Friday, July 29, 2011

Son of Cats That Look Like Hitler


Four years after my shocking blog post... another tale of a feline that resembles Der Führer .

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hulu Flashback: Rashomon


A bandit subdues a nobleman in a secluded woodland and forces himself on his captive’s wife. The nobleman dies, the wife flees, the bandit is captured – and everything else in Rashomon remains open to conjecture. Decades before The Usual Suspects warned moviegoers not to accept subjective testimony as verifiable fact, Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough masterpiece suggested that no eyewitness can be entirely trusted, that truth itself may be forever elusive.

Four different accounts of the fateful, fatal incident – including one offered by the late nobleman through a court-ordered medium – are considered by three strangers in 11th-century Japan. While stranded under the Rashomon gate during a raging thunderstorm, they wonder: Was the nobleman truly a man of honor? Was his wife an innocent victim or willing participant? Could the bandit (Toshiro Mifune at his most swaggeringly uninhibited) have twisted the truth for a selfless reason? The possibilities are perplexing. Each testimony is dramatized in flashback, and none seems more credible than the others. Indeed, Kurosawa strongly hints that all four stories are, to varying degrees, deceptions born of self-delusion. “Human beings,” he wrote in Something Like an Autobiography, his acclaimed memoir, “are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”

Rashomon has spawned many imitators, including The Outrage, a 1964 Americanized remake with Paul Newman miscast as a Mexican bandit. But Kurosawa’s 1950 original continues to be the paradigm for this particular sort of beguilingly simple yet provocatively complex drama. Even now, the title is used to describe anything – from Wonderland to Boomtown, from Senate hearings to Seinfeld episodes – in which a story is told from multiple, and often contradictory, points of view.

The last word on The Undefeated


"The box office fate of Sarah Palin's bio-documentary The Undefeated has uncannily mimicked the political fortunes of its subject: after a bright start, much publicity and high hopes the film has fizzled out to disappointing reviews and waning popularity." That's how Richard Adams of The Guardian sees it -- and I can't say I disagree. I will add, though, that I'm slightly surprised that the ex-governor's more rabid admirers didn't turn out in greater number to buy tickets. Assuming, of course, she has as many rabid admirers as she used to.

Of course, it's altogether possible that her fans are biding their time, waiting to buy the DVD at Wal-Mart. Which, by the way, is where I bought a copy of The Undefeated several weeks ago. No, not that Undefeated. This Undefeated

Monday, July 25, 2011

Free flick: Daughter from Danang



Who says you can't get something for nothing? To celebrate their 20-year run of funding independent filmmakers, the folks at The Independent Television Service will be make 20 feature-length documentaries by ITVS storytellers available for free on-line viewing -- starting today, and continuing through Sept. 23. First on tap: Daughter from Danang, an exceptionally fine nonfiction film that you can view -- for free -- through Wednesday here. Here's my original 2002 review. (By the way: I did mention that you can see the movie for free, didn't I?)

Our parents and teachers were right to warn us: Be careful what you wish for. Heidi Bub, the subject of a poignant documentary titled Daughter from Danang, has doubtless taken that lesson to heart. And after seeing the film, I’d be willing to bet that its directors, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, have the maxim embroidered on a sampler somewhere.

Heidi, the documentary informs us, was born Mai Thi Hiep, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier stationed in Danang during the Vietnam War. Just before the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Mai Thi Kim, Hiep’s mother, turned her 7-year-old daughter over to Operation Babylift, a program designed to place orphans with American adoptive parents. Why? Kim wanted the best for her little girl, and feared the worst after hearing horror stories about Viet Cong mistreatment of mixed-race children. Not incidentally, she also feared the reaction of her returning husband, who had spent years away from his family while fighting with the VC.

Interweaving testimony from Heidi, her husband and a few of her childhood friends, Dolgin and Franco fashion a fascinating portrait of a Vietnamese-born youngster who eagerly and easily assimilated as an all-American girl with a brand new name in southern Tennessee. Of course, it helped that, even as a child, Heidi didn't look very Asian. It helped more, however, that Heidi seldom spoke of her heritage, at the insistence of her emotionally distant adoptive mother.

During her college years, we’re told, Heidi became permanently estranged from her American mom. (The latter’s absence from Daughter is never directly explained; presumably, she didn’t wish to be interviewed.) And even though Heidi remained relatively close to her American uncle and grandmother, who both appear on camera here, she was determined to find a mother who might grant her unconditional love.

Which is why, 22 years after her departure from Vietnam, Heidi found a way to contact her biological mother.

Dolgin and Franco tagged along for Heidi’s sentimental journey to Danang. As they frankly admitted while introducing their documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, they expected to record a happy ending at a family reunion. Instead, they witnessed, and we see, something much more emotionally and psychologically complicated.

At first, Kim and Heidi are overjoyed to see each other, and Heidi's half-sisters and half-brother seem equally glad to greet their lost-long sibling. Even Do Huu Vinh, Kim's husband, professes to be pleased. In a provocatively ambiguous scene, he claims -- not altogether convincingly -- that, had little Hiep not been shuttled off to America, he would have raised the child as his own daughter.

The longer Heidi stays in Danang, however, the enormous cultural differences between her and her family become increasingly – and frustratingly -- apparent. At first, the dissimilarities are mild annoyances. (Kim loves to hug and caress her little girl; Heidi wasn't raised to be a touchy-feely type.) As her discomfort escalates, however, Heidi wonders aloud if she should cut short her stay.

Daughter from Danang reaches its emotional climax during a heart-wrenching family gathering, and ends, ambiguously, on a note of plaintive regret. You can’t help admiring the empathetic tact of the filmmakers: One wrong move at the wrong moment, and they would have intruded upon, or even interrupted, the real-life drama unfolding before their cameras. On the other hand, you can’t help thinking that they must feel greatly disappointed, because they don’t quite get what they came for.

Alas, neither does Heidi Bub.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Good news, bad news about Harry Potter

The good news: The Wrap reports there is going to be another Harry Potter movie. The bad news: It's going to be a remake of this. Yikes.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey, 2011: Return to earth


On the occasion of the end of the space shuttle program, I offer these concluding paragraphs of an essay I wrote back in 2004 for my book Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See. (No, the title wasn’t my idea.) My subject: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. My mood: Somewhere between bittersweet nostalgia and rueful resignation.

Of course, some things – titles, for instance -- never go out of date. And just as 1984 continues to serve as shorthand for a dystopian vision of technologically-enhanced totalitarianism, 2001 retains its mythic resonance – an optimistic prediction of first contact with other, presumably wiser, life forms -- long after people stopped scribbling that cluster of numbers in checkbooks. Instead of inspiring awe, however, the film itself now is more likely to evoke a kind of wistful melancholy that Kubrick never intended. It’s sad, but true: These days, we simply don’t view interstellar exploration with the same wonder-fueled enthusiasm shared by Kubrick and millions of others back in 1968.


To be sure, there’s the occasional media frenzy about images beamed from Mars by unmanned spacecraft. And there’s always a ready audience for every new chapter of the Star Wars franchise. But with each passing year, it’s increasingly more difficult to imagine that anything short of a real-world appearance by a beckoning Monolith would re-ignite our intergalactic wanderlust. All you have to do is read news accounts of petty Congressional squabbling over NASA funding, and you’ll realize that, never mind what the calendar might tell you, we’re still a long, long way from the bold new age of discovery we were promised all those years ago.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All about Buck


David Poland of Hot Blog fame gets up-close and personal with real-life "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman and filmmaker Cindy Meehl, the folks who have given us one of the year's finest documentaries, Buck. Which fortuitously gives me another chance to plug my recent CultureMap interview with Brannaman. I think they call this synchronicity.

Hulu Flashback: The existential cool of Bob le Flambeur



Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) walks like a slumming prince through the shadowland of pre-dawn Paris. His hat tilted at a jaunty angle, a cigarette dangling from his frowning lips, he's a trenchcoated knight errant, master of all he surveys.

Still ruggedly handsome in his autumnal years, he has the imperturbable bearing of someone who has seen it all, done it all, and cared for little of it. Even so, there's still some spark in the old boy. As he notes the sidewalk flirtations of a teen-age temptress, you can see a flash of disapproval in his near-impassive eyes. But if you look closely enough, you'll also see a flicker of bemused appreciation.

Quite an entrance, eh? And quite a larger-than-life creation, this Bob Montagne, the hardboiled but honorable hero of Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler), the classic 1956 melodrama directed and co-written by the late, great Jean-Pierre Melville.

A forerunner of the auteurs who launched the French New Wave in the late '50s and early '60s, Melville eschewed studio sets and lavish production values, preferring to work on real locations -- on real streets, in real apartments and alleyways -- with small camera crews. He used many of the same semi-guerrilla techniques later adopted by such New Wavers as Francois Truffaut (who cast Decomble, the grizzled cop of Bob le Flambeur, as a strict schoolteacher in The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard. In 1959, Godard acknowledged the debt by casting Melville as a visiting celebrity in Breathless, and peppered that movie's dialogue with references to a certain Bob Montagne.

Much like many of the younger New Wavers, Melville paid affectionate tribute to American film-noir thrillers of the '40s and early '50s. The big difference is, Melville's tributes came first.

Bob Montagne obviously is blood kin to the noble tough guys once essayed by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. But Bob le Flambeur is not a slavish imitation, or an overly reverential homage. The movie can be enjoyed on its own terms, for its own merits, as a street-smart comedy of manners, and as a slyly stylized evocation of underworld life in post-World War II Paris. Call it pulp fiction elevated to high art by a romantic sensibility, and you won't be far off the mark.

You can read my full review of Bob le Flambeur -- written in 2001, on the occasion of the film's theatrical re-release -- here. And you can read my review of The Good Thief, Neil Joran's exceptionally entertaining 2003 remake starring Nick Nolte -- here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hey, kids! Want to know what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly will be frothing about tomorrow?


Robert Redford has announced plans to direct and star in The Company You Keep, which Variety describes as "a political action thriller" about "a former Weather Underground militant wanted by the FBI for 30 years who must go on the run when a young, ambitious reporter exposes his true identity." (Shia LaBeouf is set to play the reporter.) Er, with all due respect, Mr. Redford: Don't you remember all the grief Barack Obama got when he got tied to a Weather Underground alumnus? No? Well, I strongly suspect you're about to reminded. Very soon.

Captain America: The Musical


OK, I'll admit it: Back in the day, when these cheesy cartoons with Marvel Comics superheroes aired in New Orleans on a weekday afternoon children's show -- Cap Canaveral, if memory serves me correctly -- I thought they were pretty freakin' dreadful. Even as a 12-year-old, I could tell that pennies had been pinched, corners had been cut, and the animation left something to be desired. (Something like, oh, I dunno, maybe real animation.) And yet I felt compelled to watch. Why? Well, I was a big Marvel fan at the time. And, yeah, there was something about the theme song for the Captain America cartoons...


And the Spider-Man theme was so endearingly and enduringly neat, it was reprised -- briefly -- by a street musician in the movie Spider-Man 2.



But really, there's never been any excuse for that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Before there was The Undefeated, there was Journeys with George

With all the coverage being generated this weekend by the Sarah Palin documentary, I'm reminded of a delicious irony regarding another movie about another polarizing Republican: Journeys with George, arguably the most sympathetic film ever made about George W. Bush, was directed by... Nancy Pelosi's daughter. No, really.

When I reviewed it for Variety at the 2002 SXSW Film Festival -- at a time when then-President Bush was near the peak of his post-9/11 popularity spike --  I noted: George "recalls a time not so long ago when the untested son of President No. 41 was considered even by some Republicans to be an intellectual lightweight sorely lacking in presidential gravitas. [The documentary] strongly suggests that Bush's image as a callow boob was only partially justified and likely was much more apparent than real."

The film started out more or less as a pastime for director Alexandra Pelosi, "shot during downtime from her duties as a producer for NBC News. At first, she's simply one of the faceless dozens among the print and TV journalists on a shaky Access Air plane -- which, Pelosi pointedly notes, is usually used to transport convicts. (A much nicer aircraft is provided once Bush actually nails the Republican nomination.) But a funny thing happens along the campaign trail: The more she aims her mini-DV camera at Bush between stump speeches and photo ops, the more the candidate opens up while noticing, and gradually befriending" the first-time filmmaker.

At its frequent best, I wrote, the documentary offered audiences "a golden opportunity to witness the 'unplugged,' after-hours George W. Bush at his most congenial. George offers a portrait of a gregariously charming and self-mocking fellow who's perfectly at ease in his own skin, and who's no less slick and savvy a politician for being willing to make himself the butt of jokes. Indeed, at one point, he even goes on the press plane loudspeaker to mock his own verbal gaffes at the last campaign stop."

I caught a good deal of heat from a few of my liberal friends -- and was somewhat snidely criticized, years later, by no less an august personage than James Wolcott -- for concluding: "At first, Bush's handlers try to keep the candidate inaccessible to the press pack. But after he loses a few primaries to rival John McCain -- whose half-hearted speech in support of Bush is screamingly albeit unintentionally funny -- the candidate suddenly becomes accessible, unplugged -- and indefatigably charming.

"It's been reported some of President Bush's current handlers are worried that Journeys With George will make Dubya look somehow 'less presidential.' Actually, the only thing they have to complain about is the timing of the [documentary's] release: Had it appeared prior to the 2000 election, there likely would not have been any disputes over the Florida vote count, because Bush's electoral victory would have been all the more resounding."

I still stand by that last sentence, despite everything that unfolded during President Bush's two terms in office. It continues to annoy the hell out of many people -- hey, it annoys the hell out of me -- but a key to the guy's success as a candidate in 2000 was what can only be described as his regular-guy charm. Mind you, I've always been immune to that charm -- so much so, in fact, that I took time off from attending the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival  on Election Day 2000 to do volunteer work for a local Democartic Party "Get out the vote" effort. (That's right -- I was at Ground Zero in Broward County when the chads started hanging.) But Journeys with George enabled me to better understand why other voters might have opted to cast their ballots for someone who... who... well, who proved that, hey, in this country, anybody really can grow up to become the President.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A hot photo of Helen Mirren


Actually, it looks even better in the current issue of Esquire. Of course, the magazine's cover-story interview with Daniel Craig keyed to Cowboys & Aliens ain't chopped liver. But I have to say: That isn't the reason I'm so very glad to be a subscriber today

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hitler rages because he got the Sarah Palin doc into only 10 theaters, decides to go see Harry Potter instead

Palin Campaign Headquarters - Launch of 'The Undefeated' - 7/14/2011 from Moosehelmet Films on Vimeo.


Curiously enough, he seems especially upset that he's booked The Undefeated into only two Texas theaters. But never mind: He's still wild about Harry.

Another shameless attempt to attract blog traffic with something else about the Sarah Plain doc


Here's another insightful and elegantly written review -- which just happens to quote me. Yeah, you guessed it: I'm going to milk this cow until the teats run dry, and then I'll make belts and hamburgers. (Note to the humor-impaired: That was a joking reference to a barnyard animal, not a sexist remark about... well, you know.)  

Is God punishing cities where the Sarah Palin doc is screening?


PalinWeek.com reports. You decide. Meanwhile, Judy Berman of Flavorwire.com rounds up reviews written by people who have seen The Undefeated -- including me, of course -- so you don't have to. And Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic reports that moviegoers are conspicuous by their absence at an opening-day screening of the Sarah Palin documentary. Which is not to say, however, that the film doesn't have its defenders here and there.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fantastic Fest: It's baaaaaack!


The seventh edition of Fantastic Fest -- the world's wildest genre-movie extravaganza -- is set for Sept. 22-29 in Austin, Texas, the only place on the planet weird enough to handle its spectacular excess. Judging from today's announcement of the first 20 titles confirmed for the FF2011 schedule, I'd say festivalgoers are in for the usual smorgasbord of heavy artillery, sexual perversity, edgy sci-fi, scantily clad cuties, flesh-eating zombies and unrestrained ultra-violence. Still no word yet, however, on whether creative director and co-founder Tim League will be getting back into the ring with anyone.

Confession of a news junkie


I keep telling myself: OK, tonight I'm not going to watch all those freakin' news shows. No Keith, no Rachel, no Hardball or Last Word. I'm not gonna plant myself at my dining room table and divide my attention between MSNBC or Current on my HDTV, and Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos on my laptop. I'm gonna go out to a screening, or watch a movie on my HDTV -- hell, I still haven't caught up with all the Harry Potter films! -- or write something for this blog or some other venue, or connect my new Blu-Ray player so I can downstream movies, or even try to organize the piles of magazines and stacks of DVDs in my home office. But then a story like this breaks, and I know -- I just know, dammit! -- what I'll really be doing tonight. (Hat tip to Kelly for the above illustration. You can check out her other work here.)

Trailer watch: John Carter


OK, I admit: This first trailer for John Carter -- set to open March 9, 2012 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere -- appeals to my inner geek. But did I miss something, or have the folks at Walt Disney decided to downplay the movie's literary source? I mean, it's based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novels, right? So what's with the bland movie title? Shouldn't the Disney brass be afraid that some folks will buy tickets expecting to see Noah Wyle back in the emergency room?

While waiting to take a meeting about making a movie... the Polish Brothers decided to go ahead and make another movie


Steve Pond of The Wrap reports on the off-the-radar success of a no-budget indie movie that could very well  encourage and inspire other indie moviemakers. (Of course, it does help if you have a popular TV actress as one of your leads.) Haven't seen it yet, but I must admit: The above clip, which suggests a collaboration of John Cassavetes and Claude Lelouch, definitely has piqued my interest.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Harrison Ford


Yeah, he turns 69 today. And, sure, he admits that his agent thought he might be too old to "get" Cowboys & Aliens. But you know what?  Jon Favreau told me that Harrison Ford can still do some serious ass-kicking. And I believe him.

Hulu Flashback: The compassionate farce of Ed Wood



[Back on October 7, 1994, at a time when Johnny Depp was better known for soulful sensitively, not self-satirical swashbuckling, I praised his change-of-pace turn in this under-rated gem.]

Edward D. Wood Jr. -- war veteran, Hollywood fringe-dweller and uncloseted cross-dresser -- wanted to make movies in the worst way. Unfortunately, that is exactly what he did.

Long before the term ''high camp'' conjured up images of anything other than a mountaintop military base, Wood labored indefatigably in the 1950s netherworld of no-budget, fly-by-night film production. Among his most notorious credits: Glen or Glenda, a passionately sincere but largely incoherent defense of transvestism as a way of life; Bride of the Monster, a stark and stupid cheapie-creepie that climaxes with Bela Lugosi battling frantically, albeit none too convincingly, with a rubber octopus; and, most infamously, Plan 9 from Outer Space, the sci-fi howler that deserves a place of dishonor on anyone's Top Ten list of Le Bad Cinema.

Each of these films is of a mind-frying, jaw-dropping awfulness that must be seen to be disbelieved. And yet, at the same time, each clearly is the work of someone who passionately believes in the seriousness of his endeavor, whose intensity of purpose is surely no less than that of the people who made Birth of a Nation or Battleship Potemkin.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, the Batman movies), one of Hollywood's hottest properties, chose to direct Ed Wood, a hugely entertaining and sweetly sympathetic tribute to one of the worst moviemakers -- if not the worst -- who ever darkened a soundstage.

Ed Wood is an extremely funny film, but its humor is not that of the hectoring, cheap-laugh variety. Maybe the mondo-bizarro Burton responded to Wood's misadventures with a kind of ''There but for the grace of God ...'' recognition. Or maybe he simply was taken by the notion that any kind of artistic impulse, even that of someone with all of the ego and ambition but none of the talent of a true artist, is worthy of consideration.

For whatever reason, Burton has managed to make something altogether unique -- a compassionate farce -- that can be enjoyed even by people who never heard of Wood, who would never willingly submit themselves to a Wood work.

And if you are familiar with Wood's slapdash Z-movies, so much the better. You will be prepared to appreciate the astonishing fidelity of Burton's efforts to re-create their look and feel.

Johnny Depp, who was effectively cast as Burton's Edward Scissorhands, gives an atypically exuberant and marvelously crackpot performance as Ed Wood. The most striking thing about his portrayal is the boundless, never-say-die enthusiasm he constantly conveys. Early in the film, while reading a blistering pan of a Los Angeles stage production he directed, Wood focuses on the review's only left-handed compliment. ''See!'' he enthuses. '''The soldiers' costumes are very realistic.' That's positive!''

Much later, Wood remains equally chipper when, shortly before production begins on Plan 9 from Outer Space, he must cope with the inconvenient death of a leading player, Bela Lugosi. Wood decides to use footage of Lugosi he has already filmed, and rely on a stand-in -- a much younger, taller stand-in -- to play Lugosi's role in other scenes.

Sure, this means the other actor will have to keep his face covered with a cloak. But so what? “Filmmaking is not about tiny details!'' he warns a naysayer. ''It's about the big picture!''

The heart of Ed Wood is Wood's symbiotic but genuinely affectionate relationship with Lugosi, played with richly comical crankiness by Martin Landau. When they first meet, Lugosi is a reclusive has-been -- as he puts it, ''just an ex-bogeyman'' -- who hasn't worked in four years, and has been a morphine addict for two decades. Wood uses him to raise the meager financing for his threadbare films, but always treats the burnt-out star with the utmost respect. Lugosi responds with touching gratitude and, when the cameras are rolling, utter professionalism.

Of course, Lugosi can't quite figure out what Wood is doing during the production of Glen or Glenda, a movie in which the hero (played by Wood himself) reveals his fondness for women's clothing to his lovely bride-to-be (played by Wood's off-camera girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, who is in turn played by Sarah Jessica Parker). But that's OK. Nobody else, except Wood, can make much sense of the film, either.

Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski present a shamelessly romanticized view of Wood's life, work and eccentricities. They end their story long before the real-life Wood began to churn out sleazy paperbacks and porno movies while he wasn't drinking himself to death. And the filmmakers even succeed at making Wood's transvestism seem like a harmless, even lovable quirk. The movie is never funnier, or more endearing, than when Wood explains to a low-rent producer that, even though he loves to wear high heels and angora sweaters, he is proudly heterosexual. In fact, he's so wholesome, he fought bravely in World War II. ''Of course,'' he admits, ''I was wearing women's undergarments the whole time.''

In addition to Depp and Parker, who are extremely good, and Landau, who will be an Oscar nominee if there's any justice in the world, Ed Wood also features Jeffrey Jones as the fake mentalist Criswell, Patricia Arquette as Wood's incredibly accepting wife, and Bill Murray as an effeminate hanger-on and transsexual wanna-be. Vincent D'Onofrio is priceless in his brief bit as Orson Welles -- yes, that Orson Welles -- who pops up just long enough to offer Wood some valuable encouragement: ''Visions are worth fighting for.'' Not surprisingly, Wood takes this advice to heart.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

If he's not getting any younger, then...


OK, I can accept that Terence Stamp has come a long, long way since I first viewed him on theater screens as an impossibly handsome young star in Modesty Blaise,  Billy Budd and The Collector. I know that he long ago aged into being a craggy character actor, most notably in The Limey (a film, as I noted in my 1999 review, that cleverly utilized "flashbacks" from the 1967 Poor Cow to show Stamp's grizzled avenger as a much younger man). But this report that Stamp has been cast as a "grumpy pensioner" in an upcoming film is... well, enough to make me feel pretty damn grumpy myself.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Undefeated: The thriller from Wasilla


Oddly enough, this is the second documentary titled Undefeated that I've reviewed for Variety this year. I must admit: I preferred the previous one. But compared to what Kyle Smith had to say in the New York Post -- yeah, that New York Post -- I'd say my review of the Sarah Palin movie was a flat-out rave.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

MFAH revival screening: Shoah still amazes


After 9 ½ hours of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's exhaustive and exhausting oral history of the Holocaust, we're left with unforgettable moments.

Like the moment when a farmer who tilled his fields near the Treblinka death camp recalls the screams of Jewish prisoners: ''At first, it was unbearable. Then we got used to it.''

Or the moment when Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the genocidal campaign at Chelmno, returns for a reunion with villagers who profess to be happy about his survival. ''Why do they think this all happened to the Jews?'' Lanzmann asks the villagers through an interpreter. ''Because they were the richest!'' a villager replies. Srebnik winces.

There's the moment when Abraham Bomba, a barber who cut the hair of women bound for the Treblinka gas chamber, breaks down during Lanzmann's inquiries. Lanzmann is persistent: He must know what happened when Bomba's friend, a fellow barber, realized his wife and sister were among the prisoners about to be gassed. ''Don't make me go on, please,'' Bomba implores Lanzmann. But Lanzmann is quietly, implacably firm: ''We must go on.'' So Bomba tries to describe a scene almost too agonizing for mere words.

Later, there's a moment when Franz Suchomal, former SS Unterscharfuhrer at Treblinka, vigorously sings a tune taught to Jewish prisoners at his death camp. He finishes the song, then tells Lanzmann: ''No Jew knows that song today.'' Suchomal smiles as he speaks.

Henrik Gawkowski doesn't smile as he remembers driving the train that brought whole boxcars of Jews to Treblinka. He talks of hearing the moans and shrieks over the sound of his locomotive. He talks of remaining almost constantly drunk to deaden his senses. He talks of trying to warn his disembarking passengers that they were not going to work details, that they were about to be processed by a killing machine. He traces a line across his neck with his index finger. The moment is terrifying.

Such moments are separated by many long minutes and hours during Shoah. (The title, a Hebrew word, means “annihilation.”) No doubt about it: This epic 1985 documentary, twelve years in the making, is punishingly long, rigorously demanding and deliberately repetitious. And yet it remains irresistibly mesmerizing from start to finish, a towering achievement with a cumulative impact that is nothing short of devastating. This week at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you have the choice of viewing it all in a single day – starting at 10 am Thursday, with a lunch break at intermission – or in two parts at 2 pm Saturday and Sunday. Either way, expect to be enthralled and amazed.

Without resorting to documentary footage or period photographs, Lanzmann strives to re-create and re-examine the Holocaust by presenting it through the words of survivors, witnesses, perpetrators and not-so-innocent bystanders. His approach is remarkably effective, and his interviews -- some of them recorded with hidden video cameras -- are chillingly enlightening.

He juxtaposes the words with jarring images. The lush green fields we see once were the site of mass graves described by death camp survivors. The camera sweeps us down a long country road, forcing us to retrace the route taken by Jews on their way to destruction at Auschwitz. And repeatedly, insistently, there are the trains: belching steam, rattling along tracks, relentlessly moving toward the end of the line.

The device is poetic, but the interviews are prosaic. Lanzmann doesn't want to deal in euphemisms or generalizations. He has the patience to ask specific questions: How big were the crematoriums? How many people died each day in the Warsaw ghetto? Exactly how did the German government pay for the ''resettlement'' of Jews? (A low-level Nazi era bureaucrat recalls buying one-way tickets -- at excursion-rate prices -- with money confiscated from Jews when they were arrested. That's right: The victims paid for their own trips to the gas chamber.) What was the life expectancy of a Jew who arrived at Treblinka? (Usually, four hours.) How did SS commanders dispose of so many bodies?

And most important of all: Why? Why did the Polish underground refuse to give weapons to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto? Why did the Allies ignore the pleas of Jewish leaders to launch a special campaign against the Holocaust? Why did people in Germany and Poland deliberately ignore the unmistakable evidence of the monstrous crimes being committed at the death camps?

Why did this all happen to the Jews?

It’s clear that, by the time Lanzmann started work on Shoah, four decades after the end of World War II, many of the Holocaust survivors he interviewed had moved beyond grief, had numbed themselves so they could live with the guilt of living while so many others died. (''If you could lick my heart,'' a survivor tells Lanzmann, ''it would poison you.'') It’s also obvious that other interviewees, for a variety of reasons, preferred not to remember what they had seen or experienced, what they had done or had done to them, and needed to be coaxed, if not coerced, into giving their eyewitness accounts.

Lanzmann would not let anyone forget. And his lasting legacy is an unforgettable film.