Monday, March 20, 2017

45 YEARS - #861

Looked at in a certain way, Andrew Haigh’s finely tuned 2015 drama 45 Years has the cold heart of a film noir plot. A secret sin committed almost five decades prior catches up with a man, sending ripples through his existence, exposing a hidden life no one knew he had. As this past becomes more prominent, it damages his current relationship, and there is no clear indication if he can either atone for his silence or if his partner can forget. Because the past is ever-present. Once you dig it up, you can’t bury it again.

In this case, the secret is the sin itself. It’s the fact that Geoff (Tom Courtenay, Billy Liar [review]) kept much of the details of his first love secret from his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime [review]). The full details only begin to emerge under extraordinary circumstances just before their 45th wedding anniversary. Back in the 1960s, Geoff went climbing in the Swiss Alps with his beloved, only to lose her in the snow. During a recent thaw, the girl’s body was found in the ice, and because they had pretended to be married while on the road, Geoff is listed as her next of kin. This implies a far more intimate relationship than Kate ever realized, and as Geoff begins to lose himself in memory, Kate fears she is losing him, too.

Though, there is some evidence that she was losing him already. Old age has come to them differently, softening his thought processes even as she remains sharp. Courtenay is brilliant, alternately sympathetic and infuriating, there one minute and off in his own world the next. His thoughts of the lost woman obsess him, and he returns to youthful habits like a thief returning to crime. One of their friends describes him as “overly passionate about things,” and indeed, as he takes up smoking and starts to question the disappointing, straight life of his old friends, he starts to appear as an overgrown adolescent. Kate can only watch and wonder and try to pull him back in.

Andrew Haigh (Weekend) is taking on a lot here. He’s tossing out big questions. Based on a short story by David Constantine, 45 Years ponders how well we can really know a person, and what secrets we have a right to keep in reserve. Kate remains a rock even as her husband waivers. In terms of performance, Rampling is as present as Courtenay is absent. Yet, even in her stoicism, we see pain. Those quiet moments alone, as she contemplates the truth of the situation, we see the grief welling up in her. She’s already lost Geoff, she has to start the mourning process.

Or so one can surmise. Haigh avoids explanation, instead inviting us to consider what each spouse is going through. Haigh doesn’t layer on an orchestral score, preferring instead to use only in-world music. Sometimes it’s on the nose (“young girl get out of my mind,” Gary Puckett implores), other times it’s a product of nostalgia, empty in sentiment, reminding Geoff and Kate what they felt once upon a time. “Their” song is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a deceptive tune that sounds assured at first, but holds doubt (“all who love are blind”). How complacent have they become, how little has their taste changed? How much of the last 45 years has been a lie? Like a silent detective hunting out the truth, Rampling’s face says it all as Kate tries to clear that smoke put the puzzle together. She doesn’t know what to believe anymore. This is where Lol Crawley’s unassuming, stark cinematography becomes a powerful tool. The actors are the thing, and he and Haigh give them plenty of space, recalling in some scenes the Kitchen Sink school of British filmmaking popular when Courtenay and Rampling were starting out, but also more bucolic. They use the English countryside and its misty gray and lovely green to create a sort of limbo where the couple has gotten stuck, contrasting with the unseen, icy grave.

“We only get so many choices,” Geoff says at one point, a semblance of an excuse, implying that we  only get so much love in our lives, as well. There is an existential dread in that belief, as if our decisions in life are like a genie’s three wishes. Make the wrong choices, and use them all up. But it’s not Geoff that we ultimately figure chose wrong--this is Kate’s story, really, not his, so it’s more her that we have to pity. Because she’ll never know if she devoted her life to a man that cared for her as much as she cared for him. The dead girl was always in their house, always in their bed, haunting her without Kate knowing. And we are left to hang there, as well, unsure of where this story will go next, our heroine trapped in the chilling final shot, not unlike her rival is trapped on a mountainside glacier, never to thaw.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Released in 1976, Canoa: A Shameful Memory is considered a milestone of Mexican cinema, influencing future filmmakers (Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón both appear in supplements on this new release) and setting a standard for the local industry to follow. Felipe Casals’ innovative, probing docudrama is equal parts Costa-Gavras and Francesco Rosi. It's dramatic and real and maybe a little long in the tooth, but fascinating all the same. Also, relevant to our times--and like most older films that maintain their bite, I might add, sadly so.

Based on a real-life incident from the mid-1960s, Canoa is essentially a story of small-town hysteria and political bullying. Taking place in the rural village that gives the film its name, Canoa centers around one night, including the preamble and the aftermath, when a terrible crime occurs. The catalyst is the arrival of a handful of university workers visiting the region to hike in its hills. They get off the bus at the start a torrential rainstorm, the severity of which prevents them from traveling further before sunrise. Word of the strangers spreads quickly, especially when they are refused shelter by the town sheriff and the local priest (Enrique Lucero)--a miniature dictator who has been squeezing the town dry for years. His anti-communist rhetoric, combined with his acute paranoia, misleads his congregation into believing the group are activist students who have come to undermine the Catholic church. As tails of their intentions become exaggerated, a mob forms and does what a mob does, ending in several murders.

Casals crafts Canoa: A Shameful Memory like a faux documentary, complete with an off-screen narrator and an on-screen witness (Salvador Sánchez). The latter is the most compelling part of the film. A worker from Canoa, the witness gives us the inside dope on town politics, speaking directly to the camera, as much a tour guide as an interview subject. His self-aware, glib cynicism colors the whole of the picture. He speaks with both the benefit of hindsight and distance. Granted, no one asks where he was on the night in question, and we aren’t entirely sure of where he fits in all of this. Not that it matters. He is the outside observer, disgusted yet not surprised. Even in the film's denouement, he already sees the powers that be turning tragedy into opportunity.

This witness basically sets the tone for Canoa. The movie is both real and unreal, an accurate depiction of events and yet a fictional re-creation of the same. We have access to closed-room machinations with the priest and his flunkies, a narrative conceit unavailable in a true documentary, not to mention an artful POV shot that reminds us that the minister is the shadowy villain behind the whole thing, the noirish lighting shaking off the cinematic grit that otherwise marks the picture. When it comes down to it, most of Canoa’s visuals conform more to the standards of fictional drama than any verité aesthetics. We also see Cazals push the limits of his budget in some of the performances, particularly the university workers, whose expositional scenes in the city are amateurish and contrived. Canoa’s fundamental cinematic constraints are showing.

The one exception is the violence that comes in the final act, when the mob comes for the unsuspecting visitors, breaking down the door of the meager shelter they found. Here Casals pulls no punches, embracing the terrible events in all their lifelike horror. The attack is vicious and bloody, and the brutality of it is appropriately unsettling. By the time the townspeople come for the outsiders, the truth of their visit is no longer important. In fact, to their minds, the boys’ explanation for coming this way is exactly something lying communists would say to save their skins. The violence is drawn-out and cruel, and Canoa doesn't shy away from some of the harsher details. As shown here, the hive mind succumbs to its most primitive impulses, trading its humanity for self-preservation.

But is it self-preservation? Is it even self-serving? They think so, but if we reconsider the info we got at the start of Canoa, these farmers make no real money, and what little they have is siphoned off by the clergy and funneled to its political cronies, sometimes as a trade-off for delivering such basic conveniences as electricity and telephones, other times for delivering nothing at all, the price of an empty promise. That the priest distracts from this thievery by inspiring a fear of the "other" should be all too familiar. Ignore my hand in your pocket, because that other guy is going to steal what I want before I do. And then pay me to "protect" you. Or show me how strong you are by protecting yourselves, you freeloaders!

So, despite showing its age in filmmaking, Canoa: A Shameful Memory remains as potent as ever. Swap its decades-old setting for a current one, wherever xenophobia and oppressive rhetoric holds sway, and you’ll find a cautionary tale for our era. One would have hoped that in these "enlightened" times we would be better, that Canoa would be considered fantasy rather than realism, and that such prejudices would have been rooted out--if not in the 1960s then at the end of the Cold War--but if the first few months of 2017 have shown us anything, we haven't really evolved much at all, and we’re getting busy creating a few new shameful memories of our own.

This disc proved by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Returning to the Lone Wolf and Cub series after a couple of idle months, I am pleased to discover that even with its initial pleasures a distant memory, fossilized in my back brain, its delights remain no less surprising, thrilling, or stupefying.

Carrying on with its own individual story, while also letting a few bare threads from the larger plot of Itto Ogami’s feud with the Yagyu drag behind, 1972’s third release, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cartto Hades, continues to escalate the Lone Wolf myth while also creating a more structurally sophisticated individual story. Each piece of the plot builds on the whole, a circular puzzle that will come back around. The ronin Kanbei (Go Kato) that father and child (still Tomisaburo Wakayama and Akihiro Tomikawa) meet on the road, whom Ogami spares in a duel out of respect for the swordsman’s adherence to the Bushido, has the least surprising return in the third act, and yet the encounter deepens our understanding of the Lone Wolf’s journey.

Baby Cart to Hades is more than a confrontation between these two men, however, but a blossoming of the larger, interconnected world of the samurai, erasing the lines between the underworld and the supposedly more ethical mainstream. When Ogami stumbles on Kanbei, it’s immediately following the younger man is cleaning up after his traveling companions commit a sexual assault; shortly after, Ogami protects a young girl who killed the slaver selling her into prostitution, recognizing in her a similar grief to his own. And yet it’s another sexual assault that partially motivates her would-be madam (Yuko Hama), to offer Ogami the opportunity to earn her freedom by sending him after a man who harmed her sister and father. When that despicable individual (Isao Yamagata) tries to hire Ogami in turn, not realizing why the killer has arrived in his township, the house of cards is revealed.

Director Kenji Misumi continues to push the violence to new heights of gonzo dizziness. He pits his swordsman against gunslingers and ninjas, creating a whirlwind of flailing limbs and splattering blood. He often removes Ogami from any grounded context entirely, cutting to him leaping through the air, his body framed by an empty sky, hitting impossible altitudes. By the time of the outlandish pre-climax, when Ogami takes on a whole battalion, we are prepared to accept anything, down to our man either counting bullets or just not caring enough if he lives or die to worry about his opponent’s ammo. Yet, it’s still the one-on-one of Ogami vs. Kanbei that closes things out, and the two men ponder what it means to be a true warrior: “living by death.”

It’s perhaps what separates them from the Cub, from Daigoro, who provides the only real compassion in the series. He takes pity on the kidnapped girl not once, but twice, only to have his heart broken when she leaves them. Did she seem a suitable surrogate mother for the boy? Contrast that with Hama’s madam, who like the prostitute in one of the earlier entries is willing to toss it all away, seduced as she is by Ogami’s animal nature. There walks a true man, a moral being in an increasingly immoral world.

Interesting to note briefly how Misumi and writer Kazuo Koike build extra backstory into Baby Cart to Hades, adding flashbacks to other events in Ogami’s journey as if they were call backs to films we already saw. Even visually, Misumi separates them, adding a sepia tone and dialing down the audio, letting the Lone Wolf and Cub beef up its history as it carries forward.

And forward it will go, the journey never ending, only one outcome possible...though still three more films to go.

Monday, February 20, 2017


Criterion fans know the name Ermanno Olmi from his excellent Neorealist films, Il posto [review] and I fidanzati [review], small dramas set in then-modern times (1961 and 1962) that are elegant, personal, and focused. And if that, like me, is all you know, then his Palm d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs may be a bit of a surprise. Released in 1978, this three-hour-plus drama is modestly epic in scope, more open in approach, and yet surprisingly just as engaged with the personal.

Set in Italy's Bergamo province at the tail of the 19th Century, The Tree of Wooden Clogs tells a season in the life of a farming village. At the time, peasants lived as sharecroppers on a wealthy landlord's estate, working his fields, keeping 1/3 of what they produced, giving the rest to him (see also Bertollucci’s 1900 [review] for a similar scenario). The farmers shared one community building, four or five families per, individual tribes within a larger conglomerate. As his narrative progresses, Olmi dips in and out of different families in one particular dwelling, mining their collective stories. There is the young man looking to woo his neighbor's daughter, or the old timer looking to beat the others to the tomato harvest, and the various wives and mothers keeping their children in clean clothes and nourishment. Each action is individual, but it also adds to the whole. No one family, no patch of land, is an island. Or, to change metaphors, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a tapestry, and each singular weave somehow ties back to the center, and you don't see the full tableau until you step back and take it all in.

The closest thing we have to a central family is the clan whose challenges give The Tree of Wooden Clogs its name. This incident is a small story embedded in the whole. The family’s young son, Minek, is a bit of a prodigy, and the parish priest insists his father send him to school, even if it is a four-mile walk each way. On one such trek, the same day his baby brother is born, the child breaks one of his clogs. His kindly father doesn't scold him or make a fuss. Instead, he sneaks out into the night and cuts a chunk of wood from a tree alongside the road. It's unclear whether he takes to this task quietly so as not to disturb the boy's mother, still recuperating from the birthing, or because he's taking the wood without clearing it with the landlord. All we feel is there is something momentous and heavy in the act, especially as he begins his carving while the rest of his family says their evening prayers. Is this plea to the heavens to be his absolution?

This is how connected everything is--religion, birth, survival. Within the relatively short period--short in the context of an existence, at least, because make no mistake, this is a long movie--we see the full circle of life. Crops are grown, animals slaughtered, children born. We see only a small sliver of the other side, a brief peek into the landowner's life. We see how faith holds sway, even when impractical. We also catch a glimpse of political tides to come. But as large as the land and the sky and the whole of the world may appear, it's still the little things that matter. The simple pleasures.

Olmi applies the Neorealist method to great effect. Like Roberto Rossellini did with the Sicilian fishermen for Stromboli [review], or even Michael Powell and the Scotsmen on The Edge of the World, the director worked with the real people of the Bergamo region, even having them speak in their native Bergamasque. The landscape of The Tree of Wooden Clogs is not populated by actors, but the actual citizenry of the world Olmi is capturing. Yet, they still are actors, aren't they, since they live in the now while dressing up to play their ancestors in front of a camera. Such is the illusion, and so powerful the effect, you'll be forgiven for how often you'll forget you are not watching a documentary. The details are real, and often not for the squeamish (if you've never seen a goose or pig butchered...), and the script so absent of point-A/point-B plotting, the final cut has the feeling of real life, not a cinematic construction. Like life, it can be a bit of a haul to reach the end, but hopefully we’ll all find both tasks worth it. (Though I’m not holding out much hope for this living business...)

The span of The Tree of Wooden Clogs only grows macro in its third hour, when the young couple we’ve watched court one another gets married and goes off on their honeymoon. Traveling with them, we see nearby townships, and people beyond the landlord’s property line. These new elements almost seem cartoonish by comparison, so used have we come to the quiet life within the farm. The honeymoon itself passes without much fanfare--at least until the newlyweds return home and, immediately after, other narrative threads finally start to pay off--some good, and some bad. I suppose it’s up to each viewer to divine where Olmi is coming down in terms of the divine and its relation to what happens to the peasants, or what that also says about the nature of small community. A sad fate befalls Minek’s family, one that is swift and without recourse. As neighbor turns away from neighbor and relies on prayer rather than intervening, I found myself caught between my empathy for their resorting to their faith due to a need for some kind of explanation of why life is cruel and my more visceral reaction. I can’t help but think they are using religion to sidestep their responsibility toward their fellow man, and that this is perhaps why the cycle of the wealthy oppressing the poor continues. (“I’ve got mine, let God take care of the rest.) One could surmise this is why Olmi includes glimpse of the socialist revolution on the rise. Certainly nothing happens on screen in The Tree of Wooden Clogs by accident, given that the director, in the truest auteur fashion, is credited with script, photography, and editing. Just as the hands of the farmers draw riches from the land, Olmi’s hands draw out this mis-en-scene. Soil has never been so beautiful, and yet so daunting. Soft and brown when giving life, dark and muddy as the day grows hard.

Yet, for the filmmaker to add any editorial or exposition would be to betray his motivating conceit. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is meant to be an observation, not an explanation. It’s a morality play without a coda. The staging, the lighting, everything is as natural and real as is possible in the confines of a motion picture construct. The camera itself seems to disappear in the crowd. The light is never brighter than the hazy grays the sun provides. The visual story is limited to what the eye can see, the same way it would be were this a newsreel. Olmi doesn’t dress the set, he doesn’t call attention to the design of his shots, he doesn’t zoom emphatically. His approach is as straightforward and quaint as the daily life he is chronicling. It’s also as intimate, and therein he finds his truth. From the supplements accompanying the movie on this disc, especially the British television special from 1981, we hear how the film was inspired by stories the Olmi’s grandmother told him about her life, and so we can see that the director’s exacting methods are born of a personal pride. He is reaching back into his own history, digging for the roots that would eventually put him on his own two feet and lead him here.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


After 25 years of filming other people’s lives--and other people’s films--documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson tackles the subject of herself. But not in a conventional mode. Cameraperson does not flip the lens around and capture the filmmaker out on her day-to-day. Instead, Johnson has assembled raw footage from various movies she’s shot, ranging from America-centric political tales like Citzenfour [review] and Fahrenheit 9/11 to studies of strife in foreign lands like Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Mixed in are the occasional home movies: scenes of her twin children, her mother when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her father soldiering on. The result is something akin to a selection of The Qatsi Trilogy, but on a more human scale and driven by one point of view.

In the first six minutes, Cameraperson sets up its scope. We move from a shepherd driving his sheep in Bosnia to a lightning storm halfway across the world; backstage at a boxing match in Brooklyn to a medical clinic in Nigeria. While seemingly unrelated, as Johnson assembles her collage, parallels and patterns emerge. Since a lot of the material is fairly heavy--some of the source films are about ethnic cleansing and rape--much of what comes together ends up being about human mortality and death, but bubbling just underneath is also a celebration of life. Even as she has to let her mother go, Johnson keeps returning to Nigeria, watching a dedicated midwife help a late-born twin take his first breaths. As a mother of twins herself, I am sure the emotional weight is not lost on Johnson. What is this balance between two lives, where one sibling comes first and the other must struggle to emerge? Duality plays a strong role throughout: the boy with one good eye and one bad eye explaining his injury is particularly effective in conveying Johnson’s message. The seen and the unseen, the two sides of the camera.

It’s not just the narratives that start to come into view, however, but the titular cameraperson, as well. Since these are unedited takes, we witness Johnson setting up her shots, and also her blowing them. We hear her planning her next move, asking for clarification, or simply letting her guard down to talk to a boxing coach or ask a soldier for some watermelon. Perhaps the most endearing detail is in the credits sequence, when she sneezes while watching the storm roll in, and her sneezing shakes the camera. There is much here to dissect about the act of cinematic observation, and the right to observe. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in an outtake from the 2002 Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering film Derrida, provides Johnson with a perfect moment. With her gaze so focused, he wonders, does she see much at all? He likens her to the philosopher who fell down a well because he was too busy looking up at the stars to spot the hole.

Of course, the answer is that Johnson sees plenty. Perhaps more than most. Cameraperson is testament to that. Though documentaries are supposed to be objective, Cameraperson reveals that they still require empathy and engagement. That’s why all these scenes remain important to Johnson, why she can’t let them go. What she has captured on film is now as much her as her home and family. She lives through the work, and there is no need for her to say more, or show more, about the woman pressing record.

Naturally, the presentation for Cameraperson puts most of its attention on the thesis of the film and the thinking behind it. There are two exclusive programs exploring how it was put together and grappling with larger moviemaking questions. There is also excerpts from talks Kirsten Johnson made at festivals. Picture quality is excellent on the Blu-ray, and the 5.1 audio is exceptional. For a film that you wouldn’t expect to have a particularly robust soundtrack, kudos for all the little details emerging in the back speakers throughout the movie.

Of particular note in the extras, though, is Kirsten Johnson’s 2015 short documentary The Above. Beginning with a U.S. Army blimp that has been floating over Kabul since 2009, the function of which is classified, the director takes different vantage points around the city to simulate what such a device might see. She also uses on-the-ground shots to show the ubiquity of the blimp and juxtaposes that with images of an identical blimp hovering over Maine, allegedly as a missile detection device. It’s interesting how differently one reacts to seeing this stationary object flanked by a Christian church and the stars and stripes.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


There’s a scene near the very end of The Kid With aBike where the titular kid, Cyril (Thomas Doret), is riding side by side with his unexpected guardian, Samantha (Cécile de France, Mesrine [review], The Young Pope), and he asks her what gear she is pedaling in. Samantha has no idea, and only can guess looking at the gauges and levers on the handlebars. Her ignorance amuses the boy.

It also reminds me of my own biking experiences. Near the end of junior high, a few years before I could drive, I was given a ten-speed bike. It was probably nine speeds too many. No one ever explained to me what the different gears meant, much less how to shift into them. I found a setting where I could pedal comfortably, and then never touched the gears again.

The anecdote itself is completely irrelevant to examining this 2011 film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and yet it is also everything. The pleasure of watching The Kid With a Bike [also on Filmstruck] and, in fact, all Dardenne films is the attention to personal details. Everything that happens matters to the person it happens to, and the specificity is exactly why audiences around the world, be they in the Dardenne Brothers’ native Belgium or here in the United States, identify with their stories. It’s the bigger things that separate us, and the day-to-day that proves we are all basically the same.

I don’t identify with the love of the bike that the kid has, but I identify with his willful ignorance, his refusal to let go of an idea. In this case, that his father, Guy (Dardennes-regular Jérémie Renier, Summer Hours [review]), will come back and take him out of the group home and put their lives back together. The bike becomes a symbol of that. Cyril’s father would have never gone away without giving him his beloved bike. When Samantha brings it to him and tells him she had bought it off someone who bought it from Cyril’s dad, the boy refuses to believe her.

We should all hope for angels in our life like Samantha. She only meets Cyril by chance, while going to an appointment in a medical clinic in the building where Cyril’s father was last known to live. The boy runs away from school and goes there looking for Guy, and when they try to drag him back, he literally grabs on to Samantha and won’t let go. What this sparks in her, we’ll never know. A Good Samaritan streak? A motherly instinct? Samantha agrees to take Cyril on the weekends, which proves tougher than expected when he falls in with a bad crowd. But then, Samantha is tougher than just about anybody. She stands up to the boy’s father and makes him relate his own bad news; she dumps her boyfriend when he delivers her an ultimatum about her new ward; she refuses to give up on the kid even after he’s stepped over a very dangerous line. Cécile de France is a remarkably versatile actor. In any role, be it the gangster’s moll or the public relations woman or the simple hairdresser looking for love, she is always present in the moment. She’s one of those performers that each time you see her, she seems transformed, sending you scrambling to IMDB to see why she looks familiar.

Watching The Kid With a Bike, you’ll want to knock some sense into Cyril more than once. Hell, not only because he refuses to listen, but after the second time his bike gets stolen because he didn’t lock it up, you just want to smack him upsdie the head. (I joked the movie could alternately be called The Persuasive Argument For My Vasectomy.) I don’t know where the Dardennes found Thomas Doret, but he’s excellent. The young actor has a laser-like focus and maintains his mission at all times. Cyril will not be dissuaded.

It’s nearly impossible to not think of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves [review] when examining The Kid With a Bike. It’s not just the father/son story revolving around a two-wheeler, but also the fact that moral questions are raised over the need for the bike. Cyril faces a choice, and though less motivated by self-preservation than the desperate man of De Sica’s film, to a young mind it would be just as important. Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the Fagin of Samantha’s neighborhood, offers him the kind of masculine reinforcement that Cyril seeks, and so he makes doing bad look very good. And hell, if you can’t trust your father to come through the way he’s supposed to, common rules no longer seem valid.

Additionally, the Dardennes work in a similar style to De Sica. The young actor, the real locations, the simple plot, the lack of melodrama--this 2011 Belgian film is very much in line with the 1948 Italian film’s aesthetics. Collaborating as usual with cinematographer Alain Marcoen, the Dardennes make no move that calls attention to itself. There are no tricky shots, no daring overheads, they maintain a grounded vantage point, which ultimately proves to be more immersive than some glossier fictional efforts, in that The Kid With a Bike is far more persuasive as a believable narrative. It is being lived, not choreographed.

Once upon a time when I was editing the Kitchen Sink-style comics of British cartoonist Andi Watson, we received a review that contended “nothing happened” in an issue. Of course, this was not true, we could outline many emotional twists and turns in the comic book, many actual events that the characters had to contend with. It just was lacking in “action.” As Andi quipped, just because someone didn’t get punched, it doesn’t mean nothing happened. And while there is violence in The Kid With a Bike, it is story driven, not plot driven, which is a big difference. Some might say the core scenario is very little to hang an entire film on, but the Dardennes make something grand from it.

One last anecdote that came to mind while watching The Kid With a Bike: when I was in grade school I had a brown Huffy that I was pretty keen on. That is, until I got to school and was ridiculed because it had a banana seat and no crossbar on the handle. I was told this made it a girl’s bike.  A girl’s bike befitting a boy with a girl’s name, I guess. While I didn’t come to blows with any of the kids the way that Cyril did (at least not over the bike), it did still come to represent a kind of rebellion for me--I rode it regardless of others’ taunts--and provided my personal freedom. I could go all over town on it, much faster and with more ease than on two feet. In other words, it could get me away from those other boys whom I didn’t want to hang out with anyway. Looking back, I guess it did carry a comparable power to the bike in the movie. It maybe wasn’t about my father’s love, but then, ultimately that’s not what Cyril’s represents. It’s about having a vehicle to be who we are and get us to where we feel safe.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


In 1975, the writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder applied his finely honed sense of Sirkian melodrama to Fox and His Friends, a small story that encompasses class, ambition, and, at its root, a need to be loved. Fassbinder himself played the lovably dopey Fox, a one-time carnie whose continual insistence that he’d win the lottery finally comes true, cashing him in for 500,000 deutschmarks on the same day his boss and lover was sent to jail for tax evasion. Ironic, as one of the men gets money from the government, the other is busted for not putting his in.

That day, Fox also meets Max (Karlheinz Böhm, Peeping Tom), a wealthy antiques dealer. The two size each other up in at a public restroom in a silent scene full of secret gestures, meaningful looks, and a test or two. It’s masterfully choreographed, almost like something out of Bresson’s Pickpocket. Max has come along at just the right moment, introducing his new lover to a social group befitting his newfound riches. Max’s friends are disdainful at first, seeing their coupling as lewd and Fox himself as a rube. He also has a bit of a rough allure--a bad boy, if you will--so soon one of the men gives in to his lust. Eugen (Peter Chatel, The Merchant of Four Seasons) takes Fox home, and the former con man has no trouble seducing and dominating his conquest. It’s only after the fling becomes something serious that the dynamic changes.

Eugen’s family is going broke. Their bookbinding business is heading for bankruptcy, and the son sees only one way to bail his judgmental father out. He asks Fox to loan them some money, with promises of equity when the loan is paid off. As audience members, we see almost immediately that not all is as it seems with this plan, but poor trusting Fox, so eager to be accepted, and so afraid that Eugen will think he’s stupid, signs the deal without admitting he doesn’t truly understand it. It’s the final shift of power, the con man becomes the conned, making Eugen free to criticize and humiliate his lower-class boyfriend all he wants. His most insidious habit is how he corrects Fox’s etiquette. “If you’re looking for the dessert fork,” he begins, seeing Fox eating a pastry with his hands, and then ends by pointing out that it’s on the left of his plate. He couches his recriminations with a sharp dig, giving the pretense that he’s repeating something Fox already knows. Self-aware mansplaining. (It reminds me of Michael Sheen’s equally infuriating “um, actually” behavior toward Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris [review].)

Fox and His Friends is pleasantly simple, with big emotions but few dramatic sweeps to match. Fassbinder approaches everything gently, including his own performance. Rather than play Fox in broad strokes, he goes low-key. Fox is not very bright and surprisingly naïve, but not in a way that inspires laughter from the audience. Instead, as Eugen chips away at Fox’s swagger and reveals the kind-hearted simpleton underneath, we only gain more empathy for the well-meaning bumbler. We wish he’d do better, and would smack him upside the head if we could, but outside of some ostentatious purchases that bite him on the ass later, most of his financial loss comes from wanting to please his lover. His generosity is genuine, and also equal opportunity. One of their worst quarrels occurs when Eugen objects to Fox giving a loan to Klaus (Karl Scheydt, The American Soldier), his carnie boss, when he is released from jail. How hypocritical that Eugen’s anger is because he believes Fox will never see that money again. Fox trusts Klaus will pay him back, and regardless of that, you have to help your friends. Their other terrible fight comes in Morocco, when they look to pick up another man. It’s a strange and nuanced disagreement, hinging on a dual offense: Fox being hurt that he’s not enough, and also disgusted that Eugen doesn’t act with more authority in making it happen. You want this, so be a man and take it.

The only characters that the director goes big with are Fox’s belligerent, alcoholic sister (Christiane Maybach) and Fox’s friends at the gay bar, who come with their best “girl, please” sashay. Even more than 40 years later, Fassbinder’s depiction of the gay lifestyle still feels surprisingly fresh. That’s because rather than making Fox and Friends a movie about being homosexual, it’s just a movie with homosexuals in it. In fact, Fox and Friends is completely lacking in heterosexual expression. The only straight couple we see is Eugen’s parents, and they are past the demonstrative stage of their relationship.

But it’s not just the culture that Fassbinder treats matter of factly, it’s the whole of the film. He and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Broadcast News [review], The Last Temptation of Christ) don’t aim for the bright Technicolor of the 1950s pictures Fassbinder emulates; rather, they take a rather unadorned approach, something that brings to mind the Dardennes more than it does Sirk. It gives everything the feeling of real life, of actual existences observed. What happens to the characters never happens because of their sexuality, nor are they being punished for it when things go wrong. When LGBTQ advocates talk about representation in cinema and other entertainment, Fox and His Friends is just the kind of thing they mean: a movie where they just exist like anyone else. Fassbinder pointed the way forever ago, it’s time more started following his direction.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.