Somewhere Between

I’m thinking about a lost best friend today.  Someone I knew a long time ago and haven’t seen for nearly thirty years.  Growing up Jewish in suburban Mid-America in the 1970s & 80s, with so many Aarons and Daniels and Rachaels around, so many horned-rimmed fathers who were doctors or law professors or proprietors of a dry cleaning franchise, married to women named Roselin with frosted hair and Batik resort wear; residing as I did in the sheltered numbness of ranch home quietude, it might come as a surprise that my best friend when I was nine was a Chinese-American kid named Joe.

His family, first generation immigrants, owned the best Chinese restaurant in town.  Famous for their Mu Shu Pork, their pot stickers – that have still not been rivaled – and their generous portions of soups, they brought an authentic, gourmet approach to the cuisine that took us all entirely by surprise, having only known at that time, the uncertainty of Chop Suey.   Weekends found me often at Joe’s house for sleepovers and kung fu movie marathons – the good stuff, mind you: Sonny Chiba, Shô Kosugi, the incomparable Bruce Lee, et al.  On Saturday we would accompany Joe’s mom to the Asian Import store.  There among the silky dresses and foo dogs, we would browse the lethal weapons: the throwing stars and the nunchucks, the deadly chains and katanas, plotting the sinister joys of boyhood. We were actually allowed to buy those weapons – amazing, I know, but it was a phenomenon of a different time, one who’s crimes I will not disclose here.

The immersion into Joe’s family life, a world that seemed so different from my own, transported me from mundane America to a certain in-between.  I felt as if I was spending the weekend in a foreign land, across the border from the suburban Jewish nation-state where I lived. And it was, in fact, a much better world than my workaday homeland, rich with its oddities: sounds of language and music, smells of new foods and perfumes, cultural artifacts – from comic books to home decor  – I could not understand.  I wanted to stay there forever, and leave behind the ranch homes, the double-knit dads, the same old pastrami on rye.  I suppose, for a time, when I was nine, I wanted to be Chinese.

But fitting in, not standing out was more important for Joe.   Despite obvious cultural and ethnic differences, it seemed something he did effortlessly. He possessed exceptional artistic abilities which stunned us all and a (stereotypical?) aptitude in all matters academic.  It was through these realms that he strove for and achieved assimilation in a neighborhood of assimilated Jewish kids.  And it was also through our mutual appreciation of murderous violence and Ninjas.   Joe was one of us, and we related to one another as if there were no differences.  Perhaps this was easier to do when we were nine, or perhaps it was because we were also struggling with a similar desire to become “the same” as the rest of the dominant culture, to shake off our cultural fabric/baggage as well, from our mysterious holidays and beanies to intrusive after school Hebrew school obligations, from our Bubby’s who spoke Yiddish, loudly, to our strange, prohibitive cuisine.

Many of these issues, of growing up and fitting in, of cross-culture and where we’re from are present in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET) beautifully made new film SOMEWHERE BETWEEN.  This film follows the lives of four teenaged girls adopted from China and now living in the United States. In profiling the Chinese adoptees in contemporary America, the film offers a deeply moving documentary illustrating that even the most specific of experiences can be universally relatable.  Her characters struggle with becoming their authentic selves in much the same way that my childhood friend must have struggled.  Of course it’s totally different, but as Knowlton’s film makes clear, at the core, there are certain experiences that are fully human – and those may simply be knowing where you are going and where you have been.

- Mike Steinberg, Film Series Director

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN screens nightly at 7:30 pm November 3 & 4 at the Webster Film Series.  For more info visit the website.

Official website: http://www.somewherebetweenmovie.com/

 

 

The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry, 2011, USA, 97 min.
Weekend, June 8, 9 & 11 at 7:30 pm; June 10 at 9 pm; June 11 at 7:30 pm

The Color Wheel (2011,97 min), a dour tragicomedy directed by Alex Ross Perry, is yet another entry into the pantheon of recent films that feature young adults acting even younger than their chronological age. Wheel, filmed in grainy black-and-white, is an intimate and unflattering portrait of a brother and sister cast adrift in one of the most confusing eras yet to be a twenty-something in the United States. However, the film doesn’t focus much on the broader cultural context of the pair’s immature behavior, instead analyzing their sibling dynamic in particular.

Colin is a grating underachiever who has recently decided to help his equally insufferable sister, JR, move out of an apartment she had been sharing with one of her college professors. Even Colin’s serious girlfriend is immune to his questionable charms, so we know that his reunion with his irritating sister will be a tumultuous affair. As they begin their trip from their parent’s home in Pennsylvania to the professor’s apartment in Boston, JR and Colin fume silently, and their only open squabbles amount to little more than mild ribbing. (“Did you bring all those gargoyles here? You couldn’t be away from them for three days?”) However, Colin soon starts to twist the knife in JR’s psychic wounds by reminding her of her “black sheep” status in their family and generally messy personal life, and the antipathy between the siblings eventually boils over into more serious spats.

Colin, however, is no less of a disaster than JR, who at least has aspirations towards a career in broadcast journalism, if a poor handle on how to go about achieving her dreams. The siblings accuse each other not trying hard enough to live accomplished lives, yet are unwilling to admit that they are both struggling with similar problems. Interestingly, there is no discussion of how a malfunctioning economy or educational system might have contributed to the pair’s career woes; JR and Colin’s mutual tendency to blame individuals for problems that don’t happen in a cultural vacuum definitely contribute to their own insecurities as well as to their harsh judgments of each other.

The film’s climax follows a long party sequence in which the aimless siblings are contrasted with a more mainstream, conventionally successful crowd that they left behind in high school. Like JR’s professor/ex-lover, the other partygoers are fairly one-dimensional characters that act and speak in ways that are less believable than then those of Colin and JR themselves, but Colin and JR’s portrayals seem so true to life that we can forgive Perry’s missteps in regards to ancillary characters. Although Colin and JR’s dialogue generally sounds realistic and natural, their snarky, uproarious wit keeps the siblings’ exchanges from getting too boring. While it may be hard to completely sympathize with the siblings, their sarcastic barbs have the ironic effect of softening the blow of experiencing their combative, caustic personalities. At the very least, the fact that Wheel is laugh-at-loud funny at many points keeps it from sliding into the doldrums of an average “mumblecore” film.

Despite Wheel’s humor, you can never quite forget the film’s dark subtext, particularly when it does reach its (quite disturbing) climax. However shocking some might find the near-end of Wheel, however, it feels like a suitable and earned. Wheel, on the whole, is great entertainment for those of us with a strong stomach and a sardonic streak.

Official Site

Sing Your Song

Susanne Rostock, 2011, USA, 105 min.
Weekend, May 18, 19 & 20 at 7:30 pm

Sing Your Song (2011, 105 min), a biographical documentary by Susanne Rostock, outlines the life of entertainer and civil rights pioneer Harry Belafonte. We follow Belafonte’s activist/musical/acting careers and personal life, and learn how, in many cases, the various roles he has played throughout the years have been inextricably linked. One of the documentary’s strengths is its scope; the film paints a complex picture of a multi-talented figure for whom social justice has been a lifelong passion.

Near the beginning of the film, Belafonte recounts memories from his Jamaican childhood in an interview that is intercut with some of the archival film footage and photography that is effectively utilized throughout Song. Belafonte claims that the tough, grueling life of early-twentieth century Jamaicans inspired his musical career. Belafonte also asserts that his mother, in particular, impressed an attitude of ambition and optimism upon him at an early age. His mother’s support also laid the groundwork for Belafonte’s commitment to civil rights activism, as she told him “that [he] should never ever awaken in a day where there wasn’t something in [his] agenda that would help set the course of the undermining of injustice.”

However deeply rooted Belafonte’s social concerns may be, he claims that he never originally intended to be a singer, but was inspired by a chance evening spent at the American Negro Theater. Belafonte soon joined the Theater, a place of “social truth” and “power,” and became acquainted with the likes of Brock Peters and Sidney Poitier. He became a jazz singer shortly thereafter, drawing from such influences as traditional American folk song recordings from the Library of Congress and fellow black musician Paul Robeson.

Belafonte’s theater career took off, and he soon earned himself a Tony for his work on Broadway. Despite his success as a thespian, however, Belafonte ran into difficulties when he began touring south of the Mason-Dixon line. Belafonte and his friends recount a number of stories about the discrimination he encountered as a person of color, from an initial racist rebuke by a cop at a rest stop bathroom, to the now-shocking death threats made against Belafonte’s person if he didn’t comply with discriminatory laws while headlining a Vegas show. Belafonte’s loss of innocence is poignantly felt.

Belafonte’s presence on television was uplifting to mid-century African-American audiences, and his popularity as an entertainer superseded racial barriers. However, Belafonte’s race and political views continued to be sticking points with the socially conservative. Belafonte was blacklisted as a Communist during McCarthyist era, and though he achieved both “sex symbol” and “teen heartthrob” status in the eyes of white women, film roles of his that implied romantic feelings between Belafonte and white, female costars were met with much controversy, or even suppressed.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the documentary recount Belafonte’s close friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role, by the year 1961, as a liaison between the Civil rights movement and the Kennedy Administration. When Dr. King needed a place to unwind, he often chose the apartment of devoted friend and colleague Belafonte. Belafonte played a pivotal role in everything from the evolution of Robert Kennedy’s social conscience to making sure that the March on Washington was successful.

Belafonte, however, helped heal social ills abroad as well in the United States, working on Africa colonialist issues with the help of Elanor Roosevelt. Belafonte helped bring a number of Kenyan students to America with full-ride scholarships, under the condition they promised to help Kenya’s development when they returned to their home country—among these scholars was a certain Barack Obama Sr. Belafonte became committed to using his art, in particular, as a tool for social resistance after hearing of Nelson Mandela’s arrest. According to a one-time musical collaborator Miriam Makeba, “Belafonte means a lot to lots of struggling people around the world, because he took our struggles and made them his own.”

The film, understandably enough, spends less time addressing Belafonte’s three marriages and his relationships with his children. Although Belafonte’s filmic portrayal is overwhelmingly positive, the scenes that deal with his personal life ensure that he does not come off as an overly idealized subject. Although Belafonte may have achieved extraordinary victories as an entertainer and civil rights activist, his public successes seemed to be at the expense of a healthy and rewarding family life. Belafonte alternately overcompensated for lost time with, and kept emotionally distant from, his children—a seemingly inevitable, though unfortunate, result of being stretched too thin.

Belafonte, now eighty-five, eschews a comfortable, reflective retirement for a continued devotion to activist concerns. As of the time of Song’s filming, Belafonte was involved in helping curb Los Angeles gang violence. Belafonte continues to make a name for himself as a modern American hero by still choosing the more difficult, yet more ethical path, as an octogenarian. Sing Your Song is an uplifting film that makes a strong case that Belafonte should not only be acknowledged, but also revered, for his unwavering commitment to social activism.

By Liz Corley

http://singyoursongthemovie.com/

Bombay Beach

Alma Har’el, 2011, USA, 80 min
Weekend, April 13, 14 & 15 at 7:30 pm

Bombay Beach (2011, 80 min), a documentary by first-time director Alma Har’el, surveys the ruins of a mid-twentieth century development on the beach of California’s Salton Sea. I was eagerly anticipating Har’el’s full-length feature debut, since I enjoyed her vibrant, evocative music videos for the band Beirut. Beach’s artfully framed footage of the Salton Sea’s decaying landscape do not disappoint; as the film suggests with every shot, there is something beautiful amidst the rubble here.

The Salton Sea, originally created when the Colorado River overflowed its banks, was seen as literal and symbolic oasis in the Western United States’ desert by overly optimistic 1950s developers. However, any hope of prosperity for the Salton Sea area has all but dried up in the present day; an elderly resident’s voiceover before the film’s title screen describes the location of the failed development as a merciless, unforgiving desert in which life can only hang on through careful adaptation.

The film seems less interested in exploring why Bombay Beach failed, instead focusing on its present day state by giving us a glimpse into the lives of a handful of characters—a fascinating cast of idiosyncratic individuals. Har’el intersperses footage of characters’ daily lives with dance routines set to either Beirut or Bob Dylan songs. Some dances seem to develop naturally, others look more meticulously choreographed and reveal Har’el’s distinctive visual style.

The first character the film introduces is a troubled young boy named Benjamin Parrish who, despite his inclination towards aggressive outbursts, is an endearing and sympathetic figure. We later find out that his parents are felons, and their son seems as if he may be poised to continue his family’s violent legacy. At age seven, Benjamin is already taking a cocktail of medications to control his behavioral problems.

We also learn about the elderly man nicknamed “Red,” who provided narration at the beginning of the film—he left home at thirteen, and now sells bootleg cigarettes which he buys tax-free at a Native American reservation. Red lives in a trailer park with other impoverished individuals trying to eke out a living in the desert; called “Slab City,” it boasts piles of trash that resemble art installations. “Slab City is made up of the misfits of the world,” the elderly man claims, but you could make that claim of the whole Salton Sea area.

Finally, we become acquainted with Ceejay, an African American high school student who dreams of playing for the NFL, and of lifting himself and his loved ones out of poverty. Ceejay, who has managed to escape from a violent Los Angeles neighborhood, is now determined to better himself by becoming the first member of his family to attend college. Ceejay’s optimism and determination is also revealed in his patient and devoted courtship of Jessie, his best friend’s sister, despite the nefarious schemes of a “possessive” ex-boyfriend.

The film’s youngest stars—Ceejay and Benjamin—contrast with one another in fundamental ways. Through sacrifice and hard work, Ceejay seeks to transcend the circumstances of his life, and may very well be successful at doing so. Benjamin, despite ever increasing doses of medicine, does not seem to be thriving at all. Yet, though society at large may be willing to write off individuals like Benjamin as inevitable failures unworthy of our care and attention, Bombay Beach gives “the misfits of the world” the benefit of the doubt, humanizing them with its compassionate and hopeful treatment.

The film shies away from making many overt, politicized statements about the possible roots of, and solutions to, poverty in the United States. However, it offers up such charming character studies, that a need for academically thorough sociopolitical analysis should hardly register with the audience; the film’s beauty and spirit is spellbinding. Har’el clearly has a keen eye for strange and wonderful places and people, and I hope that in future films she can continue to explore them as successfully as she does in Bombay Beach.

By Liz Corley

http://bombaybeachfilm.com/

 

Lads & Jockeys

Benjamin Marquet , 2008, France, 100 min
Weekend, March 16, 17 & 18 at 7:30 pm

Lads & Jockeys, (2008, 100 min) a documentary by Benjamin Marquet, offers a glimpse into the lives of a group of 14 year-old boys and girls training to be jockeys at a rural French boarding school. As one trainer states “many are called,” but fewer young people are able to realize their dreams of racing horses professionally.

The film’s opening sequence immediately makes us keenly aware of the grueling nature of a stable lad or aspiring jockey’s lifestyle — a miniscule teenage boy named Steve is shown arduously gathering barrelfuls of hay to dump onto an already giant, intimidating pile as a foreboding jazz soundtrack swells in the background. Steve, however, is fully aware of how challenging his chosen athletic career can be, and seems to be a practical and smart young man who is capable of persevering through his apprenticeship. “When you love your job, you get on with it,” he states later in the film.

However, insecure Flavian actually has more of a knack for racing than confident Steve; Jockeys culminates in Flavian’s debut at Chantilly racetrack. Flavian, prone to kissing horses as well as loosing his cool in the saddle, is an endearingly peculiar figure. However, one of the film’s drawbacks is its disinterest in providing detailed character studies of any aspiring jockeys.

The lifestyle which the apprentice jockeys have chosen comes at the price of sleep, stability, and other comforts. In some senses, however, the trainees are allowed to be normal teenagers — they talk on cell phones, zone out in class, and show off their muscles to members of the opposite sex. It is interesting to watch a film in which teenagers, prone as they are to solipsism, devote themselves to becoming caregivers—in this case, to horses, seemingly less relatable to teenagers then members of their own species by default. Yet the kids seem uniformly dedicated to their dreams, and have youthful energy and enthusiasm to spare, despite their tiring chores and practice routines.

The filmmakers, in an intriguing and unusual choice, juxtapose footage from a 1969 horse racing film by Henri Raschle with modern footage of the jockey training process, and they blend together smoothly. The film shows respect for the seemingly timeless tradition of jockey training, implying that its apprenticeship process hardly needs to be improved upon. It’s delightful to see that its subjects, young as they are, approach their career with a similar sense of respect.

By Liz Corley

Official Site

The Multicultural Film Festival: Being Elmo

Constance Marks, Philip Shane, USA, 2011, 80 min.
Saturday/Sunday, March 3 at 3:30 pm and 7:30 pm & March 4 at 7:30 pm

Being Elmo (2011, 80 min.), a documentary by Constance Marks, centers on Kevin Clash, the man who brought the titular Muppet to life. The film follows the trajectory of Clash’s career, from his beginnings as a precocious young puppeteer to the realization of his childhood dream of being directly involved with “Sesame Street.”

Kevin Clash is a shy and introverted man who is uncomfortable in the spotlight but feels emboldened when he has a foam-and-felt friend on hand. Some of those who know Clash argue that Elmo serves a symbolic as well as literal extension of himself; others see the personalities of Clash’s supportive parents shining through the Muppet’s performances instead. Yet few members of the general public, perhaps in part because of Kevin’s private nature, know about the man behind the puppet in the first place. Kevin isn’t an easily recognized celebrity, as evinced by a scene near the beginning of the film that shows him walking past an oblivious individual who is wearing an Elmo suit.

Clash spent his childhood watching television and entertaining escapist fantasies. When he saw “Sesame Street,” however, the program piqued his interest because it reminded him of, rather than distracted him from, his own neighborhood. “Sesame Street” was racially diverse and the puppets literally spoke to the viewer on a personal level. Clash instantly became intrigued about how “Sesame Street’s” fuzzy stars were created and manipulated and eventually, on a whim, made a puppet of his own out of his father’s trench coat.

Clash soon began performing puppet shows for neighborhood children, then at various schools and hospitals in the Baltimore area– all with puppets he carefully constructed himself based on close viewing of “Sesame Street” and its behind-the-scenes specials. Clash’s puppeteer obsession led to conflict with his sisters, who felt that their interests weren’t as respected as their brother’s, and his peers, who didn’t consider his hobby very masculine. Despite external opposition, however, Clash didn’t assume more mainstream interests, and was even voted “Most likely to become a millionaire” as a senior in high school because of his impressive talent. When the film cuts to scenes in the modern Muppet workshop– where one can find everything that goes into the making of such puppets at one’s fingertips by simply opening drawers– we become even more awed at Kevin’s adolescent achievements, considering his limited resources.

Kevin Clash made his television debut on a local Baltimore channel, and from then on, he saw one dream childhood come true after another. He finds work on “Captain Kangaroo” (one of Clash’s childhood favorites) and met and eventually worked with Jim Henson himself. When Clash finally became a member of the “Sesame Street” staff, he was eager to establish a positive reputation for himself amongst his childhood idols. The role of Elmo literally falls into his lap, the puppet having been tossed by disgruntled senior Muppeteer Richard Hunt. Clash reinvents Elmo, once a little-used puppet who spoke with a “cave man” voice, and the rest is history.

Clash’s rise to puppeteer success is surprisingly free from trouble, and the few career-related conflicts he encounters concern scheduling; this man simply has too many lucrative, high profile projects to pick from. An almost uniformly uplifting rags-to-riches tale such as Clash’s seems unlikely in an era when we have become disillusioned with the idea of the American Dream, but what complicates Elmo and prevents the film from being too naïvely encouraging is its emphasis on the role extreme single-mindedness played in achieving Clash’s caliber of career success. You leave the film feeling inspired, but your optimism is tempered with the understanding Clash achieved his dreams not simply through a combination of hard work and perseverance, but with a level of obsession that some might say borders on pathological. When Clash’s infant daughter was born, he tried to “puppeteer” her rather than treat her like a human child, and he chose globetrotting publicity tours for “Tickle Me Elmo” over watching her reaching childhood milestones—though he has his regrets, and eventually takes time off work to see her through her sixteenth birthday. Clash, as depicted in the film, seems far from the well-rounded individual he occasionally wishes to be.

For all of Kevin’s difficulties with social interactions, his inherent good nature seems to reveal itself through Elmo, a pure and innocent character who symbolizes love and affection. The film ultimately leaves us to draw our conclusions about the true nature of Clash’s character, however. The film is more interested in Clash’s astonishing talent and career than in his personal life and inner nature— “A Puppeteer’s Journey” was an apt addition to the documentary’s title.

By Liz Corley

Official site

The Multicultural Film Series: Miss Representation

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, USA, 2011, 90 min.
Friday, March 2 at 7:30 pm

Miss Representation (2011, 90 min.), Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s directorial debut, is a sweeping documentary that parses out the many ways in which our mass media demeans women, and how this doesn’t simply damage their sense of self-worth, but also lowers their level of civic involvement. Newsom interviews a series of powerful, high-profile women– including Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Cho, Katie Couric, and Nancy Pelosi—to highlight the painfully limited ways in which half of the population is portrayed in the media, and thus conceived of in American culture at large.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any” reads the quote that opens the film, and the rest of the documentary focuses on how a stream of insidious and pervasive, but often unnoticed, information wears down women’s self-worth and their desire to be leaders. As, we are told, women hold only 3% of the positions of power in the media and only comprise 17% of Congress (The United States also ranks a bleak 90th in terms of “women in national legislatures”), our national discussion is clearly missing a number of important voices.

“Teen girls feel more powerless than ever,” the documentary complains, and it’s no small wonder, considering how media saturated our nation’s youth are. According to a statistic provided by the documentary, teens spend 10 hours and 45 minutes of their weeks consuming media, and this, the film argues, is what allows them to be especially susceptible to the harmful messages media contains. The filmmakers’ interviews with teenage girls, in which most break down in tears, comprise some of the documentary’s most heart-wrenching scenes. These bright young women are keenly aware of female objectification in mass media and how it hurts their peers or younger teenagers, as are a handful of teenage boys that have also been interviewed.

Surely women have always been held to unrealistic standards of beauty, but the filmmakers argue that advances in computer technology have allowed models to appear “absolutely, inhumanely perfect.” The ubiquity of the media and modern portrayals of digitally enhanced female perfection have allowed a perfect storm to brew–these days, a shocking “65% of women and girls have an eating disorder.” Newsom encapsulates the message most young women in our society have come to understand—“Being strong, smart, and accomplished [is] not enough—to be a woman [means] constantly striving for an unobtainable ideal of beauty and approval in the eyes of men.”

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its on-the-nose analysis of how women on screens large and small are portrayed—only 16% of protagonists in films are female, and their goal is usually to snag a man. Whereas male protagonists usually become self-realized characters in their own right, female characters are often little more than plot devices that help the male heroes complete their story arcs. This is because, in Hollywood, it is generally believed that women are perfectly willing to watch stories about men but not the other way around—and male writers are prone to thinking of women as mysterious Others, not human beings with universally relatable thoughts and feelings. Thus, we have a bevy of female characters without complexity, serving either as decorative flesh, or (in the case of female authority figures) bitches that need to learn their place so that the social order can be maintained.

More egregious still are the ways in which reality TV shows promote regressive female stereotypes—often showing women competing viciously over men and using their bodies as weapons—and how news programs objectify female politicians and journalists. If the media objectifies and maligns even the most powerful women in the country, the film asks, what does that say about the rest of us?

 Miss Representation characterizes the situation of women in the United States as bleak indeed, and even those of us who have studied topics such as media literacy and feminism might feel bewildered by the grim reality the film presents. Cuba, China, Iraq, and Afghanistan have more women serving in their governments than the U.S.—and at our current rate, we may not achieve gender parity for “500 years.” Mass media seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut now that it has been deregulated and organized into a few conglomerates, all concerned with the bottom line above all else. However, the documentary is not defeatist, but rather a call to action—Miss Representation has even  spurred its own eponymous campaign in order to educate and empower young woman. For more information, go to http://www.missrepresentation.org/take-action/.

By Liz Corley

 

The Multicultural Film Series: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Chad Freidrichs, 2011, USA, 83 min.
Thursday, March 1 at 7:30 pm

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011, 83 min.), directed by Chad Freidrichs, details the devastating failure of an infamous St. Louis housing project, a tragedy likened to a “slow-motion Katrina.” The documentary seeks to undermine the eponymous myth, a racist and classist narrative in which Pruitt-Igoe’s residents themselves are to blame for the project’s disastrous fate, rather than factors such as government neglect.

The Wendel O. Pruitt and William J. Igoe Homes Complex, as it is was officially known, opened to great promise in the 1950s. The property on which the project once stood is now an unkempt, forested patch of land; only a few concrete ruins bear witness to the history of this North St. Louis locale. After the filmmakers present us with footage of the wasteland that the Complex has become, they show us a naively optimistic 50s promotional video about the project that touted Pruitt-Igoe as an alternative to existing lower-income housing. However, the complex’s initial prospects soured as Pruitt-Igoe fell into swift, dire decline, and its residents either fled or endured an escalating level of crime and decay. Poverty, segregation, and vandalism reigned as Pruitt-Igoe was, ironically, transformed into something like the slums its residents were attempting to escape in the first place.

Two decades after Pruitt-Igoe, in 1972, the government tore down the project, but its legacy lingered– the Complex still epitomizes the failure of public housing in the minds of many. “Long after the dust settled, this is the Pruitt-Igoe that remained,” intones the film’s narration, “doomed to failure from the start.” However, critics often neglect to consider the role of factors such as funding, regulation, and segregation in Pruitt-Igoe’s decline. Myth undermines simplistic, deterministic conclusions about the state of public housing, past and present, refusing to blame its victims– or social welfare programs in general– for problems that seemingly stem from a diverse set of factors.

The documentary provides ample context for the Pruitt-Igoe story, taking time to address the roots of urban poverty in one of its many examples of thorough yet engaging historical and sociopolitical analysis. Myth describes how, after World War II and the advent of mechanized labor, migrant workers went north seeking a better life, and ended up in the slums. When public housing options were slated to replace the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions of said slums, it seemed as if wealthy and poor would benefit from their construction. St. Louis, specifically, felt ripe for a “renaissance” after World War II and thus embarked on one of the nation’s “most ambitious downtown renovation projects.” The same efforts that brought St. Louis its iconic arch also led to the construction of the Pruitt-Igoe Complex in 1952.

However, as jobs moved to the suburbs, and with them St. Louis’ middle class, Pruitt-Igoe became an eyesore, rather than a point of pride for the city. The 1949 Housing Act made it it cheap and ideal for some to buy suburban property, but African-American individuals were generally unable to escape urban decline. Projects, built with respect to whether or not neighborhoods were traditionally white or black, created “pockets of segregation.” The new black ghettos took shape while, as if in an alternate universe, businesses thrived in the affluent white suburbs.

Myth intersperses images showing the squalid conditions of Pruitt-Igoe with interviews from former residents of the project, and the combination is engrossing and emotionally powerful. All of the former Pruitt-Igoe tenants note the initial promise of the housing project, describing Pruitt Igoe’s beginnings in proud, glowing terms, with a keen sense of nostalgia for the project’s initial sense of community and hopeful atmosphere. “I think Pruitt-Igoe would be here today had it been maintained like it was when they first opened it up,” one interviewee states unequivocally.

What happened to the Pruitt Igoe’s elevators is a small-scale epitome of the decay that befell the project as a whole– initially meticulously cleaned and maintained, the elevator eventually fell into disrepair, beginning to reek of urine and frequently leaving building residents trapped en route to their destinations. Pruitt-Igoe’s thirty-three buildings required skilled maintenance, but relied on the rent money from tenants who couldn’t afford such exorbitantly high fees. There was a dearth of popular support for funding projects’ upkeep any other way; banks opposed public housing, and the media derided such initiatives as “communist,” just as it slaps the “socialist” label on social welfare programs today.

Unable to afford building maintenance of their own accord and saddled with a set of stringent, dehumanizing restrictions that forbade appliances like telephones and separated women and child from adult, male family members, Pruitt Igoe’s residents simmered with resentment. Bitterness and anger spread within the project’s once-close community and affected resident’s orientation towards the outside world, so that even ambulances were viewed with suspicion and spite; emergency and security services eventually stopped helping the complex altogether.  Residents attempted to address a major root of their problems with a 1969 rent strike– the first such strike in the history of public housing—but change proved to be too little, to late. Years of neglect left the complex in in such a state of physical deterioration that it too hazardous to be inhabited much longer. When Pruitt-Igoe emptied out, druggies and dealers moved in, able to go about their business freely in the project’s deserted buildings. Predictably, the project was soon demolished, and its initial promise literally became shrouded by dust and destruction.

The former Pruitt-Igoe residents interviewed in Myth do not shy away from describing the atrocities committed in the project they once called home, yet the interviews encourage nuanced views of the Complex’s residents and their motivations that undermine racist and classist clichés that still survive today. “It never made sense to label [Pruitt-Igoe’s residents] the perpetrators and to use them as scapegoats as though they were the cause of the structured inequality. It only makes sense of it’s placed within this broader national context of what was happening to the urban poor,” claims a sociologist interviewed in Myth. The documentary puts the causes and impacts of urban poverty into uncomfortably sharp focus, and the result is at turns devastating and maddening.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth might serve as a crucial history lesson to some St. Louis residents, and will hit all too close to home for others. Yet no viewers will deny that Pruitt-Igoe’s “aftershocks are still with us.” Now that the budgets of many social welfare programs are on the chopping block, Myth is a cautionary tale of vital importance. Welfare proponents and opponents will be crucial in determining whether or not film’s ultimately optimistic message– that the city will change again, and that history won’t repeat itself– will bear out in the future.

By Liz Corley

Official Site

General Orders No. 9

Robert Persons, 2011, USA, 72 min.
Weekend, February 24, 25 & 26 at 7:30 pm

General Orders No. 9 (2011, 72 min.) is an experimental documentary about the history of Georgia directed by Robert Persons. The film’s title refers to Robert E. Lee’s Farewell address, but Orders rarely makes note of the Civil War, instead focusing on the contrasts between civilization and nature, between urban and rural life, and between the antiquated and the modern. Orders plays out like a new, specifically Southern version of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi as it, too, juxtaposes sprawling urban landscapes with placid natural scenes. The title of Orders implies surrender to a new way of life and the film’s tagline– “One last trip down the rabbit hole before it’s paved over”– encapsulates its message that progress is an unstoppable and inherently negative force.

“Deer trail, becomes Indian trail, becomes county road,” is a line that a narrator mentions near the opening of the film and repeats throughout it like a mantra. Orders’ narrator repeatedly characterizes Georgia’s traditional counties “as alliance of equal kingdoms,” their towns serving as the center of these realms. The town squares were, apparently, the “motionless” hubs of the active and changeable world, and the arrangements of both county and town were orderly and sublime. At the very center of “everything,” according to the narrator, was the courthouse weathervane. The weathervane carries symbolic importance as it was not only literally centralized, but also serves an instrument by which human beings interpret and act according to nature; the weathervane’s location atop the courthouse suggests that Georgia’s citizens sought to maintain a natural, correct order.

The filmmakers distance themselves from specific commentary on the uglier elements of the South’s past by only mentioning historical events such as the Civil War and European colonization briefly and in vague terms. Instead, we are invited to celebrate a more nebulous and all-encompassing sense of Southern identity, which is ironically described as more than an idea, but as something that can be sensed and presents itself to careful observers like a religious vision.

Twenty-seven minutes into Orders, we are introduced to the interstate, the force that the filmmakers argue has put an end to the halcyon days of the old South by interfering with the sacred design of the county. The interstate was built “within a half mile of the courthouse,” calling to mind the lines “The center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” Georgia’s “haphazard” modern city planning is accused of leading the eye to “a false center” instead.

“The interstate does not serve, it possesses,” continues the narrator, who claims “it has the power to make the land invisible to our attention.” Some of the footage of the freeway, however, makes the urban landscape of the new South look just as beautiful and symmetrical as Georgia’s rural landscapes. Even as footage and stills of urbanity show increasingly desolate and decaying parts of the city, these images are artfully composed and hauntingly gorgeous. We may not agree with narrator’s message, but the cinematographers do not seem to have such an explicit bias, and thus are gracious enough to allow us to draw our own conclusions about urbanization.

The narration characterizes the city as a “machine,” rather than a place, and the ruins of the old rural Southern order as sacred entities. The city fills the narrator with overwhelming grief, on the other hand, instead of spiritual awe. “We” don’t want to live in “these places,” argues the narrator—but just as county road was built over Indian trail, there is the sense that we cannot completely reverse progress. “Each generation finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings,” and each new development can only be appreciated in retrospect. Orders is a poignant meditation on nostalgia and the loss of local culture and identity in an era of increasing homogeneity.

By Liz Corley

Official Site

The Turin Horse

Bela Tarr, 2011, Hungary, 146 min.
Weekend, February 17, 18 & 19 at 7:30 pm

The best way I can think of describing The Turin Horse (2011, 144 min.) is “Waiting for Godot—except with a horse and not funny.” Béla Tarr’s new film, like Waiting for Godot, explores the repetitive and pointless nature of existence, but is not punctuated by even the slightest hint of the sort of black humor that Samuel Beckett employed in Godot. The film is pervasively, unrelentingly bleak, and deeply haunting.

Horse purports to tell a story relating to the incident that triggered Frederick Nietzsche’s sudden decline into insanity near the end of his life. The film opens with narration describing how, during an 1899 visit to Turin, Nietzsche encountered a cart-driver brutally beating his horse. The famous philosopher, quite a physically imposing man, burst out of his vehicle and began embracing the horse and sobbing. Nietzsche spoke the words “Mother, I am stupid” in German before proceeding to live out the last ten years of his life in a state of silent madness, cared for by female relatives. Horse never again mentions Nietzsche, but the film certainly calls to mind the thinker’s famous concept of “eternal recurrence,” by which we are doomed to repeat the events of our lives exactly the way they are for eternity.

The Turin Horse’s stark, simple opening sequence shows a man named Ohlsdorfer driving a crude wooden cart pulled by the film’s eponymous beast. The horse is far from a handsome creature, the whites of its eyes gleaming savagely and its drab, mangy coat clinging tightly to its emaciated frame. The man looks equally weatherworn as he squints through the dust and leaves swirling around the cart. The cart proceeds into a foggy forest, like something you’d envision while reading an original Grimm’s fairy tale. The barren landscape captured by the filmmakers appears subconsciously familiar, yet refreshingly different from the vistas of mainstream cinematic spectacles. Horse’s cinematography resembles artistic black-and-white photography come to life; it’s stunning, captivating, and engrossing to look at.

Once the cart driver reaches his home, we are introduced to another character—his adult daughter, a woman whose long hair almost always obscures her features, whether it’s whipping against her face in the wind or draping heavily over her visage as she performs acts of household drudgery. When we do glimpse the daughter’s face, we can see it is drawn and shockingly gaunt; she is fairly young but her meager lifestyle has taken a physical toll on her. The daughter acts as Ohlsdorfer’s full-time caretaker, dressing him and cooking for him without complaint. Her father eats his daily boiled potato like he is literally starving, not waiting for it to stop steaming before ripping off the peel, mashing it into bite-size pieces, and hurriedly stuffing it in his mouth. The first mealtime sequence has one of the most disconcerting scenes of a character eating that I’ve ever seen in a movie; the shot reveals both the grim reality of abject poverty and the ugliness of the mundane.

The film proceeds to show us five more days in the lives of father and daughter, during which they never venture far from their stone house, a humble dwelling that, for the most part, wouldn’t look out of place in medieval Europe. Outside, a windstorm howls over a barren landscape, supplementing the film’s somber, repetitive score. Whenever father or daughter take a break from their daily toil, they stare out the window, seemingly hypnotized by the gale raging outdoors. If, in your mind, you were to substitute the glowing screen of the window with the glowing screen of a television (or other electronic device), you might find yourself with an image that hits “too close to home,” so to speak. The family’s decision to pass the time gazing outside instead of talking to one another makes it easy enough to draw a parallel between the events of the film and the way people interact with loved ones even today. The near-absence of dialogue means that the two main characters remain, for the most part, ciphers, yet the filmmakers’ choice to limit the father and daughter’s communications makes it easier for us to recognize the banality of our lives in theirs.

One scene that does feature quite a bit of dialogue begins as a neighbor stumbles into the family’s house asking for brandy. The man, after sitting down with his drink, bemoans the evils of mankind and sets up a dichotomy between grasping and corrupt ‘victors’ and the rest of humanity—a noble but ineffective class of people who are too passive to stop evildoers from poisoning the world. Although the neighbor’s sophisticated dialogue contrasts sharply with the rest of the film, which had previously been a realistic and minimalist glimpse into rural poverty, the scene in which he appears helps underline the film’s atmosphere of existential resignation. The film’s characters abandon any attempt to improve their condition as futile, and changes from without are unwelcome. The characters simply trudge on listlessly, not considering the world around them with any lingering sense of curiosity, and not seeking anything more substantial than their continued survival.

Perhaps when Nietzsche uttered the words “Mother, I am stupid,” he realized that humans should defy, rather than celebrate (as per his original suggestion) “the eternal recurrence” of our lives. The film forces us to honestly examine our routines, the way we limit our own destinies, and our attitudes towards change. Although the film does not have a conventional plot, the film’s philosophical underpinnings make Horse add up to more than the sum of its parts, and it rewards our patience by offering a jumping-off point for profound self-evaluation. You will study your furrowed brow in the mirror, perform your daily chores slowly and mindfully, and perhaps realize that something has to change.

By Liz Corley

Official website