Film Review: Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)

I haven’t seen a lot of movies filmed in the years immediately following WWII. I’ve seen practically no movies, apart from Bicycle Thieves, that were filmed by Italians, in Italy, for Italians, in Italian. So I think it’s important that I approach this review with as much humility as possible. My eyes have been trained for a completely different cultural context. I’m sure that many of the details that I found odd, unusual, or striking, would have been completely commonplace for the audience for which they were intended, and other details that in current time I consider commonplace and cinematically routine, to the audience for which they were intended were revolutionary, thought-provoking techniques. So take this review with a grain of salt. It’s quite possible that some of the things I’m about to say, I simply have not done my homework on and can’t back up with any cultural information. These are just some observations that I made.

Plot

Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.
Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.

Bicycle Thieves was created to expose the ugly truth of the life of poor people in Rome after WWII. Because the economy of Rome was clearly depressed, it stands to reason that most of its populace could be counted among the poor. Antonio Ricci, the film’s main character, is one of the working poor – barely. He pawns his bicycle to put food on his family’s table, and when he gets a city job that requires him to provide his own bicycle transportation, his wife pawns their sheets to get the bicycle back. Unlike the elderly character referred to in the credits as “The Beggar”, he is not reduced to accepting charity meals at a church, but Ricci obviously lives a marginal existence. Bicycle Thieves tells a meandering tale of just how low a person living in the margins will stoop to keep from going over the edge. Just what is a guy to do when he plays by the rules to protect the people he loves – and gets kicked in the teeth for his efforts?

This is not a new story. It kind of reminded me of a less dramatic and more compact version of Les Miserables.

Bicycle Thieves did its best work when it reviewed, in excruciating detail, the sometimes minor and sometimes major injustices Ricci is expected to bear without complaint. The audience watches him die a death of a thousand cuts as he is required to provide a bicycle he can’t afford to get the job he needs in order to afford it, to overlook the damage that was done to the bicycle by the pawn shop, to perform well at a job for which he is given about 30 seconds of training, etc. etc. etc. the list goes on and on in scene after scene. The biggest affront of all is probably the expectation on the part of the police that he do their detective work for him and track down his bicycle himself after it is stolen. I guess that’s one bonus to the phenomenon of vigilante justice, from the eyes of the state – it cuts down on the paperwork and manpower required to actually perform one’s function, freeing up time and resources to sit on one’s hands in meetings.

Themes

Bicycle Thieves does its worst work, in my opinion, when it attempts to portray Ricci as a loving man. The most glaring difference in cultural contexts between what I know and what the film appears to expect me to know, is the normalization of the way Ricci treats his wife, Maria, and his son, Bruno. He belittles and chides Maria and engages in ‘horseplay’ with her which (and believe me I was paying attention to the actress’ face) she does not appear to enjoy. At a key moment in the film, Ricci slaps Bruno across the cheek because Bruno dares to question his judgment. He also takes Bruno along with him in his vigilante quest to regain his bicycle and frequently leaves Bruno to wander the street. The film does provide a cautionary note when this pattern gets a little extreme and Bruno is pestered by a man who, according to my interpretation of the subtext, is a pedophile; but these tendencies in Ricci that, in my opinion, are minor instances of family violence and neglect, are accepted by the film’s network of characters as perfectly acceptable behavior for a family man. I really found the family dynamics of the film’s main characters to be deplorable and I’m glad I still have the sensitivity, and sensibility, to feel that way.

However, the film performs a valuable work in its exploration of where crime really comes from. Everybody in Rome is desperate and they’re all driven by social forces they neither control nor really understand. While the film provides no explanation for why the Thief stole Ricci’s bicycle, as the Thief maintains his innocence until the bitter end, it is crystal clear why Ricci does what he does. Who among the audience can honestly say that he has never bent, twisted, or broken the rules due to desperation and fear for survival or at least safety? What’s the old saying – “Desperate times call for desperate measures”? A little charity, and a little compassion, goes a long way, especially when one is entering a situation in which there are a lot of moving parts that have already been in motion for a long time. On the other hand, the film warns, it’s easy to let the impulse to heal get out of hand. You could end up like the film’s “Holy One” woman – sitting with a bedroom full of desperate, hopeful, expectant people, spouting vague platitudes and trying to pass them off as divine inspiration.

Acting

Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola
Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola

When it comes to actors in Bicycle Thieves, Enzo Staiola steals the show. He is expected to play not a child, but a miniature adult (it is Bruno who notices the dent in the bicycle while he polishes it after it is retrieved from the pawn shop, not his father) with essentially adult cares. Staiola does what the role requires him to do, which most frequently is to visibly worry. He worries in his home, he worries on the street, he worries in the church, he worries in the rain. I was relieved when he was allowed to visibly enjoy a mozzarella sandwich in a restaurant, because I was starting to worry on his behalf, wondering if the pint-sized actor might have had a stress headache at the end of the day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child in real life emote as effectively as Staiola does on film. When I took an acting class in college, I remember discussing the phenomenon of child acting with my professor; she said that child actors frequently do not fare well in the art as adults, because the skill set required is different (adult acting requires drawing upon experience, which children simply cannot do because they have not had enough experiences yet). Enzo Staiola has 15 acting credits listed on the Internet Movie Database. The most recent listing is for 1977. No further comment necessary.

The Internet Movie Database is a great resource for amateur film critics like me. It tells me that Bicycle Thieves is an example of the Neorealist movement in film, and it has this to say about Neorealism:

The neorealist movement sprung up in Italy after the end of WWII as all of Europe was trying to rebuild itself. It was in retaliation to a general belief that most people find life dull and boring and use their imaginations to fantasize a better world. The neorealistic film is one that attempts to see the beauty in everyday life as people go about doing what people do. Consequently, the neorealistic film is made to look as realistic as possible by, for example, shooting outdoors in natural light and using amateur actors.

Bicycle Thieves? Beauty in everyday life? Reminds me of the person who introduced this film in the theater calling it “delightful”. Bicycle Thieves is hardly beautiful, and far from delightful. While it’s not gritty, and it certainly doesn’t wallow in tragedy, the film is a realistic portrayal of a hard life shared by little people who are not masters of their own destiny. It’s sad, somewhat depressing, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or schadenfreude. I recommend it to people who are living in soft comfort, as a wake-up call to help understand how things are going for the rest of us. One doesn’t have to live in a post-WWII depression to have a hard life.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: Singles

The film Singles has been in my life a long time. I first learned about it through a reference made in an online journal post by the dude who would eventually become my least favorite ex. He was nine years older than me and he said that Singles was the movie that defined love for his generation. The film asserts that love is not about grand gestures or beautiful rhetoric, it’s about parking spaces. I suppose this struck him as deep. I bought a copy of it in the hopes of better understanding him, and despite the ugliness that followed between the two of us, Singles has stayed on my shelf. I’ve watched it in many contexts and shared it with many peers that I am close to. I’m reviewing it here now because I felt like watching it again recently, and because it’s high time this blog ventured into comedic territory.

 

Crushed velvet!  Textured vests! Flannel!  Spurious hats!
Crushed velvet! Textured vests! Flannel! Spurious hats!

Singles was originally released in 1992, making it a film that my older sister would have been more likely to have seen at the theater than I would have – I would have been a little young to care about supposedly timeless truths about dating. At the time, the costuming would have been unremarkably fashionable. Nowadays, it marks Singles as a period piece about the Seattle grunge scene (the extensive concert footage at the clubs where people headbang, dance awkwardly and occasionally bodysurf also helps in this regard, as does the cameo by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder). Even when I first watched Singles, more than ten years ago, it was starting to feel dated. It’s not aging too badly, but not too well either; is “aging mediocrely” even a thing?

The other noteworthy mise en scène element of this film is the casting choices, the actors selected. Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon play the leads of this ensemble cast and what I was truly amazed at, after being inundated with Hollywood’s exaggerated sexiness and beauty over the course of my adult life, was how ordinary these beautiful people looked. They’re still beautiful people, but they’re the sort of beautiful people one easily encounters in day to day Midwestern life. The only time I’ve seen standard Hollywood-quality beautiful people grace my existence with their presence in the past twenty years has been when a rare pharmaceutical sales representative has happened to be in a doctor’s waiting room at the same time as me. Briefly. The cast of Singles doesn’t look like that. The actors look approachable. It’s a relief.

Themes

And just what do they say about artificial redheads again?
And just what do they say about artificial redheads again?

Remember how I said in my review of Arbitrage that I got a lot of fun out of watching the characters tick through tough choices based on their ethical alignments? Singles is another film about alignments, but not those that deal with ethics. Well, somewhat. Singles is about different relationship styles. Which ones are compatible. Which ones definitely are not. The problems a person encounters when wading through the dating world without being explicit with partners regarding, or sometimes even aware of, one’s own style and one’s expectations regarding the style of a partner.

I’m married. Happily. My husband and I met through a free dating website. This website, which I shall leave nameless because this is a film review not free advertising for anybody, placed a lot of emphasis on understanding the different styles that are out there, identifying one’s own style, and looking for compatibility of styles. After spending so much time hunting for a mate in their system, I can’t watch Singles without identifying the relationship styles of these Seattle twentysomethings lost in time from twenty years ago. The two “main” characters (remember, this is an ensemble cast) exemplify what happens when a “Wild Rose” (Deliberate Brutal Love Dreamer, Kyra Sedgwick’s character) pairs off with a “Loverboy” (Random Gentle Love Master, played spot on by Campbell Scott). The mismatch between Bridget Fonda’s “Sonnet” (Deliberate Gentle Love Dreamer) and Matt Dillon’s “Manchild” (Random Brutal Love Dreamer) is painful to watch, and the “surprise ending” for these two characters comes across as forced and unrealistic. Note that I said Random Brutal LOVE Dreamer for the character of Cliff Poncier. At first blush he appears to be a Random Brutal Sex Dreamer, or the “Last Man on Earth”, but the only way to incorporate the end of his storyline with Janet is to understand that the swaggering horn-dog approach he takes for most of the film is just a macho posture. Even when Janet is in her needy phase early in the film, when Cliff finds her smothering and easy to neglect, he is also still attracted to her. To some extent just because he likes attention, but I think on a deeper level even Cliff is looking for love. It’s harder to see for his character than it is for Debbie (played comfortably by Sheila Kelly), the other character who looks away guiltily when Janet announces that casual sex is lethal. Debbie is clearly a woman who uses sex as a commodity when looking for love, which is unfortunate but a classic amateur mistake. I’d say she’s most likely a Random Gentle Love Dreamer or “Window Shopper”.

Acting

"Your hair... it wants a different part..."
“Your hair… it wants a different part…”

Just as in my post for Arbitrage I decided to spend some space talking about my respect for Susan Sarandon, in this post I’d like to discuss my feelings about Bill Pullman. Pullman has been in many feature films over the years, ranging from the role of the comic hero in Spaceballs, to the President of the United States in Independence Day, to the dark and disturbing role I will always love him for: Fred Madison in Lost Highway. Yet if you say the name “Bill Pullman” to the average Joe on the street, I would wager that average Joe would not be able to connect a face to the name. Pullman can carry the role that a feature film’s plot hangs on, the star role of the film, and somehow maintain an anonymity. To use a gaming analogy, he’s like the GURPS of film actors. If I’m going to enjoy the story being told for other reasons, including plot, themes, and characterization, Pullman’s good work will let me focus on those elements; but if I don’t like the other elements of the story – such as plot, themes, and characterization – Pullman’s work, while still good, will not save the film for me. He’s just not distinctive enough. So if you’re reading this, Bill, congratulations on being a solid workhorse of an actor and make sure your agent picks good artistic projects not the glorified action hero roles. Assuming you want to impress me.

Singles still works as a comedy. It has some nice, snappy dialogue, and believable characters that face predicaments that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in the dating pool will find familiar. But it is definitely dated. I’m not sure to what extent the creative team behind it wanted to create a period piece, versus to what extent they wanted to create something timeless. If they were looking to create something timeless, I would say they pretty much failed. But if you like the grunge movement and other aspects of 1990s culture, you should probably watch this one. Then again, you probably have already.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Film Review: Arbitrage

“I’m the patriarch. That’s my role, and I have to play it.” – Robert Miller

Arbitrage (a lawyer has informed me that it rhymes with “entourage”, not “Anchorage” like I originally pronounced it) pulled a fast one on me! Twice! Not a lot of films do that to me anymore, I gotta give it kudos.

First, based on the back of the box I assumed it was going to be “macro economic events seen through a microcosm of characters” a la Margin Call (the film featured in the previews that interested me the most, though Winter’s Bone looked good too), but with the exception of one confrontation between the main character and his daughter in Central Park, that wasn’t what this film was about at all. I would summarize its content as “how a smart, rich, True Neutral covers up a crime”.

(For those among my reader base who are not familiar with the term “True Neutral”, I’m lifting it from Dungeons&Dragons. It refers to one of nine potential ethical alignments for characters in that game. It’s a two-axis system of morality, one axis covers how a character feels about laws and social codes, the other axis covers how that character feels about altruism. In this film, Robert Miller is a True Neutral, someone who picks and chooses which social codes to follow and also displays both altruistic and selfish tendencies. His daughter, Brooke, is Lawful Good. His wife, played stunningly by Susan Sarandon, is Neutral Good. His driver, Grant, is Chaotic Good. Watching these characters tick through tough moral choices based on their alignments was half the fun of this movie.)

Second, the film ends at a point in the storyline where I was completely not expecting it to end. This is the first film I’ve seen in ages where I actually wanted it to keep going another twenty minutes, so many movies take for-freaking-EVER to end and this was definitely not one of them, I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. But looking back on it, I can understand why the writer ended it when they did. The way the characters had been set up, everything that needed to be said had been said. The dominoes were all set up in perfect alignment, there’s no reason the audience should be given the emotional schadenfreude of watching them fall when the entire point of the film is the tension. Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.

Characters

Sometimes it's possible to understand your mate a little too well.
Sometimes it’s possible to understand your mate a little too well.

Arbitrage is a film that lives and dies by its characters. The plot’s not especially complicated, there was really only one twist I didn’t expect – but the main reason I didn’t expect it was, I thought my understanding of the moral position of the police investigator was complete and then the film proved that it was entirely incomplete. Basically, if you don’t enjoy watching well-fleshed-out characters wading hip-deep through murky moral territory, this film is not going to be compelling for you. That’s something I really dig, so it was compelling for me. Who really has the moral high ground here? On the surface, it appears that Brooke does, but is that only because she is ignorant and naive? She may not have been confronted with very many tough moral choices in her life. Her father has worked very hard to put her in a position where she has the luxury of taking the high road, and one of the reasons I didn’t want the film to end where it did was, I wanted to see what she would do when confronted with the knowledge of her father’s corruption. Would she continue to take the high road once she realized who’d been footing the bill for this particular luxury good for the length of her entire life, when in order to take it she would have to give up something she valued dearly? From the way the dominoes were set up, my hypothesis is that she would choose to take the low road. This is certainly hinted at by her public praise of her father at the gala that is the film’s final scene, but a hint is not a certainty. Really, this character’s dramatic arc was arrested by the closing credits. Probably because she was not the film’s main character. This is Robert Miller’s story, and that story is told to completion.

Acting

Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.
Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.

Despite the fact that this is Robert Miller’s story and the film should really be considered a vehicle for Richard Gere, I’m going to take this paragraph to write a brief homage to Susan Sarandon. I would have watched this film if someone else had been cast in the role of Ms. Miller, but Sarandon’s involvement was definitely a selling point for me on the back of the box. Sarandon starred in some less than classy roles early in her career – Rocky Horror Picture Show anyone? Or how about that topless scene in Atlantic City? – but somewhere along the line her agent wised up and for decades now she’s been turning out quality work in great films like Thelma and Louise and The Banger Sisters (I may not have reviewed any on this blog yet but there is a part of me that will happily watch a chick flick, Steel Magnolias has a place on my shelf and I will not apologize to the gamer guy part of my reader base for that, not now and not ever). In this film, Sarandon plays an Empress, and I use that term in the tarot sense. A mature woman who understands the world and is willing to walk the low road so that others don’t have to, and keeps her regal bearing every step of the way. My heart just about broke for her character when her husband wheedles his mistress into taking an upstate vacation with him, a scant handful of scenes after Sarandon’s character tried to persuade him to do the same thing with her instead. I would have felt empathy for her character based on my feelings about infidelity alone, but when Sarandon plays her full hand of cards late in the movie and finally has a chance to talk about what SHE believes in, I really wanted to cheer. Sarandon made the character come alive. She’s got the gift. Watch her stuff. At this point in her career, she won’t steer you wrong.

Themes
As I said earlier in the review, I came to this movie assuming it was going to be like what I have come to understand Margin Call is like (I’ve never seen that one). Macroeconomic principles discussed in a microcosm. I therefore approached this movie with all the enthusiasm that a twelve-year-old can muster when required by a parent to eat peas. I know that understanding economics is good for me, just like a preteen’s understanding of health is developed enough to know that a body requires the nutrients in vegetables. I’ve been skirting the topic of economics to the maximum extent possible for most of my life, because I find it so dismal and depressing, and just like someone with a nutrient deficiency, it’s impacted my quality of life. So I resigned myself to eating my vegetables. I mean, with a title like Arbitrage, how fun could this movie really be? More fun than an Internet primer on hedge funds, surely… but not very fun.

Well the title’s a misnomer. If I were going to retitle this film, I would call it… The Patriarch. You see, “arbitrage” is a legal process, and if any of the characters were in arbitrage at any time in this story, it was never discussed. I got all the way through this film knowing how the word “arbitrage” is pronounced, but not really understanding what it meant, or how it differs from, say, “arbitration”. But if the film had been called The Patriarch, it would have been clear from the beginning that it was a character-driven movie. It also would have been clear that a modicum of intelligence is required to understand the film, because “patriarch” is a three syllable word (I do appreciate that aspect of the film’s real title), and that many of the problems encountered in the story stem from its reliance on patriarchal social systems (if you want to knock your brain for a loop while watching this one, pay attention to the significance of documents and documentation).

Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong - power is Miller's motive, not his alibi.
Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong – power is Miller’s motive, not his alibi.

I’m never going to be a billionaire. Watching Arbitrage confirmed both why this is true, and why I want it to be so. It’s a lot easier to stay on the high road, safe in the company of people I respect, when you’re not confronted with the choices someone like Robert Miller has to make every day. Frequently over the backs of the people he loves.Arbitrage will make you think and make you care. That’s a Hollywood rarity. I repeat: Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.

Overall rating: 5 out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Calculation”

a poem written for Harry Kotecki on the occasion of his 90th birthday
by his granddaughter, Lyn Wilder-Dean

We played chess.
Grandpa, I came to your house so many times when I was young.
Grandma was a vibrant personality and I always beamed her light back to her
so happily,
But you and me, we played chess.

The game of chess is known across the world
for the requirement of calculation.
Masters of the game have piece arrangements memorized
and are planning at least six moves deep from the moment they touch a pawn.
I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work,
but when I let my emotions take the driver’s seat
I lose the knack for calculation
that I admire in you.

Let’s play chess again.
Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes.
Patience is a rare commodity
and without it very little can get done in life
that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly.
You have always been patient with me.
You have told me of travels around the globe – to Sri Lanka, to Cairo –
yet you live a quiet and peaceful life in the same townhome
where I bounded up and down the stairs as a child,
back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder.
My life has been made more wonderful by the time you shared with me.
Your quiet love has always been
a more precious gift than I can describe
with these paltry words.

Commentary

Right now, I guess you could say I fit the “starving artist” stereotype. I mean, I’m not literally starving, but my husband and I can’t meet our monthly expenses (we’d be breaking even if I didn’t have a backlog of hospitalization bills from last year to pay off, don’t get me started on the topic of healthcare in this country, this is a poetry entry not a political essay). I’ve had some encouraging job interviews recently, but we’re definitely not in a position to be buying gifts for people. So I told my grandfather at his celebration yesterday, right now, my words are the best thing I have to offer people. He’d already read this poem, so he felt comfortable in saying those words are an “entirely satisfactory” offering. That’s my Grandpa. Coming from another person that might not seem like much of a compliment, but when you’ve spent a lot of time with someone who calculates everything carefully, including praise, you know that “entirely satisfactory” really does mean something. And he said he wouldn’t be able to read this poem to the celebrants without tearing up, so I know I touched his heart as well as his mind. And since this poem was written specifically for him, that means that if no one else who reads this blog entry thinks the poem is worth spit, it’s still done its job.

I chose the title “Calculation” before I wrote the poem, not afterwards. That’s the quality I most associate with my grandfather and I really wanted this poem to be about him. That actually turned out to be a bit of a problem and the poem as it stands has a lot of me in it, probably more than I am really comfortable with. I wanted to write about Grandpa and in the end I mostly ended up writing about my relationship to him. That probably has something to do with my starting point; when I talked with my father about wanting to write this poem, he suggested that Grandpa would enjoy reading about the memories I have of spending time with him in my childhood. I ran with Dad’s suggestion (the original version of this poem actually had another stanza, discussing the awe I felt as a child when I looked at a framed copy of my grandfather’s patent – I cut that stanza to make room for a chess piece graphic on the printed copy I would give to Grandpa at the celebration, I wanted to keep it to one page. This is one of the few times I’ve made a substantial alteration to a poem I originally thought complete, trying to re-bake the cake as it were, but it turns out I like the shorter version better, it’s more tight), because my grandfather is quite humble and I thought that a poem that was only a description of him or that consisted mostly of praise would embarrass him. But in doing so, I created some tension between my original intent and the finished product. It’s a good poem – though probably not my best, I worry that the ending lines come across as saccharine. But it’s not “what the doctor ordered.”

The structure of this poem is a bit different from my usual condensed 5 paragraph essay. This poem has more of a progression or climb; it ends in a fairly different place from where it began. The first line is very simple, plain, and a bland statement of a memory, not very much emotion… and the last line is a flowery outpouring of emotion, replete with adjectives. So I guess I fulfilled my personal objective stated in my last poetry post, to vary poetic structure. I didn’t do that intentionally, it just felt right for this piece. Possibly because my grandfather does a lot of linear progression and building from point to point when he talks. I don’t think he has much use for the emotion-building power of repetition.

Specific lines worth commenting on:

  • Grandma was a vibrant personality…
    I struggled for a few minutes on the extent to which I should talk about my grandmother in this poem (she died in 2009). In the end I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge the significant role she played in my grandfather’s life and how inseparable the two of them were in my mind when I was a child, but I wanted to emphasize that this poem was for Grandpa now as I see him, as an individual, not just about nostalgia.
  • But you and me, we played chess.
    I’m proud of the awkward grammatical construction of this line. I feel it gives the poem a colloquial element of casual tone. I wanted this poem to feel less like a poem and more like one side of a conversation I might have with my grandfather in private, one where we could really speak from our hearts. I thought he might appreciate that more than some of the exaggerated artistry I’ve produced in the past.
  • I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work
    This is another line that I’m proud of because I think it’s a good example of the written word mimicking the spoken word. This is how I talk off the cuff with my friends and family, it’s not lyrically polished, and that was something I was striving for here.
  • Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes
    This line is rather grandiose. It’s got a beauty to it and an earnest truth, but it’s not something I would ever feel comfortable actually saying to my grandfather in conversation, so it clashes with the last two lines I just mentioned. I’m not happy with it but I wanted to express the sentiment anyway.
  • that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly
    This is the line I am least satisfied with in the poem, for two reasons. The first word, “that”, makes for an unclear clause construction. It is supposed to refer back to “very little” in the preceding line, but it wouldn’t be hard for a reader, especially someone reading the poem quickly, to assume that it refers back to the immediately preceding word, “life”. Sloppy writing on my part and I wish I’d taken the time to finesse it. Also, while the mayfly image is pretty and works well for me, I’ve always associated Grandpa more with civilization than with nature. I doubt the image of a short-lived insect holds much resonance for him, and he’s the audience, not myself.
  • back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder
    I was always fascinated by the bright blue pilot light in my grandparents’ laundry room as a little girl. I thought it was the neatest thing. I knew better than to try to touch it (and it was behind a grate), but it was really fun to look at. I’ve never had a reason to share that information about myself with anyone before writing this poem. I’m grateful for the excuse.

Film Review: House of Sand and Fog

Truly an excellent film.
Truly an excellent film.

House of Sand and Fog is a tragic masterpiece. I’d seen it once before, years ago, but I decided to revisit it in order to share the experience with my husband. Like Requiem for a Dream, another film in which a mature Jennifer Connelly depicts the struggles of addiction, House of Sand and Fog portrays sad and destructive material with a seductive beauty that is impossible to deny or ignore. Let’s break it down into pieces to better understand why it is such effective art!

Use of Lighting

Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.
Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.

The use of lighting in House of Sand and Fog is masterful. The scenic nature shots of course have beautiful natural light and there are plenty of opportunities to catch light with fog, but these types of shot do not require the same level of skill as the lighting used for interior scenes, and that is where design expertise really came into play. Ordinary household objects gleam, glow, and exhibit rich lustre in this film like I rarely see in real life. It’s most obvious once the Behrani family gets their possessions set up in what used to be Kathy’s house, because the fabrics and metals the family would be using would be high quality and well-maintained, and the lighting makes those qualities more obvious. But even something as simple as the plain curtains surrounding Kathy’s window during the eviction scene are granted beauty and life by the film’s lighting. Not since American Beauty have I seen diegetic lighting make common objects look so striking. This means that even when the narrative content of the story gets ugly, the film remains aesthetically excellent.

Characters

Kathy's finally ready to admit she needs help... and her brother has no time to talk.
Kathy’s finally ready to admit she needs help… and her brother has no time to talk.

The characters in House of Sand and Fog are truly real. Everyone’s flawed and everyone’s trying to do the best they can with what they have. Ben Kingsley’s sense of honor paired with a short fuse broke my heart, Jennifer Connelly plays just the sort of wench I hate to hate, and Ron Eldard beautifully demonstrates just why a vigilante’s sense of justice is a dangerous threat to innocent people. The supporting characters play their parts excellently as well… Let me return to Connelly’s character, Kathy. I think it’s ingenious that the film never clearly explains why Pacific County tried to get her to pay business taxes in the first place. Based on the rest of her character’s actions and behavior, my hypothesis is that she legitimately owes those taxes because she tried to run a housecleaning business of her own, and she managed to fast talk her lawyer into thinking there’d been some sort of mistake… but there’s not enough evidence in the film to prove or disprove that hypothesis. The film keeps the focus on her current, dire predicament, and that gave her character what shreds of sympathy I could muster for her. Maybe I should read the book.

Themes

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

On the surface, one can interpret the title of this film as referring to a literal, physical house, owned first by Kathy, briefly by Pacific County, and then by Colonel Behrani. But I think the real house of sand and fog the title is referring to is 21st century Western civilization. Kathy and Behrani are both trapped in overlapping webs of social systems like flies having their blood drained by political spiders. Whether or not Kathy legitimately owes Pacific County a few hundred dollars, Pacific County’s solution of evicting her from her home makes about as much sense as using a nuclear option, particularly when you consider the fact that her brother is also part owner of the home. Why should he lose his property because Kathy owes tax money? Colonel Behrani was in a fine social position in Iran but lost everything and had to emigrate when the Ayatollahs took over. In times of political upheaval, people suffer who were only cogs on the wheels, not the wheel-turning force. Kathy and the Colonel both fight fiercely for agency; Kathy’s strategy basically amounts to scorched earth, the Colonel’s is more sophisticated but ultimately neither succeeds. Game over. The house always wins.

Don’t enter the experience of House of Sand and Fog with any illusions about a happy ending. Know what you’re getting into. House of Sand and Fog will make you sigh, might make you cry, and if you have an empathetic bone in your body will poke you where it hurts. But sadness can have a beauty too, the beauty of truth. Reality ain’t always pretty. House of Sand and Fog is nothing if not real.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Film Review: The Apostle

Just what is an apostle, anyway?
Just what is an apostle, anyway?

Before viewing this film, I thought I had as clear of an understanding of the term “apostle” as anyone would need. But after hearing the word repeated so many times in such short succession (the film’s main character, played by Robert Duvall, adopts the name “The Apostle EF” when he goes on the lam), I got a little curious about it and decided to go beyond my working definition to its technical meaning. According to its entry in the Internet’s default encyclopedia these days, the word “apostle” is derived from a classical Greek term that can be accurately translated into English as “emissary” – one who is sent away. In the context of early Christianity, when the Disciples became Apostles, they were sent away to found churches. Sonny Dewey/The Apostle EF’s self-appointed mission to start a church is therefore consistent with his chosen label.

Now that I’ve gotten that bit of explanation out of the way, I’m going to take a moment to talk about my take on religion. Remember how I said a few reviews back that I’m a pacifist who loves to watch war movies? I’m also an atheist who loves to examine religion. The way I see it, religion serves the same purpose in life as the magic feather that gives Dumbo the confidence to fly. I’m not saying this to trivialize religion; goodness knows how much blood has been shed in its name, I would never want to mock the pain of its victims. I’m saying this because I think it’s an accurate description of religion’s psychological function. When inspired by religious fervor, people easily become capable of doing things that would otherwise be monumentally difficult for them to risk doing. Some of those things are very beautiful. Others are very ugly. I believe that any of them would be possible without religion, just as Dumbo eventually learned to believe in himself and fly without the feather. But sometimes it’s easier to pretend the finger puppet you’re talking to really is alive than to admit with embarrassment that, as a fully-grown adult, you’re talking to an imaginary friend.

This is the perspective that I brought with me to the table when I sat down to watch The Apostle.

Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)

Sonny Dewey has a short temper.
Sonny Dewey has a short temper.

The film begins in Texas, with Pastor Dewey’s marriage in a tailspin. It’s not long before we learn that he has committed adultery in the past and that his wife is currently having an affair with the church’s Youth Minister. Shortly after his wife requests a divorce, Pastor Dewey learns that he has been voted out of the church that he founded. Confronted with losing both his wife and his church, Dewey attacks the Youth Minister with a baseball bat. Realizing that he may have killed the man, Dewey flees town. Trusting in God and his talent (Dewey started preaching at the tender age of twelve), he settles in a small town across the state line in Louisiana and tries to start a new church under an assumed name. But fortunately for gullible country folk everywhere, the law is only a few steps behind him, and when the wife he has abandoned hears his voice on a radio broadcast, his days as an apostle are numbered.

I’ve never lived in a one-horse town like the one Dewey chooses to manipulate, so I’m not sure whether he could really get away with his reinvention of himself as easily as the film portrays. Given my understanding of human nature, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing were possible, especially in the heart of the South, where (again, according to my current understanding, I haven’t dug into any statistics on this) Pentecostal churches are more common than they are here in the Midwest. Dewey/The Apostle EF never labels his faith with any denomination name, so I can’t be sure as to what particular flavor of evangelical Protestantism he practices in the film, but despite the lack of speaking in tongues, my gut instinct is to say Pentecostal (tongues may have been omitted simply to make the film more palatable to a mainstream audience; note that many Pentecostal churches also refer to themselves as “apostolic”). It’s not hard to believe that devoutly religious people would be willing to listen to a man despite his mysterious past if he were to display determination and a gift for spouting off with fervent devotion. The aspect of this story that bothers me the most is Jessie Dewey’s conveniently timed interception of The Apostle’s radio broadcast. It was never established earlier in the story that the Deweys’ radio could pick up a signal local to rural Louisiana, nor is any explanation given for why it would suddenly do so. I smell plot magic.

Acting (warning: this section also contains spoilers)

Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.
Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.

I don’t care that Robert Duvall got nominated for an Academy Award for his work as the main character; the actor who really displayed his chops in this film was Billy Bob Thornton, who I usually can’t stand. Thornton plays the only man in Louisiana who doesn’t buy The Apostle’s hype… at first. He dares to question The Apostle’s lack of a name (and lack of racism), gets beaten up as a result, and returns to bulldoze The Apostle’s church. But when The Apostle challenges him to run over a Bible in order to put his bulldozing plan into action, Thornton’s character is required to break down and become The Apostle’s follower. Thornton plays this character’s arc with amazing believability. From skepticism and racism through self-doubt into dazed belief, I was able to follow this character’s story with ease and sympathy. It’s unfortunate that Thornton really isn’t seen again after the bulldozer scene. I wanted him to show up again as The Apostle’s most fervent follower. The newly converted are frequently the most zealous practitioners of a faith. Just pay attention to the story of Paul after his transformation from Saul to get what I’m talking about.

Themes

And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?
And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?

I think I know what thematic content I was supposed to take away from The Apostle. It was supposed to be about the tension between grace and grit, or faith and flesh, with grace and faith emerging triumphant. But instead, all I saw was the extent to which religion is theatrical. I found myself wondering, don’t these people ever get tired of repeating the same sentence or phrase five to ten times before they say something new? And then coming back to it again later? The purpose of that sort of ritual is emotional manipulation and activation. There is a mood and feeling that must be maintained, and the rational mind is meant to be disengaged. This is not the sort of spirituality that I want anything to do with. I want to bring my mind with me on my spiritual journey. Watching unsuspecting men, women and children willingly participate in their own manipulation under the misguided notion that they need it in order to be saved from a real and malevolent devil… it frustrated and at times sickened me, and my concerns were never addressed by the film. It seemed like the filmmakers were just as captivated by the siren’s song as the characters they had created.

I watched The Apostle because I had gathered from the back of the box that it was going to be a serious exploration of a preacher’s humanity. I didn’t get too far into the film before I started to feel cheated, and that feeling did not go away despite Thornton’s excellent work. This is a film in love with evangelical Protestantism and anyone who chooses to watch it should have no illusions about what they are getting into. My advice is to skip this one unless you have a particularly deep interest in Hollywood depictions of Pentecostal churches. Or possibly if you find stories about people assuming alternate identities and preying on the kindness of strangers particularly entertaining.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.

Reading Review: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1983 edition) by Harlan Ellison

classic sci-fi at its most misanthropic.
Ellison’s best known work.

I haven’t read much Ellison. I was very impressed with a collection of his later work titled Angry Candy when I was in high school and undergrad, so much so that I told more than one person he was my favorite author. Even then, I knew I was cheating if I said that without reading the earlier collection I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream. It was a long time before I got around to doing my homework – a long time before I asked for a copy of the collection, another long time for my copy to sit on my shelf gathering dust and not being read, a long time between when I started reading that copy and when I finished it. But I’m done now, and I have some things to say about this seminal work.

The Collection’s Unsung Gem: Delusion for a Dragon Slayer

The only aspect of this collection that really troubled me was its misogyny. I talked about it a little with my friends, and one of them pointed out that Ellison’s work is misanthropic overall, but its world-weary cynicism about people in general doesn’t bug me as much as I might expect; its attitude towards female characters, however, does get under my skin. In its pages, both men and women get mistreated and occasionally murdered, but women also get denigrated, ‘taken down a peg’, objectified, beaten and raped, etc. and the men who do these things generally either get away with it or in some cases are rewarded for their behavior. Yes, I understand Ellison wrote this material in the 1960s and misogyny was in the water of the genre, but after regarding Angry Candy with such fondness for its insight, I kept turning this collection’s pages hoping to see Ellison pass on the Kool-Aid – and kept getting disappointed.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer was the story that broke the mold.

The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.
The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.

Its premise is simple: when the protagonist dies in a construction accident, he regains consciousness in the body of a strapping hero taken straight from epic legends. He learns that Heaven is real, it is individual, it takes the form of the innermost dreams and aspirations of a person’s spirit, and it must be won in a trial that will take the shape of that person’s beliefs about challenge and the highest of standards… and then his trial begins. In case you didn’t notice, this is good stuff, people. Ellison weaves a story of mythic archetype proportions and expresses it in delirious prose that is both descriptive and taut. And this is the only story in the collection in which a man experiences direct and dire repercussions as a result of treating a woman deplorably. As a woman and a feminist, these pages read like triumph, but that triumph is expressed through lamentation, not sanctimonious sermonizing. This is the Ellison I love.

…And the Raspberries Go to: World of the Myth

Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).
Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).

At the other end of the spectrum, from triumph to tragedy, we have World of the Myth, in which a bizarre love triangle of the future churns out its unrealistic drama after a crash landing on a planet populated by hive-minded telepathic ant creatures. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even an astronaut, to reason out that a woman who has been violently raped is not going to be coquettish with her rapist afterwards (unless she’s trying to deceive him as a means of self-preservation, and that’s not how Ellison’s protagonist spins the actions of the female character in question). The rapist is not likely to be a serious contender for the woman’s affections. Her sick dread and bone-chilling rage, likely. Affection and love? Not very likely. The vast majority of real women do not view rape as a contest of wills in which the rapist is a winner and therefore worthy of respect. Real life is not The Fountainhead. The way Ellison scripted Iris in this story made me want to throw the book against the wall. Needless to say, I was not surprised to read in the introduction to Lonelyache that Ellison’s first and second marriages failed.

Another failed attempt to create a realistic female character.
Another failure at creating a realistic female character.

Maybe you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who can take misogyny with a grain of salt. Maybe you’re really good at saying “Cultural context! The Kool-Aid musta gushed into his mouth like a firehose!” I’m not so good at that. I like authors who can get at the truths I perceive to be timeless. Angry Candy demonstrated that quality to me. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream just felt… dated. And the title story? The one that won the Hugo Award in 1967? Maybe I would have loved it if it weren’t considered such a classic, but after all the hype, I felt really let down. My advice is to skip this collection and focus on Ellison’s later work. Let sleeping dogs lie.