The title of this film brings to mind a quote, and it is more likely because I have read and heard this quote so many times before than that it had much to do with Tom Ford’s vision:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In A Single Man, we meet a fellow who yes – is single, and yes – is in possession of a good fortune, both in terms of wealth and knowledge, but no actually, is not in want of a wife. George Falconer recently lost his life partner of many years, Jim (and both of their dearly loved dogs), and is struggling with the idea of going on without him. The movie seems like a long prelude to his suicide, or a drawn out will-he-or-won’t-he. George is sometimes met with characters who steer him toward light, or maybe he is simply seeing things differently on what he intends to be his last day on earth, but the necessarily hidden nature of his grief keeps him isolated with it.

Tom Ford, previously known as a designer, speaks in heightened and luscious visual language in this film. No detail is missed, no set piece or costume careless. Colin Firth spoke in an NPR interview about the suits his character wore, which Tom Ford carefully considered in terms of the character’s background (an English professor from an old London family) and specially made himself as if by a tailor in a respected shop in London – complete with label and date finished. At times this attention to detail – this designer’s eye – may distract from the story and characters of the film. Many reviewers cite this as a singular complaint and compare the overall style to advertisement because of it’s slick, unrealistically coiffed nature. However, this is George’s story, and George is a man deeply impressed and concerned with beauty both as illusion and truth. Appearances act as a shield for George, but Jim the architect constructed for them a literal glass house. This obsession with aesthetic detail in George is likely Ford himself coming through (Ford wrote the screenplay himself from a Christopher Isherwood novel), image and control are everything to both men.

A Single Man is sort of a classic “art film,” it is seeking to create an emotional portrait and strong visuals more than provide an action-packed plot, but this certainly should not imply a lack of character development. Colin Firth has received much praise for his portrayal of George, a character any person – gay or straight, male or female – can relate to when his grief is laid out before us. A reviewer from The Telegraph (UK) gave an unfavorable opinion of the dynamic between George and Jim – of whom we learn very little – describing the latter character as “a mere occasion for Firth to practise – albeit to a very refined and at times moving level – his habitual persona as a repressed Englishman on the brink of emoting.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1315981/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/7221024/A-Single-Man-review.html

Police Beat (2005) was directed by Robinson Devor, a Seattle-based film maker also noted for the 2007 film Zoo, a documentary which attempts to objectively portray the side of a “lifestyle” group in the Seattle area interested in zoophilia.

This film is quite different. In 2005 it won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance, the Gotham Award nomination for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You,” as well personal gains in the form of Independent Spirit awards for Robinson Devour as “Someone to Watch” and a producers award for Alexis Ferris.

Police Beat was written by both the director, Devor, and Charles Mudede, a Rhodesian immigrant who writes for a Seattle weekly free publication called The Stranger. I grew up reading The Stranger, and it’s various serious and humorous columns: many are now familiar with nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, but there was also “I, Anonymous,” where readers could send in anonymous rants about their infuriating roommate, neighbor, ex-boyfriend, cat, barrista, lady on the bus, or whatever happened to be bothering them. There was also “Police Beat,” a collection of the more off-beat incidents from Seattle Police Department reports in the preceding week. This is the column where Mudede made his mark, and it is clearly the inspiration of the film.

In Police Beat we follow “Z,” a Senegalese immigrant and, “rather bewilderingly” (NYT), a recent hire to Seattle’s fleet of bicycle police. Z spends the whole film worrying about his absent girlfriend, a local girl who has gone on a camping trip with her male roommate. Through responding to a series of incidents across Seattle (all based on real police reports and Police Beat articles), we explore not only the character Z, but of the city of Seattle and life there through his eyes. Z is confounded by the people and actions around him, unsure of how things work in this town, but ever sure of himself. We see Z write out the kind of reports often featured in Mudede’s column, referencing a huge overhanging chart of police codes (reminiscent of a table of elements, like all of life’s incidents result from A plus B, divided by Q equals X), and hear him make the same kind of emotional, philosophical and ethnographic observations Mudede still provides weekly as commentary in The Stranger. The film is an elegant translation of Mudede’s local color poetry to the big screen.

The film is part regional portraiture, but also a philosophical exploration accessible to anyone and a character study of a highly unique individual and circumstance. The film was produced through Northwest Film Forum, an organization founded in 1995 to cultivate and fund regional cinema in the Pacific Northwest. The cinematography by Sean Kirby is a highlight for me. The film is visually luscious, using 35mm scope in more than a hundred locations to create painterly visions of my hometown, surreally capturing Seattle in colors that are rarely so tangible in a city famous for overcast weather.

http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/04/28/movies/28beat.html

http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/collection/start-to-finish/245

“Mi Cuba, maravillosa, polémica, pero siempre digna de ser conocida, amada e interpretada.” – Fresa y Chocolate

The Cuban Revolution spawned a new era in Cuban Cinema, one sponsored by the state in the Culture Division of the Rebel Army. This later formed the ICAIC, Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (The Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography Industry). In an article from The Guardian in 2003, Chris Payne interviewed the current director, Julio Garcia Espinosa.

… Gets to the heart of what the school is about. In the 1960s, García was among a group of left-wing academics who witnessed what they saw as the “colonial decimation” of Latin American cinema. “In the 1930s and 1940s there were lots of great films being shown in our cinemas, then it dropped right off,” he says. “The American studios claimed it was due to market forces, but of course it wasn’t. If we wanted one of their hits they would force us to take nine other films of lower quality. The glossy-produced films with big budgets were always put in the best cinemas, so Latin films screened in the less well-kept theatres. The public therefore assumed their own films were inherently inferior.”

In this light especially, we can define all Cuban cinema as “independent,” simply because it is produced outside of Hollywood and in competition with it. Additionally, films produced by the ICAIC come from students working collectively in a creative environment to produce something that will exist in contrast to the hegemony of Hollywood.

Payne does, however, go on to describe the current state of the school and frustrations many students have experienced in trying to produce unorthodox films, or films which contradict state beliefs, like horror films or “zany” scripts.

…there is frustration at the control exercised by Cuba’s film commission over everything from script development to distribution. To develop or finance a script they have to submit it to a committee of 14 bureaucrats, none of whom has made a film for 10 years.

(http://www.countercurrents.org/arts-payne281103.htm)

Despite this, a lot of Cuban cinema since the revolution (perhaps more so directly following it) has provided what might be a surprising amount of honest exploration of these themes. One of the most notable Cuban filmmakers is Tomas Gutierrez Alea. He produced his first film, a documentary titled El Megano, about charcoal maker, in Italy and was heavily influenced by Italian Neo-realism. This movement focused, like much of his work and Cuban film, on addressing the lives of average people and the mundanity of life. His film Death of a Bureaucrat, for example, tells the story of a man dealing with various obstacles to exhume and rebury his father when he needs to recover an identification card left in the coffin. The film is alluding to various traditions of comedy and the eternal struggle of man versus paperwork, but clearly takes aim at the difficulties communist rule creates for the citizens.

In class we screened “Memories of the Underdeveloped,” an Alea film exploring many of the prominent themes of both the movement known as New Latin American Cinema and the contemporaneous post-revolutionary Cuba: the reorganization of Cuba under communism, resulting class collisions and social strains.

Current Cuban films, many coming from the EICTV and ICAIC address the same themes, if in different ways. Much of the work is documentary-style film making, looking at the lives of actual Cubans.

**********

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_neorealism

http://www.greencine.com/static/primers/neorealism1.jsp

http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC19folder/CubanFilmIntro.html

“I blog therefore I exist”: http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=12875

and the related blog: http://cine-cubano-la-pupila-insomne.nireblog.com/

I would now like to take everyone on a journey into my childhood. Or, rather, a certain portion of it. Most people of my age or older from the Seattle area will recall a sketch comedy show, modeled after “SCTV” and  Saturday Night Live (including an opening monologue and satirical newscast), called “Almost Live!”. It aired from 1984 to 1999 on the NBC affiliate KING TV after the 11 o’clock news, so it wasn’t public access, but was independently created by the VP of the NBC affiliate, Bob Jones, and locally produced. It eventually gained enough popularity to be repackaged and aired on Comedy Central, gleaned of it’s extremely specific and local content. The cast featured Ally Sheedy, of then-faded “brat pack” fame, and the original host Ross Shafer went on to host a show on FOX News. “Almost Live!” is also where the popular edu-tainment show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” originated, with cast member Bill Nye playing his “kooky scientist” character (or is it a character?) in segments wherein he would perform an experiment.

The show underwent a shift after the original host, Ross Shafer, left and was replaced by cast member and contributing writer John Keister.  Almost Live! experienced success in both formats, but the overwhelming portion of the episodes were hosted by Keister. It was eventually cancelled in 1999 due to low profits, but had several reunion and encore shows following popular demand.

Some skits were general social spoofs in a local context, such as “The High-Fivin’ White Guys”:

And others were stale old jokes (as Youtube user ukulelechango puts it, “Drivers in _____ are sooo crazy!”) made fresh with insider commentary:

I went to middle school in Ballard, and let me tell you: It’s sooooooooo true. Old Scandinavian people are awful drivers. Now there’s a generalization you never expected to hear, did you, Midwesterners? I mean, unless you are from Minnesota… I don’t think that one made it to Comedy Central. Uf daa! Ballard was the butt of many Almost Live jokes, being one of the larger (and most ethnically specific) suburban neighborhoods of Seattle. Outlying suburbs and other neighborhoods were also lampooned, such as hippie/new ager neighborhoods like Fremont and Wallingford, “trashy” suburbs like Lynnwood, Redmond and Kent, and richer areas like Mercer Island and Bellevue. Other frequent targets were the extremely polite, politically correct culture of Seattle in general (and the West Coast/ US at large, at the time) and of course the local economic drivers and cultural currents: Microsoft, Boeing, local sports, grunge music, a booming then busting economy, and coffee.

A half hour special called “The Almost Live! Guide to Living in Seattle” Part 1 of 4 (“The Ballard Driving School” is from part 3):

“COPS in Wallingford”

Oh look! Local celebrities! My favorite Foo Fighters song starts at 1:40, “The Late Report” news segment featuring Dave Grohl at 4:50.

“Sports Talk with Mariners Broadcasters” (back when Seattle had good baseball)

Some of the more general skits:

“Folk Songs of the Slightly Inebriated”

“Simile School”

Now they just have to send that guy to Cliché Survivors meetings. The show wasn’t always hilarious. Keister was often a bit stilted as a host and attempted some very ill-fated interviews in an attempt to align the show more with David Letterman’s format. Overall, however, it enjoyed great success because it rang true to locals, and as previously mentioned, achieved an impressive level of national success considering it’s origins.

http://web.archive.org/web/20071223061218/http://www.king5.com/promotion/almostlive/

Precious (2009)

“Why would anyone care about a poor, 300-pound, uneducated black girl as dark as night?,” Lee Daniels rhetorically asked in indieWIRE’s pre-Sundance profile. “The answer to this question is what this film is ultimately about.”

– from the Eugene Hernandez indiewire.com article.

Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, is set in 1987 Harlem, “pre-gentrification” (Village Voice). It follows the story of Precious Jones, a 16 year old girl still in the 9th grade and pregnant with her father’s child for the second time. I screened the film at the Chicago International Film Festival, in the AMC River East theater. The director was Lee Daniels, who also produced Monster’s Ball (2001). It was produced by Tyler Perry, known for his comedies. It was the resources and influence of Perry (and Oprah) that likely brought this film into existence, as Daniels’ previous work was met with little critical praise. Precious won the Audience and Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance as well as the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The novel was written from Precious’s perspective, and used the phonetics of her Harlem vernacular English. This was alluded to in the film during the credits, which presented the titles and names in both her form of writing and in mainstream English. It is revealed in the film that Precious is almost completely illiterate, although in 9th grade.

The film brings up a multitude of contrasts, revelations and reminders. I, like many of my generation I suppose, forget how different the urban / suburban dichotomy was 20 years ago. Now urban centers are very different, the place to be is in the center, not in the circling rings. The decay and danger associated with inner city areas populated by those who could not afford to leave for the suburban paradises sprouting all around has now been reversed. HIV/AIDS, another hot issue in the 1987 setting, is again something my generation has lost sight of. The virus, though still pandemic, has left the spotlight it once had in the public consciousness. More than this, I think the film reminds us of the human ability to adjust to the worst of circumstances as well as our ability to overcome them.

“You’re 16, you’re still in junior high school, and you’re pregnant with your second child. Is this correct?”

This is how we are introduced to Precious’s situation, after she is called out of her math class to see the principal. The principal seems exasperated with Precious, who returns her attitude in spades. The principal and her math teacher are the only two white characters in the film, and Precious’s interactions with them are telling. She fantasizes about her math teacher, seeing him as perfect (she also introduces herself as wanting “a light skinned boyfriend with good hair”) and claiming he “knows I’ve got his back,” hoping he’ll leave his white wife and marry her. They’ll “live in some place like Westchester,” Precious muses. When Precious seeks refuge from reality, it is often in a dream sequence wherein she is a glamorous star with a boyfriend in tow or a blonde white woman with Hollywood curls. Precious is told by her mother she is worthless, and so in her fantasy world she is not only draped in silk and diamonds but as different from herself as physically possible.

Her principal, with Precious’s best interests in mind, comes to her home after suspending her in hopes of getting her to begin attending an alternative education program. This is when we meet Precious’ mother (Mo’Nique), who reacts angrily to the suggestion that Precious is good at math or should pursue school. Precious tries to shoo off her principal with her mother screaming “get rid of that white bitch”  in her ear, but she picks up the necessary information: the name and location of the alternative school. From here we meet the whole new world which carries Precious through her personal transformation. The teacher, Ms. Rain, and her classmates come to be like a surrogate family for Precious, re-teaching her the concept of love and human decency outside of her intensely abusive home life. The weight of what works against Precious is immense, and as a viewer I was overwhelmed each time some new horror of her life is revealed. Precious herself, however, pushes through. Her ability to succeed in circumstances many would find beyond hope is the truly uplifting message of this film. As she tells her social worker (played by Mariah Carey) at the end of the film, while she breaks out in tears hearing Precious’s mother beg for the return of her daughter while accounting how she grew to hate her, “You can’t handle this. You can’t handle none of this.” But by the end, Precious, picking up her daughter and leaving her mother behind, knows she can.

http://www.indiewire.com/article/eugene_hernandez_precious_1_million_or_100_million/

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/archives/2009/01/less_money_fewe.php

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Germany, 2008)

This film was produced in Germany in 2008, and finally imported to the United States in 2009.

This film is unconventional mostly in it’s heroes: The West-German RAF (Red Army Faction), a communist movement that formed in West Berlin in the 1960’s. The film is based on a non-fiction book chronicling the exploits of the group, up to the suicides of the founding members and disillusion of the 3rd generation group that had been trying to free them from prison via the hijacking of a commercial Lufthansa flight. This action-packed film simultaneously glorifies and makes “sexy” the same characters and violence it seems to be criticizing, but the ultimate message, in one of the final lines of the film, criticizes the glorification of the group. It is made clear that violence only begets more violence, fascism only begets more fascism.

The film begins with a visit from the Shah of Iran, and we are shown two simultaneous protests: an open letter to the Empress of Iran by leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhoff, published in papers and read at a garden party at her home, and a catalyzing protest of the visiting dignitaries. The dividing lines of the country become apparent when police attack the protesters in a terrifyingly serene German fashion. This evokes oft-repeated images of the emotionless Nazi, setting us up to sympathize with the RAF, who see it as their duty to ensure Nazi-ism is buried deep in the ground. The scene itself reminded me of something from The Dark Knight, the surreal sense of two-dimensional villains – the guard were in finery uniforms and marched forward in formation with billy clubs slapping – and flawed heroes, clashing. Instead of a leather bat suit, however, our main characters tended to be wearing the most radical-chic of West German fashion. One of the more memorable moments of the film for me was when a young juvenile delinquent, recently escaped from a detention hall, climbs into the bath tub with revolutionary Gudrun Ensslin only to be interrupted moments later by Baader, her boyfriend. Baader briefly intimidates the kid before laughing and walking away. “Nice jacket!” the boy called to Baader’s retreating form, and Baader turns, takes off his leather coat, and throws it toward the tub. The boy catches it and wears it for the rest of the film.

The characters, “passive” critic and public intellectual Ulrike Meinhof and violent extremists Baader and Ensslin, exist in each others periphery until Meinhof agrees to shelter Ensslin and Baader after their first serious bombing of a department store. The true core of the RAF forms: Baader, Ensslin and Meinhoff, after an attempt to free Baader from prison. Meinhoff is meant to be left an apparent innocent bystander, but makes a final commitment to the cause when she jumps out the window with the rest of the crew. She makes clear her change in allegiance, although it is at first seen by the media as a kidnapping.

We then watch the various commitments, sacrifices, and final transformations of the group, evolving from principled “urban guerrillas” to a directionless terrorist group, fumbling bombings and accumulating civilian casualties with the incorporation of less experienced and less disciplined “revolutionaries,” until the bulk of the group is imprisoned.

In his Baltimore Sun review, Michael Sragow declares of the RAF characters, “no matter how analytical and targeted their manifestos can be, their impulses are private and chaotic, their worldview a mix of social-political outrage, radical-chic theory, Robin Hood fantasy, Third World exoticism and thuggery.”

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bal-ae.mo.baader25sep25,0,4151978.story

Medium Cool (1969), screened in class.

The film Medium Cool is the brainchild of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and at the time it came out was rated X for full frontal nudity and language. It was intended for a wide audience, but because of this rating and the politics of the time, likely found itself at the feet of a niche market. The film was revolutionary in it’s use of cinematography and mixing of fiction and reality, and is an important film in terms of independence because of the way it defied cinematic convention. The characters are fictional, but the 1968 Chicago setting is very real. Haskell filmed portions of the film during the actual events of a National Guard protest and the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Medium Cool plays heavily with theory and debate surrounding photojournalism and media perception, highlighting at the beginning a discussion among newsmen and cameramen about the climate and their disconnect from the events they record. The protagonist’s cameraman declares himself to be, in fact, and extension of the long recorder he operates. The opening scene of the film shows the pair filming a car accident on the side of the road, a woman dead or badly wounded, before returning to their car and remarking “We should call an ambulance.” This point is later driven home by the climactic finale, wherein the reporter and the woman he would later begin seeing die in a car accident and another car full of tourists snap pictures as they roll by.

“Both sides have a function only when they confront each other. Without the confrontation, all you’d have would be the kids, scattered all over the country, and the guardsmen, dressed in civilian clothes and spending the week at their regular jobs. So it’s not what they are that’s important — it’s what they’re doing there.”

– Roger Ebert

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690921/REVIEWS/909210301/1023/