Reality bites

If you go to the movies today, you are usually looking to have to
endure 150 minutes of flashy, overbudget, effects-heavy gimmicks
produced by the Hollywood machine. This unpleasant experience extends
even to “groundbreaking” movies, like those made by the Mexican
new-wavers Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro, all vying for 2006 Oscars.
Yes, they all have interesting stories to tell, leave you with things
to think about, and moments that take your breath away, but after a
while you really start longing for the simple tale told well that
perfectly describes something about a human condition without beating
you over the head.

So it was that I was recently knocked out by two very different
fables made in 2003, one from each side of the Atlantic: Ricky Gervais’
“The Office” and David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls”. As Robert
Altman proved in his most compelling works, the effect of an ensemble
cast is so much greater than that of an individual or couple, and both
these stories (even though they are made to appeal to completely
different audiences, and use different techniques) explore what happens
when you observe the give and take of a group of strangers (in the case
of “The Office”) or long-time friends (”Real Girls”) as life goes on.
Meantime the viewer is inexorably drawn in, reflecting on one’s own

For once, listening to the “extra features” on the DVDs of these two
pieces does reveal something about why they are both so effective. They
are labors of love, not made to make box office records (surprisingly,
“The Office” did become a huge success), but because the film-makers
were smart enough to stay small.

Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant (mentalist!) found a way
to channel Gervais’ obsessive need to entertain and place it within the
drab, low-cost setting of our everyday work lives. With brilliant
casting and exquisite art direction (probably the most striking aspect
of the show to me was the perfect framing of the office location
shots–made to look haphazard, there is always a dead plant in the
corner or a monkey on the coat-rack just out of focus), Gervais and
Merchant wear us down so that we must emphasize even with the boss from

Green’s ensemble is composed of film school friends from the North
Carolina School of the Arts, and as he and lead actor Paul Schneider
explain on the commentary, they approach every scene in “All the Real
Girls” with an open mind. You can believe from the gentle way that the
film unwinds that comments and ideas from the guy holding the mic boom
were accepted by the cast and director, and that just as in Gervais’
case, they were not going to settle for anything other than the best
they could do. Zooey Deschanel rises to the occasion (when she wants
to, she can give us incredibly powerful performances–see also “The Good
Girl”) and the other actors win us over.

The pay as you go future

Sometimes, even comfortable Brits can shake us out of our complacency. I just got around to seeing Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, which was first screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2003.

Shanghai, from Code 46

The screenplay, a cooperation between Winterbottom and his longtime writer associate, Frank Cottrell Boyce, hits on all the right cylinders: the cordoning off of the power centers of world cities even as the the rythyms and languages of India, China, Latin America and the third world overtake the anglo culture, pervasive privacy intrusions by quasi-governmental investigators (I love the firm name they chose, “Westerfields”), and ethical dilemmas resulting from easy human genetic engineering, to name a few of the topics that enmesh a simplistic love story.

Winterbottom chose to wing across the axes of population and the growing centers of world power: Shanghai, Dubai, and Rajasthan. The division of this not-so-future world between the cities and the fuera outside the checkpoints is where we are going. Maybe what was not so clear in the film is the police state required to keep the majority of the world’s population fuori le mura. What is clear is that everywhere you want to go, you have to present proof that you belong to the first world. Little holographic papeles show that you have “cover”. Without them, you might as well be Tsotsi.

All the details are telling: Tim Robbins’ P.I. character who flies from his oh-so-tidy Seattle home (wife, genetically engineered perfect child) to practice his powers of ESP on suspects in Shanghai and tells his mate, “I’ll be back in 24 hours.”

For the doomed lovers, the only escape from their inside lives is to venture out. The trip is to Jebel Ali (can anyone say “Dubai Ports World”? John Hagel can). From there, you have to go without “cover”, without the protective cocoon of technology, to make a connection with your past and with the human race. But you’re not really fuera. If you slip off the road, the helicopters and SUV’s of the state are on the accident scene in a matter of seconds to make sure that your memory is erased and your dissident lover is disappeared. Lo siento, but it’s verdad.

The human landscape   Central do Brasil

I wanted to express my affiliation with observers of the edges of landscape. There is something deep and moving about understanding the contradiction between the smallness of the individual when seen in the context of a frontier landscape and the immense power that human civilization has had in changing the face of the planet. Some of the best observations of this dilemma can be seen in films of the last 50 years, when directors found the striking point of view of the wide angle lens.

J. B. Jackson was the premier American commentator on how our country’s unique cultural history, especially in the wild West, has evolved from its original inhabitants to the time of the automobile culture of the 20th century.

When and if I get the time, I want to go back to the films of John Ford.

Michelangelo Antonioni was one of the first filmmakers to understand how the landscape can frame human stories. His placement of troubled characters in abandoned, unexpected urban and desert locations highlights the universality of their plight.

Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film, Taste of Cherry, leads to contemplation on the meaning of human life in an era of ongoing sprawl and militarism.

Walter Salles’s recent pictures, Central do Brasil, Behind the Sun and the Motorcycle Diaries are other sources of contemplation on the “lost” places of human settlement and the exploitation of the subsistence workers who live on the edge.

Another voyage to Italy

Everyone knows how Marty Scorsese should have won at least one Oscar by now. He will probably be in that small group of old timers hung out to wait for a lifetime achievement award.

In 2001, he made an extraordinary introduction to postwar Italian cinema titled My Voyage to Italy. In four hours, he excerpts and comments on over 30 films by Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni, and leaves the viewer breathless to see them all. Beginning with Paisa’, the breakthrough film that created neorealism, he explains the impact of such totally conceived pieces as Stromboli, Viaggio In Italia, and L’Eclisse. The film is edited as expected by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, who did win an Aviator Oscar while Marty watched and waited, and relies on footage and scripts provided by some of the original creators of these groundbreaking works, like Visconti’s screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amato. On Scorsese’s tour from Sicily to Rome (Rosellini) to Venice (Visconti) and back (Antonioni) there are side trips to early Italian epics of the teens and twenties. And a link to the next generation of directors who would stand on the shoulders of these giants: Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Resnais and Oshima.

By the time you start Disc 2, you will have to get a membership to GreenCine, Le Video, or the Criterion Collection, the last of which is about to reissue L’Eclisse on DVD in April.