Monday, September 10, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011): “She hugged you after you cried”




“Don't try to find a meaning to Martine's death.
There isn't one.
A classroom is a home for...
It's a place
of friendship, of work,
and courtesy.
Yes, courtesy.
A place full of life.
Where you devote your life.
A place where you give of your life.
Not infect a whole school
with your despair.”

­- Monsieur Lazhar

A teacher hangs herself in the classroom before school.  A tragedy?  Was she driven to it? Do her sixth graders know why?  Is one of them to blame?

Are physical demonstrations of care not welcome in the classroom?  So many rules and so little room for simple humanity. 

A new teacher, a somber decent man from Algeria, Bachir, as wise and scarred as his years replaces the lost Martine.  The wall of the classroom have been repainted, her desk emptied, and a psychologist employed.  Still a specter lingers. Who has the greater pain, the children or the new teacher?  He must guide the children from the dark forest of loss, and suppress his own angst.  Death and injustice, from two worlds apart.

He reads his own composition for their correction:

The Tree and the Chrysalis by Bachir Lazhar

After an unjust death,
there's nothing to say.
Nothing at all.
As will become plain below.
From the branch of an olive tree,
there hung a tiny chrysalis
the color of emerald.
Tomorrow it would be a butterfly,
freed from it's cocoon.

> Its. I-t-s.

The tree was happy
to see his chrysalis grown,
but secretly, he wanted to keep her
a few mor years.

> More, m-o-r-e.

"So long as she remembers me."
He'd shielded her from gusts,
saved her from ants.
But tomorrow she would leave
to affront alone predators and poor whether.

> Weather, w-e-a.

That night,
a fire ravaged the forest,
and the chrysalis
never became a butterfly.

At dawn, the ashes cold,
the tree still stood,
but his heart was charred,
scarred by the flames,
scarred at grief.

> Scarred by grief.

When a bird alights on the tree,
the tree tells it about
the chrysalis that never woke up.
He pictures her, wings spread,
flitting across
a clear blue sky,
drunk on nectar and freedom,
the discreet witness
to our love stories.

A story of love and grief.  The love that binds and the grief that keeps us apart.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Deal on Madonna Street (Italy 1958)



“Rubare è un mestiere impegnativo, ci vuole gente seria, mica come voi… Voi al massimo potete andare a lavorare.” [Robbery is a serious craft, you need to know what you are doing, not like you guys… the best you can hope for is honest work.]

A wacky gang of incompetent penny-ante Roman felons hatches a heist with hilarious consequences.  This is all that really needs to be said about this classic cinematic caper from the masters of la comedia all’italiana, the writing team of Furio Scarpelli & Agenore Incrocci, and director Mario Monicelli, but of course dear reader you have come here expecting more. At least four-to-five hundred words, choice turns of phrase, a display of filmic erudition, and a certain – even if counterfeit – humility. Oh well, if I must.

As well as a neo-realist patina in the scenes filmed on the streets of Rome courtesy of DP Gianni Di Venanzo, there is a dark expressionism in the night scenes that gives a dark edge to the comedy in Big Deal on Madonna Street. More on the flip-side later. Piero Umiliani contributes a boppy jazz score, which adds a lot to the fun.

There are also extensive connections with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves from a decade before which go beyond the thematic. For those who are familiar with De Sica’s film there is a discomfiting irony in a scene at the start of Big Deal on Madonna Street where a stolen pram is sold to a fence – the petty larcenist saying he is reduced to pinching prams as almost all cars and bicycles are now fitted with alarms – and later with the gang stealing a movie camera to case the scene of the heist from the very same flea market where De Sica’s Antonio desperately searches for his bicycle. Then there is the engaging comedia in Bicycle Thieves from Antonio’s young son Bruno, who in his innocence is the aching counterpoint to the father’s despair.  The comic relief afforded by his presence is to be cherished.  His first scene when he is cleaning the bicycle for Papa’s first day on the job is full of pathos and humour – Bruno telling Antonio that the pawnbroker didn’t look after the bike as there is now a scratch on the pedal and that he would have complained.  This is by way of saying that in Monicelli’s film as in De Sica’s, the unique flavour of the Italian language is integral, and with a number of the character’s speaking different dialects, the individual characterisations have a spice all their own. Sadly so much of this expressiveness is lost in translating the dialog for the sub-titles. The line I quote at the top of this essay is redolent of an idiom and humour that can never be fully translated.

Humour. The essence of true comedy is the unexpected. Whether from razor sharp wit, innuendo, risible delusions, or slapstick, laughter is truly unleashed when we are caught by surprise, when unassailable absurdity is topped by the even more ludicrous; and we are again reduced to tears of joy, aching sides, and uncontrollable fits of coughing.  Your soul skips and oxytocin fills your blood-stream. All is well with you, and the world.  But just in case you get too carried away Monicello has a poor sod – un povere disgraziato – chased into the path of a tram and killed. Cut to the crematorium and Toto in dark glasses:  ”Better later than sooner.”

If the essence of true comedy is the unexpected, the key to great comedy is love. An empathy with the absurdity of existence, of its ultimate futility, and a sad fondness for the pathos of life.  The attitude that yes we are miserable but heck we can die laughing.  This madness takes hold of De Sica’s Antonio when he blows whatever money he has left on lunch in a restaurant.   The original Italian title for Big Deal on Madonna Street, I soliti ignoti aka “The Usual Unknown Suspects”, has a savour of this pathos (while its aptness is revealed in a newspaper headline shown on the screen just before the end title).

I wonder what was going through Mario Monicelli’s mind as he prepared to end his life by jumping out of a hospital window in 2010 at the age of 95.  Perhaps he was thinking thoughts like those he admitted to in an interview he gave three years earlier: “Death doesn’t frighten me, it bothers me. It bothers me for example that someone can be there tomorrow but me I am no longer there. What bothers me is no longer being alive, not being dead.”

This idea of  ’absence’ as loss is behind the greatest moment in I soliti ignoti, which is not found in the rollicking absurdity and high jinks that lead up to the disaster, nor in the towering stupidity and incompetence of the heist proper, but on the early morning after when the perps straggle out onto the deserted streets of Rome, say their goodbyes, and go their separate ways. A palpable regret suffuses the screen and your own heart aches for your loss as well as theirs.  Arrivederci.  Till we meet again.

Zéro de Conduite: "Like a scattered student""


I would rather smell the way boys smell–
Oh those schoolboys the way their legs flap under the desks in study hall
That odour rising roses and ammonia
And way their dicks droop like lilacs
Or the way they smell that forbidden acrid smell
- Patti Smith, ‘Piss Factory’, 1974


Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.
I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh

Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.

Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks …
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other …
-And I feel kisses blossom on my lips …
- Arthur Rimbaud, ‘TO MUSIC: Railway square, Charleville’, 1870

I hated high school.  Stupid regimentation and oppressive teachers.  Corporal punishment from self-righteous frauds.  Six cuts of the cane across the hand you didn’t write with.  Basher  would sneak up behind you in class and hit you hard on the head with the attendance book.  Heinrich  the crypto-fascist enforcer of discipline loved to shout and humiliate.  “Attention! At ease!”  We sotto voce: “Fuck you, Jack”. Prefects in blazers for black shirts.

No girls – just the odd female teacher – if she happened to be young fetishised to distraction.  Under stairwells to look up skirts. They knew and slowed down. That fetid smell of grey flannel and ammonia.

The deputy-principal and principal, both Mr Brown’s and both balding old bastards – “Bing” and “Bong”. Bong never soiled his hands, while Bing had a cupboard full of canes: short ones, long ones, thin ones, thick ones. He climaxed each time he hit you – red-faced and on the edge of apoplexy – pausing on each stroke to catch his breath and force up your outstretched hand to inflict the maximum pain. Your hand throbbed for hours.  I wish I had had the gumption to climb onto the roof of that hell-hole and pelt those jailers with whatever came to hand.

The French film-maker Jean Vigo (1905-34) hated his boarding school and dreamed a wild dream of schoolboy revolution.  The son of a Catalan anarchist, and consumptive, he made only four films in his short life. While his last film, L’Atalante (1934), is his masterpiece, his first and third films À propos de Nice (About Nice 1930) and Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct 1933) are exhilarating forays into an artist’s discovery of cinema as personal expression, anarchic joyous experiments in which we enter the world of a magic lantern. A mosaic surprise of the potential of cinema to not only observe the concrete in new ways but to express our humanity, to wonder, to rebel, to satirise, and to laugh.

Zéro de conduite: young devils at school a 45 minute fiction talkie about boys at an elementary boarding school rebelling against the mindless discipline, is not only anarchic, but inspired comic lunacy from a fountainhead of deep love for childhood, and the joy of life lived with spontaneity and without pretence.

A new teacher points the way: he is indulgent and playful. He is awed by everything. In the playground he suddenly starts impersonating Chaplin’s tramp, then grabs a ball from the boys and runs. On an excursion into the town he leads the boys a merry chase after a young woman he fancies, and you see she is having as much fun as the audience.

In their dormitory a gang of agitators instigates a surreal pillow-fight and mock crucifixion – slowed down on the screen against the musical score played backwards.  Total chaos.  A lecherous teacher outed and the revolution begins: “You’re full of shit!” (Vigo’s father who died in prison in suspicious circumstances had changed his name to Miguel Almereyda - Alyamerda being an anagram of  ”y’a la merde”, literal translation “there’s the shit”.)

The rebels take to the roof on a civic occasion and pelt the literally stuffed shirts from the Board of Governors on the dais below with rubbish. The stern midget principal – played by a young boy affecting a manly voice and demeanor - with a beard nearly as long as he is short scurries away for shelter.

Surrealism as fun shot at all angles and in frenetic montage, with a liberating asynchronous score of unbridled vitality. Mad strategams, irreverent language, and kids sick of eating beans throwing them at each other.  Zero for conduct!