Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top Five Things I Learned From The Movies

The Intersection of Film and Life: Part II

      This is Part II of my "Top Five Things I Learned From The Movies." Part I can be found here

Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo

      What is the message/lesson? Ramin Bahrani's chief motivation concerns one simple question: How do you live in this world? And his theme: What kind of crisis would spur you to action? Would you be ready and willing to come to the aid of a man diseased by a stubbornness to end his own life? I'd like to think, in the face of such grueling hardship, I would answer affirmatively. The truth is I do not know. 
      Ramin Bahrani is a director whose imprint on film warrants immense praise. Chop Shop and Man Push Cart are the works of a genius craftsmen with a deep affection for the people inhabiting his films, men who wander in realities he is acutely familiar with; characters who are furnished not with artificial humanity, but the cognitive residue learned and experienced from actual living—the closest facsimiles of life this side of walking out your front door. They breathe, sweat, laugh, and cry with an unmistakable humanism that reverberates, to some degree, the events of Bahrani's own life. 
      His stories, like any consummate documentary, unfold organically, illustrating the beauty of cinema. And Goodbye Solo, his third and most recent feature, is perhaps his greatest work for of all these reasons. No longer a formative force, Bahrani has adroitly carved his "maker's mark."  
      Mr. Bahrani accomplishes this docu-realism, purposely reminiscent of the Italian Neorealism movement spearheaded by Roberto Rossellini and Vittoria De Sica, by placing nonprofessional actors in real-world settings and enclosing them in intimate, powerful stories—apportioning a richly textured sense of life. 
      The story is set in Bahrani's real-life hometown of Winstom-Salem, N.C. Bahrani's lucid existentialism is coaxed into motion at the very outset as William, an elderly man pinned to the mat by his fragile mortality, enters the taxi of an African immigrant, Solo, a man who embraces life with infectious joie de vivre. Solo is played by Souleymane Sy Savane, a flight attendant for Air Afrique (studying for such a job in the film). William is played by Red West, Elvis Pressley's former bodyguard and an original member of his "Memphis Mafia."
      William offers Solo an ominous deal. For an upfront payment of $1000, he wants to be driven in 10 days to the top of a mountain in Blowing Rock National Park, a place more famous for its violent and erratic gusts of wind than its picturesque charm. Here's the obvious twist: William deliberately avoids mention of a return trip. Solo accepts the money because that is the nature of his job, but he is disheartened about this fare, puzzled by this old man's bizarre stipulation. He asks some pertinent questions, but is told to keep his prying mouth shut. 
      As a man of buoyant determination, Solo gradually insinuates himself into William's life, fulfilling virtually every conceivable role short of becoming his personal masseuse. 
      It is obvious William's intention is to end his own life, but neither he nor Solo ever broaches the subject directly. It hovers in the air between them like an overzealous mosquito if the person in the room with said mosquito is Barton Fink. The film is not about William and Solo so much as it is about how they undergo change, which is how a movie becomes transformative, rising above mechanical plot functions. These two lives have experienced the full breadth of human interaction. Their characters effectuate a hardened honesty, their relationships augmented in deep, meaningful ways. Rare is the film that impresses upon you a real earnest affection for the characters. But Bahrani is infinitely curious about people, which makes us curious about the people he's curious about. Are you curious? 
      His crucial question, "How do you live in this world?" provides the lucid patterning for a truly transformative work of fiction. A film is best rendered when it responds faithfully to its characters and the world they inhabit. Goodbye Solo is if nothing else faithful. 

Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni

      What is the message/lesson? The journey has not begun until you've left. Fellini places a mirror to his own youth, painting a portrait, strokes both delicate and harsh, of the formative artist who has yet to live the life his ambition requires. The semblance of a life Fellini envisions can be found in the film's final sequence, particularly in the actions and reactions of the two characters who draw the curtain. Man must leave behind the comfortable structures of his past and strive forward, undaunted by an uncertain future. 
      Fellini is among my favorite directors of all-time. And if you were to poll every film critic, his legacy would position him among the greatest. I've seen all his most celebrated works; 81/2La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Amarcord. But this film has always struck me on a more visceral level, resonating with even greater emotion. It's neither his most profound nor provocative work, but it is a Fellini picture. His trademark flourishes engulf the entire canvas, as the film boasts an ornate scale where movement is primal and the banality of life evocative.
      I Vitelloni deals with the adventures and misadventures of five friends at turning points in their life. Fellini infiltrates his standard dramatic context, a postwar seaside town, which is considered to be modeled after his hometown of Rimini. The pleasures and frustrations of growing up in a provincial town become crucial psychological enablers. Taking events from his life and transforming them on screen is a Fellini trademark, reflecting the curious spirit of the Italian Neorealism movement. So authentically does Fellini capture the essence of living, encapsulating the universal into the personal, that he invigorates this familiar setting with an almost-surreal quality, interpolating episodes of life with a moving gallery of everyday living; the Priests walking along the beach, the gilded angel statue, and, of central importance, interweaving stories of multiple characters and granting each a distinct personality.
      Now let us address that remarkable coda I alluded to in the opening paragraph. This final scene is a harbinger of opportunity, unbridled and uncultivated. It reminds me of a pivotal life lesson: the journey has not begun until you've left. Up until this point in the film, Fellini's lead protagonist, Moraldo Rubini has been effectively immobilized and disillusioned by the ineffectual affairs of his compatriots. He's grown despondent about his place in this universe. His life trajectory will whittle away in a plume of regret if he fails to face the fundamental opportunism of life and make something of himself, a selfishness that I and anyone should favorably endorse. 
      Moraldo's life in this provincial town has been shaped by his experiences with his buddies (who, as "Vitelloni," which is a form of Italian slang, are layabouts; the slackers of yesteryear). The city that he loves and has known his whole life cannot possibly satiate his desires. Inaction will trap him in a dead-end life, the one his friends are destined for. All of this deliberation and introspection leads us to that iconic final image, which buttresses Moraldo's psychic rejuvenation, but also accedes his sudden qualms: the early morning train slowly departs from the station and Moraldo, bathed in a melancholic stare, pensively waves to his young friend, who walks in the opposite direction balancing on one rail as if walking a tightrope. 
      Battling the urge to stay while also contemplating the future that awaits, Moraldo's face reads like a map of extraordinary emotion. And he chooses. No longer held captive by a mask of doubt, his hands, surging with anticipation, reach for the transparent cloth that conceals his face, giving birth to a voice suppressed by circumstance. Moraldo has followed the path of his creator, Federico Fellini. An enterprising spirit now pulsates across his brow. 
      Intercut with images of each of the other vitelloni still asleep in their beds, the final scene reveals a man who has simultaneously said goodbye to his past and hello to his future. Moraldo knows all-too well that life in his small hometown will advance incrementally, ravaged by contented souls, while he, a man of vigorous spirit, adventures to a new life far beyond the confines of complacency.

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low

      What is the message/lesson? How confident are you in your ability to do the right thing? What are your basic values? How much are you willing to sacrifice to save the life of another man's child?
      I am going to state the obvious. Akira Kurosawa is one of cinema's greatest filmmakers. I've seen only 40 percent of his complete work (12 of his 30 films), but from those viewings I've gained an enormous admiration for his auteurism. Viewing his films is as close to a religious experience as, for those armed with unrelenting spirituality, attending church except Kurosawa is transcribing an unforgettable cinematic experience. 
      If you love the crime genre—it is perhaps my favorite—you can watch this film or Stray Dog, which marked the beginning of the Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa pairing, one of cinema's most enduring collaborations. If you enjoy action flicks, westerns, samurai showdowns, or the mythology of the masculine ideal, watch Seven Samurai (the most important action film ever made), Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Kagemusha among many others. If Greek tragedy is your favored brand, invest your time with Throne of Blood and Ran. If you are prone to epic drama and have been known to shed an honest tear, then devote ample time to Ikiru and Red Beard. Rashomon (along with Seven Samurai his most important film) will satisfy any moviegoer of any generation. Star Wars before George Lucas is known as The Hidden Fortress (the similarities are uncanny, as are the laughs). My point: Kurosawa is one of the most versatile directors and his accomplishments, many listed above, speak to a talent born from a mind entrenched in the business of telling stories about humanity.
      In High and Low, Kurosawa demonstrates a flair for the police procedural, juxtaposing the functions of law enforcement with the dualities of good and evil, hero and perpetrator. His compositional expertise, born from years working with a paint brush, frames the story in an exquisite morality dance. Small details illuminate character motivations.
      Toshiro Mifune plays Gondo, a successful businessman who is forced into a nightmare scenario that awakens his deepest beliefs. Charged with appraising his basic values, Gondo must act swiftly and resolutely. An unknown criminal, perceived to be very dangerous, has kidnapped his chauffeur's son. Gondo's call to ethical arms? Extortion.
      The tension of Gondo's decision to do or not do the right thing is illustrated by the film's claustrophobic first hour. His core ethics are put to the crucible. But once his morality is dispensed for a good cause, the story opens up. Kurosawa subjects us to a wider array of terror, providing a whole new context for moral instruction.  
      Gondo is enraged about what will happen with his money, but his moral code supersedes his business affairs. Meanwhile, the cops dispatched to the case are not bland caricatures of cruelty hellbent on justice, but professionals trying to unearth a mystery. And when the sordid underbelly of the city merges with the opulence afforded by Mr. Gondo's wealth, the police, the criminal, and the victim, in the eyes of a humane Kurosawa, all maneuver with purpose. Drama is not harnessed for sentimentality nor is it falsely embellished. The violence is held at a low boil. The denouement furnishes an existentialism that blurs the lines between good and evil, as a carefully conceived prison glass window both separates and intertwines the fates of kidnapper and hero. 
      Ultimately, what transcends High and Low from the regimented patter that befalls most films of this genre is Kurosawa's vision. Eschewing convention and the traditional posturing of bad guy, good guy morality tales, Kurosawa places the focal point not on one man's drama but an entire state mired in ethical crisis. The narrative coheres seamlessly through a labyrinth of themes including wealth and poverty, hope and sorrow, honor and dishonor. A synergy is fostered between these psychical polarities, painting an elaborate picture of a society submerged in conscientious extremes. Life is not as simple as we like to think. Real power exists beyond the imprisonment of material wealth and political patronage. We just have to seize it when the moment arises. 

*A wide array of films narrowly earned a spot in my Top Five. Rather than just listing them, I'll reveal many of the director's whose work I strongly considered. Preston Sturges, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Fritz Lang, David Lean, Billy Wilder, Jean Pierre-Melville, George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Quentin Tarantino, Terence Malick, Pedro Almodovar, Christopher Nolan, Sidney Lumet, Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, Ingmar Bergman, Dardenne Brothers, Coen Brothers, Kim Ji-Woon, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ernst Lubitsch, and others...remarkable competition, right!?

      *And if my list has inspired some ponderings which you feel inclined to share, then please share: What are the "Top Five Things You Learned from the Movies?" 


  1. Sadly, I haven't seen either of these, but it's good you learned something from each and everyone of them.

    1. Indeed, George. If you ever get a chance to watch them, and they carry my highest endorsement, let me know what you think!

  2. A terrific part two, and I'm particularly gratified to see a movie made here in my adopted state of North Carolina among them. Too often the filmic contributions of this state are judged by movies like Super Mario Bros, The Birds II: Land's End, and Richie Rich. But movies like Blue Velvet and Last of the Mohicans were also filmed here, and Goodbye Solo can happily be added to that list.

    1. An interesting aspect of the film was its homegrown setting and it was a nice change of scenery for Bahrani who, in his first two features, undressed the myths of the Big City. Bahrani grew up in Winstom-Salem. He had a clear grasp of the city's rhythms. And so I believe the city's essence was beautifully conveyed.

      Thanks for the praise!

  3. These are all extraordinary films. You have written a very thoughtful and considered essay on film. I'd love to see you write a book one day. Or teach.

    A film that influenced me greatly about the importance of sticking to my own truth is a little Canadian film called Where The Spirit Lives. In it a young Native American girl is kidnapped and brought to a government run boarding school. She is stripped of all the things that make her who she is, even her name, but she never gives up. Yet, she does walk a tight rope of sorts because there are things about the white culture that intrigue her, in spite of the wrongness of her being at the school. Like her teacher, who becomes her first white friend. The actress delivers a great performance. Her name is Michelle St. John.

    1. You are much too kind to me, Mel! I appreciate your cheerful feedback :)

      I've never seen Where The Spirit Lives. It seems like the kind of film that has the transformative power to elevate content above drama. Movies that subject viewers to a harsh socio-realism can be very inspirational. And can effect not only changes in perspective and belief, but actual laws. One movie of this ilk that comes to mind is the Dardenne Brothers Rosetta, which triggered a new Belgium prohibiting employers from paying teen laborers less than minimum wage.

      Thanks for sharing. I'll be on the lookout for Where The Spirit Lives.

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