“The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” What more apt headline for our times?

Any clip of film, or video, captured with hand-held cameras, or body-mount is, first and foremost, the document of the operator’s physical grace. In the movie “Birdman” an artist by the name of Chris Harhoff wore the Steadicam. His physical fitness, plus his brain’s command of eye, hand and foot, motored by his heaving, spirit-fueled frame, is built in to this entire film. By the way, did you realize it is that comic book hero Birdman that originates at the source of our omniscient point-of-view? The director and DP determined this to be the way to tell this tory most effectively. The most effective way was certainly not the easiest, in this case. Everyone involved pushed it to the max to pull off the real-time feel that “Birdman,” manages to put across.

It may be hard for us to imagine how skillfully the director and actors worked with the technicians, behind-the-scenes, to have their interactions weave in such fluid choreography. The finished product makes it look so easy. The action is made up of one single, seamlessly spun, high-charged, ever-shifting, travelling dialog sequence; from taboo romance, up on the roof of the theater, to the revolving door of actors constantly entering and exiting its stage and backstage, to the, hungover cheek-to-concrete reality-check, doggin’ Riggin Thomson in the street at the dawn of opening night day.

Riggin Thomson’s saga offers some comic relief for my own mid-life disonance. For dudes past fifty, this film’s main character achieves close to universal resonance. Boomers, most of us having physically peaked by this age, are doing some heavy reevaluating during our fifth and sixth decades. Here, this prima donna-past-his-prime’s life suddenly doesn’t look so different from mine. Poor Riggin. I have felt the same way as he, in front of my own reflection. Or, when he is shamed for not having a presence on Twitter.

Essentially, the movie allows us to eavesdrop, for three days, on the same lines of sight of this Birdman comicbook action character, who is following around this famous actor, Riggin Thomson, harassing him into making Birdman 4. Meanwhile, Riggin tries to rehabilitate himself as an artist by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway hit, adapted from a very serious piece of American lit. As it goes with pop media driven notoriety, the line between the man and the creature he’s impersonating is blurring.

But, to analyze all the themes that echo and fugue throughout “Birdman” would take a good many servings. Hither, brews a controversy over what constitutes art and who’s its authority. Yonder, weaves a crisis between preoccupied father and wounded daughter. Coincidentally, there is relevant comparisons to be made pertaining to our current quantum shift in politics. Fame was something Riggin Thomson uses to leverage a legitimate career in the American theater. Ironically, it turns out, the same trick gets entertainers into to politics.

I’m drawn back, once again, to that conspicuous phrase on Riggin’s dressing room mirror. A thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing. That almost identical quote spoken of in the previous post is attributed to the author JL Borges, “we may mention or allude to a thing but not express it.” His English translation of “Labyrinths” provides a cameo in “Birdman.” Ed Norton’s character clutches a copy while browning his skin under a tanning lamp. It’s the same book that the actor protects himself with, like a shield, against Riggin Thomson’s indignant slaps after a particularly bad rehearsal mishap. Among the many other conclusions one could draw from finding Borges embedded in Innaratu’s comic opus, we are confronted with two dazzling latin american intellects. And there are so many to chose from. Whether it be La Cucaracha, Carlos Santana, Montezuma or La Guadalupana, most of us whites in the United States, consciously or otherwise, have admired someone from Latin America. It’s an historic love affair, we share with the browner nations. You need proof? We like the Mexican so much so that we artificially tan our skin in imitation.

Iñarratu spins an ornately plotted web, like Borges did in his “Labyrinths”. For example La Escritura del Dios, is a six page short in “Labyrinths” that zooms out so fast, the end renders what went before as almost incidental. The ending of “Birdman – The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” seems to give us the same slip, when Riggin, instead of being pulled back into his life by his sudden, unimaginable success, is drawn beak-first, out the window, to the sky where, we assume, by following his daughter’s gaze, we’re tracking some newborn bird, trying out his new wings. His daughter chuckles, as the last scrap of dialog in the fade-to-black firmament of this film’s finale. It sounds positively carefree.

“we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it.” Jorge Luis Borges

“a thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing” Quote on Riggin Thomsen’s dressing room mirror.

The quote above  was fished out of the opening frames from this month’s flick. It announces the evening’s match up, ordinary reality vs. fame. Through that lens we’ll catch a glimpse of what the main character is aiming at and perspective for his transformation in the end. The subtitle of the movie is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” The question we must divine for ourselves is, whose ignorance? His, hers, or ours?

Forging onward in this series called “Films of Our Enemies,” we rack focus on a recent hit by a Hispanic that lots of us consider hip. But even if his films don’t meet your test, or if to equate ticket sales, with love, is too much of a stretch, his list of top awards alone shall amply attest, Antonio G. Iñaratu has made six outstanding features and each one exceeds the last.

I don’t know if he’s a US citizen now, or if Iñarratu’s work permit must constantly be renewed. He’s made movies here more than anywhere else, but Z Films, of which he is the founder, happens to be one of that country’s largest motion picture companies. As a result, cultural enrichment and monetary benefit are being appreciated on both sides of the border.

He was born, raised and made his name in Mexico City, yet we love this man and he loves us. His films have grossed over a quarter billion in the U.S. Are we going to resent this Mexicano working in our country when what he is creating such a win/win? Just as importantly, his artistry enjoys worldwide renown. Most importantly, while there has been all this talk of erecting a wall between us, Iñarratu’s work piles up reason-upon-reason to leave it down.

Iñarratu’s not some special case, no, not even close. We could dedicate years to extolling the virtues of Mexican artists and crafts persons working in el Norte since we became its host.  And their native ancestors made huge strides for all of us here before we arrived. While we watch this current, 21st century work of cinematic fine art, let’s be open to how Iñarratu’s craft makes us appreciate the entire collective soul and history of Latin America as part of what we call home.

We can’t just suddenly say to the Mexican people, ok, we’ve absorbed your artists, cuisine, sportsman, musicians, etc. Now, go away and leave us alone. There are things we couldn’t imagine living without that Mexico has bestowed on our country. Not just material things, I mean great veins of common sense, abundance of agreeable natures and motherloads of mindful routines, some kind of sweat equity that is handed down by people living in one place for generations.

People are the source of those riches. If you push away those people, the culture they left behind will disintegrate. It won’t be the same. Flavors will soon loose their taste. The thing will be lost that attracted us in the first place.

In his fifth film, “Birdman,” Iñarratu’s stature as a storyteller attains new heights, thanks to a gifted group of players and an infectiously out-of-the-box-office approach. It’s a dark comedy about art and fame paraded as a legit stage product (concealed in a hit screenplay). It’s a comic book hitched to a literary work, too, by the way. With its gag-on-gag pile-up, kinesthetic camera eye and impeccable, hectic pace, conventions of the “madcap” genre are fulfilled to the last frame, where they are, finally, literally, tossed out the window.

The director may be jabbing at the beast that made him millions, but mainly he takes aim at the flaws in all of us that breed and feast on fame. Witness that much and more, in this thundering, bounding, stalking, single-take fable of a down and out clown’s reincarnation, from dying blockbuster idol to avant-guardian angel, during the opening of a nerve-fraying Broadway debut.

From the opening cards, Antonio Sanchez’s shimmery, pressurized drum track becomes something reminiscent of the accompaniment to a high wire act. And that’s no accident. Almost everything about this production feels like a wildly timed stunt.

By the way, if you become intrigued as I did, with drummer Sanchez, dial in “Migration” (2007) combining Sanchez’s skills with the likes of Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Chris Potter and Christian McBride. He’s also done a bit of touring with the film, supplying the drum work live, in house. He’ll be bringing it at the Rafael Film Center on February 18, 2017. An experience not to be missed if you ever get the chance.

Back to the film, Sandoval makes maximum use of his kit to accompany Riggin Thomsen’s passage from epiphany to catastrophe and back in three acts. What better sound could back this acrobatic panic attack than a drummer, solo riffing, to the camera’s hyper-vigilant track?

This was a clever choice, pairing a single musical instrument with the single take stunt like this, providing combustive thrust to all the rest. Syncopations somehow help nail down the moment. Something seems to be constantly whipped into foment. The storyline turns on dime-after-dime, hilariously, as plot twist after plot twist, like so many gags, are set up on one beat and smacked home the next.

Extended talk sequences seem anything but long, covered as they are, like prizefights, bounding with camera feats and authentic fist-a-cuffs, both hand-held and locked-down, goosing it constantly with inventive pans, radical trucking shots, impossible push-throughs, soaring crane moves; all sorts of acrobatic treats for the eyes, punctuated by that irregular, punchy rumble, crash, addictive smack bam boom in the ears. This film is crammed with virtuoso cinematic stunts and tour de force slights of lens.

CONTINUES NEXT MONTH

On Keeping Friends Close and Enemies Closer

I’ve been feeling a need for a change of hemispheres for the next installment in this series on films of our enemies. This batch of dispatches has not been easy to write. It’s my intention not to offend anyone, but things discussed here can be taken for ways other than those intended. Even making the choice of which films are chosen for the series presents a challenge.

Who are our enemies? Terrorists are, we are taught, but terrorists come from all countries and cultures. I’m reviewing films from places that are our enemies in the eyes of the State. So I’m not the one picking sides, my government is. When I analyze films of our enemies, I’m looking for similarities more than differences. The message reinforced by all of them, as far as I’m concerned, is why can’t we be friends?

No matter where filmmakers aim their lens, the overwhelming impression is that people are people everywhere. For instance, why do we consider the thugs in this film our enemies? They appear on one hand as a potent threat, but the story invites us to look beneath appearances, so that we might even take pity on this gang of bloody Caracaqueños, sighting common enemies instead.

As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your foes closer. I was not up to date on which countries in this great, bulging planet my country’s most pissed at, so I scooped up a few low hanging statistics. There are other ways to distinguish a snake from a hiss, but “enemies of America” is something anyone could search the Internet for a list, so that’s what I did.

It goes without saying Russia and Iran are foreign countries that make American kids nervous. That Mexico is considered an enemy threat, I would not have guessed. One of our most trusted trading partners is a nemesis? The place where millions of us vacation every year, we have reason to fear? What more complicated world could there be?

Before my research, I thought surely Venezuela abided higher up the list of terrorist threats, at least, ever since the reign of Hugo Chavez. But, since he’s been out of office for a few years now, Venezuela is pretty far down, as far as risk to the US goes, according to the latest list.

Nonetheless, it makes sense to review “Sequestro Express,” in terms of criminal trends that pose potential threats to the U.S. Latin America has been more thoroughly integrated over the past several hundred years, in our culture, than the Muslim orient ever was. Religious extremists aside, what’s to stop extortionists and racketeers from places like Caracas from working their way up here, if their precious cocaine trade were to disappear.

Caracas is been ranked the world’s most violent place. A hundred violent deaths a day is not uncommon. By contrast, Chicago just recently set an extreme trend with 50- some in one particular weekend. Does that make the average Venezuelan my enemy? I doubt it. The worst character in this sordid drama could be part of a barbarian invasion or just some unlucky bloke acting out his frustration while coming under increasing economic strangulation. One of the things that shocked me in this film is the way the nihilism of the urban youth in capitalist America seems so exaggerated against the backdrop of socialist Venezuela.

The majority of drugs that leave Columbia are consumed in Venezuela. I learned that on the director’s commentary track as well. Things began to deteriorate there with an epic demand for narcotics in the US began to swell. Nevertheless, like gas, cocaine is not a high profit trade on the streets down there. Both cost about a twentieth what it does here. so kidnapping is where the money is. It’s like nab or be nabbed down there, I guess. Now, watch this movie and ask how does someone stuck in that economy steer clear of that mess?

The film’s outlook is so bleak, in terms of where the story begins and ends, I think escaping through one’s art was the best alternative director Jonathan Jakubowicz would able to come up with. Of course, not everyone can do what he did.

It’s such a human trait to undertake drastic measures when pressed. I’m composing this series to prove that the majority of us act for the common good, naturally, whenever we’re inspired to do our best. Each one of these films, in its own way, has proposed that decent folks, under too much stress, on the other hand, can be turned into kooks, leaving wreck and ruin behind to the rest.

Films like this place the sicknesses of society under a magnifying glass. Subjects reviewed on Open Channel Content are chosen to alert and inspire individual to invent remedies for whatever ills become exposed in filming these stories.

Seventh Richest Realm Blues

My initial reaction to “Sequestro Express” was revulsion. I came away with a sense of dead-end dread. After it was over, I had to go search the web for something positive about poor Venezuela. And it wasn’t difficult, especially considering their abundant rainfall feeding the rivers Orinoco and Negro.

The geographic region of Venezuela is the seventh most bio-diverse on earth. What a mother lode of security against uncertain times that is. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Long after resources run out here, they will flow in earth’s seventh richest realm.

Another somewhat less well-known gem is that the state-run gas monopoly practically gives energy away to the citizens of that country. To fill your gas tank in Caracas costs nickels and dimes. I learned this from listening to the director’s commentary track ( included with some supplemental material found on the “Sequestro Express” DVD). Not that I support the expansion of carbon economies, but for the natural resources be treated as if they belong to everyone sounds fair to me.

Likewise, everyone acknowledges Venezuelans are a country renowned for their physical beauty. This is owed to a particularly richly diverse racial fusion. Caucasian bloodlines make up only about forty percent of its population, suggesting pure white, if there ever was such a thing, is hardly attractive by itself.

A brief Wikipedia investigation turned up another nugget. There exists this bizarre meteorological phenomenon, in a land of eternal storm, at the mouth of a river where it flows into a lake. Nowhere else on the planet, supposedly, does lightening strike so consistently than in this place. Titanic storms resound through the clouds and pound the ground, day in and out , for weeks on end. It must be one of the modern wonders. Who can imagine a more shocking plot of land? So now we have something completely different that we can zoom out to for perspective, to maintain an appreciation of that distant country, whose political ideologies clash so much with the US.

 

Allow me to digress momentarily. I’d like to hit pause and praise the people that help purvey rare and fine films to the public. These are the somewhat invisible agents in the supply chain such as distributors, projectionists, video storeowners and festival programmers. They deserve a fair share of credit for the education we’ve received from watching fine films.

I picked up “Sequestro Express” at Video Library, Santa Fe’s last picture show, where one can still rent movies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. Its proprietress, Lisa Harris has helped elevate the minds of her fellow humans with her curatorial savvy for over 35 years.

Thanks to her impeccable taste in foreign films, we have spent all summer looking at cinematic masterpieces from Muslims.  Last year we were treated to seven great ones from one Soviet socialist. Another while back we watched thirteen of the finest Sci-Fi movies of all time. I rented most of them from Lisa Harris. Thanks Lisa for the many fine movie-watching experiences Video Library has helped provide.

Getting back to our movie, the three main obsessions in “Sequestro Express” are crime, cocaine, and Caracas. At least on the surface, this seemed like just one more gangster film not able to hold my interest. If you’ve read my posts, you know my threshold for brutality is low. Images of violence toward women are particularly not my taste. Even though I know it is cooked up just for the camera, it still won’t digest.

The scenario in this movie was so disturbing I had to turn it off after ten minutes. It made me afraid this hideous crime that’s recently taken hold in some low latitude metropolis thousands of miles to the south of here might actually be coming to a neighborhood near me real soon. Despite this, I was determined to feature a Venezuelan title this month in this series on films of our enemies, and there turned out to be so precious few from that northernmost South American nation, I eventually slid this one back in to the player and gave it another glance.

We will continue with Venezuela’s “Sequestro Express,” in the next post…

Big Wheels Keep on Turning

“You leave us with the consequences.” Suha pleads for forbearance and calm. Said kisses her then flees on foot, flitting from life, like a moth toward a flame.

“Paradise Now,” is a best foreign language Oscar winning film. Whatever people want to say in critique of the lack of diversity evident in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards celebration, that this film took away a statue, bears witness what an enlightening influence such an august institution can still have on mass consciousness from time to time.

These films we’ve viewed this summer live and breathe the daily life of the Muslim, none more so that this one. Strip away the wall in the Holy Land, if you can. Life looks surprisingly similar to the average American, shocking as that sounds. No wonder Said’s interactions with his family at home remind me of codes and customs my puritan grandparents practiced in the mid nineteens when I was still at home.

Every film in the past five titles we’ve discussed, acknowledges the ubiquity of traditional ways in the Middle East and beyond. Long practiced, tried and true, certain codes are deeply embedded, but there is a global quantum leap to be made too, ejecting paralyzing agendas.

Materialism is one modern trend, for example, that Muslims try hard to resist in these films. Can we show some respect and not shove it in their faces? You can’t blame orthodox folk for not wanting their sons sporting corporate tattoos on their necks, nor watch their daughters to be strutting fashion runways from the moment they can walk. That stroke of modesty alone should not make them outcasts. It’s hip to be square. It seems evident, by watching these Muslim films that they’d rather not become rotten with the same insatiable lust for stuff in which they observe so much of the first world caught up. What shall we take home from this? The immature response to have would be to make war on them for daring to not be like us. On the other hand,we could stand to reevaluate our relationship to stuff.

Militaries repeatedly keep being deployed here and there to make the world safer for corporations to do business, while often making it more hazardous for the rest of us. One inevitable consequence of iron rule, once it sets in, seems to be, sooner or later it becomes a matter of honor to resist. Much of this has been discussed in previous weblogs on Open Channel Content, such as our series on Sci-Fi. Revolution is like trying to align an earthquake with a hurricane. Mother earth eventually beats everyone. In a world ruled by war, everything is always finding a balance of its own. No one can control it, no matter what. It won’t either be rushed nor slowed down once its been embarked upon, so why be so hasty to be always throwing down?

The endgame of this unsettling tragedy is envisioned unflinchingly, with a masterful tracking shot pushing in, invincibly, like death itself, zeroing in on Said’s transfigured gaze. An explosive chunk of intelligent meat sits there, fit as a flute, in the rear of a bus where he’s somehow gotten himself immersed with a batch of fresh, young recruits. They look like soldiers to us, but in Israel, because of their age, they are looked upon more like first and second year college kids are here; remember, every kid in Israel is committed to serve in the military for two years.

A uniformed boy and a girl sit close together across from Said on a public conveyance. They are flirting. The vengeful, solo, self-crucifixion Said is about to undertake will undoubtedly inflict that budding young romance with the same fate.

Which makes so much sense, since love is the other great treasure Said forfeits along with his life, in this script. If his physical body is his public sacrifice, his relationship with Suha is his private one. As good a reason as any to explain why the last thing we hear on the soundtrack is a girl’s laugh. What could be a better send off and what better way to convey all that Said is throwing away, in that penultimate frame, before the screen goes blank?

 

Compassion cracks the shell of hand-me-down prejudice

 

The film discussed in the next two posts is from the Middle East. With the assistance of global cinema a we descendent of immigrants living in the US, such as myself, can acquire compassion for a flat-broke Palestinian youth living under occupation in the Holy Land. The film may be a commentary on the downstream consequences of genocide. It is also a buddy flick. The action might be described as the confrontation of a terrorist by a feminist or, the makings of a great love story gone to waste.

In contacting compassion for its desperate anti-hero, I do not condone what he ends up doing. The splash of compassion this movie solicits is not about giving a free pass to a jackass. It is merely a baby step toward understanding how a young man turns into one in the first place. None of what I say about him is intended to excuse what he does, but after hearing him make his case, no wonder its a death wish.

In the opening scene of Hany Abu-Hassad’s “Paradise Now” (2005), Suha, an alert, young Palestinian woman pauses in a crossroad and stares at a boarder checkpoint. She’s stradeling a modern day war zone. On this side of the fence it’s a seaside metropolitan city, the other has been reduced to a massive, concrete, tossed salad, from being relentlessly pounded on by a first rate war machine.

Smartly attired Suha strides up to a heavily defended tunnel. This border crossing turns out rather revealing. A guard standing back a couple yards raises his rifle and hooks his finger to the trigger.  She’s crossing back to Palestine, mind you, not trying to get out. Yet, before being readmitted she must hand over her bag and passport to a soldier outfitted for combat.

The soldier’s hungry gaze never lets up, except when pawing through the clothes in her bag. He checks her visa and discreetly plays a little game with her upturned palm, slapping her passport down a touch later than anticipated, disrupting the rhythm of their routine.

He thinks she’s hot. She’s chill; her gaze becomes impregnable. Ironic, is it not? How erotic interest temporarily overwhelms his prejudice. Can such notions of unreconcilable divisions make any sense at all if overlooked conveniently for the sake of sex?

Once she has cleared the fence, the day to day reality in which Suha is pressed to seek refuge could not be better described than Armageddon. That presumes you know the old stories. That crossroads and tunnel echo each other, drawing attention to symbolic potential. Couldn’t it ironically represent the birth canal of the laboring woman in the last book of the bible, at the mouth of which the dragon hovers ready to devour?

Suha is just passing through that day, a sample citizen, one of millions that clings to their ancestral home, despite an utter absence of calm. No matter what the spiritually minded young man in this story does from here on, regardless of the viewpoint we lean toward, or which consequence of his actions holds most significance to us, this film is about a young woman alive today in the Holy Land preaching non-violence in an ultra-violent place.

After Suha’s border crossing, the emphasis of the action on screen shifts to her friend Said. But the story  always belongs to Suha and by extension, the story  always remains ours. What happens to us? How does leaving a mess for the rest of us accomplish anything but more disgrace?

Suha is not the protagonist. Said, her love interest, is. So why are we introduced to her in such a loaded setting, in the opening sequence of a story if it were meant to be about him? Could be a statement about the impotence of the terrorist. If martyrs are moths, we follow this one to learn what consumes this one in flames and the other one, not. Yet the moral of the story doesn’t seem to be about some prized outcome gained at ultimate cost. But much more about who gets left behind and what gets lost.

The unravelling of Said’s life begins like this. He and his best friend hit a social and economic cul-de-sac. Getting sacked at a junkyard Palestine. It doesn’t get much lower than that. Still, in a different story all together it could have signaled a major turn around for Said when Suha comes to to fetch her car. Said applies sweet talk, suggesting she drive off in an Alfa Romeo instead. Suha extracts the essence of romance from Said and rejects all the rest.“Actually, I don’t care about cars, but the name sounds nice. Alfa Romeo.” Note the anti-materialist stance.

The scene ends with a subtle foreboding of what’s to come. “Will I see you again?” she asks? He answers, “En Shallah,” on account of his pending suicide, although she doesn’t know about it yet. “If God wills” is the translation; the significance behind those words, she can not help but underestimate, at this point. That will soon change. Her father was a martyr. Once she suspects Said’s intent, she’ll argue against it.

“There are other ways to resist than by sacrificing one’s life,” she insists. He claims to be already dead, thanks to his father, who was executed as a collaborationist.

Anyway, Suha’s and Said’s romance becomes stranded, before it can go anyplace, when Said’s religious advisor appoints him to blow himself up in enemy’s face. That story is all too familiar. It has become a regular occurrence in the news these days. I must shy away from descriptions like tragic romance or hero’s journey to explain acts of religiously sanctioned hate.

Multiple viewings of this film are warranted. From our comparatively privileged perspective, the precariousness of these peoples’ predicament is perplexing to say the least. Yet, given the human face this movie paints, it is hard to call those folk “enemy,” except for the kooks of course.

Kooks are the enemies of peace. Other than that, pretty much everywhere I search, it’s what folks want. Avert your eyes from the young lads being groomed to be terrorists, in this flick, and look between the lines. Witness ordinary poor and middle class folks going about their business under severe stress.

In “Paradise Now,” racism wreaks havoc in all directions. Everyone’s a victim. Hand me down prejudices threaten to perpetually poison that part of the world and there is more than enough blame to go around. What perverse indulgence prevents us from cultivating common ground?