SUGAR CANE ALLEY (Euzhan Palcey, 1983).
In a village on the Caribbean island of Martinique in the 1930s, the
black peasants work all day in the sun, harvesting sugar cane for the
French plantation owners. The children stay in the village during the
day and play while the adults are working. Being kids, they don't really
know that they're poor. Eventually they get into big trouble when they
drink some rum and set a shack on fire. After that, they have to work
in the fields too.
Gradually the story focuses on one boy, Jose (Garry Cadenat), an 11-year
old orphan who lives with his stern but loving grandmother (Darling
Légitimus). An old man in the village (Douta Seck) tells him
stories about their ancestors who were brought from Africa as slaves,
and teaches him reverence for nature. Meanwhile, the grandmother, determined
that Jose will get an education and avoid ending up in the sugar cane
fields, works to support the boy's studies, and eventually moves with
him to the capital, Fort-de-France, where he goes to school.
This is one of those cases where I picked up a video in a rental store,
not knowing anything about it, decided to give it a try, and discovered
an absolute gem. Palcy has a sure hand - the pacing, camera movement,
and visual style are first rate. The screenplay is smart, passionate,
and full of surprises. Candet is a real charmer, and Légitimus
(who won Best Actress at Venice for her performance) brings the grandmother
movingly to life. The story combines the themes of popular struggle
against poverty and racism with a convincing portrait of childhood and
loving relationships, seasoned with lyricism and a vibrant sense of
Films about children in the "Third World" are often (and understandably)
bleak, or occasionally the tone goes the other way and softens the reality
too much in order to spare the audience. Palcy, who went on to become
the first black woman to direct a mainstream Hollywood film (A Dry
White Season), presents Jose's reality from the inside, and the
picture conveys a sense of well-rounded fullness and truth. The scenes
with the old man Medouze, who carves beautiful symbolic figures in wood
while talking to the boy, evokes the harsh injustices of slavery, the
courage and endurance of the slaves and their descendants, and the spiritual
power of storytelling. Yet the villagers are not idealized, but portrayed
with all their faults and petty hostilities. Jose's commitment to his
education, and the loving support of his grandmother, offer an alternative
to bitterness. Sugar Cane Alley is humanistic filmmaking at its
best. I'm grateful to have stumbled across this poignant, beautiful
THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE (Yves Robert,
The head of the French Secret Service, in order to foil a rival plotting
against him within the agency, makes his enemy believe that a hapless
concert musician (Pierre Richard) who is chosen at random at an airport,
is a superspy on a top secret mission.
I was told by an acqaintance that this spoof of the spy thriller genre
was extremely funny. Well, it just proves once again that there's no
accounting for taste. The film has poor production values, the acting
is mediocre, and the situations - all hinging on the idea of a dork
being mistaken for a suave secret agent - only attain the level of mild
amusement on occasion. It was quite popular in its day, and perhaps
the idea seemed fresh at the time. But there were better spy comedies
before, and certainly since. You'd be better off watching a Get Smart
LOVES OF A BLONDE (Milos Forman, 1965).
The authorities in a small Czech town put on a dance so that the soldiers
barracked there can mingle with the local girls. During the event, three
middle-aged reservists try to hook up with a trio of young local women
for a quick fling. One of the girls, named Andula (Hanu Brejchovou)
wanders away from the other two, and ends up in the arms of the dance
band's young pianist (Vladimíra Pucholta) who says that she should
come to Prague and live with him, never dreaming that she would take
him up on his offer.
Forman's style, characteristic in many ways of the Czech New Wave in
general, focuses on the little details of everyday life, and in particular
the lives of young people, with a gently satiric eye. The long sequence
at the dance, with the hesitant and embarrassing behavior of the three
men trying to approach the girls, themselves uncertain as to what they
want, is a minor masterpiece of observation. After the film narrows
its attention to Andula, the blonde of the title, it becomes a bittersweet
comment on the differences between youth - searching for something to
give meaning to their drab existence - and their more conservative elders.
Andula ends up on the doorstep of the pianist's parents, with whom he
lives, and their reactions to her arrival are very funny, while reflecting
at the same time a certain sadness in the girl's situation.
With its semi-improvised script, crisp black-and-white photography
(perennial Forman colleague Miroslav Ondrícek) and use of precise
camera angles and close- ups, Loves of a Blonde is one of the
most accomplished Czech films of the period - its modest, understated
tone subtly augmenting the story's charm. It was quite successful at
home and abroad, winning awards and even getting an Oscar nomination,
but the government didn't like it, ostensibly because of a mild nude
scene, but probably because it was so casually disrespectful of Czech
society. After one more film (the more overtly provocative The
Firemen's Ball), Forman fled to the U.S., where he gained
fame, fortune, and freedom.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
(Martin Scorsese, 1988).
The carpenter Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) is hated by his neighbors
because he makes crosses for the Romans, which they use for crucifixions.
He is tormented by the idea that God wants him to do something, but
he doesn't know what. His friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) urges him to
join the cause of the Zealots, rebels against Roman occupation. After
a visit to an isolated community of desert mystics, Jesus takes on a
messianic role, which deepens after a transforming experience of temptation
in the wilderness. His influence as a spiritual leader grows, and his
teachings change in emphasis, with his journey leading eventually to
the cross, where he faces one last temptation.
The film is prefaced by titles telling us that the story is fiction,
not based on the Gospels, but on the novel of the same name by Nikos
Kazantzakis. It was no doubt wise to try to make this clear, but it
didn't seem to make much difference. The yahoos were bound to protest
any film that depicted their idol as a human being, and they did just
that, shrouding the picture in a fog of controversy that surrounds it
to this day.
Kazantzakis had a peculiar, and rather interesting, spiritual philosophy.
His idea, to put it simply, was that God is something like a higher
Self that is struggling towards a fulfillment of its own. God thus needs
man for his "salvation" as much as man needs God. Scorsese was obviously
fascinated by this idea, and stays faithful to the spirit of Kazantzakis'
The treatment of Jesus in the film is inherently provocative because
it takes a hallowed religious story, with a mythic dimension that has
reverberated through history, and reimagines it from the point of view
of Jesus himself as a man, with a man's thoughts, desires, doubts, and
strivings. By taking Jesus' humanity seriously as a dramatic subject,
the film becomes both ironic and oddly moving - as if one were suddenly
given a glimpse of something one has always taken for granted from a
totally new and different perspective.
Scorsese isn't concerned with historical realism. Dafoe, Keitel, and
most of the other actors, have distinctly American accents, and the
script itself (by Paul Schrader) avoids archaisms in favor of an informal,
almost modern sound. Dafoe, in the most demanding role of his career,
is impressive, and Keitel is a perfect foil. (Somewhat less satisfactory
is Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene.) The majority of the film's running
time is taken up by the career of Jesus, reframed as the human drama
of a man striving to fulfill his own prophetic mission. Despite occasional
unevenness, it's almost always compelling, bringing the familiar Christian
mythos into the here-and-now in a way that inspires both discomfort
and fascination. The photography (Michael Ballhaus) is superb, and Scorsese's
dramatic rhythm and spatial sense is in top form.
Where the picture fails, I think, is in the long final sequence of
the "last temptation" itself. After the radical re-imaging of Jesus'
career presented in the movie's first three quarters, the transition
into allegorical fantasy seems pallid and schematic. Kazantzakis' point
- that Christ's sacrifice necessarily involved a rejection of the idea
of a normal "happy" life - is interesting, but rather too simplistic
in its dramatic detail. At one point we encounter the Apostle Paul (Harry
Dean Stanton) who gives a speech about how he's not interested in the
real Jesus standing before him, but in the powerful Jesus that he is
preaching about, and it sounds forced, like the author (and director)
trying to hammer home a point (albeit a strong one) that doesn't seem
organic to the story.
Despite the disappointment of the film's climax, The Last Temptation
of Christ is a refreshingly different take on religion, and the
only film to succeed, if only partially, in adapting the Christ story
to the form of psychological drama. It is far better to wrestle with
spiritual ideas and myths, and to create art through the deliberate
working out of this conflict in the soul, than it is to take religious
material for granted without questioning it or even thinking very deeply
about it, as the vast majority of supposedly religious films do. And
yet it is precisely the honest sort of art, the kind that takes religion
seriously as a matter of importance that is worth struggling over -
it is just this that ends up inspiring protests from the self- righteous
guardians of the faith. Depressing, but true.
BODY AND SOUL (Oscar Micheaux, 1925).
A small town minister (Paul Robeson), seemingly a model of virtue,
is in fact an ex-con and swindler who has taken advantage of an innocent
young girl (Mercedes Gilbert). But the girl's mother (Julia Theresa)
believes so fervently in the reverend, that she can't see what is going
Micheaux was an important and interesting figure in American film history.
In the segregated society of that time, opportunities for black directors
were slim. Year after year, for over two decades, Micheaux scraped together
enough cash to make low-budget movies that played the circuit of Negro
theaters. He generally wrote his own scripts, and tackled subjects that
no other black filmmaker would touch, such as segregation, "passing,"
miscegenation, lynching, black men's violence towards black women, and
religious hucksterism. In the process, he ran into opposition more than
once from white authorities. Body and Soul was no different.
The New York censors refused to pass the film because it depicted a
Christian minister who gambled, drank, and preyed on a young girl. To
get the movie approved, Micheaux grafted on an incomprehensible sub-plot
concerning the girl's decent, well-mannered boyfriend (also played by
Robeson) and a visit to the town by a gambler named Curley (Lawrence
Chenault), topping it all off with a ludicrous surprise ending. For
some reason, this worked, and Body and Soul became Micheaux's
most financially successful picture.
I wish I could say that the movie justifies Micheaux's historical importance.
Granted, the director was working on budgets that might have given even
Edgar Ulmer fits, and black audiences were quite willing to sit through
low-quality films just to see themselves on screen playing someone other
than a maid or a shoe shiner. But there's no getting around the fact
that Body and Soul is a terrible bore. The only remotely interesting
moments are when the great Robeson is on screen - it was his first film
appearance (fresh from his stage triumph in O'Neill's The Emperor
Jones), and even without the marvelous voice, his presence is magnetic.
Unfortunately, he's not on screen very much. Instead, most of the story
concerns the mother, played by the non-professional Theresa, who can't
act to save her life. She throws up her hands to signify shock, puts
her hands to her head to signal sorrow, and so forth. Micheaux keeps
his camera on his scenes for much too long, and they drag on interminably.
He makes cuts without any sense of narrative rhythm, and generally displays
a crude technique that had been put to rest in the white cinema with
the advent of Griffith. (But the fact that we have to use the terms
"white cinema" or "black cinema" at all speaks volumes on the injustice
of the obstacles faced by someone like Micheaux, who was trying to learn
the craft of a sophisticated new art form.)
By the time I got to the film's end, one of the weakest "surprise"
endings I've ever seen, I was only hanging on through a sense of duty.
The story of Micheaux's career is fascinating, but judging by the quality
of this film, his work was too deeply flawed to be very enjoyable today.
©2003 Chris Dashiell