The Perils of Poverty

Poverty sucks, whether in the Australian outback of “Samson and Delilah” or in the central Harlem of “Precious”.  Seeing these two strong entries in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Official Selection raised some interesting questions about the nature of poverty and what to do about it. Although the subject matter was bleak in both cases, each filmmaker found cause for hope without betraying the material.

Samson and Delilah are aborigines living in hot, insect-ridden isolation, suffering ‘ain’t-no-food-in-the-fridge’ poverty. Government handouts keep them from starving to death but director Warwick Thornton meticulously records the  tedium and fury of dead-end lives. White people are mostly absent from their lives, creeping in only to weasel away aboriginal paintings to sell at a huge profit. Battling violence, hunger and addiction the two teenage protagonists eventually find a measure of solace in each other.

Precious, of the eponymous film, has plenty of white people around trying to straighten out her life and plenty of burgers to fatten her up. As a Harlem teenager, pregnant with her father’s child, Precious’ main battle is with her ferocious mother. Played with demonic energy by Mo’nique, she is the mother of all welfare queens. (So this is why President Clinton insisted on ending welfare). White people are there to be massaged into continuing the welfare checks but ultimately it’s a government literacy program that saves Precious. Her white principal guides her into the program and a white social worker, played by Mariah Carey, pushes Precious to confront her horrific past.

Neither Delilah nor Precious end up alone. Delilah has the severely limited Samson and Precious has her babies. Each movies ends with a hint of the redemptive power of art; Delilah applies herself to an aboriginal painting and Precious seems determined to find her writer’s voice. It’s a woman’s world after all.

Filmmakers tackle the ’60’s

Two films took on the ’60s this weekend at the Cannes Film Festival with radically different perspectives. For Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman directors of “Soundtrack for a Revolution”, the decade was defined by the quiet heroism of the civil rights movement. For Ang Lee, director of “Taking Woodstock” the real revolution was internal as old social strictures gave way to exuberant self-expression. So, twice this weekend I walked away from the movie thinking “Did that really happen? Were we really like that?”

“Soundtrack for a Revolution” showed how the  songs of the civil rights movement shored up the courage those who  insisted on equality for black people in the face of beatings, lynchings, hosings and arrests. Interpreted by modern artists such as Joss Stone and John Legend, the old marching melodies “We Shall Overcome” “We shall not be moved” evoke an era when non-v

iolent protest finally dragged the American South out of apartheid. The scenes of police turning dogs on black children, the photo montage of murdered civil rights workers, Martin Luther King speaking as if possessed: we’ve seen the images before but the emotional intensity seems to reach across the decades demanding respect for the aging heros of America’s ‘revolution’.

Ang Lee looks on the lighter side. In “Taking Woodstock” the famous festival serves as a catalyst that propels the hero, Eliot, out of his parents’ suffocating embrace and into acceptance of his own homosexuality. Eliot Tiber was a main player in bringing Woodstock to Bethel, NY and was one of the writers of “Taking Woodstock” recounting the whole behind-the-scenes effort.  There are some hilarious scenes and a pitch-perfect rendering of the period dialect: “far out”, “that’s very cool”, “groovy”. Jonathan Groff as festival organizer Michael Lang is dead-on as a 60s hustler. Lee even captures the spaciness and wonder of an acid trip.

And at the end of this delightful movie, you can’t help but ask yourself, “How did we get from there to here?” How did the Woodstock generation elect George Bush? How did the spontaneous sexuality and unselfconscious nudity mutate into porn and plastic surgery? What happened to hairiness?  How did we get so fat? Why couldn’t the “three days of peace and music” last a lifetime?

The Eternal Woman at Cannes

If the Cannes Film Festival has an (unofficial) theme this year it would be Woman. “The eternal feminine is at the centre of our cinema adventure” says the Official Catalog.  And so, the striking poster based on a scene from Antonioni’s L’Avventura:

posterAnd so, jury President, Isabelle Huppert. And even more significantly, a more than token representation of women directors are competing for the Palme d’Or; oldtimer Jane Campion is up against newcomers Andrea Arnold and Isabelle Coixet. See the line-up of competition films this year.

While some contemporary directors confuse actresses with porn stars and doll up prostitutes with pretension (I’m talkin’ to you, Soderbergh, and your “Girlfriend Experience”), it wasn’t always that way. Cleverer directors have found a universality in the female experience.

In 1948 directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger cast Moira Shearer as a driven but conflicted ballet dancer in “Red Shoes”. The Svengali-like director that made Shearer’s character a star dancer insists that marriage is the artistic death of all ballerinas. Yet she falls in love with the company’s conductor. Which will she choose: art or love?

“Red Shoes” stunned the audience at the Debussy Theatre, Friday night. Director Martin Scorcese introduced the film that has just undergone an extraordinary restoration, largely as a result of Mr. Scorcese’s long love affair with the film and friendship with the directors. It was all there just as Powell and Pressburger intended. The 17-minute ballet-within-a-ballet unfolded in a flood of color and movement, undoubtedly the finest ballet sequence ever to be captured on film. There were scenes filmed on the French Riviera over 60 years ago when the Basse Corniche was a dirt track!

In addition to the visual experience, the film poses the question that has bedeviled artists probably since the cave paintings of Lascaux: to what extent does the drive to create exclude a fulfilling personal life? Several years ago, Martin Scorcese gave a Master Class at Cannes and alluded to the toll his career has taken on his personal life (five marriages). One can only imagine the difficulties a woman director faces in trying to get a film project off the ground while keeping a domestic life going.

Near the end of “Red Shoes”  Moira Shearer’s character considers a return to dance against the will of her husband who seems to find marriage to a star ballerina unthinkable.  Lermontov, her company director, tries to persuade her to return saying,  “But you didn’t ask Julian [her husband] to choose between you and his career” “I would never ask him to make such a choice!” she cries. “Then why can he ask you?”

Good question.