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by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place.

After seeing some astonishing footage of divers under the massive ice flows of the South Pole, filmmaker/provocateur Werner Herzog decides to visit the desolate continent to see the wonders of Antarctica firsthand. He soon discovers that the pristine mountains and overwhelming snow banks house an eclectic group of drifters, scientists, and individuals simply looking to escape from the so-called civilized world. There’s the former businessman who now drives a huge transport bus. There’s the biologist making his last dive ever. There’s the linguist whose PhD was destroyed when superstition literally forced the language he was studying to become extinct, and the researcher whose spent most of her life hitchhiker around the planet. In between we get breathtaking looks at the Antarctic vistas, an insider guide to McMurdo Station, and enough classic Herzog philosophizing to put everything in ethereal perspective.

Leave it to Werner Herzog to take the mainstream memory most have of the wintery landscape of Antarctica and purposely piss all over it. As part of his remarkable motion picture, Encounters at the End of the World, the aggressive auteur finds a hermetic penguin expert and proceeds to deconstruction the entire March of the Happy Feet myth. “Are there gay penguins?” he asks, curious if these loveable little family film icons are “depraved” and “amoral” at heart. When the scientist sits back, stunned, he jumps into another line of attack. “Are there insane penguins?” he chides, some future footage suggesting that a few of these birds go off their nut and chase imaginary oceans far away from their breeding and feeding grounds. This is typical of Encounters. As with most of what he does, Herzog takes his title quite literally.

It’s the same when he meets a journeyman maintenance man who proclaims his Aztec/Incan heritage, his elongated rib cage and oddly matching middle and index fingers providing the proof of lineage. Instead of focusing on his job as part of the continent’s community, he simply lets the man marvel at his possible regal heredity. Elsewhere, a former prisoner from “behind the Iron Curtain” shows off his combination adventure/survival kit. Weighing no more than 20 kilos, it contains everything from food, a tent, and a sleeping bag, to an inflatable raft and a paddle. “I am always prepared,” he claims, asking Herzog to stop filming so he can get his pack back together before he’s “called” off on another incredible journey.

With its focus firmly on the individuals inhabiting this massive slab of ice and frozen soil, many may think that Herzog misses the point of Antarctica’s inherent grandeur. But all throughout Encounters at the End of the World, the filmmaker finds images that actually reflect back on the people we meet, and help us make the connection between their apparent eccentricities and the reasons they stay so far from the rest of civilization. During the final dive of a noted researcher, we see a stunning alien underworld, ocean floor riddled with sci-fi sea life and other jaw-dropping discoveries. Discussions of a nearby glacier also prove awe-inspiring, as the sheer size and scope of the flow confounds common thought.

This is not new terrain for Herzog. He is the king of taking private passions and obsessions and juxtaposing them against the actual elements the characters inhabit. Here, a pair of scientists celebrate a major discovery by playing blues-based rock-n-roll at maximum volume, their outdoor concert sweeping across the vast flat white locale. Yet when a group of visitors are forced into a two day survival camp to test their wilderness mantle, we see them struggle to complete the most basic backwoods techniques. Herzog argues in the film that it’s a crime for places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest to be stained by human interaction. To him, some places in nature deserve to stay untouched, though he also acknowledges that, nowadays, that’s next to impossible.

So in some ways, Encounters at the End of the World is Herzog’s time capsule for a continent rapidly changing. While exploration and education are still the area’s leading lures, many are now trying out their South sea legs in a mad gasp to see those fuzzy flightless birds that made their Animal Planet viewing so satisfying. “Global Warming exists” argues one particular interview subject, the serious look on their face ready to circumvent any argument from Northern Hemisphere blowhards. As a document to a land pre-exploitation and the people vowing to preserve - or at the very least, understand it, this is yet another definitive documentary in Herzog’s infamously feathered cinematic cap. As with much of his work, he takes an unconventional approach to get the obvious last word on a subject. The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational malaise.

When he’s stricken with Scarlett Fever, 15 year old Michael Berg is inadvertently helped by an unassuming German woman who works as a conductor on the streetcar. As he mends, he slowly becomes obsessed with his memories of the enigmatic lady. It’s not long before he’s spying on her, skipping school to visit her apartment. Michael and Hanna soon begin an affair, their 21 year difference is age meaning very little to their passion. After a summer of lust and literature, she disappears, leaving her young lover heartbroken. All Michael has left is his memories of lazy afternoons in Hanna’s flat, she asking to be read to before they can fulfill their carnal desires.

Years later, while in law school, Michael attends a series of War Crime Tribunals, and there he learns that Hannah is a defendant. Seems she was one of several prison guards who selected victims for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The woman he slept with was an integral part of the Final Solution. Destroyed by the revelation, Michael must face a serious crisis of conscience. He has information that could actually help Hanna’s case. But his former paramour is unapologetic in her confession, and considering the monstrosity of her acts, Michael assumes his silence is more than justified.

In an awards season that has suddenly embraced the Shoah as a selling point, The Reader is not really interested in the extermination of the Jews. Sure, the film focuses on Hanna Schmidt’s ‘only following orders’ admissions, the rampant carnality of her character early on suddenly tainted with the blood of an entire ethnicity later on. In author Schlink’s own words, he wanted Hanna’s earthy sexuality to stand in direct contradiction to her concentration camp cruelty. But somewhere along the line, director Daldry and screenwriter David Hare lost this concept. Indeed, all throughout their version of The Reader, important storytelling elements inherent in the book’s magic are all but missing. Without getting into detail, everything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his approach is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.

Aside from the fact that she’s a mother of two, there is no longer anything “brave” about this actress bearing all for a movie role. Ever since she dropped blou for co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the accomplished British thesp has had a hard time keeping her knickers on. Here, her Hanna is a quasi-pedophile who sees a strapping young lad hopped up and happy to oblige, and she immediately takes him to bed. Only later, once his adolescent hormones are good and engorged does her true tact become clear. Hanna needs Michael as a conduit to the written world. As someone who cannot read and write, she will gladly trade sex for an oral workout of a decidedly different kind. While David Kross does his best messed-up horndog hero, the duo’s love scenes have a static, unsympathetic aura.

By following Schlink’s strategies (the book is divided into three distinct parts), Daldry also runs the risk of making one section more important than the others. And with the number of nude scenes we see up front, it’s clear where his motion picture proclivities lie. The bedroom romps take up so much time here that, when we see Hanna is on trial for being a “model employee” of the Reich, the film has to rush through the realities. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the crimes committed, but all we see of the horrors is Michael’s solitary walk through of a closed camp. Even worse, the entire courtroom drama is dispensed with post haste, the quicker to get to Ralph Fiennes and the mandatory montages of moping about and recording books for an imprisoned Hanna to listen to.

The last act of The Reader is perhaps the biggest overall disappointment. In the book, Hanna becomes aware on her own, using Michael’s tape recorder and cassettes as a means of learning to read. After running through a litany of survivor literature, she realizes her place in history - and how truly terrible it is. In Daldry’s world however, this gray haired old lady spends time revisiting the classics she loved during her summer of love with Michael. There is no real measure of contrition, no acknowledgment of blame or long lasting culpability on her part. Her fate seems silly, almost tossed off as an after thought. Everything thereafter is clouded by a similar lack of clarity. Even Fiennes’ last act mea culpa with a woefully unexplained Lena Olin plays like a PC postscript for a viewership unaware of the whole Nazi/Jew “thing”.

In fact, much of The Reader misinterprets Schlink’s motives for trying to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Instead of concentrating on what current generations think, the film wants to focus on young passion and the suffering that comes from secrets. Winslet and Fiennes both acquit themselves admirably (though she actually deserves more praise for her clothed role in Revolutionary Road than anything she does here), and Daldry does an excellent job with tone, time period, and details. On its own, however, The Reader doesn’t make much sense. As a drama, it’s dull. As a reflection of the original source material, it’s a sadly mistake miscalculation.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn today.

As a closeted middle aged man in Manhattan, Harvey Milk is desperate for something better. After meeting up with future companion Scott Smith, the decision is made - they will both travel to San Francisco, where the Castro District is buzzing with growing gay pride. While still the subject of horrible homophobia, Milk’s corner camera store becomes a powerbase for a new kind of revolution - one surrounding human rights and their proper preservation. After running for elected office several times - and losing - Milk finally benefits from some redrawn districts. He is soon the first openly gay politician holding significant office in the United States. Unfortunately, his orientation and lack of political savvy put him in direct conflict with cowardly conservative Dan White. It’s a clash that will end in tragedy.

So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.

Van Sant also illustrates the normalcy surrounding the crazed Castro, avoiding much of the scandal and sex games (bathhouses and discos are mentioned, but not visited) to show that Milk managed to attract thoughtful, appreciative people into his fold. James Franco is excellent as Smith, the true love of Harvey’s hectic life (and the one sacrifice necessary for the man to push forward). There is such warmth in the performance that the same sex scenes of romance become organic, not off-putting. Emile Hirsch also puts on the mince as a very fey and very frank escort who ends up as one of Milk’s main supporters. The rampant stereotyping in the film is easily forgiven, since Van Sant is merely recognizing kinds, not arguing that they were the only elements of San Francisco’s scene.

It’s no surprise, however, that the two strongest turns come from our two main players. Sean Penn disappears so completely into the role of Harvey Milk that we occasionally have to shock ourselves into remembering that we are not watching a documentary. There is no mannerism in the performance, no obvious attempts at acting. Instead, with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his tired eyes, he brings the myth maverick back down to Earth, infusing him with a spirit that’s infectious and endearing. We root for this man just as much as the people who elected him to office, and when the unfortunate end comes, we feel the pain just as much as they do.

But it’s Josh Brolin who has the much harder role as family man turned murderer Dan White. While clearly unhinged about some element of his life, Van Sant does a wonderful job of establishing motive outside the obvious homophobic approach. White is seen as a limited success, someone shuttled aside rather conveniently to make room for Milk’s rapid ascension. His projects are put off, and when he tries to rally support to stop certain policies, he often ends up on the short end of the stance. When California votes to repeal certain protections for homosexuals (yes, Prop 8 is nothing new in the state’s history), White is on the losing side of the outcome, and this puts him on a collision course with fate. Brolin shows us the slow burn and the phony façade. We know he will crack, and we’re afraid of how calm he’ll be when he finally does.

In Van Sant’s capable hands, history is reflected alongside fiction, moments of made-up interpersonal tensions underscoring the rising anger in the gay community. If there is a weak link among the main characters, it’s the second half arrival of Diego Luna as Jack Lira, a thickly accented Spaniard that becomes obsessed with Milk. Hanging onto his lover like a wounded whelp and complaining about unimportant things like dinner times and a “lack of fun”, he’s the fifth wheel amongst a group of concerned, caring activists. But thanks to the brilliance in Penn’s performance, and the way in which Van Sant systematically deconstructs the time, the place and the positions, Milk remains masterful. It’s the kind of smart, sensitive biography that does the subject and his spirit proud.

And yet the real question remains - why, in 2008, is the issue of gay rights seemingly back at square one? Why, in a nation that apparently embraces multiculturalism and ethnic diversity so openly and easily, are we still using sexuality and orientation as a means of making distinctions between protected classes? Milk argues that the God squad are the cause of all the clamor, and he was/is right. But apparently time was all the Jesus gang needed to turn the clock back to the dismal dark ages. Thirty years later, Harvey Milk remains a monumental political figure. That society has since rejected his rational call to arms speaks as much for his import as the lack of such leadership now.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.

When he was accepted into St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, Principal Sr. Aloysius thought that black student Donald Muller would be a problem. But she thought the issues would be between the boy and some bigoted students. But one day, after meeting up with Fr. Flynn in the rectory, Donald returns to newcomer Sr. James’ class with liquor on his breath. He’s also upset and shaken. Bringing her concerns to Sr. Aloysius, the old nun suspects the worst - that Fr. Flynn has been “inappropriate” with the boy. But there is a clear hierarchy within the Catholic Church, and even though she runs the school, Sr. Aloysius cannot confront the priest directly. When her discussions with the higher up become confrontational and contentious, the Sister seeks the advice of Donald’s hardworking mother. What she discovers puts everything into perspective while casting uncertainty on every element in the story - Donald’s motives, Fr. Flynn’s explanations, and Sr. Aloysius’s pursuit of both.

Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact. In his knotty, ambiguous narrative, John Patrick Shanley shuns outright pronouncements for questions left unanswered and plot threads purposefully left hanging. The characters all exhibit the title tendency, though some avoid it until the very last scene and lines of dialogue. And yet Shanley wants to push the interactive envelope further, suggesting the film (like his play) is actually a work in two of three acts. The final segment comes once the credits roll and the audience heads home to discuss. There will be lots of investigation and interpretation about Doubt‘s finale, especially in light of our passive-aggressive predatory view of backdoor religious dealings. But whether or not we convict the individuals at the center of the story is not the key to Doubt‘s dilemma. What it says about us as human beings may be the movie’s most devastating statement.

Molestation and homosexuality are at the center of Shanley’s themes, but per the early ‘60s backdrop, both are held in hush-hush communicative contempt. Sister Aloysius responds to every rejoinder about her accusations with a standard “you know what I’m saying”, and even when another character calls out her own son’s situation, words like “gay” are never spoken. Without spoiling much, the crux of Doubt‘s plotline asks us to figure out why an older man would favor a younger, sensitive black child. There is no mention of sex or orientation, no evidence of wrongdoing except for the telltale odor of alcohol on the child’s breath. Everything is rumor and innuendo, past indiscretions and the appearance of impropriety dropped into a fog of unproven allegations and misunderstood motives. When the movie ends, we have even less clarity than during the stunning confrontations between nun and priest.

If it offers anything clear and apparent, it’s the hardworking grandeur of Streep and Hoffman’s performances. Amy Adams is left out of many of the main arguments, and while missed, it’s a good guess that she’d have a hard time holding her own here. Both of these able Oscar winners bring so much passion, so much anger, so much emotion to their tet-a-tet’s that we wish the entire film was nothing but debates. Shanley’s writing is focused and firm, never giving away too much without flying off onto unimportant tangents. As Fr. Flynn slowly realizes what Sr. Aloysius is suggesting, the look of hurt and hatred in Hoffman’s eyes is unforgettable. Equally, Streep sells us on her old school view of the world. She’s not really as mean as she makes herself out to be. Instead, her hardness comes from a life of loss, and the stone cold strength of her convictions. She knows she is right, and so far, nothing has proven her wrong.

Going back to Shanley’s own suggestion about Doubt being divided into three distinct parts, it’s obvious that sections one and two are the most potent. The beginning of the film takes a while to find its cinematic sea legs. We stumble around among various disconnected events, young boys being bad as their female classmates are read the standard religious riot act about “improper” dress and attitudes toward boys. One guesses we are supposed to see Flynn’s progressive nature and Sr. James discomfort with her order’s discipline based decision making in these sequences. But it’s only when Hoffman handles his character’s amazing sermons that we see any symbolic link to the rest of Doubt‘s designs. Perhaps the incompleteness comes from Shanley’s need to open up the play for the big screen. Maybe he underestimated the power of his last act affronts.

There will be some who see the ending as a massive, mannered cop-out. They will want closure, a consensus as to who or what was the boogie man in the closet (or out, so to speak) and hear someone say something to ease their easily manipulated and Dateline driven mind. Part of the success of Doubt onstage must have come from Shanley’s shadowy avoidance of finality, giving those callous contemporary theatergoers a dose of their own narrow minded medicine. The narrative makes it very clear that Flynn could be a victim here, a would-be non-warlock in a witch hunt, so to speak. Yet nothing within the final fifteen minutes suggests that kind of purity. Indeed, the best thing about Doubt could be the fact that everyone is guilty - either of over reacting, or not reacting at all. And don’t be surprised if you feel equally culpable when all is said and done.

by PopMatters Staff

11 Dec 2008

Dedicated fans drove over ninety minutes from Providence to see Mike Doughty perform at Hamden, Connecticut’s The Space for it was the closest show to their city. Doughty was formerly the front man of Soul Coughing, a unique ‘90s alternative band that, like Cake, was hard to categorize as the songs often contained jazz elements and absurd lyrics. While still with the band, Doughty recorded tracks that he would later release as Skittish (his debut solo LP) after the band’s breakup. Since going solo, Doughty has consistently toured the country playing acoustic shows and has also released a handful of albums, EPs, and live recordings, building up his loyal following. While still performing acoustically, Doughty has been touring with his friend, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, who provided backup on cello and electric guitar. They continue to captivate audiences with their intimate performances and, at least in Hamden, also answered audience questions from a jar.

Over the course of his 21-song set, Doughty almost covered his entire career, including a few hits from the three Soul Coughing albums (“Soft Serve” and “Janine”), a cover (Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”), and songs from his solo albums, plus a new one called “Nectarine Part II”. However when someone asked him to play songs from his even earlier days (Mod Five? though no reference is found on the internet), he did not remember any but was astonished that someone knew those works.

Unifying rollicking guitar strumming with flowing singing, Doughty creates genuinely catchy tunes. With his quirky and sometimes personal lyrics, he is also a very literate singer-songwriter as well. (Though, during “Unsingable Name”, Doughty forgot some lyrics, asked for someone to remind him what they were and then laughed as he proceeded to trip over them again.) Over the nearly two hour show, the audience’s enthusiasm was remarkably high, though a particularly boisterous woman caused consternation by shouting during almost every break. Fortunately, she was silenced after someone loudly acknowledged her as the girl in back who won’t shut up.

Interspersed throughout the songs was a question and answer segment, per Scrap’s request that the audience write some and place them in a jar. Some people wrote song requests such as the oddball “More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle” that Doughty rejected (probably because it contains samples) while others inquired about any possible Soul Coughing reunions. He was often asked about his favorites: candy (grape Laffy Taffy); poem (Alan Dugan’s This Morning Here); and his musical heroes (John Lee Hooker, Billy Bragg, and Ani DiFranco). While Doughty switched guitars, he let Scrap take a stab at the questions and by the end, the two had emptied the jar. All things considered, Mike Doughty is an artist who truly can become a fan’s favorite due to his good shows, catchy music, liberal taping policy, genuine friendliness, and witty humor.

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