Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 4-10, 2007

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989

An extremely balanced, merciless portrayal of the degrees of hatred and racial prejudice that people exhibit towards one another in one Brooklyn neighborhood in the late 1980s (though it could be applied to anywhere). Excepting the film’s few voices of reason—the radio DJ Mr. Señor Love Daddy, Da Mayor of Bed-Stuy, and a few others—no one has respect for anyone else, exemplified in the scenes in which various people face the camera and spit out strings of racial epithets. Along with the oppressive summer heat, with temperatures seeming to climb throughout the day, their intolerance comes to a boiling point, wherein everyone loses control, from the cops, to the local pizzeria proprietors, to the neighborhood’s residents.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

Sound is the most significant aspect of this 1974 Coppola film. Harry Caul, a legend in the surveillance business, is assigned to record an exchange between two people. Their voices are peppered with robotic blips and bursts as Caul refines the sound quality through a filter, which immediately lends the film an odd, unnatural ambiance. With each tweak of the knobs, the voice’s meaning becomes clearer, though as we eventually realize, it doesn’t quite manage to capture every subtle nuance and inflection. Caul, however, isn’t all that interested in what his subjects are actually saying—this may, perhaps, be the first instance where he’s paid any attention to the content at all—but is fascinated by the technology that’s been used to record it. This seems to be the case with most surveillance professionals—when Caul attends a convention, he’s surrounded by crowds of other middle-aged men who are obsessed with the workings of hidden cameras and tiny microphones concealed in lapel pins.

Caul is a bit of a paradox, in that his profession, which he takes quite seriously, is to invade the private lives of strangers. And yet, he is secretive about his own private life to the point of paranoia, which only intensifies throughout the film: he hides his telephone in a drawer and tells people he has none, he doesn’t want his landlady to have a key to his apartment, he refuses to disclose any information about himself to the woman he’s romantically involved with (even after she’s clearly distraught about it, even after she asks him to leave if he won’t tell her something). When he discovers that his own apartment has been bugged, he tears apart every floorboard, smashes every object, desperate to find the device; the final image of Caul sitting in his wrecked apartment playing his saxophone is a strong one.

Bad Education, Pedro Almodóvar, 2004

Bad Education possesses distinctly Hitchcockian tinges; Vertigo, specifically, comes to mind, in its muddling of identity. In Vertigo, a man pretends that a woman is the woman he loves, not realizing that she actually is the woman he loves. Here, it’s even a little more complex than that—a man is well aware that another man is pretending to be the man he loves, but he allows himself to go along with the fantasy. Throughout the film, we are presented with three versions of, essentially, the same story: a childhood love affair between two boys, Ignacio and Enrique, is interrupted when a priest from their school, Father Manolo, discovers them together. Manolo desires Ignacio, so he expels Enrique out of jealousy. The young lovers meet again by chance fifteen years later, at which point Ignacio is plotting to blackmail Father Manolo for the money needed to complete a sex change operation. Our introduction to these events comes in a mostly fictional adaptation—a film within the film, if you will. Then, the “true” story on which the fictional film is based slowly emerges, ostensibly, until the real Father Manolo shows up and reveals the strangest, yet ultimately the truest, version. While this may sound rather complicated—and it is—it never seems quite as confusing while watching it onscreen.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Him, Malte Ludin, 2005

In a “typical German story,” Malte Ludin, the youngest son of German diplomat Hanns Ludin, explores the impact his father’s Nazi affiliation, as well as his eventual execution in 1947, has had on his family by interviewing his surviving sisters and brothers, as well as nieces, nephews, and his own son. Incredibly, many of his siblings insist that their father could not have known that by convincing the Slovak government to comply with deporting Jews to labor camps, he was actually sending them to concentration camps. Somehow, they manage to argue with Malte about degrees of responsibility, rationalizing their father’s actions. Admittedly, it must be extremely difficult to acknowledge that your father was responsible for so much suffering and death, and yet, the evidence is there. Watching them cling to their fond memories of their father while ignoring the facts isn’t so much touching as disturbing.

This reminded me a little of 51 Birch Street, in that the filmmaker interviews members of his family in order to come to a deeper understanding of his roots. While I find this genre of documentary filmmaking intriguing in theory, in practice it tends not to be as effective as one might think it should. Here, it seems unclear as to what Malte is trying to get his family to admit; no definite thesis emerges.

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