A Huey Newton Story (2001)

Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith. Directed by: Spike Lee

AhueypnewtonstoryLook closely at the Spike Lee film of the Roger Guenveur Smith one man play and you’ll notice it’s called A Huey Newton story. This title is in the spirit of the post-modern idea that history is not one story but many that can be both contradictory and true. In the case of this work “A” takes on even more significance. This piece is not the dramatic tale of the Black Panthers co-founder cumulating with his murder. Rather, the piece is an imagination of how Huey Newton might tell his story if given the chance: there is an emphasis on history and anti-racism, but that is not the full scope of the work.

History is often told with particular reference made to heroes and villains: heads of state and revolutionaries alike. This is a logic that many movements and political figures try to counter, saying that what matters is not them but their movement and their goals. In practice, the representation of movements through canonized individuals will likely never go away. Joining the cause of an individual has a certain intimateness to it that joining a broad struggle for idealism never will.

A Huey Newton story is above all else an exploration of the mental struggle between honouring heroes and honouring causes. The film puts Newton on a pedestal: to be more precise: a chair on a stage where Newton sits in front of an adulating audience. Newton then begins his film-spanning monologue. He is almost a stand-up comedian, but not quite, as his stream-of-consciousness style presentation varies in tone from sombre, to comedic, to academic, to vulnerable, to unintelligible. His faceless audience laughs at all of his jokes as if he is a standup comedian: but he is clearly not one an. In this sense we are presented with the image of cult of personality: the audience adores Newton not simply because of his jokes but because he is Huey P. Newton

But while the film allows us to enjoy (or at least enjoy others enjoying) Newton’s personality cult, he deconstructs it. Newton reads his poems and questions the meaning of his own existence, one poem asking what part of his body is essentially him (ie if he could continue to exist if they are all stripped away). At another moment Newton embodies loneliness, expressively moving to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” like an archetypal moody teenager. While Newton shares his political theory, including his views on the violence-non-violence continuum and the role of the Panthers as a political vanguard, he avoids fiery ideological preaching in favour of jokes, introspection and more anecdotal commentary on racism (Eg decrying a radio station for playing the Eric Clapton version of “I Shot the Sheriff”).

Cigarette smoke factors regularly into the film’s artistic aesthetic. Newton sits and dances in billows of smoke while waiting to make profound and profoundly-empty statements. Newton breaks down the granduous mistake of even this part of his image, denouncing cigarettes as “reactionary suicide.”

Those unfamiliar with one man shows may be sceptical as to the art form’s potential to entertain, especially in the film format. A Huey Newton story, however, is very easy to appreciate. Guenveur Smith’s Newton dazzles with his wit and moodiness, while Lee’s shots accentuate the vividness of Newton’s persona. If you’re interested in social justice and history absolutely check out A Huey Newton Story, but do so realizing it is simply “A” story. It may not help you pass your history test, but it does provide a stunning, complex and sympathetic portrait of a historical figure in a manner that is both thought provoking and encapsulating.

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Dazed and Confused (1993): A Mild Dystopia

Written and directed by: Richard Linklater

Dazed_and_Confused_(1993)_posterI was drawn to Dazed and Confused for two reasons. Firstly, in TV drama Rectified, teenager Jared shows his much older half-brother Daniel the film in order to catch Daniel up on the movies he has missed while in prison. Secondly, the film was directed by Richard Linklater, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of his works so far. Modern film viewers may see Dazed and Confused as a predecessor to teenage-drinking comedies like SuperBad. Indeed, the film can be appreciated on that level; it’s a chance to watch kids revelling in their bad decisions, laugh at low-brow humour and at times, sympathize with them when they are faced with bullying.

However, as someone who spent high school thinking beer was a disgusting concoction that you learned to like somewhere in the distance of adulthood, and that getting drunk was something people only did if when really down on their luck, needless to say, I struggled to relate to films like SuperBad. To me they aren’t comic representations of a universal experience, but depictions of a group of kids I was dis-included from and may not have wanted to have been part of anyway.

Dazed and Confused, however, is fundamentally different from SuperBad. Unlike the 2007 film, it doesn’t consistently follow a small group of protagonists, and doesn’t have much of a plot arc. Dazed and Confused therefore does not encourage viewers to identify with its characters to the same degree that SuperBad does and therefore, has the potential to appeal to a broader audience (that is if much of that audience is not alienated by slightly-experimental, loosely-plotted cinema).

Another key difference between Dazed and Confused and SuperBad, is that the former is a period piece: filmed in the 90s but set in the 1976. Hippy-culture is still a force in the Dazed and Confused universe. The boy characters’ don free-flowing-hair , and sex and drugs are still (unsurprisingly) in vogue. Absent, however, from the world of these high-schoolers is any sort of hippy-politics. Dazed and Confused thus envisions a world of teenage counterculture, but without counter-cultural idealism: quite the opposite in fact as the school’s seniors participate in a ritualized campaign of bullying against freshman. 12th grade boys chase their freshman counterparts with spanking paddles, while the girls participate in an insult-and-degradation-routine that is most disturbing in that involves a degree of willing participation from its 9th grade victims.

So what makes Dazed and Confused an arguable classic, and not just some other teens-getting-drunk comedy? I would argue its success lies in that it depicts a veritable dystopia. I call it a dystopia, and not just a film in which some bad things happen, as Dazed and Confused, depicts a suburban-teenage world of-itself, with its own dystopian set of laws. Yes there are adults in the film, but they operate on its periphery, seemingly powerless to infringe on tyrannical, teenage sovereignty and the culture of hazing it produces.

Dazed and Confused can also be said to depict a cohesive, dystopian world because none of its characters are able to articulate just how absurd the ways of their world are (much as a fish would theoretically be unable to identify what water is). The film’s (sort of) “nerdy” friend group features two guys, Mike and Tony (Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp) who operate awkwardly within the logic of the Dazed and Confused world. When, as part of a hazing ritual, 9th grader Sabrina (Christina Hinjosa) is told to propose to Tony and promise she’ll do anything he wants, Tony half heartedly participates, before telling Sabrina he thinks the whole thing is silly. Tony, and Mike later appear, trying to fitting in at a high school party. They don’t quite cut it, but much like the characters in SuperBad, their nerdiness only goes as far as struggling to fit in with mainstream culture, rather than living outside of it. Mike and Tony are not bullies; they are seemingly idealistic figures, yet they are unable to seriously-question or escape the basic rituals of the Dazed and Confused universe.

Sabrina, like Mike and Tony, shows a degree of resistance to the dystopia’s culture. She is never seen getting drunk, and in a brief exchange with fellow beleaguered freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), comments on the absurdity of what they are going through. On the other hand, Sabrina’s most striking feature is her quietness, and she is introduced to the plot as willing (as far as we know) victim of the 12th-grade-girls’ hazing ritual. Like Tony and Mike, she is unable to think or exist fully outside the parameters of the dystopia she lives within.

There are numerous other examples of characters in the film failing to deconstruct its universe. Mitch’s older sister Jody (Michelle Burke), knowing full well he will be beaten by 12th graders, warns his attackers in advance that they should be gentle with him. Apparently telling a teacher that your brother is being bullied, you know, the common sense approach, isn’t an option in the world of Dazed and Confused (again, in this dystopia, teenagers are sovereign). Mitch’s bullies, meanwhile are lead by football player Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) who refuses on principle to sign a form saying he won’t take drugs during football season (as meaningless as such a signature would be), explaining that in principle he can’t give in to such McCarthyism. Again, the logic of Dazed and Confused is expressed: 70s hippyism is present just enough for the character to rail against McCarthyism, yet not enough for the character to see the evident cruelty of his beating up on those smaller than him.

In other moments, the film’s title feels like an apt description for the film’s universe:the characters behave absurdly, as if in a daze. The film is largely devoid of the kind of intellectual conversation seen in Linklater’s other works (eg the “Before” trilogy). The closest a character comes to articulating something interesting is a rant by Slater (Rory Cochrane), the film’s leading stoner, about George Washington. The rant unsurprisingly is a conspiracy theory about the historical importance of weed. In a film in which all the characters are in a daze; unable to see moral logic outside the rules of their universe, such a rant is well placed.

But perhaps no scene represents dazedness better than when the film’s main female antagonist, Michelle (Milla Jovovich) very-drunkenly threatens Sabrina. Her cruelty is absurd, and her dazed-delivery is equally absurd too match.

Dazed and Confused is an enduring work for a number of reasons. Viewers can play spot the star looking for young versions of Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellwegger. Other viewers may appreciate the film as yet another party comedy. Perhaps I’m alone in seeing the film as dystopian. That’s the impression I get when one of the story’s victims, Mitch, ends the film with a smile on his face after an early-morning return home. Nevertheless, the ingredients are certainly there for viewing the film as a scathing imaginary of 1970s high school life. Dazed and Confused is not a traditional film, but it is not slow or confusing either, meaning viewers with a range of perspectives and tastes will continue to appreciate it.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.

Diplomacy (2014)

Directed by: Volker Schlöndorf. Written by: Cyril Gely (playwrite), Schlöndorf (screenplay edits)

Diplomatie_posterLet’s start with the basics; Diplomacy is a film adaptation of a play based on historical events. With defeat eminent for the Nazis, Hitler has concocted a final, unthinkable plot to be carried out in occupied Paris. Hitler, however, is not a character in the film. Instead the story centres around Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz, who is set to carry out Hitler’s orders, and a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, bent on stopping them. The film’s title is not subtle metaphor—the story is a plea for belief in diplomacy and a tribute to the Swedish diplomat’s negotiating skills.

Diplomacy, as a WWII film, had it works cut out for it. Few governments/warring parties are as universally despised as Hitler and Nazi Germany. Artists who depict WWII and its ensuing tragedies are thus challenged to make statements that go beyond what everybody knows—that war is bad, that WWII was particularly bad, and that that particularly badness stemmed from Hitler’s distinctly-intentional genocide. At times, Diplomacy feels like it cannot meet the high bar that WWII films must overcome. The diplomat tells the general that senseless killing and Nazism are wrong. “How profound!” many audiences will think sarcastically.

Yet even in these moments of weakness, Diplomacy begins to reveal its strength. I thought of the moments I’ve spent watching Fox News, exasperated by its ideological bias. I also thought of a scene in the comi-tragic TV show Atlanta, when Earn (Donald Glover) an unemployed, bankrupt father tries to order a kids meal at a restaurant (due to his financial situation), and is refused. A voice was screaming in my head as I watched that scene; why couldn’t some character have just told the cashier to be decent, and prioritize Earn’s right to eat over enforcing a fast food chain’s bureaucratic rules!? Why couldn’t someone have told the Fox News broadcasters to stop spewing bullshit about universal health care being a tyrannical disaster? Diplomacy gives us a character who does just that. He calmly stares a Nazi in the face and tells him to act conscientiously. It sounds absurd, but I came to realize it’s what I wanted to see, and perhaps what many will want to see.

Diplomacy not only imagines a world in which a character tells a Nazi to be decent…it imagines a world in which the tactic works. The film should be praised for this political work alone. Far too often, as news of international conflict is brought before the public, many will think “the enemy” cannot be reasoned with: that the enemy simply enjoys its brutality (or alleged brutality) too much. Diplomacy reminds viewers that aversion to killing is a near universal human trait, and therefore, diplomatic solutions should never be written off as utopian/hopeless.

One of the film’s great lines comes when the Swedish diplomat references the story of Isaac and Abraham, begging the Nazi general not to follow the orders of a “God” that would have him kill his “son” (the city of Paris). While the film is based on true events (limiting its ability for creative experimentation), and while the direction its plot takes is ultimately endearing, the delivery of this line still left me questioning Diplomacy’s playwright. What if, I pondered, the general and not the diplomat had raised the Isaac and Abraham comparison? The diplomat raises this argument simply so that he can rebut it. By contrast, if the general had raised the argument, surely he would have fleshed it out. The point he would be making is that as a humble servant of “God” (Hitler, in this case) he was in no position to question the morality of his master. Abraham did not want to kill Isaac, but was prepared to do so to follow orders. Similarly, the general did not want to follow Hitler’s orders but shows a firm preparedness to do so regardless.

This kind of “following orders” character is also represented in James Cameron’s Avatar through the figure of Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is simultaneously a kindly, father figure, and someone willing to mercilessly kill all those who stand in his way (including his former pupil) when duty calls.

Like Quaritch’s, the general’s conduct represents an inherent flaw of many militaries: their internal codes of honour often come into conflict with more fundamental rules of morality. A good soldier loyally follows the orders of commanding officers and political officials. A good person doesn’t commit acts of genocide. Needless to say, in the context of Nazi Germany (which is just one example), these two coders were at odds.

A common refrain about WWII is the question: why didn’t good people stand up to Hitler? With its “Abraham and Isaac” line, Diplomacy hints at one of the answers: military (and police) ethics can mean not questioning even the atrocious orders of one’s leaders. Diplomacy, however, doesn’t end up taking this “Abraham and Isaac” approach very far. Perhaps this is because the question and answer may not prove satisfying to those who want to see the Nazis presented as a distinctly evil. Perhaps some would find it tasteless to see an explanation proposed for Nazi brutality that could also be applied to explain atrocities committed by western liberal democracies.

That digression aside, Diplomacy should be commended as a work that convincingly retells a historic episode to promote a message of peace. It is mostly well written, even if at times the unambiguous moral superiority of the diplomat can cause the writing to feel predictable. Diplomacy is the act of thinking through what may seem like hopeless situations and getting another to think in a similar way. By giving viewers a chance to see this kind of thinking in action, as well as allowing them space to imagine how it could go differently, Diplomacy has achieved its important moral end.

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 

220px-Borgman_poster 

            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?