and instability, making the characterization of her as overdramatic seem inadequate and even insulting. Therefore, when the accusation of over-drama is explicitly levelled at Lisa, an audience is neither inclined to fault the woman for making the remark, nor Lisa for her passionate denunciation of the criticism. Rather the audience is invited to sympathize with both parties in this short-lived, but important conflict.

 

Margaret is a story of many stories. It is a story of character’s who are too deep and too real to have full plot-arcs. It is a dark drama, and a tonally neutral tour of New York City. As audiences watch the picturesque shots of skyscrapers and New York crowds they can read these city-scapes as attempts to aggrandize the stories of characters by setting them amongst the backdrop of the most famous city in the world; or they can read them as a sign that many truly powerful and dark stories are hidden in the countless apartments of New York. Both interpretations are correct.