The Magdalen Sisters, dir. Peter Mullan. (UK/Ireland, 2002). Here is a woman’s film worth watching! Three young women each meet the same fate—they are sent to the laundry run by the Magdalen Sisters in Dublin. Why are they shipped to this concentration camp for bad girls? One is raped by a cousin at a wedding—and when she reports her attack, she is sent away in order to protect the young man’s “character.” A second is sent away because she flirts with boys—and thus is viewed as a danger to the societal order (in which young girls are expected to demur and be silly and passive). A third is sent there after she gives birth to a child out of wedlock. Of course, her child is taken away from her and adopted. At first the film was like walking into a Dickensian world. Instead of Oliver Twist, we are watching the three young women trapped in this concentration camp. The whole point of the film is about women’s lack of self-control and autonomy. Women don’t dare become independent; they don’t dare think for themselves. Just think what would happen then? Men would lose control.
The nuns in the “convent school” revel in their humiliations of the young women. The old sister, a twisted version of Silas Marner, is in love with the money that comes in from the work of the inmates. One could imagine her taking a bath in the money—because it’s her true religion. One of the prisoners, of course, is developmentally disabled—and one expects that she will have to be sacrificed (as in countless other movies—where the emotional trauma of the main characters is reflected through the trauma of another character who can’t overcome her pain). But in this case, that character’s suicide—easily predicted—is foiled by the other women who rescue her. She survives, and in the climactic scene of the film she delivers an incredible performance—crying out in injustice to the sufferings brought upon these innocent women. In one of the most scathing juxtapositions in the film, we learn that a priest regularly requires this young woman to give him oral sex. Moments later, we see a scene of communion, with the holy wafers being placed in the women’s mouths. Of course, the penalty for directly confronting her abuser is an even worse exile—as she is sent to live out her remaining days in an asylum.
As to the three main characters, all survive their captivity. In one poignant scene, one of the three actually escapes from the locked compound when she finds an open door that leads right to the countryside. A man stops in his car and asks her if she would like a ride. She is too stunned to answer. He drives off, and the young woman walks right back into the compound and resumes her captivity. In some respects, her family and her loyalties were the other young women inside. She was not ready—yet—to make her escape. In another poignant scene, the old nun is happy to announce a day of film viewing—everyone is invited to see a print of The Bells of St. Mary’s with Ingrid Bergman. The young women watch the old nun break down and cry in several scenes. Then, in an amazing moment, the brother of one of the three main characters enters the screening room and announces that he has come to fetch his sister—and all he needed was a letter from the Bishop authorizing the release. This young man had to act on his own—for years his family made no effort to release her.
Then comes the climax of the film. The other two main characters decide to escape one night; and eventually they are confronted by the old nun in her office—where they are searching for the key to the main door. A struggle ensues. What will happen? Again, instead of the stereotypical plot points (old woman drops dead of a heart attack, or old woman is impaled on a pair of scissors on the desk) the resolution is much more believable and significant. One of the young women is able to provide the old nun with something that is far more important than keeping two of her “girls” in custody. The two women succeed in their escape, and they are sheltered by the aunt of one of them. That young woman trains as a hairdresser—and in the last scene has an emotionally overwrought encounter with two nuns during a break from work. The film ends with still images of the principal characters, and we learn what happened to these women after their lives in the institution. We also learn that 30,000 women were forced to work in such laundries. The last asylum closed in 1996.
Monster, dir. Patty Jenkins. I was absolutely captivated by the acting of Charlize Theron in this film. I can see why she added significant weight to play the part of the main character. As an actor, she knew she could more easily inhabit the body of that character if her body was more like the character’s body. A fat suit would not work as well for a dramatic role. Robert DeNiro’s similar role in Raging Bull often came to mind. Theron wanted to play the dark side—to show how the unconscious can be made conscious. She pulls it off in every way. I appreciated some of the patterns of her creation-of-character: the quick turns of her head, the bugging-out of her eyes, the expansive and poorly coordinated gestures as she tried to interact with Selby (the girl she falls in love with), and the speech patterns that revealed the inner workings of a twisted mind. Her character gained my sympathy early in the film—and that was the key to helpling me process the rest of the film. The prologue shows a tiny screen-within-the-screen: what appears to be home movies of the little girl as we hear her voice-over. She was always dreaming of a better life, of being accepted, of being discovered, of escaping the bondage that was her childhood. Twice she is treated roughly by a man—once by her father—and it is clear that she was mistreated somehow in her childhood and never got over it. That prologue ends with a great cut to a full-screen image of XX sitting under an overpass on a rainy day and holding a revolver in her hand. What is she going to do? We find out later in the film what that scene meant—and it perfectly fits the experience and mindset of her character. In the next scene she meets Selby (Christina Ricci) in a bar, and although their interaction is nothing spectacular, Theron’s acting in the scene works perfectly. I saw this woman as lonely, adrift, needy, defensive, vulnerable, dangerous, hyperactive—a combination of wants and needs. Most important, her characterization was never simply one of behaviors. She held the camera with her eyes (shining and open wide under shaved eyebrows and a blotchy forehead). When Selby invites her to stay overnight with her in her room (Selby is staying with relatives), the key moment for me was when Selby touched her face with her hand and said, “You’re so pretty.” The reaction shot of Theron’s face was perfect because it revealed the utter vulnerability at the core of her being.
Twice in the film Theron also paid homage to another loner, Travis Bickle, when she looked into a mirror and talked to herself. Unlike Bickle, she seemed to know she was looking at herself and giving herself a kind of pep talk—her self-esteem has been boosted by Selby’s interest in her, and suddenly she has a reason for living and a reason for trying to make herself attractive (making herself up in the mirror). An early scene of the two on a roller skating rink was perfect because it showed full-body shots of Theron and gave her a chance to more fully create her character with her heavy-set body. That scene was one of the best examples of the quality of her performance in the film because it was a quiet, joyous moment for her. She was triumphant, in control, and not hyperactive and intense.
Character is plot, and plot is character. I could understand why the mixed-up Selby and the lonely Lee fell into a passionate affair. Selby seemed like so many young people who want to experience freedom and independence at all cost. They want it now, and when they get it, they don’t really know what to do with it. Lee’s position was clearer: now that she was in love with Selby, everything had fallen into place in her life. Lee decides to continue working as a prostitute in order to make money she can spend on Selby. Early in the film, she meets the wrong John—someone who brutalizes her. She kills the man in self-defense, only moments before he was going to murder her. Moments later, standing alone at the scene, she lets go two primal screams that are unearthly—and perfectly understandable at this moment in the film. In some respects, for the first time she has struck back at the heart of the beast (the men who have abused her all of her life). At the same time, she has crossed a horrible divide—by killing another human being. And that first killing will make the second killing easier, and the third even easier, etc.
In the next scene with Selby, Lee tells her, “You’ll never meet someone like me, kid!” Truer words! Every three-dimensional human being has the right to say that to anyone else—and that is one source of the draw of this film—that we understand Lee is a three-dimensional human being. She has endured a horrible childhood, was a prostitute at the age of 13, and becomes a serial killer of seven people before her capture and eventual execution. She is real, she is vivid, and we have to account for her in order to better understand our world.
One of the ways we come to grasp this character is the repeated use of her voice-over in various scenes. That technique allows us to compare her words with the images on the screen—and thus better evaluate her direction as a character. One of the great scenes in the film is the one where Lee sits on the bed and tells Selby the story of her abuse—at the hands of a family friend when she was eight. That sexual abuse continued for several years because her father refused to believe her account of what was happening. Another beautiful scene occurs when Lee finally tells Selby about the first man she killed—the john who beat her severely. The second killing is a murder—and it is preceded by first-rate acting again, as Theron works her face like a rubber mask, as if working up the courage to brutalize that man as she had been brutalized by other men for so long. Now she is working out the pain of her past—an inappropriate therapy, no doubt, but one we understand. In a scene late in the film Selby and Lee ride a Ferris wheel, and for a moment, we grasp the terror felt by Lee as she sits in the car on the wheel—because earlier in the film she told the story about vomiting on the Monster—a Ferris wheel she rode as a young girl.
Each scene flows naturally from the previous scene. We know the love of these two women is doomed. We know that Selby will not hold on as long as Lee will hold on. We know that the police will catch her eventually and that she will be executed. Finally, Lee makes a mistake. She kills an ex-cop, and she knows she will be hunted down now. To find a getaway car, she catches another ride, and this time she has to murder a man who is the most caring individual we have seen in the film. “Nothing is impossible to be fixed!” he cries out at one point. But she knows, and we know, that she has to kill him in order to keep moving, in order to have any chance of escaping from the police. Then comes the scene where she has to ship Selby back to her parents in Ohio—a thankless destiny for that young woman. Then comes the betrayal scene, where Selby talks to Lee after Lee is in jail. We know that the camera is hiding something when we see shots of Selby on the phone in a motel room. Eventually, the camera moves right to show the police all around her, listening to the phone-tap and making notes that will implicate Lee in the murders of those men. At the same time, Lee declares her love for Selby perfectly and honestly. All we are left with finally is Lee alone—held between two guards, who take her back to her cell (or to the death chamber), and she turns around and glares over her shoulder one more time—as if to force us to look at her pockmarked face one more time and account for her. She gets the last word—she is free to the last, and she remains indelible in our minds as we think about the meaning of her life.
But the first half is all Sean Penn. I think of this actor as a National Treasure. I thought to myself, “Where does he get those faces?” “How is he able to capture the look of a character feeling such specific emotions?” Eastwood’s understated style was transformed in scenes showing Penn emoting in only the way Penn can express himself. Often Eastwood used bird’s-eye point of view shots of the actor at key moments, such as the time he called out—in anguished cries, “I that my daughter in there?!” The first half of the film was simply a showcase of this great actor’s talents. And that leads to an interesting point about the film. I was so convinced by Penn’s work that I began to evaluate his character, Jimmy, in accordance with that performance. In other words, Penn perfectly realized the heartfelt grief of the father that has just lost his daughter to a terrible crime. Penn’s aching stomach, his wrenched facial expressions, his guttural vocalizations—all combined to create a portrait of a character I could “sympathize with”—and there’s the key. I was on his side. I felt his pain. I was blinded by something else that was going on under the surface. At the end of the film, we realize that Penn, an ex-con, has lived a lie. He comes across like the relaxed owner of the corner grocery. But he has acted with great indiscretion. He is not an innocent character. Even worse, he has done monstrous things, and he will continue to do monstrous things—especially because he is blinded by revenge. His relationship with his “perfect” and “beautiful” daughter suggests undercurrents of incest (although nothing is disclosed). His wife is, in many respects, jealous of her beautiful daughter. When the daughter is out of the picture, then the wife regains her central position in this family. She is able to seduce her husband, in a chilling scene near the end of the film, because now her primary rival has been removed from the scene. This plot twist is a great idea, but I wish Eastwood had made clearer the wife’s envy of the daughter earlier in the film. Perhaps I missed it because I was so riveted by Penn’s acting.
A word about the music in this film. Eastwood is credited for the music—and the one aspect of the music that was effective was a simple four-note melody that drew out all of the pain and horror of what happened to these three boys in their youth and throughout their lives. Four beats in each of our separate measures—simplicity itself. That melody was perfectly haunting and complemented the action in key scenes of the film.
The weakness of the film, for me, was when it became more of a murder mystery than a dramatic entanglement of the characters. When we find out who really killed the daughter, I was disappointed. The facts of the case are always less compelling than the intrigue and mystery and possibilities of the case. Even the resolution of the film, with the gruesome scene between Dave and Jimmy, was not as moving as the earlier scenes showing the deterioration of the two characters after Jimmy’s daughter is killed. Despite these misgivings, I would say that this film was true to the specific story of these individualized characters. We don’t get that much anymore in American films. I would rather have one Eastwood film like this than 10 Quentin Tarantino films that are all about surfaces and posturings.
Of course, Jettel is a spoiled wife. Of course, she foolishly packs the Rosenthal china instead of a small refrigerator. She treats Ouwer as if he is a stupid servant. She wasted money on a ball gown. Jettel as a character has to change and grow. Walter, too, has to find out where his strengths really lie. I was amazed at how hard Walter worked to survive in this desolate countryside. In little more than a year he mastered the skills required of him to serve his landlord. Walter's one German friend is Süsskind, a grizzly character beautifully played by Matthias Habich. Süsskind is a veteran; he emigrated to Kenya many years ago. He also appreciates the beauty and the grit of Walter's wife, and late in the film—in a lovely scene—he tells Jettel (and he says he will only say it once) that she is welcome to live with him anytime.
As the adults settle down to their new life together, the plot turns to the story of the daughter Regina. Fortunately for her, she has Ouwor as her mentor and her guide and her father-figure. In an early scene he brings her a baby deer to raise. He expands her horizons; she sees him as a wise and a good man. He teaches her about Kenya and the customs of the people. He takes her to ceremonies and rituals. He intuits that she embraces multiculturalism. She wants to know the truths of the people; she wants to know how they live and what they believe.
Then the war starts—and the British intern the family because they are, after all, Germans. Walter is sent to an internment camp surrounded by barbed wire. The women are sent to live in a four-star hotel in Nairobi. The story focuses on the mother and daughter and the way they deal with their internment. Jettel's strengths of character finally surface when she joins other women in an appeal to the British to let them at least visit their husbands. Then an even more significant example of this woman's strength: a British officer suggests that her husband can be released from the internment camp and given work on a maize plantation—but there are strings attached. The dilemma she faces is based on cruelty and male superiority. But she acts on behalf of the best interests of her family.
The family begins a new life as farmers. Ouwor turns up—and all are happy. But now Regina must attend school, and that means a temporary separation from her beloved Ouwor. When Jettel learns that her mother is dead, her grieving is portrayed through her actions in another scene—when she finds an old Kenyan woman dying under a bush. Jettel wants to save her, to bring her to a doctor. But the people tell her the old woman wants to die outside, because then her soul will be free after she dies. Jettel leans over the woman and mourns, indirectly, her own mother's death. At the same time, her grieving connects her to her adopted land.
Then Walter joins the military and is sent to Nairobi. Now Jettel must survive on the plantation by herself. Ouwor becomes her steadfast helper, and in these scenes we learn something about Ouwor's personal life and values. As I watched this film, I kept thinking to myself, "Why couldn't we have a film about Ouwor as the main character so that we could view his life from the inside/out rather than from the outside/in?" I also thought of the great French film Chocolat (1988), directed by Claire Denis. There again the fascinating character, Protee, like Owour, was brought to life only through the eyes of the white French-colonial characters. Of course, this film is based on the memoirs of the woman who is Regina in the film. Still, there is that nagging doubt I feel about the portrayal of the African (or any person of color) as a noble character, when that nobility is perceived from the perspective of the white person. Certainly Ouwor has a powerful presence in the film. But I cannot say I know the character because his point of view is seldom emphasized. He is knowable only through the points of view of Jettel and Regina.
More times change for the family when Walter returns after the war. Prodded by Regina, the family attends a special festival where there is a ritual slaughter of a cow and much dancing and singing. As we watch the scene unfold, we realize that Jettel has finally arrived in Africa. She is a part of the landscape rather than being apart from the people. She has found her strength of heart and character and it is now aligned with the culture and people of Kenya. Now another dilemma faces the family, because Walter is offered a position as a judge in the new German government. How will this problem be resolved? And what of Jettel's newfound identification with the culture of Africa. Of course, we know how this has to end. We need to see another magical moment between Ouwor and Regina—and we get it. We need also an ending to remember—and we get it. As the family takes the train to Nairobi (and from there a ship to Germany), the train slows down and stops to allow numerous vendors to ply their trade. Jettel spies an old African woman outside the train. The woman is selling bananas. Jettel leans out the window and says, "This little monkey has no money"—in other words, she has no money to pay for the bananas. So the old woman gives her some bananas anyway. In a close shot we see the exchange, as the white woman's hand touches the black woman's hand. This image is then an icon for Jettel's journey. The last image, too, is of the old woman walking away from the train, from Jettel's point of view, and it reinforces the heart of this film's message: in her passage to a foreign land, this German woman came to respect and love the people of Kenya. This epic film covers almost a decade in the lives of this German Jewish family; it offers an intriguing insight into the Holocaust and into the power of multicultural experience.
Spellbound, dir. Jeffrey Blitz (USA, 2002). I was impressed with this documentary—a second great documentary viewed this year (See To Be and To Have). Why does it work? The filmmaker chose to feature eight of the 249 spellers who made it to the National Spelling Bee in 1999. He chose wisely because the 8 kids are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, have a variety of parental support, and come across like individuals (each with his or her own set of idiosyncrasies). First off, I could relate to their stories because of my background. I won a local spelling bee in the 7th grade and then finished second at the regionals. But in my first spelling bee (6th grade) I was the 3rd or 4th spelling to miss when I began to spell the word letting with an “e” rather than with an “l.” And my parents were in the auditorium watching me! As each of the 8 young people was introduced, however, I related to them for a more basic reason, based upon my own socioeconomic background. When students were from poor backgrounds, I could relate to their struggles more easily. I immediately felt a rapport with them; I immediately felt sympathy for them and wanted them to win. So I began to root for the girl whose father was an illiterate ranchhand from Mexico; or for the rural youth from Connecticut whose parents are distinctly middle class; or for the African American girl from Washington, D.C., who is devoted to her family; or the nerdy girl with older parents who are totally devoted to her success. I felt less empathy for students who were already living the American Dream. Now this documentary is really about the American Dream. Spelling is a metaphor for the educational path that young people pursue as they go after the American Dream. The good speller is the good learner is the good student is the good worker is the one who finds a way to succeed on his or her path. It was evident that children of East Asian immigrants have a special role in this cadre of expert spellers. For their parents, hard work, long hours of study, a focus on self-discipline—these are the ingredients of success. Just as the parents succeeded, so shall the children succeed. The documentary also works because of some neat technical decisions. In an early montage, we see the last two spellers fighting it out at the end of a regional bee. Before the speaker can complete the next word, we hear the student spelling the word—one word yields to the next in a harmony of spelling competition. Later in the film, the director creates a montage of students spelling word after word correctly; later there is a montage of losers—each one dropping away like a blossom from a tree in springtime. The sound of that damned bell—chiming each time the word is misspelled, becomes the source of another montage. The 249 students drop away to 104, then to 48, and then to 17. Another montage is thrown in as the 17 are reduced to 12. And then there are 8. Reaction shots of the parents become a dominant motif in the film. Reaction shots of the students after successfully spelling words also begin to dominate. We want one of the eight students featured in the film to win, of course—and when 8 are left I think there were at least 2-3 from the group that was featured. Now the stakes were high for us in the audience. I began to think, “Please don’t let that one win! She doesn’t need this win as much as the other child.” And yet with a defeat came affirming responses from the parents. Only one of the children was ungracious in defeat—one of those children most spoiled by the fruits of the American Dream. When the winner is revealed, I was surprised, and yet strangely satisfied that the young winner—although living a good life already—seems deserving and humbled by the experience. I thought about the film a long time afterwards. I realized that for some reason spelling has become entrenched in the American psyche as a symbol of knowledge and upward mobility. I am reminded of how people react to me when they find out I majored in English. They are afraid I will correct their grammar and/or punctuation. They think I have some access to some arcane knowledge that signifies power—and that’s what good spelling has always meant to Americans—at some unconscious level. This was a first-rate documentary, one I would consider using in my social issues in contemporary documentary class.
Agent, dir. Thomas McCarthy. I was impressed with this director’s first film,
a sensitive and moving portrayal of the way three strangers connect the strands
of their lives to each other. The key ingredient
in this film was its lack of sentimentality—especially in the depiction of the
main character—a dwarf, a small person. Peter Dinklage was
captivating as Fin McBride, who inherits an old train station in
Sweet Sixteen, dir. Ken Loach (UK, 2002). I have been a fan of Loach's films since viewing Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and then My Name is Joe (1998). Loach is committed to telling the stories of working-class people, and he does not shy away from the effects of poverty, drugs, and alcohol. This film has the most ironic of titles. The stereotype of "sweet sixteen" is the debutante dressed in pink chiffon and white pumps—a combination of innocence and the first bloom of maturity. Here the main character is a young Glasgow lad. The accents are so thick that subtitles are used throughout the film. Based on my experience with other Loach films, I knew this film would end badly. The effects of poverty, poor education, lack of parental involvement, drugs, and substandard housing all combine to strangle hope. The set-up is straightforward: Fifteen-year-old Liam's mum is in prison. Liam does not like her boyfriend. Liam and his sister spent years in an institution (probably taken away from their drug-dependent mum), and his sister has never forgiven her mum for being abandoned by her. Liam, on the other hand, has big plans for mum when she gets out of prison. He wants to care for her, make her feel proud of him, and create a fresh start for both of them once and for all. Liam is talented in many respects. First, he is a sensitive young man. The first scene shows him stargazing with friends and neighborhood children. Watching this scene you would never know you were in a Ken Loach film. The second scene has Liam visiting his mum in prison; he is accompanied by her boyfriend and by her father. The two men seem to care little for Liam. Stan, the boyfriend, orders Liam to pass a joint—hidden under his lip—to his mum (via a quick kiss). I'm not sure if it was meant for the mother or for another woman in the prison. Liam won't do it—because he knows that if his mother is caught, more time will be added to her sentence. This scene set the hook for me in this film—I was captivated by his direct cinema documentary style, the rough dialogue, and the motives driving the characters' actions.
As I noted, Liam is talented. He has the instincts of a businessman. Unfortunately, the only way he can act on those instincts is through illicit activity—and that means the drug trade. He may have talent beyond his years; but his emotional state is still that of a 15-year-old. So he makes dumb mistakes, acts out of revenge, doesn't listen to good advice from his sister, and even betrays his best friend. Everything he plots seems to be working but inevitably backfires. He steals Stan's stash of drugs, he tries to muscle in on the drug trade of another trafficker, he plans to buy a caravan (trailer) for his mum, he meets a potential love interest, and he often ends up at his sister's apartment, where she tends to his wounds and tries to shake him out of his devotion to his mum. Another twist of plot takes Liam to what appears to be new heights of possibility—he meets a drug kingpin who is impressed with Liam's toughness. Liam becomes his employee, and he sells drugs along with the pizza delivery guys on mopeds. But you know this is no easy street for Liam. Sure enough, soon he is ordered to kill a low-level drug dealer. The boss gives him a switchblade and Liam waits outside of a bathroom to murder the young man. As this scene unfolds, everything you need to know about Liam is made clear as we watch him wait for the doomed fellow to show up. What happens next? You've got to see it to believe it. Before long his new boss makes him another offer he can't refuse: Liam will get a larger cut of the business, but he has to kill his best friend, Pinball. As in the previous plot twist, the set-up does not pan out the way you expect. People are not predictable chess pieces that can moved around boards by more powerful people. Every idiosyncrasy in the human character comes out under duress. So many things are motivated by love; but too often that love has been twisted and distorted in the minds of those who are the lovers. Every path leads downward. Every hope is dashed. The film ends on Liam's birthday, the day he turns "sweet sixteen," and the day he walks along a beach, all hope blasted, and talks on the omnipresent cell phone to his sister, who repeats (like a lament), the words, "What a waste! What a waste!"
To Be and To Have (Être et avoir), dir. Nicolas Philibert (France, 2002). A must see film! I sat in a packed Oak Street Theater near the university campus and was mesmerized by this film. I teach a documentary film course at the university, and I would consider film for use in my class. Why did it work so well? It had the stamp of this director all over it. He used long-duration shots to establish mood and a sense of place. He begins the film with a shot of cows in a snowstorm to establish the rural locale, the rhythm of life in this place, a metaphor for the patience and steadfastness required of those who teach the children in this town. The film tells the story of an elementary teacher's interactions with his children. Most of the scenes take place in the schoolroom. But the director broadens the film by showing us scenes of the interior of barns (showing the children at work), the interiors of some of their homes (showing interactions with the parents), a picnic scene, a visit to the middle school (where three of the children will attend next year), and one scene where the teacher talks directly on camera to the filmmaker. 'what treats are in store for you: hearing that gentle, soothing voice of the teacher, Georges Lopez; watching his control of the classroom—his eyes darting here and there to take in the scenes around him, and his nonverbal gestures conveying so much more than words can say. He brings discipline to the classroom, but he also brings listening, sharing, discovering, and loving to these students.
And the students! There is Joyo, every attention deficit pouring from his being; Julien, one of the older children, slow at math, who works hard on the family farm and receives less-than-gentle discipline from his mother when doing his sums; and Olivier, another of the older children, whose father is sick with cancer and may die; and Nathalie, profoundly shy and facing the difficult prospect of moving on to the middle school and becoming the target of teasing for her plainness and her slowness. Several scenes stand out: Jojo not completing his coloring assignment and having to stay inside at recess for a discussion about "getting things done"; the counseling of Julien and Olivier—where the director uses a two-shot of the boys to compare their responses to the gentle wisdom of the teacher; the teacher trying to persuade Jojo to wash his hands (while Jojo keeps bringing up that wasp he saw in the bathroom); scenes of parents working with their children on homework; a conference between Lopez and one of the parents; the picnic scene (and the teacher and other children searching for a lost child in the woods); a gentle scene between Lopez and Olivier as the teacher asks about the status of his father's health; and a long talk between Lopez and Nathalie, who clearly is afraid of leaving the school and going to the middle school.
Four other scenes stand out. First, Georges Lopez talks on camera briefly about how he became a teacher, and of how his parents supported and affirmed his decision to follow that career. We learn his father was from Spain (thus un-French-like last name) and that he has taught for 35 years. Twenty of those years were spent at this school. He may retire in less than two years—and that leads to another joyous scene in the schoolroom with the children asking him questions about his plans for retirement. One asks, "Will you still live above the school?" A third key scene is the visit of the new children who will be attending school in the fall. The teacher does all he can to make the children comfortable, and many of the older children in his class pitch in and try to help as well. From this scene it is obvious that the teacher has created a miniature society in this environment and taught his students how to be more open and affirming to others. The last key scene is the one that ends the film. It's the last day of school, and we see the children leaving. Before they depart, each child kisses the teacher on both cheeks, a traditional French gesture. When all have left, the camera holds on Georges Lopez, and he almost breaks down. The camera does not lie. As another teacher writing this review, I can relate to that feeling of accomplishment and yet heartbreak when the semester ends and the students depart. They are all moving on to new places and new adventures while the teacher remains behind in the classroom. This documentary gets it right, and it will become a classic.
Touching the Void, dir. Kevin Macdonald (UK). I was awed by this film. What worked best for me was that the in-studio interviews of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were perfectly complemented by the recreations of their climb acted by the alpine climbers Nicholas Aaron and Richard Hawking. I was amazed at how much I believed that those climbers were actually Simpson and Yates. As for Simpson, he was an egomaniac who admits that he lived for the dangerous climb. He had to “talk” Yates into making this alpine climb—just the two of them going up and down the mountain the same day. A walk in the park. There are no outside forces waiting to rescue alpine climbers. You are on your own. The two talk about their 1985 climb of a Peruvian peak. The documentary structure is to parallel cut the in-studio monologues with the recreated climb. There were so many extraordinary visuals in the film. I was mesmerized by the quality of the production. I believed what I was seeing. I was participating with these men in their traumas.
After they make it to the top (tethered one to the other), they begin their descent. Simpson mentions a little detail: 88% of accidents occur on the descent. Sure enough, Simpson makes a bonehead blunder and crashes through soft snow and lands hard—smashing his leg up through the kneecap. He can no longer assist with the climb down. “He was going to have to leave me,” Simpson concludes. But Yates makes a remarkable decision. He decides to lower Simpson down the mountain 150 feet at a time—the length of the rope tied between them. After each lowering, Simpson slackens the rope as a signal to his partner, and then Yates has to climb down to Simpson and begin the process anew. In my notes, I wrote, “Yates was one calm tough cookie.” Then the unthinkable happens. While being lowered, Simpson falls through an overhang of snow and is left dangling apart from a vertical wall. There is no way he can reach the wall, and he fails at trying to climb the length of rope to reach an overhang and find stability. When he drops a second loop he needs to make a climbing perch, he admits, “I knew I was stuffed.” Meanwhile, Yates is hunkered down in the snow and wondering why the rope is still taut. Why doesn’t Simpson provide some slack? Of course, Simpson is stuck in mid-air like a rock at the end of a rope. Night comes. Simpson realizes he will die of hypothermia before long. Meanwhile, after 90 minutes Yates realizes he has no alternative but to cut the rope that tethers him to Simpson.
Now notice in this summary how many times the two men make decisions—even when they are unable to carry out the intended actions. Neither one of them simply sits down and gives up and waits to die. When Yates cuts the rope and Simpson drops, he falls through a crevasse and lands only feet from an opening into the void of the crevasse. Amazingly he is not injured worse by the fall. He realizes he is in a cavern under the glacier, and he can look up and see an opening out of the cavern and onto the glacier. But when he tries to climb up and out, he realizes he does not have the strength to do so with only one good leg. So he crawls back to the spot where he landed and begins to haul in the rope that was attached to Yates. He realizes then that the rope was cut! What he must have felt at that moment. He admits, “You’re going to die in here!” He realizes that Yates is okay now and will make it down again. In effect, he admits that he would have done the same thing. In his voice you can hear the memory of his fear. Now his injury, his isolation, and the hopelessness of his entrapment began to break him. He sobbed and screamed over and over. He thought he was “tougher” than this—but he learned much about himself when he faced the heart of darkness. Simon does climb down successfully. He never thought of exploring the crevasses, because he was convinced that Joe was dead—at the end of the rope—even before Yates cut the rope.
Back to Simpson. He talks about his absence of faith in a god. He realizes as he hunkers down at the bottom of this crevasse that if he does nothing he will die. So he rigs the rope to climb down farther into the crevasse. In doing so, he is “touching the void”—making a decision as dark as the darkness that has swallowed him up. He knows that it is counter-intuitive to climb “down” in a case like this. But if he does nothing, then he is lost for sure. It was this moment in the film that I understood the meaning of the title, and I understood that for survival a person will do almost anything—even if that action makes no sense at all in a logical world. In climbing down, Simpson knew that if the 150 feet of rope was not enough to reach the new bottom of the crevasse, that he would cut the rope and drop to his death rather than remain dangling in the air. When he climbs down, his length of rope is enough to reach bottom—and from there he is able to climb across the snow to another opening in the glacier. “The world has come back,” he says when he crawls out of the cavern and onto the glacier. Now sunshine and blue sky floods his world. But now he has an agonizing climb across the glacier and toward the base camp. To survive he begins to set limited goals: climb down to spot x in 20 minutes. Once that goal is attained, make another finite goal. We learn so much about this man’s spirit and this man’s training and self-discipline. At one point the camera pulls back the man the size of a spot on the entire face of the glacier. How will he ever climb down on his own? But he does, and on day 6 of their expedition, he hobbles and falls and crawls and hobbles again across the down and then across the rocks lower down. Here the filming becomes expressionistic—and at times annoyingly so. I would have condensed these scenes and touched on the madness that overtakes this climber. The night before Simon—still at the base camp—plans to leave the mountain.
Day 7 dawns, and Simpson notes that the sun felt so good on his body that he almost decided to stay there on the rocks and die. But he did not want to die alone. That thought motivated him. He moved like an automaton. His identity gradually wore away, and he became like a concentration camp survivor—going through the emotions, and holding his core identity deep inside as if in a vault. This section of the film does drag a bit—but the payoff is real. “I got lost,” he admits. He crawls close to the tents and ends up in their latrine, crawling through the shit of the encampment. Even in the studio scene Simpson shows the tears. “I lost me!” he concludes. But that night Simon and a third man (who had stayed at the base camp) are awakened by sounds—and when go looking for the source of the sounds, they find Simpson (who recalls that feeling of being held by someone). Back to the tents and warmth and water and food. A graphic at the end of the film: Two years later and after six operations, Joe resumed climbing. But I don’t think he did any climbing with Simon Yates. This is a remarkable film that left me exhausted and thinking hard about the power of documentary, this curious combination of documentary interviews and the realistic recreations, and then—of course, about the depths to which we go in order to survive.
Best films of 2003 A-L