[11 September 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
Canada/UK—Dir. Deepa Mehta
I read Salman Rushdie’s much-admired, multi-award-winning masterpiece Midnight’s Children about 12 years ago while on a trip through Laos. I recall being stunned into a kind of page-turning reverie. This was a book that managed to overlay elements of political satire, magical realism, cultural history, religious parable, and human drama into a hugely entertaining (if enormous and complicated) mosaic. It is an experience you remember, reading that book. Such a shame that one cannot say the same for the film adaptation.
This is a story that defies a brief summary, but let’s allow that it is the tale of a baby, switched at birth, who is born at the stroke of midnight, August 15th 1947, and thus at the very instant that India gained her independence from Great Britain. As the boy matures, he discovers that he has the unique ability to gather all of the other children born during that momentous hour into a kind of dream-state colloquium. His life, it becomes clear, is entangled with the very idea of a free India, and as he matures he finds himself bound up with both the creation of Pakistan, the war that leads to the founding of Bangladesh, and the subsequent repression under Ghandi in the 1970s.
Despite working from a script by Rushdie himself, and finding what should have been the ideal director in Canada’s Deepa Mehta (herself, like Rushdie, a complicated and controversial political figure in her birth country), this film makes the multifaceted nature of the source material feel like an impediment, rather than the rich resource it should have been.
Too complex by half, this is one of those rare two-and-a-half hour films that should have been much longer. Characters fly by without being properly developed. Important scenes that should have been filled out to pull us into the moment are left half-full, as are we. While the movie rushes through hundreds of pages of what was increasingly complex plot and contextual explication, the audience grows weary. Divorced (mostly) from the triumphant oddball narrator that drives so much of the novel, we are left to watch episode after episode as they pile up, but don’t stick together.
On the page, the magical elements—the whole “Midnight’s Children” thing, of course, but also the way that during Indira Ghandi’s infamous “State of Emergency” in the 1970s the sky literally turns dark, for years—seemed perfectly integrated. On screen, they feel increasingly like a tacked-on device, a kind of crutch. The film, in other words, fails a very basic test of adaptation: it makes almost no sense to one who hasn’t first read the novel. Though some of the performances (especially by the excellent child actors) are compelling, and the scenery and set design is often breathtaking, this feels overall like an epic film that has been compressed beyond all reason.
The Central Park Five
USA—Dir. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Ken Burns has made a name for himself as the dean of documentary film in the United States by tackling grand historical subjects and providing us with a sweeping, worthy history of their significance to American cultural life. Think Jazz, The Civil War, Baseball, The National Parks. Here, working with Sarah Burns and Jim McMahon, although the work is on a smaller scale, the themes and implications remain huge, profound, central to the broad sweep of American social history.
Offering a slow, careful, forensic examination of the case for the innocence of the so-called “Central Park Five”—the group of black and Latino teenagers who were railroaded and wrongfully convicted in the 1989 rape and attempted murder of the “central park jogger”—this is not easy viewing. But it sure feels like it should be required viewing.
As the five men variously recall the night they were arrested, the way they were bullied by police into confessions, and their horror upon discovering that they had been condemned by a complicit press corps, we can only watch. We, powerless, observe as they are found guilty, despite the absurdly thin evidence against them—none of their five confessions matched up on key details (including location, and method), none of their DNA was found on the scene, none of them had any clear motive—and we come to understand that, in the words of one historian of the trial: “We’re not very good people. And we’re often not.”
Recalling such classics of the police-frame-up documentary genre as Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line—indeed, repeated shots of cigarettes burning down and ticking clocks during the interrogations seems lifted from his stylized playbook—is hardly innovative filmmaking. But, when the result is a lucid, damning, and riveting study of what can go wrong in American jurisprudence when racial tension is at fever pitch (as it was at the tail end of the crack and crime epidemic of the late 1980s), it hardly matters.
USA—Dir. Ben Lewin
How rare and welcome it is to see such a sex-positive Hollywood film! Based on an autobiographical article by Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who lived with the longterm paralysis caused by childhood polio, The Sessions is the story of this 38-year-old man’s quest to lose his virginity through the use of a sex surrogate. Asking profound questions about our intertwined psychic, physical, spiritual and emotional responses to sex, and refusing at every turn to question the idea of sex as healthy, natural, and above all worthwhile, The Sessions might be the most intellectually stimulating film about fucking you will ever see, if it isn’t likely the most erotic.
As a devout Catholic with a wickedly sardonic sense of humour, a poet’s heart and a journalist’s curiosity, O’Brien makes for a marvelous character, and the chameleon-like John Hawkes fully disappears into the role, a finely crafted nasal voice and his sideways smile his only tools. Although O’Brien’s constant quipping may be a bit of a defence mechanism, the most attractive thing about him is how unfailingly honest he is about his feelings, his problems, his pain, and his pleasure. His anxieties and hang-ups are always very close to the surface, and he freely discusses them with his nurses (including a terrifically deadpan Moon Bloodgood), his hip Priest (William H. Macy), and really anyone with whom he comes into contact. We want to go with O’Brien on his journey not just because we are genuinely rooting for him as an underdog, but also because we sincerely respect him (and think he’s pretty charming). It is its greatest attribute that the film doesn’t ever ask for us to pity him. The strength of the movie lies, in many ways, in the strength that it allows the guy in the iron lung.
Imagine how uncomfortable this film could have been had it gone the other direction! I mean, much of the middle third features repeated awkward attempts to have various forms of intercourse with a sex surrogate (played with commanding confidence by a rarely-better Helen Hunt). If this were a movie about us feeling sorry for some poor man on his pathetic journey—which, let’s face it, was what many of us cringingly expected as we filed into the theatre—it would have gone nowhere worthwhile. Instead, as he moves back and forth between chats with his priest and his increasingly successful sex therapy sessions, we are never made to witness anything much that would put us on edge. This is a cop out, some will no doubt argue. The Sessions may not represent the real complications, the real challenges and impediments to sexual activity (both physical and mental) faced by people with such severe disabilities, but one must admit that rarely have such frank sex scenes featuring people with disabilities even been suggested in a Hollywood feature, let alone made a focal point of a film.