August 24, 2014
Gangster movies are often defined by plot twists and duplicitous schemers that are hard to trust and sometimes feel for. These movies sometimes feel hard to keep up with, and their characters are often defined by their flaws. The darkness in their motivations and the inevitable double crosses speak to plot and hopefully propel character development. Heart hardly ever comes to mind when one thinks of a crime film. But Salvo, the new gangster film by Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza has heart. That it hardly sacrifices suspense for its soul is testament to the strength of the filmmakers, here making their feature film debut with international distribution.
Salvo is a collaborative work between Grassadonia and Piazza not only in directing but also in writing. For much of the film, their storytelling feels compact and graceful. The film has a patient quality, and there’s hardly any dialogue, but it is hardly languorous. The movie opens with a tense chase scene that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Though the directors allow the scene to unfold with patience that does not mean it lacks suspense. The life or death danger is established early on with an intense shootout on a walled-in street in the seaside city of Palermo. It’s refreshing to watch motorcycle-mounted assassins, sinisterly dressed all in black, fail, and it speaks to the intimidating skills of the film’s protagonist (Saleh Bakri), a mob boss’ (Mario Pupella) deadly protector, who does not reveal his name until nearly the end of the film. Obscuring him further, the camera mostly focuses on his eyes either in a rear-view mirror or in close up. When the chase turns into a foot pursuit with the hunted becoming the hunter, the camera maintains its distance or only offers shots of his back. It adds to the scenes’ intensity.
Throughout Salvo, the directors show a smart understanding of camera placement, which was revealed by their award-winning short “Rita,” a film about a blind girl who goes off for a swim at the beach with a young thief who had sneaked into her home to hide from his pursuers. In the short, the directors used no reverse shots, as the camera focused solely on the cherubic-faced lead who could not see, so there was no need to show anything from her POV. This technique creates empathy from the audience and a visceral sense of suspense. With Salvo they take it up another notch, as the chase comes to a slow close, and the killer enters a house where a blind young woman, also named Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counts money. Once again, the lack of reverse shots is employed. A sense of suspense is allowed to draw out, as Rita tries to act unawares of the stranger in her presence, who is often reduced to a shadow in the background that follows her around the house.
For much of the film there’s little dialogue. The directors are clearly more interested in creating a story that relies more on visuals than literal explanations. The movie therefore demands striking visuals, and the directors deliver with a strong sense of composition. From landscapes to interiors, the film has a vibrant visual vocabulary. It never feels ornate, but it does feel vivid. Cinematographer Daniele Ciprì uses mostly deep focus, which allows scenes that are blurred from the perspective of Rita to stand out. There are some drawn-out scenes of the mundane, but the directors keep them interesting with the composition of shots. The colors of the film gives it a high contrast tone that recalls similar films of the ’70s. Its deliberate pace also feels like this film belongs to an earlier era, not to mention the fact that today’s technology means little to the movie’s cat-and-mouse story. The tools of these people is violence, after all, so it’s all about cars and guns, though these devices are never allowed to overshadow the characters. Sometimes the violence occurs off-screen, which only enhances the film’s thrills. The directors also stage varied shots that are filled with surprise and atmosphere, recalling a well-laid out comic book. This is narrative through visuals in the best way.
The tone is true to the film’s theme as well. It’s about a gangster given a chance to restore his humanity, personified by a seemingly helpless blind girl who generates great sympathy but also a respectable tenacity. For much of the film, the drama does not feel forced or contrived. It’s allowed to unfold organically. But sometimes the film’s theme is too heavy-handedly laid out, especially toward the end, and then it ends on a sentimental note of mysticism and tragedy, which was never necessary from the film’s start. The contrivance betrays the film’s earlier astuteness and feels like hokum compared to its first 90 minutes. Still, Salvo is a strong debut that’s stylish and evocative by a pair of new filmmakers from Italy worth keeping tabs on.
Salvo runs 104 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (of course there’s gangster blood shed). It opened in the Miami are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided me with a screener for the purpose of this review.
With recent headlines of journalists killed or under threat to be killed in war zones, the trauma of the conflict for those journalists, who are civilians, remains an under-explored theme on film. War Story tells the story of the aftermath of a journalist’s killing. After covering a conflict in Libya, photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) is left to mourn the loss of her partner during that assignment. The movie picks up after she has left Lybia. The information is sparse, one has to piece it together as the plot develops slowly and quietly. The mood is sad and somber but there is little in the way of dialogue. The camera zeroes in on a weathered Keener, trying hard to convey physical and emotional pain in silence, as she makes her way across the Mediterranean Sea. She’s headed to Italy to meet her mentor and former lover Albert (Ben Kingsley).
Lee arrives in Sicily and moves into a hotel where she has stayed in the past. After a few days of confinement in the familiar hotel room, where she tries to heal from mental wounds via nostalgia and physical wounds with time, the grief-stricken Lee ventures out and quickly feels the pull toward another crisis, the situation of Arab immigrants in Italy. She thrives in conflict and finds a reason to move forward, throwing herself into a cause through the character of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), who is in need of help as she is not only trying to escape the country that so virulently rejects her, but she is also seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. All of this gives pause to Lee, who would rather move on to the next assignment than deal with her own tragedy. The camera lingers on Lee for extended periods of time, even when she is carrying a conversation with somebody else. Although the performance is strong something is missing, the attempt at storytelling through images falls short of its ambition, as the camera feels almost randomly placed in many scenes.
The most flagrant cinematic failure arrives when Lee gathers her strength to finally meet with Albert, a former mentor who was with Lee when she had traveled earlier as a journalist to a war-torn region. The moment is crucial, much of the film has been leading up to this, but when they meet the camera pans a large room full of books and hangs back for about half of their conversation. Two excellent performers are reduced to small, expressionless shadows sitting across from each other at a distant table. If director Mark Jackson’s poor composition choice had not been apparent earlier in the film, here is his biggest misstep. It was fine that Lee suffered in silence from much of the film, but to reduce revelations to expository dialogue in a scene where not even the expression of the actors matter only highlights the film’s weak visual storytelling. Jackson almost seems desperate to pack in information for the short time Kingsley is on screen, an artifice to drive the point home on the addictive nature of the job and the cautions against it. “You’re a woman. An amazing woman who has decided to go into war zones and take pictures. You’re a bit crazy to want to do that. And I think now you’re too crazy to stop.”
The culminating scene does not bring the story full-circle; rather, the bifurcated nature of the issues presented here: individual loss, grief and a feeling of impotence after losing a loved one in a war, along with the struggling North African immigrant in continental Europe fit together uncomfortably. The treatment of characters is then superficial. As much as the director tries to go beneath the surface with his camera work it all comes across as flat and staid.
War Story is the second feature film by Jackson. With a mysterious and atmospheric mood, earlier in the film, Jackson successfully establishes a meta-narrative showing the anguish the photographer is incapable of articulating through words. The gradual narrative of the story is supposed to impart the impact of loss, tragedy and war. However, the pace is so slow and the narrative so subtle as to be nonexistent. It makes for lots of sleep-inducing moments rather than creating the potent moments these politically charged subjects call for. Instead, there are some superficial moments, like when Lee ignores the constantly ringing phone in her room, which could be a sign of grief, avoidance, trauma or all of the above. Jackson takes on themes that may have been too big to cover in one film, from journalism in war-torn areas, to segregation and the humanitarian crisis of immigrants in the global North, to abortion — the ideas are all too large to sustain as the film just feels incomplete.
War Story runs 90 minutes, is in English and Italian and is not rated (expect heavy themes). It opened in the Miami area at The Tower Theater this Friday and plays until Aug. 28. It’s also available on VOD. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
August 22, 2014
There’s an inherit problem to the Sin City movies. With so much visual flair, any sense of substance feels obscured by its imagery. As much as these films want to celebrate film noir, they strip the genre down so flagrantly and elevate the genre’s conventions to such heights, there is little left of drama or character. The first Sin City had its moments, wryly empowering women while objectifing them, for instance, but the formula has grown much thinner with the arrival of its sequel, almost 10 years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Robert Rodriguez directed the first one, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller, who now co-directs with Rodriguez.
The film’s visual style, which is part live action and part animation, mostly in black and white with splashes of color and lots of shadows, of course makes it stand out from other movies. There really has never been a comic book adaptation in cinema as committed to the look of the source material as Sin City. But that counts for nothing more than form, albeit a sometimes elegant one. One would hope the involvement of the books’ creator would have fleshed out the characters of the books further, but really this sequel seems even more interested in its own look and feel over any presentation of … I don’t know… How about a little more about the darkness of men beyond action and compulsion? The fact that it was shot in 3D only adds more to the film’s gimmickry over depth.
But really, what more can be done with the age-old film noir genre than to deconstruct it (the best in modern movie-making still has to be Memento)? What Miller and Rodriguez seem most interested in is highlighting the principles of the genre to heightened effect. The hard-boiled monologues, the lighting, the role of the femme fatale, the plot twists. It’s all turned up a notch to heights of comedy. It becomes a joke for several reasons: nothing feels at stake because of the simple narrative and the film’s animated mise-en-scène distances violent acts from any notion of humanity. It all feels like some mean joke against civilization and a celebration of brutality. There’s no room for irony because there’s no sense of standard in Sin City beyond kill-or-be-killed/fuck-or-get-fucked. Characters are reduced to pixels in the worst way.
Ava (Eva Green), with her green eyes and red lips, is the femme fatal of the film’s title. Her acting and dialogue is played with so much loftiness, it’s hard no to laugh. The film’s biggest joke arrives when police detective Mort (Christopher Meloni) arrives to Ava’s home to investigate the murder of her husband. The chump falls for her as she purrs a few sly turns of phrase during the investigation, and he forgets his wife and his duty to “just the facts, ma’am.” The fact the “Law and Order: SVU” actor plays the detective adds a meta level of humor to the scene. But then he seems to be literally driven mad with lust. His reaction to his uncontrollable desires is so extreme it feels beyond implausible and falls with a grandiose thud.
A Dame to Kill For would have been so much more interesting had it been a deconstruction of film noir tropes instead of the celebration of them as bullet points to wink at. Typical of sequel syndrome, recurrent characters from the last movie have nowhere to grow from the last movie. Gail (Rosario Dawson) is still the same violent, pissed-off bitch. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is reduced to a helpless ghost watching his ward Nancy (Jessica Alba) downward spiral in her thirst for vengeance. The most interesting character of the last film, Marv (Mickey Rourke) is nothing more than a bruiser with a memory lapse and no more heart.
The film’s most interesting new character is Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the bastard son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) who rules over the town with a corrupt fist. Played with an intense but warm bravado that Gordon-Levitt always so easily conjures up, Johnny at first doesn’t seem to understand just how over his head he’s in when he tries to beat Pop at poker. Johnny is on a quest for recognition that will come with heavier and heavier costs. It’s probably the one story line that veers far enough from genre convention that makes the film at least a little interesting. But by the time the final shootout arrives, it all becomes numbing and tired when it should have felt climactic.
It’s interesting that the performances that are less touched up by effects, which also includes some soul from Josh Brolin as another man who falls under Ava’s spell, are the ones that bring some interesting heart to the film. But with mostly flat characters and a sense of little at stake plot-wise, the inevitable fight scenes and gun battles are deflated of any sense of urgency. Sure the graphics are impressive. But the 3D offers little seeing as the film tries to stay true to the flat, hand-drawn quality of the comic book. Occasionally objects jump out of the screen in slow motion and some images stand out as lusciously stylistic, as when Ava floats in her pool in the nude. Otherwise, A Dame to Kill For is really nothing more than what you expect from the trailer: randomly colored actors moving across backgrounds driven by violent urges that shift at varying speeds to connote some sense of dimension but no real depth.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For runs 102 minutes and is Rated R (graphic sexuality and violence abounds). It opens everywhere today, Friday, Aug. 20. Weinstein Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
With its drama mostly unfolding in the cellar of a high-rise in Rome, Me and You (Io e te ) probably stands as legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci slightest drama. But, beyond setting, the film is also slight in another way: it will not stand as one of his great films. Maybe it’s the many years waiting for the film’s arrival (his last was 2003’s The Dreamers) or the fact that this was supposed to be his first experiment with 3D film, which he later reneged on (Variety article). It all feels a bit anti-climactic, though the film is by no means a waste of time.
The film follows 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) who, after scamming his mother into thinking he’s on a school ski trip, secretly moves into the basement for a week. All he wants is to hide away from people, his only company being an ant farm. Then his 25-year-old half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) crashes his party after stumbling upon him by accident. She thinks she has found the perfect spot to beat her heroin addiction and go cold turkey. He is upset with being bullied into sharing his solitude with someone he doesn’t care for much or even know that well. In their self-imposed purgatory, the two are forced to confront old grudges and come to terms with them and maybe leave their confinement with a sense compassion for one other.
Antinori resigns to his role as a newly pubescent young man, channeling a natural teen angst heightened on a superficial level by his pimply complexion and virginal mustache. The emphasis on his appearance is enhanced by the fact that we first meet him with his face turned downward during a session with a psychologist. Meanwhile, Olivia first appears in the shadows of the basement in a giant, woolly black coat out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. These enigmatic introductions beg for the audience’s projection, but in the end, the two become stereotypes: the withdrawn, socially awkward teenage boy caught between childhood and adulthood and the beautiful aspiring artist who is never taken seriously because of her good looks and her drug habit.
These are difficult roles to flesh out with the nuance demanded of them, but Bertolucci still musters performances from the actors that at least do not make the characters feel obnoxious. Both Antinori and Falco are making debut lead appearances as virtual unknowns in the cinema world, which again adds to the characters’ relatable quality. But on the other hand, the story is so intimate it begs for stronger performances. It does not help that the script feels a bit rote, based on the novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who is one of four other screenwriters, including Bertolucci. The material demands a more personal hand, and though there are moments of conflict and reconciliation, it all feels so mechanical that it hardly leaves you with the haunting impression the film aspires to achieve. Some of it even feels forced and unconvincing, like a scene at dinner when Lorenzo asks his mother if, after some cataclysmic event happens to wipe out all of humanity except them, would she volunteer to re-populate the world with him (Bertolucci will never shake his penchant for incest).
Though the film is sumptuously shot, featuring outstanding art direction, the camera sometimes feels a bit aimless. You can almost imagine the swooping and twirling camera movements used during a few early establishing shots were conceived when Bertolucci was aiming to make a 3D film. Also, the manner in which the camera drifts and twirls around enhances a feeling that the director is acting without a sense of assured control, feeling out the film more that feeling confident about his shots.
The film’s drama drives along with some close calls of the two being caught, Olivia screaming in the pangs of withdrawal and throwing up between moments of sharing her dreams and better times of living it up, as a rapt Lorenzo pays close attention and throws out casual questions that also speak to his fear of socializing. The climax of the drama comes with a David Bowie song, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”), which is actually the music of “Space Oddity” with Italian lyrics. Though Bowie sings the lyrics, they have nothing to do with his original lyrics inspired by the first moon landing. However, the Italian lyrics (by Italian lyricist Mogol) fit the film’s story better than “Space Oddity” ever would. As translated in the subtitles Olivia sings to Lorenzo:
Now lonely boy where will you go?
The night is a big sea
If you need my hand to swim
Thank you but tonight I would like to die
Because you know in my eyes
There is an angel, an angel that now does not fly any more
Yes, Me and You is a small drama, but it has some pretty moments. It just does not make for a whole, consistent experience. The most extreme action comes from scenes of Olivia throwing up. Still, she and Lorenzo eventually build a relationship where they can look beyond bitterness and accept their bond. It’s no surprise, but it’s also an example of how slight and indulgent art cinema can get. There’s a hint of suspense that nothing is permanent, and you are left hoping something will work out with these two, but then you’ll also just go on and forget this film soon enough. It probably would have been more interesting in 3D.
Me and You runs 97 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (it features mature language and drug references, however). It opens in South Florida as part of the on-going “Cinema Made In Italy” series on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. It runs through Aug. 21 (see Calendar here). It opens a few days later at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on Aug. 15 (see dates and times). For a look at other theater dates around the world, visit this webpage.
August 7, 2014
It’s funny how the First Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be jerks. They can protest homosexuality at soldiers’ funerals, harass women at abortion clinics and publicly be racists. Something fundamental is lost in the cloud of such sensational wrong-headedness. The right of expression, no matter how you feel about something, is a human right recognized by the founders of the United States. It’s an important cornerstone because no matter what the government does in this country, we are allowed to call it out for the sake of our humanity. Theoretically, things should grow from there, in the best interest of society.
With sensational extremists wielding the First Amendment, the common U.S. citizen might sometimes forget the power this right gives everyone on a protective level. From the First Amendment comes the right to not only say what you want but to start conversations that can change things for the better of our collective lives, and the government is not allowed to get in the way. That cannot happen in many countries outside the U.S. One of those counties is Iran.
As noted in my 2012 review for This Is Not A Film (Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest), Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from making films in Iran for 20 years. His crime? He and another director were busted in 2009 trying to document the Green Movement’s attempt to overthrow the country’s authoritarian regime through organized protests. Panahi was sentenced to six years of jail time, placed on house arrest and, what he considers worst of all, denied the right to make movies for 20 years. This is the guy who was part of a group of Iranian filmmakers who brought attention to his country through powerful films like White Balloon (1995). Now he resides in a state of legal limbo, the threat of jail constantly looming over him. He treads lightly during rare interviews and with the two films he has made since his arrest. Therefore, it’s important to bring an open mind to his work, and be prepared to read between the lines for the rewards of obscured narrative.
Just as with his previous film, Closed Curtain (Pardé) needs to be approached as another abstract tribute to cinema without it even being a movie that features the narrative coherence most moviegoers are accustomed to. The film opens with a lengthy shot through a panoramic window obstructed by a black accordion security gate. This is the director’s villa in Iran. As he says in this recent interview with The Daily Beast, “They freed me from a small jail … only to throw me into a larger prison when they banned me from working.” The metaphor is not lost in the image. Through the latticework, we can see the Caspian Sea below a bright, clear blue sky. A tiny, distant taxi rolls to a stop, and two small figures get out. The trunk is opened, bags are carried, and eventually one figure walks up to the house. This unfolds over five minutes, in one lengthy unbroken shot. Don’t call this filmmaking.
Once inside, the older man with bushy, gray hair (this is Panahi’s longtime collaborator screen-writer and the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi), anxiously puts down his bags and closes the curtain. Then, in the obscurity, hidden from the outside world, comes the film’s first of many surprises: He pulls a dog out of one of his bags. The dog, named Boy, appears to be a mix between a Papillon and a collie and has a standout personality thanks to its natural grin and a rather surreal scene involving a TV remote. After the writer blacks out all the windows in the house by nailing up black, heavy curtains (a metaphor not only for the filmmaker’s ban but also Iranian culture) he settles in to work. But then someone turns on a TV. The writer rushes to the living room and finds Boy with his paw on the remote. On the television: a news report featuring truckloads of dead dogs, including a close-up of one bleeding from its mouth, gasping for air. The news reader’s voice over reveals that canines have been banned under a new Islamic law. The writer takes out the remote’s batteries and scowls at the dog.
With this disturbing but profound scene, Boy rises above the melodramatic ploy most threatened animals become in movies. He stands as a representation for something bigger. The dog is now elevated to the status of martyr. That he’s rather cute helps, but the stakes feel bigger. The liberty of the writer and his dog becomes a matter of life and death. Their solitude is not only enhanced with the layers of curtains that seal them in the large villa but also their silence. Boy hardly barks and the writer speaks hardly a word. The only soundtrack is the writer’s shuffling walk, the click of light switches and the rustle of wrappers on non-perishable food items. Just as with his last film, the film features no score. That would be too cinematic. The images are, however, beautiful. Boy, with his fluffy black and brown coat of fur, blends into the home’s brown and red color palette of wood and brick. The green of Boy’s fuzzy tennis ball, a toy that only gets minimal use indoors, stands out in contrast to this subtle color scheme.
Before a mundane solitude is allowed to settle in, there’s a lengthy scene documenting the writer’s struggle to sneak out Boy’s litter box. When it seems his mission is accomplished, he turns around to find a young man (Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Maryam Moqadam), dressed in black standing in his foyer. They appear almost like apparitions. “How did you get in here?” asks the writer. “The door was open,” responds the young man. It turns out they too wish to hide, as the authorities are in pursuit after busting up a party, just one more of the many things people are not allowed to do in Iran.
Tension looms over Closed Curtain, but it doesn’t come from anxious cutting or heightened stylistic flourishes like music or camera angles. We never see this intruding couple’s pursuers, but we can hear them outside. Eventually, the authorities are thrown off by the house’s blacked out windows and go away. When the man leaves the woman with the writer, he warns him, “and be careful. She has a knack for suicide.” It’s a surreal portent in contrast to this woman’s smile. She later identifies herself as Melika, the sister of the young man who has left her at the house, and she will come to haunt the film’s narrative in an almost spectral sense.
It all unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness, and it is by crafty design because, eventually we learn, once again— and I will not spoil the series of surprises that follow— this is not a film. Instead, it is a glimpse into the creative consciousness of a director whose irrepressible imagination is being stifled. That’s a key notion to “getting” Closed Curtain. It’s an essay on Panahi’s desire to make a film he cannot finish. It is process trying to burst through the frame for thematic context that can only gel with what the viewer brings to it. You need not be Iranian to do this, just be sympathetic to the appreciation of artistic expression via cinema.
Closed Curtain may be filled with metaphors, but it’s also filled with Panahi’s heart for his craft and love for his neighbors and peers in a place where he has been denied an important human right: to be the creative person he cannot but help to be. Call it surreal, abstract or obtuse. The images that will continue to unfold as the film carries on to a startling, layered finale are also soulful, expressive and rambunctious. Closed Curtain is again another test of the limits of filmmaking and a subversion of them to offer something grander and more important: the human right to express oneself.
Closed Curtain runs 106 minutes, is in Farsi with English subtitles and is not rated (though it has a brief scene featuring some disturbing images involving dead dogs on a TV screen). It opens in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. If you live outside of our area, check the film’s website for screening dates in your neighborhood here (that’s a hot link).
August 1, 2014
I’ve been a fan of Vincent Moon since 2010, however, I had never heard about him until last week. Before then, I had spent countless hours watching La Blogothèque videos and other films directed by Moon but never paid attention to his name. I became aware of this videos by just searching for music that I like, which I often play it in the background, but there was something so unique about the videos from La Blogothèque. They are filled with a humanity that is usually absent from music videos, the type of incredible connection you can have to a musician during a live concert. These videos were also adventurous, often featuring some kind of action in the streets that just seemed very exciting and spontaneous. It was only until I listened to Moon talk about his artistic philosophy and filming style at an event hosted by the Indie Film Club last week that I understood how someone can encapsulate so much humanity into a very small video.
Last Thursday, July 24, I attended a retrospective on Moon’s work (read our preview interviews here). It sounded half bombastic to me: attending a retrospective for a guy who’s not 35 yet and has not released commercial work under the auspices of a big production house. Nonetheless, I was intrigued because of my own personal connection to the music that is in most of his work. The setting was The Screening Room, a small gallery in Wynwood, an unassuming room filled with fold out chairs and dozens of aspiring filmmakers.
The talk started as a friendly Q&A led by Diliana Alexander, Indie Film Club’s executive director, who admitted to the audience, “I’ve been trying to bring Vincent to Miami for years.” And there he was in front of an eager, capacity audience. He described his philosophy of making films as an artist would. He creates content that is free of charge and uploads it to Vimeo, YouTube or his own website for everyone to enjoy. His budgets are non-existent. “I believe it keeps things pure,” he said in a heavy French accent (he grew up in Paris, but has no specific home since about 2008). Indeed, the artist approaches each project from a human perspective, his goal, he described, is to make people look beautiful and showcase beauty through what they do: music. But much to my surprise he sees music as an expression of community and culture. He looks at musicians as generators of culture or providers of meaning as a cultural expression.
Moon quickly took over the conversation and often interrupted the discussion to share some of his favorite videos. In all of the highlights he shared, he described them as an experience that could not be replicated. Someone in the audience asked him about preparation ahead of each shoot. He said he travels around the world and meets with different musicians and people whom he records, but there’s no direction. When asked about research, he scoffed, paused and said that he traveled to each location without preconceived ideas. That’s when I understood the marvel behind the videos because you are experiencing with him something unique through his camera lens. One of my favorite videos he shared that night is the following. It took place in Argentina and you can see how it captures a moment in time that is quite special. The background sounds add an atmospheric layer that cannot be replicated– Moon mentioned it was firecrackers among other sounds that you can hear in the background adding an almost surreal percussive accompaniment.
As the night went on, a lot of the filmmakers wanted to know how he survives financially or how the artists themselves benefit, as his work is freely available to anyone for download. He was a little puzzled by the questions, just as puzzled as the audience about his disregard for “making it big.” He picks places based on a feeling and admits that his worry is the opposite. His concern is how big budgets actually take away something from his work. He relishes the freedom and challenge of working with minimal resources because limitations spark his own creativity.
I am only thankful to Indie Film Club for creating a space where directors like him can be featured at Miami venues. I leave you with my favorite videos (part I and II) from the Take Away shows. Shot in Colombia, featuring Bomba Estereo. I love how the music blends with the landscape…
A doctor made a movie, and it’s a powerful one. Indiewire calls Code Black one of the “Best Documentaries of 2014 So Far” (see article). Speaking via phone from New York City, where he currently works at Cornell Medical Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, 32-year-old Ryan McGarry, M.D., spoke about what inspired him to make this documentary, both cinematically and circumstantially. His ultimate message, however: Our health care system is super messed up and something needs to change.
Code Black presents a very human portrait of doctors concerned that their passion for patients is being lost in paperwork. The ER doctors McGarry presents are his colleagues, and his intimate access allows for an unfiltered look at these people who clearly seem invested in the human connection between doctor and patient, a luxury that has been compromised by the famed patient privacy laws of HIPAA. The briskly-paced film is far from a lecture piece. It opens with the stark image of doctors and nurses working to save a 21-year-old gunshot victim by cutting him practically in half and digging through his guts to reach his heart in a desperate attempt to revive him. Above this scene, a window allows doctors in training to watch how the group take almost instinctive roles to work as a unit.
McGarry said it was scenes like this, of intimate cooperation, which actually dates back several years, that compelled him to pick up his camera. That trauma bay, known as “C-Booth,” was about to close at L.A. County Hospital, which was actually the birthplace of emergency medicine. “It was now or never,” he said about deciding to make this film and document the last moments of what would become history. “You’re not gonna get a constellation like this again. This is pretty extraordinary.”
The pace of the film is dynamic and McGarry’s influences will not come entirely as a surprise to some. “I love Danny Boyle,” he said. “I think he’s got such a frantic and loud and clangy style that I like.”
Other influences also include the doctor-turned-director and creator of the Mad Max series of films, George Miller and another documentary filmmaker who knows how to respectfully present difficult subject matter. “I think that George Miller, who’s a physician, has done some great work, but for the sake of documentary, I think I’m lucky that Mark Jonathan Harris, who executive produced the film, is someone I really admire.”
His other heroes include his colleagues. While working at C-Booth, he got to know Billy Mallon, a physician with at least two decades of emergency room experience. Mallon is clearly presented as a bit of a maverick who has never lost touch of his humanity in the face of HIPAA laws that require doctors to jump though many hoops while trying to treat patients. The mantra of the film emphasizes the paperwork that takes up valuable time from doctors having to treat patients. “One thing I can say about Billy,” said McGarry, “and this is not the case for all practicing physicians of that many years, is that there is something about him that is not cynical. He’s not dead to everything, and I think it would be easy in private practice to get that way. Ultimately, you worry about the bottom line, and as a sort of a physician/businessman or woman it would be very tough to keep that youthfulness and that rawness too.”
Mallon’s specialty is charity care at one of those rare public hospitals, like L.A. County that takes care of patients regardless of their ability to pay. The equivalent to that hospital in Miami would be Jackson Memorial Hospital. “I think he’s been at a university hospital his whole career, and I think he still feels that it’s very difficult,” McGarry continued. “We all do. One of the benefits of being at a county hospital like that, is that we’re not worried about billing or money. When you’re totally separated from those things, it’s probably mostly conducive to be present with what’s in front of you.”
McGarry, who does not associate himself with a political party and calls himself a “moderate,” emphasized that his film is not political. “I think for a lot of millennials the troubling aspect about American politics is that you have to pick one or the other. That’s bullshit … Ultimately, I think it’s less of a political movie and more of a philosophical one,” he said. “What we’re saying is ultimately the equation is fairly simple: the providers want to treat people and patients just want to be treated. For that basic exchange there are a heck of a lot of spokes in the wheel that are often not even related to that moment.”
He said he has hope his generation can change things and does not write-off his peers as egotistical and oblivious to the greater good of humanity. “The good news is I think that this generation of doctors, as millennials, can kind of reverse the criticism of the millennials that we’re very entitled. The good news is that we’re all very motivated to fight for an entitled patient-doctor relationship. We think it should be more than just paper pushing or just a 10-minute Medicare moment.”
If the movie does its job right it will make audience members want to do something for the sake of medical care, if not for the doctors or their patients, then for themselves. “I think it wound be good if there were more editorials from patients saying, ‘Look I care about my privacy but what I care about the most is the 20 minutes I get with my doctor,” said McGarry. “‘I don’t want my doctor to be buried in a computer the whole time, and I don’t want to have my nurse have to re-chart something we’ve already charted just because of legal redundancy.'”
He said activism to change the laws are a long time coming, and he feels quite passionate about it. “I mean, the trouble with this whole situation is that we are really far into a lot of bad habits, and it’s kind of like how do you backtrack from that? Everyone keeps asking us but what our opinions about Obamacare, and we kind think we’re going, ‘Well, I think there are things about Obamacare that are definitely good when it comes to more access. I think most of us are feeling good about that. But the things that we’re talking about in Code Black are almost pre-Obamacare. These are things that are sort of industry foundations that we kind of feel have become imbalanced around the way, so as a patient, I think there are a few things here that are fair for the picking of what’s just no longer acceptable, but I think it’s just starting a large national discussion about what we are all fighting for, which is that moment when you walk in, you’re not well, and there’s somebody motivated to help you. Well, we have to be protecting that experience and elevating it. Right now it just seems like it’s been slowly eaten away by all these other things that we’re not saying don’t matter but certainly are not as important as they’re made to be.
“I think like all things in America, when it comes down to these kind of things, it is all about a consumer-based world … I think to ultimately think of patients as customers is bullshit… The only thing that’s unique about that versus any other aspect of our economy except for education is that you wish it didn’t need to be that way. It sucks that it is sort of locked into profit margins and like a capitalist view and everything else. They’re strange bedfellows. Ideally, you don’t want to think about money and everything else when you’re healing somebody.”
You can read more of my chat with McGarry at the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist. He talks about some of his filmmaking choices, including his decision to not hold back from the visceral moments that capture life and death so powerfully in this film. Jump through the blog’s logo below to read more:
Code Black opens on Friday, Aug. 1 exclusively at the Bill Cosford Cinema, 5030 Brunson Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124. (305) 284-4861. Tickets are $9 and $7 for students and seniors. UM Students have free admission.