Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Friday Night Lights

When I lived in Texas I had a friend from Odessa who I started out just liking but grew to admire. Steve was good at a lot of things but never one to brag, so it took a while to learn things about him. The discovery that surprised me most, since he acted like someone who’d never been fussed over much, was that he’d been something of a star for a year or two. If high school football were a religion in Texas – and it very nearly is – Odessa would be its Jerusalem, and Steve had been part of the starting lineup for his high school football team. I got some idea of what that meant when his wife said she was stopped by a stranger one day in Houston, a good 10 years after Steve graduated, while wearing his jersey. “That’s Steve Caywood’s number!” the woman said.

I used to wonder how it felt to play that kind of football, but I think I have a pretty good idea now. That’s because I’ve seen Friday Night Lights, the story of Odessa’s Permian Panthers of 1988. Based on a nonfiction book by the same name, which Sports Illustrated called the best ever written about football, the movie chronicles the hard work and relentless pressure that molded the players into winners as they pursued the state championship.

Author Buzz Bissinger implies that the people of Odessa were obsessed with football because they had nothing else to feel good about. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but director Peter Berg and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler make you believe it, shooting the town in grainy, desaturated tones that turn the bleak settings they chose even bleaker. Pump jacks keep chugging away in the background, but hardly anyone seems to have benefited from the oil money they’re pulling in. As a father of one of the players (nicely played by country music star Tim McGraw) tells his son, winning the state championship is “the only thing you’re ever gonna have.”

But the kids on the team are motivated by more than just wanting that trophy. The dad who delivers that speech is a former state champ (there are a lot of them around town) turned mean drunk who takes his frustrations out on his son, Don Billingsley. As a result, Billingsley (played by Troy’s Patroclus, Garrett Hedlund) is acting out in a big way, but football turns out to be his salvation: The team gives him a stabilizing sense of brotherhood, while the game gives his aggression a socially sanctioned outlet. Quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), a somber young man burdened by the double responsibility of leading his team and looking after his disabled mother, works at football more than he plays it, seeing the game as his chance to win the scholarship he’ll need for college. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), the team’s charismatic star running back, doesn’t even pretend to be interested in school. Barely literate, he stakes all his career hopes on football – which looks like a pretty good bet until he’s sidelined by a serious injury.

Berg, who has more credits as an actor than as a director, gets first-rate performances from his cast. Lucas projects a touching sense of principled torment as Winchell. He also gets the flat Odessa accent just right. And as coach Gary Gaines, Billy Bob Thornton uses little more than his eyes to telegraph the thoughts of a straight-arrow, benevolently paternalistic authority figure who’s 180 degrees from the social outcasts and tortured souls he usually plays.

The games are shot from a player’s perspective, the camera and mike so close to the action that you practically feel the blows and smell the blood. You can also feel the weight of the town’s expectations. Players are treated like rock stars, getting freebies from local merchants, being asked to pose for pictures with fans, and getting interviewed by journalists. When the Panthers make it to the state finals, the game is held in the Astrodome and 64,000 people show up to watch.

But all that attention can be oppressive. Every move the team makes is analyzed on a radio call-in show, and the verdicts are often harsh. Coach Gaines, who gets more than his share of abuse, passes on the pressure to the players, urging them to “be perfect.” No wonder Winchell resists when Billingsley suggests that they “lighten up,” reminding him that they’re only 17. “Do you feel 17?” Winchell replies. “I don’t feel 17.”

The Panthers won five state trophies between 1965 and 1989, but Bissinger chose to write about a year when they didn’t quite make it. That helps make the movie feel real: After all, even the Panthers lost more state championships than they won.

It also keeps the focus on the effort the boys put into trying to win – and that, as the coach points out in his final speech, is what really counts. Being perfect, he says, is not about winning. It’s about doing your best, living fully in the moment, and “being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down.”

Who knew West Texas football could be so spiritual?

Monday, August 30, 2004


Upon its release two years ago, Hero became a Chinese pop culture phenomenon. With a budget of $30 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made in that county, and it became China’s biggest domestic hit to date. Impressed by all the hype and certain he’d nabbed the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein paid a monumental $20 million for US and other distribution rights. Yet this movie almost didn’t make it into American theaters.

Weinstein kept stalling Hero’s release, apparently fearful that it wouldn’t appeal to American audiences after all. Meanwhile, he chopped about 20 minutes from a version that got a limited European run. But he finally released the US version, uncut, after Quentin Tarantino urged him to – and agreed to let Weinstein advertise it as a Tarantino “presentation.”

That explains why Tarantino’s name appears at the beginning of the credits, but chances are you’d be thinking about him even if it didn’t. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill two-parter, Hero is an art house version of a “grind house” martial arts movie.

Director Zhang Yimou started as a still photographer, and it shows. Like Zhang’s first feature, Red Sorghum (1987) – and like the first part of Tarantino’s double feature, which loaded most of its character development into Volume 2 – Hero is light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, and a Chinese wedding feast for the eyes.

The movie, set over 2,000 years ago, begins as a sword fighter so anonymous his name is Nameless (nicely underplayed by martial arts superstar Jet Li) is ushered in to see the king of Qin, one of seven warring provinces that made up what is now China. It seems that Nameless has killed the three assassins who were trying to kill the king, and now he’s claiming his reward. We see the story play out as Nameless tells the tale of how he killed the killers, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) – and then, challenged by the king, retells it. In the process, we see the fairy-tale romance between the sad-eyed Broken Sword and the defiant Flying Snow come to not one but three tragic ends. We also get an earnest message about giving peace a chance.

Hero has been compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, since it uses that movie’s copiously copied device of telling different versions of the same story. But what’s more impressive is the way its meticulous compositions and painterly use of color echo the Japanese master’s visuals.

Hero borrows one of Kurosawa’s favorite set-ups, shooting long shots with long lenses against spectacular backgrounds to capture the pageantry and power of a platoon of cavalrymen on the gallop or an army of foot soldiers massing at a gate. Those majestic landscapes and expertly choreographed crowd scenes give his sparingly used close-ups that much more impact, as our eyes, coaxed wide open by the sumptuous visuals, search the actors’ faces for signs of the emotions their characters are often trying to hide. His use of color also wakes up the senses as each of the three versions of the story plays out in a different hue.

The fight scenes are magnificent, starting with the contrast between the actors’ lethal-looking moves and the serenity of their flowing hair and clothes. That contrast is magnified by camera tricks like the mix of stop-motion and slow-motion photography moves that were pioneered in Hong Kong martial arts movies and popularized in this country in The Matrix (think water droplets suspended in mid-descent until they’re dispelled by the slow-motion thrust of a sword), and by gravity-defying wire fighting that lets combatants run through the air or literally walk on water. Zhang and director of photography Christopher Doyle film it all against stunning backdrops, orchestrating gorgeous gusts of falling yellow leaves in one scene and sending Nameless and Broken Sword back and forth above the placid surface of a mountain-fringed lake in another.

Japanese kodo drummers and haunting, steel-guitar-like ancient lute give a timeless feel to a soundtrack that features violin music by Itzhak Perlman and a score by Tan Dun, who composed the music for Crouching Tiger.

Zhang, one of the best-known of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers (so called because they were in the fifth graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy), is also one of the most versatile, constantly trying new genres and visual styles. His first few films, which included Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, were historical dramas. His next three were about life in contemporary China. As he told Asia Connections shortly after completing that series: “they all come with different styles. Not One Less is like a documentary. The Road Home is like a poetic essay, while Happy Times is a comedy. So for me, I'm satisfied with this trilogy, but it's time for me to move on. That's why I'm starting to make martial arts films.”

Zhang hit the ground running with his first martial arts movie, creating a story as evanescent but lovely to watch as Nameless and Broken Sword’s duel on the lake.

Written for TimeOff

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Intimate Strangers and Open Water

By Elise Nakhnikian

Practically everyone agrees that there aren’t enough good film scripts these days. But what does that mean, exactly? I’ve been thinking about that since watching Open Water and Intimate Strangers last weekend.

Open Water should have been a stone cold summer chiller. Loosely based on the story of two people who were left behind by their dive boat off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and never found, it takes us into the ocean with our couple as they to see what will get them first: the bloodthirsty sharks circling them or the rescue boats that they’re slowly losing faith in. Yet Intimate Strangers, whose story is far less dramatic, is a more interesting movie.

Intimate Strangers is a variation on a theme seen in countless other movies: A repressed man and an unhappy, perhaps unreliable beauty free one another by falling in love. But inventive touches and deft handling orchestrated by director Patrice LeConte keep things unpredictable and intriguing.

Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) and William (Fabrice Luchini) meet when Anna knocks on the wrong door on her first visit to a psychoanalyst, ending up with the tax analyst next door. William, the tax analyst, listens sympathetically to Anna’s marital woes, taking her for a new client in need of help with a divorce. When he realizes her mistake, he’s too rattled and she’s too rushed to get things straight. The confusion continues for a session or two, and by the time it gets sorted out Anna and William have come to depend on their talks.

They keep meeting, and Anna gains confidence as she sees the effect she is having on William, growing more light-hearted and seductive. William lightens up a bit too, even doing an ecstatic little shimmy one night to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Bonnaire and Luchini make us care about these two and believe in their growing attraction, but there’s more to the movie than the self-effacing charisma of its stars.

A few well-drawn minor characters, including William’s meddlesome secretary, his sad-eyed ex-lover, and the psychoanalyst down the hall, who William consults about how to “treat” Anna, keep popping up, taking on new shadings each time. His interactions with these other people tell us a lot about William – and provide some wry comic relief.

In contrast, Open Water focuses relentlessly on Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis). The only other character who gets more than a few seconds’ screen time is a boorish passenger aboard their dive boat who’s featured in an overlong sequence illustrating the confusion that allowed Susan and Daniel to be left behind.

Ironically, that sequence is more dramatic than most of what happens after Susan and Daniel are abandoned at sea. Except for the occasional outburst, the two seem remarkably nonplussed, alternately bickering and nurturing each other just as they did at home or in their hotel. As they argue over whether to swim for a distant boat, their lack of affect borders on bizarre: It’s the bland leading the bland.

The married couple the movie was based on disappeared sometime after their dive boat departed. (Nobody knows when, since it took a couple of days for anyone to realize they were missing and mount a search, by which time they were nowhere to be found). That lack of knowledge gave director/writer Chris Kentis a blank slate. He chose to fill it by creating banal characters, making them react to the crisis largely as if it weren’t happening, and shooting in aggressively lackluster digital video. His purpose may have been to make us feel like we’re watching a home movie as it unspools (he likes to call the movie “Blair Witch meets Jaws,”), but he succeeded only in draining most of the thrill from an inherently suspenseful subject.

The most interesting thing about Open Water is the fact that the sharks you see circling the actors were all real – and really in the water with Ryan and Travis – but you can’t tell that by watching the movie. With computer-generated special effects as good as they are these days, using real sharks has the feel of a publicity stunt – or a cost-saving measure, since the movie was made for less than half a million.

If Open Water is Blair Witch meets Jaws, then Intimate Strangers is Vertigo meets Sex, Lies and Videotape, with its copious sex talk, fascinating female lead, and besotted leading man. I thought of Vertigo during an unexplained scene in a train station where Anna faints, and during the frequent close-ups of just part of her face or body, which deliver her to us in shards that echo the disjointed stories she tells William about her life.

Open Water favors low-angle shots too, but the reason is more prosaic: surface-level shots of the ocean help us assume Susan and Daniel’s vantage point – which leaves us struggling to see clearly, our line of sight broken up by waves so small they’d be almost invisible if viewed from above.

In movies as in every other kind of storytelling, what ultimately matters most is not what story you choose to tell but how you tell it. And that’s why Intimate Strangers teases while Open Water tanks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Before Sunset

Before Sunrise went quickly to video after its release nine years ago, written off by many critics and most moviegoers as a talk-heavy, anachronistic chick flick. So when they released their sequel, Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater and his stars and cowriters, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, must have been braced for another brush-off.

Maybe that’s why Hawke’s character Jesse, defends love stories at the start of this film. Jesse is in Paris at the end of a tour to promote his new novel, the story of a young American man and a young Frenchwoman who meet on a train, fall in love, and spend a day and night in Vienna before parting. He wrote a love story, he tells a group of journalists, because one of the most dramatic things that ever happened to him was “to meet somebody, to make that connection.”

That’s true of a lot of us, of course, which explains why we love movie romances – and why this seamlessly constructed little beauty is so emotionally resonant.

The affair Jesse fictionalized in his book was also the subject of Before Sunrise. That movie ends with Jesse and Delpy’s Celine continuing on their separate journeys after promising to meet again in Vienna in six months. But, as we learn in the sequel, one of them failed to show up. So when Celine shows up in this sequel nine years later, just as Jesse’s interview is ending, the two have a lot to catch up on – and only about an hour before Jesse has to catch a plane home to the States.

Born talkers, the two rely mainly on words to connect, yet their torrent of talk hardly ever feels scripted or stiff. That’s partly because they joke and tease easily, but it’s mostly because of how deftly Linklater and his stars translate talk into action. Speech is a form of recreation for them, and they bat words back and forth like pros.

The combination of sweetness and wit in the intelligent but unguarded Delpy, who has an emotional transparency that seems more American than French, warms up the sometimes off-puttingly cool Hawke, whose Jesse gazes at Celine with pure adoration. Jesse may have a wife and son across the ocean and Celine may have a boyfriend and a comfortable life in Paris, but they’re so clearly right for each other that we root for their reunion.

The will-they-or-won’t-they tension grows as Celine and Jesse shed layers of defenses and acknowledge their attraction to each other. When they first met, as Celine points out, they were too young to realize how rare a thing the connection between them was, but now they’re old enough to appreciate it – and so do we. “It seems like we've seen this a million times: First, youthful romanticism and ideas, and then adult disappointments,” Linklater told Salon. “But what about adult growth and adult passion? You take passionate, intelligent people, and you add age -- that's a nice formula.”

There are other nice formulas at work in this movie, like having the time that passed in the story match the time that has passed between movies, so we can search the actors’ faces as closely as they examine each others’ for signs of age. It’s also a nice idea to give Julie and Jesse only as much time with each other as is left in the movie, so we don’t miss a single gesture or word.

Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel, who shot Linklater’s first feature film and several others since, change the picturesque backgrounds frequently enough so you don’t feel as if you’re watching a monologue. Yet they don’t play up the glamour of Paris as much as they might, leaving the klieg lights and cranes back in Hollywood. Linklater told Salon that his aim was to make it “seem like a documentary, like we're just following these people.”

Ten or twenty years ago ago, a movie like this would probably have been made by a European director, but Linklater is part of a new generation or two of inventive American directors with distinctive styles, a diverse group that includes Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and Sofia Coppola. Of his peers, he may be closest in sensibility to Alexander Payne, the director of Citizen Ruth and Election, whose work as grounded in Omaha as Linklater’s usually is in Austin.

Linklater has a more benevolent world view than Payne, and he tends to be fonder of his characters, but the real hallmark of his style is the delight he takes in listening to people talk. Whoever ambles into range of his bemused gaze, you can be sure Linklater will hear him out, whether out of curiosity, for the sheer fun of it, or just to be polite. He’s a quintessentially American type: the artist as regular guy. And with Before Sunset, he has presented us with a deceptively simple gift – a love story that he calls “a romance for realists.”

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, May 7, 2004


The first movie made in Afghanistan since the Taliban came into power in 1996, the first feature-length film by director/screenwriter/editor Siddiq Barmak, and the winner of this year’s Golden Globe award for best foreign-language film, Osama catapults its director into the first rank of filmmakers. In just 82 minutes he conveys the helplessness and corrosive fear of life under a totalitarian regime — with a minimum of dialogue and without the wall-to-wall mood music that carpets so many movies these days. Instead, Barmak simply and unhurriedly tells an elegantly constructed story, letting us share his characters’ trepidation and horror as it unfolds.

As the movie opens, a group of women swathed in burkas gather to demonstrate for the right to work. They’re chased off the street by Taliban with cudgels, guns, and high-pressure hoses, and those who don’t escape are herded into cages. Later on, we see the “infidel” journalist who was filming the demonstration sentenced to death for his transgression while another Westerner is sentenced to be stoned to death for “advocating profanity,” a trumped-up charge apparently aimed at getting rid of a woman who doesn’t know her place.

Meanwhile our heroine, a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) who lives with her mother and grandmother, starts out as a virtual prisoner in her one-room house. The men in the family have all died in the warfare that has been decimating the country for decades, and the Taliban forbids women to attend school, to work, or even to go out in public without a male escort.

With no money left and no way to earn more, the women of this shrunken family are reduced to disguising their beloved child as a boy and sending her out to work, although she’s terrified of what will happen if her secret is discovered. We see enough of how the Taliban operate to understand something of the risk she takes every time she sets foot outside her door — especially once she winds up in a madrassa under the watchful gaze of a black-bearded Talib.

What we can’t imagine from the comfort of our easy chairs we can read in the actors’ faces and body language. Filming began less than a year after the fall of the Taliban, and “the shadow of the Taliban was still in their own minds and their hearts,” Barmak says of his cast on his DVD commentary. The director spotted Golbahari, who was 12 at the time, when she was begging on the streets of Kabul. “I was so moved by her eyes,” he says. “I was sure she had seen a lot of suffering.” He later learned that her father was arrested several times for selling music, which was forbidden by the fundamentalist regime. The trauma Golbahari lived through is expressed in her gravity and stillness as Osama, who smiles only once, and then only briefly. It’s also in the hopeless sound of her crying and the wariness with which she moves through the world.

If you’re getting the impression that this is a dirge of a movie, you’re right. But there’s too much life in here to leave viewers totally deflated. For one thing, there’s the poetry of cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri’s work, from the opening scene in which a cloud of incense released by a lively street kid wafts over the women streaming past on their way to the demonstration, their blue burkas bright against a cartload of deep orange pumpkins.

For another, there’s the porthole offered by fantasy. When things are at their bleakest, Osama sometimes pictures herself skipping rope. There’s an elegiac tone to the slow-motion footage, since conjuring up her lost childhood makes her sad, but her memories also offer her a means of escape.

Then there are moments of black-comic relief, like when the potbellied mullah at the madrassa teaches the boys how to do their ritual baths, enjoying himself a little too much. Or when Osama plants one of her newly cut braids in a pot of dirt, watering it with an IV tube her mother brought home from the hospital where she used to work.

A wide and welcome streak of kindness also runs through the story. The Afghanistan of Osama is a deeply civilized nation temporarily under the thumb of barbarian invaders. The boys at the madrassa can be mindlessly cruel, but almost everyone else helps one another, even at great personal risk. That gives us reason to feel hopeful, since we know, as Osama does not, that the Taliban’s days in her country are numbered.

Update: Just read this September 2010 New York Times story and learned that the practice of girls dressing as boys has a long history in Afghanistan.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Kill Bill Vol. 2

By Elise Nakhnikian

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has been playing elaborate riffs on what makes homicidal people tick ever since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s never been better than in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

If the luscious eye candy of Vol. 1 was an exhilarating swoosh down a water park ride, Vol. 2 is a tidal wave that sweeps you up as it gathers momentum. Both halves (it was originally shot as one movie) are gorgeous to look at, often funny, and jam-packed with striking-looking people doing or discussing campily cool things, like “the five-point palm exploding-heart technique,” a fatal martial arts move introduced in Vol. 2. Both have vibrant, visceral soundtracks. But Vol. 1 devoted all that creativity simply to showing a killer at work, leaving audiences wanting a little more substance. Vol. 2 slakes that thirst, letting us see what was behind its heroine’s “roaring rampage of revenge,” as she sardonically describes it. In the process, it casts her — and Vol. 1 — in a whole new light.

Kill Bill is the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), a creation of Tarantino and Thurman, who came up with the idea for the character while working together on Pulp Fiction. In Vol. 1, she’s a female version of the archetypal “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone Westerns, as two-dimensional as the silhouettes Tarantino likes to shoot against brightly colored backgrounds, in a nod to Hong Kong chop-socky movie credit sequences.

In Vol. 2, the silhouette gets fleshed out. We see The Bride as a vulnerable young woman in wide-eyed thrall to Bill (David Carradine). We learn her name (Beatrix Kiddo). We find out what made her reject the life that the pimp-like Bill trained her for, as the most talented and most favored member of Bill’s professional hit squad. And we learn why she’s determined to dispatch the remaining members of the squad, who left her for dead about five years earlier — especially Bill, who also happens to be the father of her child and maybe the love of her life.

Vol. 2 revives one of Tarantino’s signature techniques, using artfully indirect talk as a counterpoint to brutal, bloody action. In one creepily compelling domestic scene, Bill makes sandwiches in his kitchen, telling a story about how his five-year-old daughter learned about death while trimming the crusts with a butcher’s knife.

Like the wink from Beatrix that ends Vol. 2, these quirky conversations remind us that we’re safe inside what the director likes to call “Quentin Tarantino world.” At the same time, because they’re usually so firmly grounded in the mundane details of consumer culture, they blur the line between Tarantino’s world and ours, making his sociopaths and professional killers feel unsettlingly familiar.

Also familiar is the multicultural texture of Tarantino’s world, which looks a lot like America. A hybrid inspired by spaghetti Westerns and Chinese and Japanese martial arts movies, Kill Bill is part of an emerging international cinema that emulates and adapts movie traditions from Asia as well as Europe and the Americas.

Tarantino is at the top of his form here, and Tarantino in top form is one of the best moviemakers working today. From the beautiful, high-energy camera work to the side-winding dialogue to the slyly referential songs to the old-style characters filling out small parts (look for a deliciously oily cameo by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks as a Mexican pimp), he knows just how to construct what he calls “a movie-movie,” layer by juicy layer.

As in Vol. 1, the fights are lovingly choreographed. There’s less fighting and a lot less blood this time around, but when people do battle they clash like bull elephants.

Sound is also chosen for maximum impact, heightening if not creating a scene’s emotional heft. When Beatrix is captured and tortured by Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen), for instance, Tarantino and his sound crew convey her panic by letting the screen go black as they crank up the ragged sound of her breathing, the taunting laughter of her captors, and the sound of their horrible work.

You don’t have to have seen Vol. 1 to enjoy Vol. 2, but it’s worth renting one of these days if you haven’t caught it yet. In the meantime, if you love movies and don’t mind stylized violence, treat yourself to Vol. 2 while it’s still in theaters. Movie-movies this engrossing don’t come along often.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Touching the Void

In 1985 two young Englishmen, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, scaled a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. Their climb had never been attempted before and it hasn’t been done since, but they crested the mountain without much difficulty. Then they began their descent.

What happened next has caused a lot of people to vilify Yates or glorify Simpson, but the story dramatized in Simpson’s 1988 book, Touching the Void, and in Kevin MacDonald’s documentary of the same name is much more interesting. These two are neither heroes nor villains; they’re just ordinary guys who survived an extraordinary ordeal.

Well, okay, not entirely ordinary. Simpson and Yates are climbers, which means they’re unusually fit, unusually self-reliant people whose idea of a party is playing Spiderman at altitudes too high to support indigenous life forms. “We climbed because it was fun,” says Simpson. “And every now and then it went wildly wrong, and then it wasn’t.”

Things went wrong on this trip when Simpson fell, shattering his right leg. His first thought, he says, was: “If I broke my leg, I’m dead,” but Yates didn’t leave him to die. Instead, he spliced two ropes into one 300-foot length and began lowering his partner down the mountainside in stages. “What he did was quite extraordinary,” Simpson says, and it almost worked. But just before they reached the bottom of the slope, Yates lowered Simpson over a yawning chasm.

For about an hour and a half, the two sat in suspended animation, Simpson dangling helplessly while Yates sat in the snow bucket he had carved to hold his weight. Separated by 150 feet and a blinding snowstorm, they had no way of knowing what was happening to each other and no way to pull Simpson back up. Meanwhile, Yates’ seat was gradually shifting out from beneath him. To save himself, he finally cut the rope and found his way back to base camp, where he hunkered down to recover.

Amazingly, Simpson survived the fall after Yates cut the rope, but he landed in a crevasse with no apparent way out. After a night of horror (crevasses, he says. “have a dread feel. Not a place for living”), he gathered the courage to drop even deeper into the abyss, gambling that he’d find something other than empty space before reaching the end of his rope. The bet paid off, but now he faced a new dilemma: How could he travel the miles to base camp, over rough terrain, with no food or water and a badly broken leg?

The physical hardships undergone by the two were almost unimaginable. Yates was unrecognizable by the time he reached base camp, his fingertips blackened by frostbite and his face discolored and raw from exposure and dehydration. The pain was exponentially worse for Simpson, who lost a third of his body weight as he dragged himself back to base camp. At one point, he hopped over a stretch of broken rocks so uneven that he fell on almost every hop. “It was like having your leg broken again every time,” he says.

But their psychological ordeal is even more grueling. Although Yates plays only a supporting role in this drama, it’s clear that he suffered deeply for the Hobson’s choice that led him to abandon his partner. As for Simpson, his long dance with death has a terrible vicarious fascination. “It was a slow, steady reduction of you, really,” he says. “You didn’t have any dignity, care if you were brave or weak.”

The story is told by the three survivors: Yates, Simpson, and Richard Hawking, who manned the base camp. All three share a plain but eloquent style of speaking, a good memory for details, and a typically British aversion to self-glorification. Yates admits, for instance, that he thought about creating “a decent story that would make me look better” to explain Simpson’s presumed death, and Hawking says he was afraid to rescue Simpson from the darkness the night he made it back to base camp because “if he was out there, he was going to be a horrible thing.”

Sometimes the narrators speak to the camera, but often they provide a voice-over while actors play out their story. It may take a little while to get used to this technique, which is used more in cheesy History Channel movies than blue-chip documentaries, but MacDonald, a seasoned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his documentary about the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Olympics, was smart not to let that stop him. The narration in Touching the Void tells the story, but the reenactments put us right on that mountain, turning us from listeners into observers.

MacDonald hired actors who can climb, even using Yates and Simpson themselves in some of the long shots. The performances are mainly physical, and they’re painfully convincing: I winced every time the actor playing Simpson landed on his bad leg. Aside from the talking head segments, which were shot in a studio, the movie is filmed in the Alps and the Andes, and after a while you can see the terror in that beauty and the benevolence in a sunny day.

Even close to two decades later, Simpson was unnerved by the mountain where he had felt his personality disintegrate. “I wasn't shaking, but I felt like I was,” he says. “I had forgotten just how appalling it was being reduced to almost nothing."

Monday, March 8, 2004


By Elise Nakhnikian

If I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

I’m thinking about that Lyle Lovett lyric because I just saw Hidalgo, an old-fashioned action adventure about a cowboy (played by the King himself, Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) and his faithful horse, Hidalgo. Like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where the two are working when the movie starts, the movie’s full of hokum but fun to watch, and it’s catnip for the kids — especially boys, I suspect — who are its main target. The preteens in the front rows at the showing I went to were galvanized by it, pumping their fists in the air at the end.

Frank Hopkins is a burned-out former soldier, trying to drown his memories of the Wounded Knee massacre in alcohol, when a sheik (Omar Sharif) tracks him down. It seems the sheik is insulted by Buffalo Bill’s claim that Hidalgo is the greatest endurance runner in the world. To put that claim to rest, he wants Hopkins and his horse to compete against more than 100 champion Arabians in the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert. Hopkins accepts the challenge — and yup, he rides Hidalgo right onto that boat.

Right from the start, there’s so much talk about “impure” blood and infidels that you know our plucky American heroes — a half-breed Indian and a valiant little mustang — will beat those snooty old-world thoroughbreds. But first they have to overcome showy obstacles like an avalanche of a sandstorm and a pit full of sharpened stakes. They have to perform daring feats like rescuing the sheik’s feisty daughter from kidnappers. And Hopkins has to kill quite a few bad guys, including a bunch that go after Hidalgo in an attempt to rig the race so their employer’s horse can win.

This kind of movie is easy to ruin. Make the cliches too campy and you leach out the drama; amp up the emotions too high and you’ve got a lead balloon like Last Samurai, another story of a traumatized 19th-century war hero who regains his honor in a foreign land. Cruise’s star vehicle was grounded by his somber self-regard. Hidalgo is weighed down a bit too by its a bombastic, Titanic-style soundtrack and too many speeches about being true to yourself, but on the whole it’s as nimble as its four-legged hero.

Director Joe Johnson, who debuted with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, probably deserves the credit for keeping things light. The story originated with screenwriter John Fusco, and it might have gone the way of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an animated feature Fusco wrote that hammered home its message with all the subtlety of a pneumatic drill. Like Hidalgo, Spirit centered around a horse and portrayed Native Americans as saintly and wise. In Hidalgo, the sympathy still lies with the “people of the horse” — in this case, Bedouins and Lakota Sioux — but it takes itself less seriously, refrains from anthropomorphizing the horses, and doesn't paint all the white men as bad or all the brown ones as good.

Mortensen fits neatly into the movie's mythic mold, roping us in by underplaying his emotions in classic cowboy style. A laconic hero who talks almost as much to his horse as he does to other people, he also brings a wry, comic-book humor to the part, sounding John-Wayne tough when he drawls, just before punching out a man who insulted Hidalgo: “Mister, you can say anything you want about me. I’m gonna have to ask you not to talk about my horse that way.”

The movie claims it was “based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins,” but it would have been more accurate to say it was based on his stories. There was indeed a Hopkins who wrote a lot about mustangs, but people who looked into those stories have found that several — including his claims to have served in the U.S. Cavalry and performed in the Wild West show — appear to be untrue. More to the point, many people believe that Hopkins could not have ridden in the Ocean of Fire because there was no such race: he invented the whole thing, they say.

That wouldn’t surprise me, but it doesn’t bother me either. Even if the story was true, it’s clearly been fictionalized past the point of recognition. So why did the folks at Disney choose to pitch it that way? Could they think we’ve have gotten too literal-minded to enjoy a good old-fashioned western with a twist? If so, they need to talk to Lyle.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Dreamers

Bernardo Bertolucci often locates his movies at the intersection between personal and political history, but he’s always more interested in the personal. In 1900, The Last Emperor, and The Conformist, he achieves a balance, saying something about the culture in which his protagonists’ stories unfold. But in films like Little Buddha and his latest, The Dreamers, the political context is no more than a poorly painted backdrop.

Saturday, January 3, 2004

The Triplets of Belleville

An animated movie aimed primarily at adults, The Triplets of Belleville is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. At the same time, it’s as familiar as an old friend you haven’t seen in years. That’s because the emotions of writer/director Sylvain Chômet’s characters are transparent even when their actions are opaque, and the world they inhabit is an amalgamation of parts from our own, most of them old but still good.

Triplets opens with a black-and-white sequence that looks like a scratchy old Max Fleischer cartoon of a newsreel. This invented bit of history turns out to be on a TV that two of the main characters are watching in a Paris suburb in the 1950s. The images in the rest of the movie are anything but scratchy or monochromatic, yet it maintains the feel of an early talkie, with plenty of sound but very little dialogue.

The almost wordless characters are defined by their actions — and by their bodies, which are exaggerated enough to function as sight gags. Champion, a melancholic French orphan who lives with his grandma and grows up to be an obsessive cyclist, is all nose and legs, his torso as thin as his calves and thighs are huge. His unflappable grandma clumps steadily along despite a clubfoot and a wandering eye, which she shoves matter-of-factly back into place when it starts to float, and their dimwitted but loyal dog Bruno skitters along on scrawny legs that tremble beneath his gelatinous bulk. The most abstract of all these stylized figures are a group of gangsters who kidnap Champion. Black rectangles with identical faces, they snap together like Legos, creating a wall of darkness when they stand side by side.

The gangsters smuggle Champion to Belleville. Grandma and Bruno follow, hooking up with the triplets of the title, a trio of beatific music-hall stars who don’t seem to have noticed that their salad days ended decades ago. Together, they save Champion.

The lack of dialogue amps up your awareness of everything else. Just watching Bruno lumber upstairs to bark at a passing train made me laugh louder than I have at a movie in months. Grandma and Bruno’s ocean crossing, which is scored to a Mozart Mass, is eerily beautiful, and Belleville, an Ur-city whose production designer calls it “a baroque combination of Paris, Montreal and New York,” is fun to watch even when nothing much is happening, partly because of the grossly fat people who crowd its sidewalks, as bloated as balloons in the Macy’s parade.

Chômet cites the classics of Disney’s golden age in the 1950s as one of his main influences for animation style, and there’s an implicit nod to those movies in the way Triplets pauses to record little moments like the shadows cast by raindrops sliding down a windowpane. It took five years and scores of people to complete Triplets (stay for the credits to appreciate their numbers — and to savor the movie’s last joke). Uncle Walt would have approved of the care with which the movie was made, but he would have been scandalized by gritty realities like the hookers working the halls of the triplets’ flophouse. Chômet, who started as a comic-book artist, put in a brief stint at Disney, but its production-line style and whitewashed sensibility weren’t for him. “I've never been paid so much to be so useless,” he says.

The director draws all his own characters and works closely with the animators who work on his films. “What I am really interested in,” he told Animation World magazine, “is drawing caricature, how far you can push it, seeing if you can achieve something really strong, almost abstract.” Triplets is his second movie, but it’s the first to augment hand drawings with computer animation. Initially wary of the technique, Chômet warmed up to it when he realized it could, as he says, take care of “all the boring stuff” like vehicles that don’t change as they move, allowing the animators to concentrate on the characters.

The movie’s infectious score ranges from music hall ballads to an acoustic guitar number in the style of Django Reinhardt to a Stomp-like performance by the triplets and Grandma Souza on an assortment of household appliances. Watching four unarmed elderly women take down the French Mafia is a pleasant bit of wish-fulfillment. Watching the same four perform a jazzy little number on newspaper, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and bicycle wheel is even better. Getting both in one 80-minute movie, along with all of Triplets’ other visual and aural treats, is exhilarating.

If you want to feel bad about the state of movies these days, meditate on the fact that Triplets is playing on less than one-tenth as many screens as Disney’s blah Brother Bear. But if you’re looking for good news, think about this: Triplets got a standing ovation at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s been sold to 37 countries so far.

Given the chance, a lot of us clearly love to watch an unfettered imagination at play.