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North and South

Two Mondays ago I saw two films. In the morning was the advance screening of the American indie, Snow Angels, scheduled to open locally a week from Friday. I should probably, by custom, wait till then to talk about it, but I’m in pursuit of a small point. The film, an interweave of ordinary lives in a wintry Northeastern small town, has a number of attractions in it, starting with the clear bright wide-screen image, letting in a lot of décor and townscape, albeit much of it self-satirically quaint and cornball. Kate Beckinsale shows off, not for the first time, her impeccable American accent, and appears to have cut back on the collagen now that she’s not hunting werewolves in a black leather bodysuit. And the slowly warming relationship between two tentative teens, a trombonist in the high-school marching band (Michael Angarano) and a bespectacled amateur photographer (Olivia Thirlby, the heroine’s best friend in Juno), gives us a rooting interest in an otherwise tawdry tapestry of broken marriages, infidelity, betrayal, jealousy, vengeance, etc.

Two off-screen gunshots at the outset, prior to a flashback to “weeks earlier,” in effect echo over the entire length of the film. Everything that takes place in it is colored by the dread of those coming shots. Though they perhaps help slightly to spice up the banality and leaven the boredom, while we work our way back to the starting point, I had to ask myself all throughout, and afterwards, why it should be so difficult for American filmmakers of the “sensitive” and “intimist” persuasion to take an interest in ordinary lives unless the story has a hook or angle or outcome worthy of top placement on the Eleven O’Clock News. And I found myself, in quest of an answer, heading down some well-travelled roads, the American penchant for violence and preoccupation with power (or its lack), the jadedness of the public palate and hunger for sensationalism, the perversion of the democratic ideal whereby every individual becomes the center of the universe, demands attention and craves recognition, strains to out-shout Walt Whitman. Even the littlest indie can be infected. Paranoid Park and Sleepwalking, both of which open tomorrow, would have served almost as well as Snow Angels, boasting, between them, a grisly, grotesque killing and a potpourri of drug bust, child abandonment, child abduction, child abuse, patricide. I just didn’t happen to see them on that Monday.

Sam Rockwell, the man behind the introductory gunshots, without question demands attention and craves recognition, chewing every stick and sliver of scenery, reeking self-consciousness, while delivering his lines with roughly the sincerity of an Owen Wilson, and leaving a deafening lull whenever he’s off screen. Admittedly, he’s playing a failed suicide, a fitful Bible-thumper, and a sloppy drunk, unhappy over his visitation rights with his daughter, combative with his ex-wife’s new married beau, who meets him more than halfway: “I’ll suck you right up my tailpipe, bro.” But then again, Sam Rockwell similarly demands attention and craves recognition no matter what the role. And director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls) gladly obliges him. Indulges him. There wouldn’t be a film without him. Or his gun. Nevertheless I repeat my question: Why? Why must true-to-life fiction gravitate to yellow journalism? The story here for the nightly news, needless to say, is not one of harassment, stalking, or restraining-order violation. That wouldn’t rate. The missing child and then dead child would of course be adequate to qualify. All this, however, is mere prelude to a shotgun wielded with malice. But I’ve said enough about that. I might have more to say when the film opens. Probably not.

I contrast this with the second film I saw that Monday, no less colorfully photographed, maybe a shade more softly, a late afternoon public screening of the Argentine Ciudad en Celo, or City in Heat, an interweave of ordinary lives in balmy Buenos Aires, and in the final reckoning my favorite film at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. (I could have contrasted it with several less favored films I saw there, too.) True, in the opening scene when a husband walks in on his wife in flagrante delicto in their bedroom, he tiptoes straight to the kitchen drawer for a carving knife (the Argentinian penchant for violence: Land of the Gaucho, after all), but on returning to the bedroom a closer inspection of his wife’s partner in sin, face down, reveals him to be the husband’s brother. His cellphone interrupts. —Mom, I’m busy right now. —No, dear, don’t hang up, I’ve been trying to reach your brother and I don’t know where he is. And so he hands the phone to his brother, still lying atop his wife. It’s ridiculous (in a good sense), it’s funny, and it’s not overplayed. The husband then boots them both out, vowing he never wants to see either of them again as long as he lives, and indeed we never see them again.

The action settles into the tranquil hub of the Garllington Bar, so named for the proprietor’s divided loyalties between the tango master Gardel and the jazz master Ellington. True again, one of the cuckold’s cronies at the café commits suicide. (I tend to go along, at least most of the way, with G.K. Chesterton when he says that a work of fiction can’t have life in it if it doesn’t have death.) But the filmmaker — Hernán Gaffet, making his first narrative film — has no interest in the actual event, the method of implementation, or the reason behind it. He has an interest only in its effect on two remaining cronies, plus an alluring tango singer who in past times has had romantic involvement with all three cronies. Each now unattached, at the verge of middle age, they daily come together at the café; they talk, they reminisce, they speculate, they analyze; and the affable proprietor puts in his two cents. When the core of comrades go to scatter their friend’s ashes at water’s edge and a flock of ducks swoop in to snack, they say exactly the sorts of things you would expect from mature, intelligent, humorous, and pained people: he’s going to end up as duck shit, possibly pâté. Once more it’s ridiculous, it’s funny, and it’s not overplayed. Unerringly, the actors intermesh in the fashion of a chamber-music ensemble, no one drowning out the others, no one demanding special attention, no one standing apart.

Individual storylines spin out from the central hub, occasionally in flashback, as tangible illustration of a line of talk, and new relationships begin to form: a standoffish girl picked up at a cemetery, a slapping and mugging victim, a panhandling bag lady. And an old relationship, that between the tango singer and a former lover, stirs from the embers. No ties yet bind. The whole thing — the coming-together, the spinning-out, the interweaving — has an unforced flow and a delicate touch. It’s serious and it’s light; searching and easygoing; philosophical and indecisive. (Were it to be held up to mainstream Hollywood comedies instead of to indie slices of life, the contrast would be to the belief that unless you rupture a gut, it isn’t a comedy. An extension, that, of the American penchant for violence.) True again, the film culminates with a stickup at gunpoint in the bar, but although there’s a struggle for the gun and shots are fired, nobody gets hurt, the café camaraderie tightens in the aftermath, and by the time the cops arrive, looking at the dancing couples through locked doors (nothing here for the nightly news), they think they must have the wrong address. Fade to black. Ciudad en Celo deals in an outlook, an attitude, rather than in goals and attainments; an undying hope, rather than a happy ending or its opposite. I would not presume to say that it’s very Argentinian, but I will venture it’s not very American.

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Two Mondays ago I saw two films. In the morning was the advance screening of the American indie, Snow Angels, scheduled to open locally a week from Friday. I should probably, by custom, wait till then to talk about it, but I’m in pursuit of a small point. The film, an interweave of ordinary lives in a wintry Northeastern small town, has a number of attractions in it, starting with the clear bright wide-screen image, letting in a lot of décor and townscape, albeit much of it self-satirically quaint and cornball. Kate Beckinsale shows off, not for the first time, her impeccable American accent, and appears to have cut back on the collagen now that she’s not hunting werewolves in a black leather bodysuit. And the slowly warming relationship between two tentative teens, a trombonist in the high-school marching band (Michael Angarano) and a bespectacled amateur photographer (Olivia Thirlby, the heroine’s best friend in Juno), gives us a rooting interest in an otherwise tawdry tapestry of broken marriages, infidelity, betrayal, jealousy, vengeance, etc.

Two off-screen gunshots at the outset, prior to a flashback to “weeks earlier,” in effect echo over the entire length of the film. Everything that takes place in it is colored by the dread of those coming shots. Though they perhaps help slightly to spice up the banality and leaven the boredom, while we work our way back to the starting point, I had to ask myself all throughout, and afterwards, why it should be so difficult for American filmmakers of the “sensitive” and “intimist” persuasion to take an interest in ordinary lives unless the story has a hook or angle or outcome worthy of top placement on the Eleven O’Clock News. And I found myself, in quest of an answer, heading down some well-travelled roads, the American penchant for violence and preoccupation with power (or its lack), the jadedness of the public palate and hunger for sensationalism, the perversion of the democratic ideal whereby every individual becomes the center of the universe, demands attention and craves recognition, strains to out-shout Walt Whitman. Even the littlest indie can be infected. Paranoid Park and Sleepwalking, both of which open tomorrow, would have served almost as well as Snow Angels, boasting, between them, a grisly, grotesque killing and a potpourri of drug bust, child abandonment, child abduction, child abuse, patricide. I just didn’t happen to see them on that Monday.

Sam Rockwell, the man behind the introductory gunshots, without question demands attention and craves recognition, chewing every stick and sliver of scenery, reeking self-consciousness, while delivering his lines with roughly the sincerity of an Owen Wilson, and leaving a deafening lull whenever he’s off screen. Admittedly, he’s playing a failed suicide, a fitful Bible-thumper, and a sloppy drunk, unhappy over his visitation rights with his daughter, combative with his ex-wife’s new married beau, who meets him more than halfway: “I’ll suck you right up my tailpipe, bro.” But then again, Sam Rockwell similarly demands attention and craves recognition no matter what the role. And director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls) gladly obliges him. Indulges him. There wouldn’t be a film without him. Or his gun. Nevertheless I repeat my question: Why? Why must true-to-life fiction gravitate to yellow journalism? The story here for the nightly news, needless to say, is not one of harassment, stalking, or restraining-order violation. That wouldn’t rate. The missing child and then dead child would of course be adequate to qualify. All this, however, is mere prelude to a shotgun wielded with malice. But I’ve said enough about that. I might have more to say when the film opens. Probably not.

I contrast this with the second film I saw that Monday, no less colorfully photographed, maybe a shade more softly, a late afternoon public screening of the Argentine Ciudad en Celo, or City in Heat, an interweave of ordinary lives in balmy Buenos Aires, and in the final reckoning my favorite film at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. (I could have contrasted it with several less favored films I saw there, too.) True, in the opening scene when a husband walks in on his wife in flagrante delicto in their bedroom, he tiptoes straight to the kitchen drawer for a carving knife (the Argentinian penchant for violence: Land of the Gaucho, after all), but on returning to the bedroom a closer inspection of his wife’s partner in sin, face down, reveals him to be the husband’s brother. His cellphone interrupts. —Mom, I’m busy right now. —No, dear, don’t hang up, I’ve been trying to reach your brother and I don’t know where he is. And so he hands the phone to his brother, still lying atop his wife. It’s ridiculous (in a good sense), it’s funny, and it’s not overplayed. The husband then boots them both out, vowing he never wants to see either of them again as long as he lives, and indeed we never see them again.

The action settles into the tranquil hub of the Garllington Bar, so named for the proprietor’s divided loyalties between the tango master Gardel and the jazz master Ellington. True again, one of the cuckold’s cronies at the café commits suicide. (I tend to go along, at least most of the way, with G.K. Chesterton when he says that a work of fiction can’t have life in it if it doesn’t have death.) But the filmmaker — Hernán Gaffet, making his first narrative film — has no interest in the actual event, the method of implementation, or the reason behind it. He has an interest only in its effect on two remaining cronies, plus an alluring tango singer who in past times has had romantic involvement with all three cronies. Each now unattached, at the verge of middle age, they daily come together at the café; they talk, they reminisce, they speculate, they analyze; and the affable proprietor puts in his two cents. When the core of comrades go to scatter their friend’s ashes at water’s edge and a flock of ducks swoop in to snack, they say exactly the sorts of things you would expect from mature, intelligent, humorous, and pained people: he’s going to end up as duck shit, possibly pâté. Once more it’s ridiculous, it’s funny, and it’s not overplayed. Unerringly, the actors intermesh in the fashion of a chamber-music ensemble, no one drowning out the others, no one demanding special attention, no one standing apart.

Individual storylines spin out from the central hub, occasionally in flashback, as tangible illustration of a line of talk, and new relationships begin to form: a standoffish girl picked up at a cemetery, a slapping and mugging victim, a panhandling bag lady. And an old relationship, that between the tango singer and a former lover, stirs from the embers. No ties yet bind. The whole thing — the coming-together, the spinning-out, the interweaving — has an unforced flow and a delicate touch. It’s serious and it’s light; searching and easygoing; philosophical and indecisive. (Were it to be held up to mainstream Hollywood comedies instead of to indie slices of life, the contrast would be to the belief that unless you rupture a gut, it isn’t a comedy. An extension, that, of the American penchant for violence.) True again, the film culminates with a stickup at gunpoint in the bar, but although there’s a struggle for the gun and shots are fired, nobody gets hurt, the café camaraderie tightens in the aftermath, and by the time the cops arrive, looking at the dancing couples through locked doors (nothing here for the nightly news), they think they must have the wrong address. Fade to black. Ciudad en Celo deals in an outlook, an attitude, rather than in goals and attainments; an undying hope, rather than a happy ending or its opposite. I would not presume to say that it’s very Argentinian, but I will venture it’s not very American.

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Comments
1

Thank you for a wonderful review; I can only hope I have a chance to see this movie in Portland (Oregon).

Years ago I learned through reading you that some of the quality of criticism comes from the critic's ability to bring other thoughts and information--context, if you will--to bear on the subject. I realize with this review that another element of good criticism is the ability to convey in writing the emotions of the material and their effect on the observer. Most reviewers offer little more than judgments of love, or more likely, hate.

gràcies, Matt

April 10, 2008

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