Sunday, August 14, 2011

Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)

I had never heard of Harvey Milk before seeing the documentary made by Robert Epstein. Milk took up a cause similar to other socio-political leaders who dared to challenge so-called moral convention by introducing to a wide audience a different way of life. People like Martin Luther King. Both Milk and King have had effects on the course of American history and indeed have inspired millions of people around the world. Why then did I not hear of the name Harvey Milk until I was 22?

Milk was America’s first openly gay elected official. San Francisco mayor George Moscone had divided up the city into districts allowing for neighbors at large to vote for more personal representatives, people the people could feel would do more for them. Milk was elected as City Councilman for District 5, the Castro area where an ever growing gay population was finally winning recognition and civil rights. But with the election of a gay man to public office taking the issue of homosexuality out of hushed whispers and screaming it loud inside newspapers, conservatives began proposing legislation to deny and in some cases strip Americans of their rights. While there was reason to celebrate Milk’s victory and the victory of gay people across the nation, communities in America were passing laws against gay people. The Briggs Initiative was proposed as Prop 6, a law that would fire all gay teachers from public schools in California. The reasoning behind this was that gays who want to live openly could more easily prey upon children.

The Times of Harvey Milk, created out of masterfully used archival footage and straight-forward, honest talking heads, shows a segment of a debate between Milk and Senator Briggs, cultivator of the initiative. Milk correctly points out that most pedophiles are straight males, and Briggs, apparently unfamiliar with this info gathered by several sources including the FBI, offers his reasoning for removing gays, in his estimation 5% of the population: if gay teachers were fired, than there is a 5% less chance that children would be sexually assaulted. This reasoning gets a laugh out of Harvey. Why not go ahead and remove the 95% of heterosexual teachers to totally protect the children? The thinking is ludicrous, and Prop 6 lost by a wide margin.

I think the documentary genre is suffering now more than ever. Most would disagree, and statistics would show me up: documentaries show in major art-house theaters, and in rare but evident cases they play in multiplexes across the nation. They make money, and the genre is quite popular with young film buffs... to an extent. I think it’s still a specialized genre or form of filmmaking, but when I say that documentaries are suffering I’m talking about the art of the medium. This is why The Times of Harvey Milk works so well. Most modern documentaries feel, look and sound like reality shows. They have a central character, often the filmmaker, taking up a task and accomplishing it with a camera in tow. They usually provide narration explaining what’s happening on screen. Often the interview segments are cut together so that the subjects form complete but superficial thoughts through the splicing together of many sound bites, and wall-to-wall music is laid in to I guess keep the audience awake, and this music is poorly chosen and repetitive.

The Times of Harvey Milk is relatively quiet, eloquently photographed, and it features subjects with insights and personalities, and the filmmaker brings them out fully formed characters. And director / editor Epstein lets these people speak. Some of them break down when talking of Harvey’s death and San Francisco’s reaction. Epstein isn’t a cheat; he doesn’t go for extreme close-ups of their eyes or their hands fiddling with a handkerchief, or even worse out of focus shots of completely uninvolving objects around the room. He lets us watch their faces, see the rage and pain of Harvey’s death, the joys that accompanied his many accomplishments, and their fondness for the man. And again they all speak so brilliantly. A labor union leader who admits to before having known Harvey having somewhat anti-gay tendencies goes through a complete story arc. He reveals that because of his association with Harvey through their like-minded political views he is in favor of gay rights.

I hate to be personal beyond my opinion, but with documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk it seems impossible to disassociate myself from the story I have seen. I came out around the time I first saw the documentary in a college class... maybe a year earlier. It’s been so long I can’t remember now. When I was watching the film I couldn’t believe that this man, Harvey Milk, who accomplished a lot in a short career, has, since his death, been ignored by the mainstream media. He is certainly not forgotten; not in San Francisco where he was assassinated by a colleague: a statue has been erected of him. And indeed Milk’s name is not buried under the rubble of history. The problem is people have to search for him, unlike other leaders or influential persons who’ve charged their constituencies and extended themselves beyond them—history and the American population have exalted these men as exemplary, have named days after them, and their life’s work is taught in history books. But not Harvey Milk’s. Why?

The documentary is asking this question but in a larger context: if Milk were straight, would his murderer have served only 5 ½ years in prison? Would or should he have not instead been serving life?

Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed by Dan White, elected to office at the same time as Milk, and he is made the antagonist of the film. White is an interesting character: an idealist whose spirit is crushed by an ever-changing and degrading society, at least this was the defense’s position. White sunk into the City Hall with a loaded gun and extra bullets after resigning his position and then later wanting to recant his resignation. It is against the law for White to regain his job, and when Moscone supposedly told White he would not be reinstated White shot him, and then shot him again. He did the same to Harvey Milk: shot him to the ground, shot him three more times in the head, and then delivering one final execution shot at point blank range. It is clear who the murderer was, but the jury, supposedly a jury of straight white conservatives, a true group of Dan White’s peers, found him guilty of manslaughter, a crime that sentenced him to 8 years in prison. He was paroled after 5 ½.

The aftermath of Harvey’s death is quite spectacular: thousands took to the streets for a candlelight vigil beginning on Castro Street, where Harvey Milk lived, and it spread several blocks to City Hall. The aftermath of the jury verdict was quite different. A mob stormed City Hall, fought with police and set cars. One image I found striking was a protestor holding a sign, “Avenge Harvey Milk”. I was angry that Milk’s death meant nothing to those jurors and the millions they represent then and now in the United States, but despite it all I was depressed that this was the reaction. This violence was not what Harvey Milk campaigned for. A close friend of his says this in the documentary. And it depressed me because ultimately, at least in the short term, Harvey Milk had lost. His death inspired violence, and I was further discouraged to learn that Dan White committed suicide in 1985, a year after the documentary was released. When I first saw this film in class, many of the students felt that justice was finally served. Not I; the final chapter in this story was simply another death. What a waste.

I began this essay by referring to Harvey Milk in a more formal way by calling him “Milk”. When revising it, I noticed that half-way through I began calling him Harvey. I promise that this was unintentional. The film, I think, breaks down barriers between you or me and its subject. We get to know who Harvey Milk was, his kindnesses and tenacity, both terrific qualities in friends and public officials. We grow to love this guy through archival footage, and more importantly by how he had shaped the lives of everyone the filmmakers chose to speak with.

Why then is Harvey Milk still a relatively unknown figure? Why don’t we have a national Harvey Milk Day? Are there no politicians, gay or straight, with the balls to support such an honor? Would committing political suicide not be worth honoring the life of one man who died for making the world better for others?

Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)
Director: Rob Epstein
Writers: Judith Coburn, Rob Epstein & Carter Wilson
Stars: Harvey Fierstein (Narrator)
In English
Runtime: 90 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Inspector Bellamy (2009, Bellamy)

There’s a lot going on in Inspector Bellamy. What could have been a simple mystery instead layers multiple story threads, each working separately the way real life does, and in unison, creating a psychological portrait not just of its lead character but of the world he inhabits.

Inspector Bellamy is curious; about the machinations of life, the reasons why. He is on vacation with his beautiful, youthful wife Françoise, but cannot get away from what we assume is his passion: crime. A mysterious man shows up with a confession—he has killed someone. We know from the opening credits that a car has crashed off a cliff, killing—deforming—the driver. Television reports tell us the deceased man was not who everyone thought it would be. Instead of the insurance salesman who owned the car, the victim is an unknown, and the insurance salesman has attempted to defraud his company and is now in hiding. The man who visits Bellamy is in fact the missing man, at first under the thin alias of Noël Gentil but really Emile Leullet. Who is the dead man then, and why does Inspector Bellamy indulge Leullet in his late night confessions? Does he want to single-handedly solve a popular mystery for fame? For justice? His own curiosity? The answer comes after the climax which is less anti-climatic when viewing the film as a straight-forward mystery, but the reason for Bellamy’s indulgence allows us to understand his entire career as an inspector.

The story threads of Inspector Bellamy are slow in revealing themselves, but the film is more rewarding for it. In comes Bellamy’s brother, Jacques, handsome, young, a loser and a drunk. Bellamy and Jacques have a tense relationship, and Françoise is the mediator between them. But the more The Inspector discovers about the Leullet case the more he is convinced his life mirrors it, that his wife is having an affair.

I admit at first I was lost. That is to say so many small things were happening in short bursts that I did not know what the true story was. For example, characters are introduced who seemingly have no narrative purpose (they will not advance the mystery—this includes the brother character); there are too many convenient personal connections between unlikely characters, etc. It is lucky the film was directed by the seasoned professional Claude Chabrol and stars Gérard Depardieu. Depardieu especially leads an extraordinary cast through a series of twisting scenes with (at first) no purpose and succeeds in making them interesting, so even when I was lost I was not frustrated. Tensions are hinted at, maybe only suggested, by Chabrol, and little by little these present themselves as more menacing and complicated to the extreme.

Chabrol is known mostly as the French Master of Suspense, a moniker that does as much a disservice to him as it did to Hitchcock. Both filmmakers used a popular genre to convey personal interests and demons. Here Chabrol is concerned with being old and overweight, married to a beauty and feeling insecure. There is more, some of which I’m sure exist in my own reading of the film, but anything beyond a superficial telling of the plot is harmful. Things are more fun to discover on your own. But understand the thriller plot is merely the starting point for a personal film filled with character and insight and commentary. The final scene in court where Leullet’s lawyer defends him with a song is a kind of mocking sting at the absurdity of the judicial system which often feels as if it’s working for those who know how to circumvent it rather than for justice.

The film gives me renewed interest in Chabrol’s past films. I’ll admit to not being a fan. I’ve enjoyed his recent work and think Inspector Bellamy is his best effort since 2000, but his past masterpieces, laid during the infancy of the French New Wave, have always bored me. He seemed to me a pale imitator of Hitchcock’s, someone whose work felt more like cheap but brisk 70s American television. I noticed with Inspector Bellamy how this film, more than his other recent works, mirrors his earlier output, particularly Les biches. The machinations of the plot seem to service the dysfunction underneath, and with this renewed interest I may pick up again on Chabrol’s early career.

There isn’t much more for me to say. The film is entertaining and surprisingly subtle. I don’t want to talk about how the various subplots merge into the ultimate story being told, and beyond that the film can stand on its own. Being Chabrol’s final film and first collaboration with Depardieu, this is a film that doesn’t need my recommendation to endorse it.

Inspector Bellamy (2009)
(a.k.a. Bellamy)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Claude Chabrol and Odile Barski
Stars: Gerard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac and Jacques Gamblin
In French
Runtime: 110 minutes

IMDB link:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Revanche (2008)

Revanche is a film about biding time. The English translation is “revenge”, a rather abrasive title, but here is a film with a bank robbery, a murder and spying, where no one takes revenge. It is a story of intelligent people, not movie characters, and certainly not characters we’ve seen in typical genre pieces.

The inciting incident, that moment in storytelling that sets the plot in motion, takes place maybe 30 minutes into the film. This is the bank robbery and accidental death of the robber’s girlfriend. Before this, we’re introduced to five characters whose simple and jarring lives are fascinating as character studies, and who involve us immediately once the tragedy occurs. Alex is an ex-con working at a strip club. His Ukrainian girlfriend, Tamara, is a stripper and street hooker, and her boss has ambitions of using her to service high-class cliental in an exclusive apartment complex. This happens in Vienna, Austria, and outside in the country a quite police officer, Robert, and his loving wife mean no one any harm. Susanne and Robert suffered a miscarriage, and she frequently visits the house of Hausner, an elderly man looking after his farm. The film is guided by chance, and it is that Hausner is Alex’s grandfather. In an ordinary movie this would be contrived, but in Revanche, where time passes slowly and is filled with detail and the beauty of detail, this character that joins together two families that would otherwise never meet, is part of the meditation on the passing of time.

To save his love from a hellish life, Alex decides he will rob a bank. Tamara insists on staying in the car, even though she cannot drive and will have no part in the robbery. Also, Alex’s gun isn’t loaded. That’s important because Alex isn’t a bad guy. He was in prison for stealing, a crime no doubt but one that violates property and not human life. It is another robbery that leads to Tamara’s death: Alex’s easy getaway is interrupted by Robert, who is held at gunpoint until the cat gets away, and takes two shots at the tires. Tamara is accidentally killed.

The film is well made. That is an understatement. Director Götz Spielmann understands that his daring narrative depends on fleshing out the lives, the personalities, and the habits of his characters. When Alex takes refuge at his Grandfather’s farm, unaware that his too friendly neighbor is married to the man who killed his girlfriend, he chops wood for the old man. We all know either through experience or stories how wood is chopped. But through the course of Alex’s time in the country, hiding out and later planning on killing the cop once he discovers the connection, we examine through the action of the story how firewood is cut. First logs of wood are wheel-barrowed into the large farm with the giant saw. The saw is electrically powered; the logs are placed on a large cot connected to the side of the saw, and all Alex has to do is guide the cot up, and the saw slices the log. Two or three cuts get an entire log.

Then comes the manual labor. Alex chops the small logs into fours, into the firewood that will heat his Grandfather’s house in the winter.

Of course in a movie wood chopping isn’t in itself interesting. The act serves many functions: through Alex’s determination and exertion we know that he’s constantly thinking about Tamara. He watches every time Susanne comes to the farm looking for Grandfather Hausner. When Susanne happens upon Alex, their cold talk suggests a lot about their personalities. That director Spielmann uses the action of wood chopping not exactly as “business” but to express emotion, impotence, and as a visual representation of Alex’s methodical waiting is the mark of a fastidious filmmaker and an acute human observer.

Of course the characters surprise us in ways that are so rewarding. I don’t want to go into detail because the little revelations and nuances build to a rewarding experience and, as a viewer, not knowing how movie characters will react to their circumstances, being unable to predict things even after seeing hundreds of by-the-numbers thrillers, is very rare and so special. I’ll instead focus on the actors. There are great, natural performances from all five leads. Johannes Krisch as Alex and Ursula Strauss as Susanne are especially fascinating, or at least their characters’ relationship was very moving, unexpected, and kind of shitty, but in an understandable way. Krisch isn’t Brad Pitt or George Clooney, possible leads for an American version of this story; Krisch is handsome but ordinary. He has love handles and is losing his hair, and Strauss is attractive but not a debutant. These are real people who could pass unnoticed on the streets. As movie stars there’s nothing remarkable about them, but that is why they’re so effective. Johannes Thanheiser as the Grandfather is also brilliant, stubborn and old and unwilling to leave his farm for his own health. He plays his accordion, serenades a shrine to his dead wife, and goes to church every Sunday. This character is so moving in his tradition, and the film uses him as an anchor for its ideas and atmosphere. He waits, he observes, and so does the film.

The cop character, Robert, is also fascinating. He faces what might be considered a Kieslowskian dilemma: by chance, his being there after the robbery, aiming for a tire and shooting a woman, his remorse and psychological breakdown as a result of his actions, speak volumes about the mentality, fears, and humility of police officers. How do they feel when they shoot someone? Even if it’s a criminal, as human beings it must be ugly to kill a person. Most movie killers don’t care. Guns are fired and it’s as normal as stepping on chewing gum. I don’t want to constantly compare Revanche to other, lesser movies because it’s great on its own, but intelligent movies are so hard to come by these days.

The opening shot, indicative of disturbance—calm water shattered by something being thrown in—is mysterious and almost forgettable as a standard elliptical opening scene until it is answered late in the picture. What is thrown in is a gun, and the reason why is beautiful, so expressive of human understanding, relations, and forgiveness, and in a movie with no music, no shouting, no hysteria, it creates the perfect atmosphere for a film that leaves us with so much to think about.

Revanche (2008)
Director: Gotz Spielmann
Writer: Gotz Spielmann
Stars: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss and Johannes Thanheiser
In German and Russian
Runtime: 121 minutes

IMDB link: