Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beyond Doubt

“I will do what needs to be done, though I’m damned to Hell!
You should understand that, or you will mistake me.“

When I was 10 in the early 60s I was preparing for the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I never attended a Catholic school, so I was prepared on evenings and weekends by lay women at the local Catholic elementary school. These women were kind and gentle souls who treated their charges with compassion - we were ‘outside’ the fold you see, 2nd-class Catholics. During my lessons I crossed paths with some of the nuns from the school, and they were always sour and severe in their fearsome dark habits. In his wisdom, the parish priest decreed that to qualify for the sacrament, the other kids and I had to take a leave of absence from our public school and spend a week in a Catholic school class. On my first day I was ‘welcomed’ by the nun principal and treated so harshly and with such contempt that at the first opportunity, I made a b-line for the school gate and wandered the streets until the afternoon, when I returned home to face the music. Thankfully, my parents let me return to my public school the next day.

In John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, set in 1964, a nun principal in her sixties, Sister Aloysius, played exquisitely by Meryl Streep, is a harsh and a strict disciplinarian at a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx. She is roundly feared by students and held in awe by the other nuns. The parish priest, Father Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is younger, wants a more a liberal welcoming parish, and his sermons are impressive and unusually hold his Mass-goer’s attention. A young idealistic nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) becomes suspicious of the nature of the priest’s relationship with an alter-boy, the school’s only black student, and informs Sister Aloysius. The boy’s mother (Viola Davis) when told by Sister Aloysius of the suspicion shockingly expresses higher priorities for her child.

After an 18 year hiatus, Shanley directing his second feature, based on his play and screenplay, has fashioned a powerful and ambivalent story. He may not win any kudos for directorial flair, but his direction while subdued is assured. He leaves the protagonists to develop the story. While making effective use of close-ups and low-angle shots to accentuate the melodrama, only his use of off-horizontal takes is a mis-step. He deftly takes the scene with the boy’s mother and Sister Aloysius out of the principal’s office to neutral territory on sombre autumnal streets. Shanley’s use of rain, wind, and snow to underline the drama is elegant, and his script is powerful and to the point, and not at all stagy. The audience is free to enter a realistically rendered cinematic place.

Meryl Streep dominates in a bravura performance, the supporting cast is superb, with nuanced portrayals all-round. Though constrained by a full nun’s habit, Streep captures the disciplined yet rebellious and compassionate woman in all her contradictions and yes, softness. (I now wonder whether there was any softness in the nun’s of my childhood.)

Sister Aloysius is, as she herself says, the ‘protector’ of the children in her care, and her every action is taken for this end - she is hard, that’s her ‘job’. You admire her for her resilience and commitment. She battles with intelligence and wit against hypocrisy, moral relativism, hierarchy, patriarchy, and ultimately, doubt.

If we adopted the rules of judicial evidence, of being persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, how many believers would maintain a religious faith? In matters of individual faith, it is the individual who decides, but in situations where terrible harm may be occurring, and we have only circumstantial evidence, is the burden of proof absolutely necessary? Is an instinctual knowledge of a truth to hold sway over vehement denial and no corroboration? These are vexed questions, and this timely and serious film confronts them head-on.

Not to be missed.

Musings on In The Mood for Love

night rain on cobble stones
we sheltered under eaves
of lost time and aching solitude

slowed motion
our paths crossed
we dare not touch
rehearsing heartbreak and leave-taking

a hallway with no turning
condemned to relive a love
ever unconsumated
always alone

a red billowing curtain belies our passion
an empty hotel room
there is no future
no past
only an aching emptiness

slippers forgotten
kept as relics
and stolen back
by a visage not a visitor
red lipstick on a cigarette
left in suspense
on the edge of a lost horizon

I go back
all is gone
the story has moved on
new players
in the same rooms
I don't knock on the closed door

and whispered secrets among ancient stones
lost forever

Mr Deeds Meets Slumdog: Who wants to be a millionaire?

I often wonder how it feels to be at home in your country of birth. As a child of immigrant parents, and though an Australian by birth, I have never been confident that I ever will. There is a discontinuity, and bridging it is as unlikely as me flying to the moon. It is a strange feeling that I am in a place but not of it - a stranger in the only home I know. Perhaps it is me and not my situation, but the feeling of estrangement is always there under the surface, dormant, but ever-ready to puncture that rare sensation that I may have found that elusive threshold to a life unhindered by a feeling of not belonging.

I imagine this is how Slumdog Jamal feels. A Muslim in a hostile Hindu nation, first as an orphan eking out an existence on a refuse heap, living little better than a dog, later as a hustler on the edge of society, and then as a lowly chah-wallah in a Mumbai office tower. He has no home and belongs nowhere.

This is how Longfellow Deeds feels in New York City. A fish out of water. A decent man surrounded by conceit and deceit. At least he has a home in Bedford Falls to go back to, where he truly belongs - a place in the world that is inviolably his - a very part of his being.

I grew up in a tenement behind my parent's fruit store. There was love and we struggled together, but my life was different from the other children I knew. My brother and I between school and homework toiled with ours parent in the store seven days a week. We had no vacations and no lawn, or a shiny car. And we were seen as different: dagoes who didn't amount too much. My dreams of what life could be were shaped by Hollywood. Andy Hardy and Frank Capra were the stuff my dreams were made of. Mickey Rooney, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper populated my imagination. They belonged and they knew who they were - their lives were magic.

Jamal wades through a cess-pit to get a glance of his Bollywood idol. Shit: the stuff that slum-dreams are made of. The conceited quiz show host tries to set Jamal up for failure, and when that stratagem fails, he accuses Jamal of cheating and delivers him to police brutality. Longfellow Deeds suffers humiliation at the hands of his literary idol, he is manipulated by a cynical young reporter, and finally his shyster lawyer, who is after his dough, tries to have him declared insane when Longfellow decides to give his inherited millions to the needy. They each overcome by their essential decency and natural intelligence. Jamal says he didn't want the quiz show prize, he wanted to find his girl- and he does - just like Longfellow Deeds. Bollywood meets Hollywood.

Jamal's millions may buy him a measure of comfort and respect, but Longfellow Deeds doesn't need the money - he has something more precious and inviolate - a place in the sun.

The Wonder of Childhood

I had to wait until I was an adult to feel alone, as I was blessed with a brother only three years my junior. To be so alone as a young child that you enter a fantasy world so compelling that you begin to see it as part of the real world can be as terrifying as it is magical.

Two films, over 60 years apart, explore this phenomenon in interesting ways: Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006) from Guillermo del Toro. Both movies are about a young girl cut off from other children and feeling estranged from her parents. The fantasy has the element of the fabulous and directly influences the child's feelings and actions in reality. Each film in its own elegant fashion demonstrates that no matter how phantasmagorical and fearful a child's fantasy, it cannot challenge the horror of the world inhabited by adults. In The Curse of the Cat People, the fantasy is therapeutic and brings the child's family together, while in Pan's Labyrinth, the resolution is horrifically tragic.

These pictures have an important and very rare quality - they pay homage to the wonders of childhood and it's precious innocence. Children are in the world not of it, and they have much to teach us if we would take notice and share their wonderment.

John Ford's The Fugitive (1947)

Directed by John Ford; written by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel, The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene; cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Jack Murray; music by Richard Hageman; art designer, Alfred Ybarra; produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Henry Fonda and Dolores Del Rio. Black and white. Running time: 104 minutes.

John Ford's The Fugitive is not widely known or referenced in film writing, but it is reported to have been Ford's favorite film, of which he said: "It had a lot of damn good photography - with those black and white shadows. We had a good cameraman, Gabriel Figueroa, and we'd wait for the light - instead of the way it is nowadays, where regardless of the light, you shoot."

While dismissed by critics as too arty and not faithful to the source novel, a story of a 'whisky priest' in a revolutionary latin country, for me The Fugitive is a magnificent film. It may have flaws, but it is such a sincere statement of faith that any shortcomings are like the minor blemishes in a sparkling diamond. Filming entirely on location in Mexico, Ford and Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, fashioned a scene-scape of monochrome chiaroscuro that is a ravishing homage to the Renaissance.

The movie was the first production of Argosy Productions, the film company Ford setup in 1946. He found a willing distributor in RKO, who thankfully released the picture without interference. The movie sadly failed at the box office, and to recover the financial losses Ford retreated from this bold experiment and returned to his traditional fare in subsequent productions. The picture also led to a rift between Ford and his long-time collaborator, screenwriter Dudley Nichols. According to Nichols, "I don't know what happened in Mexico, I didn't go down with him... To me, he seemed to throw away the script. Fonda said the same. There were some brilliant things in the film, but I disliked it intensely - and, confidentially, I don't think Ford ever forgave me for that."

At the time of its release Bosley Crowther was among the few who were able to appreciate this gem in his eloquent review for the New York Times:

"Out of the flood of pictures which opened on Broadway yesterday emerges in monolithic beauty John Ford's The Fugitive. For here, in this strange and haunting picture... is imaged a terrifying struggle between strength and weakness in a man's soul, a thundering modern parable on the indestructibility of faith, a tense and significant conflict between freedom and brute authority... Mr. Ford has made The Fugitive a symphony of light and shade, of deafening din and silence, of sweeping movement and repose. And by this magnificent ordering of a strange, dizzying atmosphere, he has brewed a storm of implications of man's perils and fears in a world gone mad. The script, prepared by Dudley Nichols from a novel by Graham Greene, is a workmanlike blueprint for action, failing only to define the deeper indecision of the hero as it was apparently conceived by Mr. Greene. And the performances are all of them excellent, from the anguished straining of Henry Fonda as the priest to Ward Bond's stony arrogances as an American gangster 'on the lam'. Dolores Del Río is a warm glow of devotion as an Indian Magdalene and Pedro Armendáriz burns with scorching passion as a chief of military police. The musical score by Richard Hageman is a tintinnabulation of eloquent sounds. Let us thank Mr. Ford for giving us, at this late date, one of the best films of the year." - 26 December 1947

Beyond its visual beauty, this story of a weak man, a priest who when he finally confronts his cowardice, says "I began to have pride", has a simple resonance and trajectory, but the characterisations have a subtle complexity, and none of the protagonists is strictly biblical. As the last priest in the country, he is pursued with revolutionary zeal by a fanatical young Lieutenant, who has also fathered the Magdalene's illegitimate baby. The Magdalene, 'Maria Dolores', hides the priest and, with unsolicited help from the Barabas, who ambushes the military, aids him in his eventually futile escape across a mountain. The priest finds redemption only after he is betrayed by a perversely comical Judas and shot by revolutionary firing squad. His otherwise zealous pursuer lacks the courage to witness his execution.

Thoughts on In the Valley of Elah

When Pfc. Albert Nelson died in Iraq in 2006, the Army first told Feggins that he might have been killed by friendly fire, and then that it was enemy mortars. She says she never believed the Army's explanation. "I always felt like they were lying to me," she said. "I could never prove it."

Jean Feggins, is the mother of Albert Nelson and retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, and the quote is from a article of October 14 by Mark Benjamin, Friendly fire in Iraq - and a coverup. has obtained evidence - including a graphic 52 min video and an eyewitness account - suggesting that in 2006 friendly fire from an American tank killed two US soldiers in Iraq, and that the US Army ignored the video and other evidence, ruling that the deaths resulted from enemy action.

For those who have seen Paul Haggis' powerful film In the Valley of Elah (2007), this scenario has disturbing parallels.

In the movie, aging Vietnam vet, retired military investigator, and reticent patriot, Hank Deerfield, played with understated grit by a craggy by Tommy Lee Jones, sets outs to find the killer of his son, whose charred remains are found in brush on the outskirts of Fort Rudd, New Mexico, a few days after the boy's return from a posting in Iraq. Hank's dogged search for his son's killer is frustrated at every turn by the military but aided by a female cop, played simply and unaffectedly by Charlize Theron, who refuses to drop the case after pressure from the army. The father not only discovers the killer but reaches a profoundly shattering realisation about his country and its institutions, and how the brutalisation of war can destroys live far from the battle-line.

The tone of the film is quiet and respectful and rendered with a muted palate, and the breakdown in Hank's accepted beliefs about his country is handled deftly. During his stay at Fort Worth, Hank holes up in a motel. In the first days he is seen polishing his shoes, maintaining the crease in his trousers, and making his bed in strict army fashion. As his journey into a nether world of obfuscation, deceit, and moral indifference goes deeper, he longer polishes his shoes and his bed is left dishevelled each morning as he trudges out into a starkly dark world he could never have imagined existed.

On the surface the picture is a police procedural, but on a deeper level it is an exploration of contingencies and responsibility. His son's murder and the brutal killing of a child by a US humvee on the streets of Baghdad seen in a video from the dead son's cell-phone, bring chaos to the life of a father, who no longer understands his son or his country.

Everything including the American flag is upside-down.

Michael Clayton: When you run out of fixes...

This is not so much a review of the movie, rather an exploration of thoughts that have arisen from the film in the context of current events. I am not overly concerned here with the cinematic quality of the picture, but the extent to which film-making is informed by social circumstances, and how a popular film may reveal to us something about our world.

Wall St has undergone over the past few months a seismic shift, and the after-shocks and tsunamis have spread beyond the shores of the US to financial markets everywhere. Economies have been thrown into recession, corporations have failed, and ordinary people everywhere have seen their retirement savings put into serious jeopardy. The crisis has its origins in the packaging of US home mortgages that should never have been written into toxic debt instruments that have been traded all over the globe. Share markets have gone into free-fall, and credit markets have seized as a result. Now after the horse has bolted there is a desperate scramble for a “fix”. But it is too late for fixes: those responsible for this debacle have face to the consequences, as will the rest of us - the suckers who bought retail.

Michael Clayton’s job was fixing things – discreetly and behind the scenes – for the clients of a top New York law firm. He was “the janitor”, working out of sight and getting his hands dirty in the dark places where things that somebody wants buried get buried and stay buried.

“The truth can be adjusted”: like the discardable history written and re-written as often as necessary by the automatons in the solitary cubicles in George Orwell's 1984, where persons, events, and even places, are erased from collective memory, and like the skins in the movie Dark City who labour every night underground with the conspiring bio-chemist to erase and re-construct individual memory, and actual physical reality, so that individual consciousness ceases to exist.

Michael Clayton opens with “the janitor” called in the early morning from a card game in a noir dive to the home of a wealthy client, who wants to bury a hit-and-run. The client, whose sense of entitlement to a fix that will not inconvenience him is as nauseating as it is breathtaking, has to face the stark reality that not even Clayton can bury this one.

Here we have the central motif of the film: no-one wants to take responsibility. The only guy who does, a litigator with the firm and Clayton’s friend, first goes off the wall for his trouble and is then rubbed out by his erstwhile client.

The resolution is pure Hollywood, and the film is weaker for this, with all the loose-ends nicely tied, after Clayton is faced to confront his responsibility to his dead friend, and only after an attempt is made on his own life - even then he is motivated not by justice but by his outrage that some-one had the temerity to think he could out-smart him.

The true origin of the current financial melt-down lies in the same unwillingness to take responsibility. From the real estate brokers who did not look beyond their brokerage check when pushing people into taking on debt that they could never repay, and the bankers who traded the complex financial instruments with no regard for the quality of the underlying assets, to the regulators and politicians who neglected to properly regulate financial markets.

Welcome To The Sticks: The bicycle as liberation

Welcome To The Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) was released in France in February, and is the most successful French movie ever, with over 20 million admissions and a box-office take exceeding $US200 million in France alone.

A simple premise is weaved into a touching and hilarious journey into the profound beauty of simple unaffected lives. The plot is clichéd and banal, but the sincere humanity of the director, Dany Boon, who also co-wrote the script and has a starring role, and the sheer exuberance of the cast, transform a formula for bathos into paean to family, friendship, and simple fun.

A post-office functionary, Phillipe, played beautifully by a gangling Kad Merad, living with his depressive wife, Julie, and young son in a town in the south of France, is exiled to the cold forbidding north of the country after faking disability to wrangle a transfer to the Riviera. He leaves his Julie, who refuses to join him, and his son behind, and treks North to do battle in the sticks with the "country bumpkins" in a small village. When he gets there, after a series of misadventures and struggling with the absurd local argot and un-appetising provincial cuisine, he settles into a life of simple pleasures and bountiful friendship, while all the time concocting for his wife on his weekend visits home stories of terrible deprivation. When Julie can take the estrangement and the thought of his suffering alone no longer, she packs her bags and joins him, thus establishing the premise for the hilarious climax and dénouement.

Dany Boon, plays a simple post-man unmarried and in his mid-30s, who lives with his domineering mother, and pines for a vivacious postal clerk who also works at the local village post office, where the transferred functionary is the manager. It is the dynamic of the relationship between these two men that propels the story and is the catalyst for the life-changing inter-play for both men.

It is these two men's experience together one sunny day cycling through the village delivering the mail that forms the film's central tableau: a sequence so funny yet so moving, your laughter only just manages to contain heart-felt tears of joy.

Transported into a simpler world where friendship is real and work a truly communal extension of life, we confront what we have lost: the capacity of simply living in the moment. To fully live and realise our true being, we must jettison all pretension and embrace life stripped to its essentials.


I saw Costa-Gavras' Z for the second time in Greece in 1976 in the local cinema in the Cretan village of Sitia, where my late mother had relations, in the original French with Greek sub-titles, and as I speak French "comme une vache espagnole" and good Greek, I was ok.

Z is based on the true story of the assassination of the socialist Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in the early 60's by a conspiracy between the army and right-wing elements. A military junta ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, and collapsed after a student uprising in Athens was brutally crushed by the army and the Makarios coup in Cyprus failed. The climax in Z occurs when Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the Magistrate investigating the assassination, personally issues warrants for the indictment of a cohort of generals, who are each shown entering his office and then leaving totally flummoxed and each trying to leave by the wrong door, all to the stirring music of Greek patriot and composer Mikes Theodorakis, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the generals, and was in exile in France when Z was made.

The reaction in the cinema to this scene was spontaneous on-your-feet cheering with a wave emotion so electric it sent shivers down my spine. This was truly cinema for the people!