Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just My Imagination: America, America

There’s something about the way we watch movies, all that dreaming in the dark, that gives them a pipeline to the subconscious. You never know when something – a mood, a moment, a gesture, a line – will jump that screen/brain membrane to tattoo itself onto the insides of your eyelids.

It could be a great movie, an okay one, a really bad one. It could even be a movie you’ve never seen.

That’s how it is for me and America America. When I first read that Elia Kazan had made a movie about a Greek and an Armenian who emigrate to this country from Turkey around the turn of the last century, a ghost of that story moved into some empty attic in my brain. In the years since, I’ve seen stills from America America, read what I could find about it, and hung a beautiful Polish poster of it in my living room. I still haven’t seen it, but I think about it far more than I think about hundreds of movies I have seen.

My Armenian great-grandfather, the family patriarch, sent my father’s family to this land of opportunity when Dad was 13. The old man wanted my father, who he doted on, to make something of himself, and he probably would have been pleased at the result: Dad got a good education, became a professor, and made a comfortable living doing work that he loved. But those gains came at a price, a severing of the past that must still ache for Dad sometimes like a phantom limb.

One summer, we were walking on the beach when he stopped in his tracks. “It’s strange to have to talk to my children in English,” he said. Suddenly I saw my childhood from his point of view. How odd it must have felt to watch his thoroughly American kids experience things he never had, to realize how foreign the tastes and sounds and experiences of his own childhood were to us.

My father never liked to talk about his past, and so, more than his boyhood culture or his family’s history, his legacy to me was the aching in his phantom limb, that immigrant’s sense of isolation.

I tried forging my own connections to what Dad called “the old country” in college, studying Armenian language and history, but academic lectures left me cold. I got more from art: Arshile Gorky’s paintings of his mother, Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat, Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, and the America America of my imagination.

Kazan was the kind of artist who I trusted to help me understand the world that both his and my father had come from. A co-founder of the Group Theater, which in turn launched the Method Acting revolution, Kazan was a great director of actors. The best of his work brims with energy, humor, and the resonant moments that can flow from even a hackneyed script when it’s acted with naked emotional honesty. And when he worked with writers like Budd Schulberg and Tennessee Williams, Kazan got close to greatness.

He also had a talent for capturing the feel of a particular place and time. On the Waterfront tackled corruption on the docks of New York City. Panic in the Street was a breakneck race through New Orleans, its plot a thin excuse to introduce a range of vivid, authentic-feeling characters and locations. A Face in the Crowd, a funny, full-blooded dissection of TV’s power to create demagogues, was so prescient in its understanding of that new medium that audiences pretty much tuned it out when it was released in 1956.

America America was Kazan’s most autobiographical film, one of the few he wrote as well as directed. It was also his favorite (“I don’t think it’s my best film,” he said. “It’s my favorite film.”) He based the story on the life of his Uncle Joe, an opportunist who came to this country on his own as a young man, showing the hardships that had turned a too-trusting boy into a too-tough adult.

“More than any of his films it achieves that simple and rather artless realism that was at the heart of his aesthetic,” wrote Richard Schickel in his biography of Kazan. But Kazan was after more than just realism. By emphasizing the essential elements of his uncle’s story while faithfully recreating a specific place and time, he said, he was aiming for “realism raised to the point of legend.”

Realism raised to the point of legend. I like that phrase. That’s a good description of the concentrated, complicated sense of melancholy I feel when I look at the mournful young man on my Polish movie poster. Since I don’t read Polish, the words across his face don’t get in the way of imagining the story behind that ineffably sad face. Even the movie itself doesn’t get in the way, since I haven’t seen it.

According to Wikipedia, America America has been on video since 1994, but it’s not easy to find. It was never in a video store when I’ve looked for it, you can’t rent it through Netflix, and I’ve never come across it in a revival theater or on late-night TV. But it’s beginning to feel a little perverse not to have seen it.

So I plan to be there next Wednesday, when it will be screened for a Princeton University film class. It’s time to see how the real thing compares to my dream.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

By Elise Nakhnikian

Just a couple weeks ago I was writing about Fool’s Gold, complaining that they don’t make romantic comedies like they used to any more. So I’m grateful to the estimable Miss Pettigrew, who showed up last weekend in a lovely blue scarf. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

When we first meet Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), things aren’t going her way at all. A failed governess, she’s unemployed and slipping quietly into desperate destitution when she grabs at one last chance, reporting to work for Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams).

Delysia is a small-time singer and aspiring actress with big-time ambitions. Like Miss Pettigrew, she teeters on the brink of a crisis: She can’t decide whether to follow her heart or her head. She needs Miss Pettigrew to help her choose between the three men she’s juggling, each of whom represents a very different career path. Phil, the callow young producer and playboy (the boyishly beautiful Tom Payne), can get Delysia the starring part she wants in a West End play. Nick (Mark Strong, who could be Andy Garcia’s younger brother), the slick operator who owns the nightclub where she sings – not to mention the swanky apartment where she lives –can give her anything but love. And her piano player Michael (the soulful Lee Pace) wants to be her accompanist for life.

Of course, we know whose arms Miss Pettigrew will deliver her into, but it’s fun to watch them get there, as what starts out like a French farce, complete with slamming bedroom doors, turns into a more standard romance.

But in the end, this cheery fable is less about any of Delysia’s men than it is about the mutually empowering friendship developed by the two women over the course of one very full day. Sensible, loyal, and infinitely resourceful, Miss Pettigrew is just the “personal secretary” Delysia needs. For her part, Delysia makes her nearly invisible friend visible, first taking her advice and then getting her out of her drab brown clothes and into some very pretty things, starting with that beautiful scarf.

Over the course of her frenetic day with Delysia, Miss Pettigrew acquires a suitor of her own, a surprisingly romantic Ciarán Hinds. It’s a treat to watch this decidedly middle-aged, unglamorous pair charm each other – and us.

With her somewhat horsey, naturally lined face and doughy arms and ankles, McDormand was born to play aging girls next door like Miss Pettigrew or Fargo’s Marge, women whose beauty reveals itself only as you grow to love them. McDormand’s heroines ooze common sense and empathy. But those comforting maternal facades hide rich, if largely untapped, veins of mischief.

Adams’ frothy flirtatiousness glitters prettily in the solid setting of McDormand’s sanity. Ever since she stole the show as a naïve but loveable young wife in Junebug, the actress has specialized in characters brimming with open-hearted optimism, and Delysia is no exception.

I think Adams would have reminded me of Carole Lombard even if the script had not so often name-checked the earlier actress, since she channels Lombard’s ditzy but good-hearted charm as well as her delicate beauty. But there’s also a lot of Betty Boop in Adams, who’s earthier than Lombard and who lacks the hysterical edge that could make Lombard seem more infantile than madcap.

It’s a tribute to Miss Pettigrew that it makes you think about the comediennes of the 1930s and ‘40s. That’s probably thanks in part to the fact that the book it was based on was published in 1938. Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) also deserve credit for maintaining the brisk pace of those fast-talking farces, their sunny faith in human nature, and their satisfying way of giving everyone just what he or she deserves in the end. And costume designer Michael O’Connor and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job of finding or creating gorgeous pre-war clothes and settings, though the extras in the party scene were somewhat less convincing than the canapes.

The period touches feel a little forced at times – the actors sometimes talk too fast, as if just speeding up the dialogue would make it funnier, and the words themselves can be a bit clayfooted, more earnest and less witty than the best of the screwball scripts. In fact, there are few if any great lines or truly memorable moments in Miss Pettigrew.

But it’s hardly fair to compare this to the best of the screwball comedies, which rank among the very best American movies ever made. Miss Pettigrew may not be great, but it is delightful. In years to come, when I get frustrated by the quality of the romantic comedies in theaters, I can easily imagine turning to this one for another fine evening’s entertainment.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Counterfeiters

By Elise Nakhnikian

For decades, your standard Nazi movie featured SS officers so evil they might have goose-stepped out of the pages of EC Comics. We probably needed that catharsis, given the horror and extent of the Holocaust, but movies like that avoid hard questions about human nature, flattering viewers by assuring us that we’d all have been good guys if we’d had the bad luck to be caught in that time and place.

We seem to be ready now to face more complicated truths about what led to the Holocaust and what people did to survive it. A recent New York Times article said a popular graphic novel is being used in German classrooms to teach kids about WWII. The novel looks at choices made by regular citizens that either helped or hindered the Nazi agenda, “instances where ordinary individuals — farmers, shopkeepers, soldiers, prison guards, even camp inmates — faced dilemmas, acted selfishly or ambiguously: showed themselves to be human.”

Movies seem to be going down the same path. 2005’s Downfall, a German production based on a German book, looked at the fanatic loyalty Hitler inspired in so many of his countrymen. Last year’s Black Book, by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, was a dry-eyed tale of compromises made by a Jewish beauty who survives the war by passing for Christian in occupied Holland. And The Counterfeiters, another German production based on a nonfiction book and this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film, is about what writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky calls “one of the most interesting aspects of the concentration camp phenomenon: the moral plight of the prisoners.”

A darker cousin to The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Counterfeiters tells the true story of a group of Jews brought from other camps to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they carried out the largest counterfeiting operation ever conducted, mass-producing first the British pound, then the American dollar. (The Nazis planned to flood both economies with excess bills.)

The movie starts with a shot of the ocean on a gray day when the sea merges almost seamlessly with the sky, the horizon barely perceptible. It’s a nice visual metaphor for the story’s moral landscape, where the only choices offered are usually between a terrible option and an even worse one, and where people rarely have the luxury of being sure that they are doing the right thing.

Unless they’re Adolf Burger. Burger wrote The Devil's Workshop, the book the film is based on, and he plays a prominent role in the movie, functioning as half the group’s conscience. Burger (August Diehl) and his wife were arrested and sent to the camps for printing anti-Nazi flyers and false identification papers for Jews eager to escape. To him, “the reason we’re printers is to print the truth,” and that truth is literally worth dying for (his wife perished in Auschwitz). So he persistently sabotages the Nazis’ plans, ruining plates that are meticulously created by master printer Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics).

It may be Burger’s book, but it’s Sorowitsch’s movie. Based on real-life counterfeiting genius Salomon Smolianoff, the gimlet-eyed hard guy seems at first like an amoral opportunist. But the camera that sticks to him like a faithful dog slowly reveals his soft side. It also shows him to be a natural leader, inspiring and protecting his men.

Sorowitsch was a criminal before the war, printing fake money and fake IDs just to make a buck. The flip side of the group’s conscience, he still lives by a criminal’s code of honor, doing what it takes to protect himself and his men. That means he’s torn between going along with the Nazis and covering for Burger’s sabotage. After all, as he warns one of the other men: “One never squeals on one’s mates.”

Sorowitsch and his men are nurtured, even pampered when they do what they’re told, assigned to a “golden cage” with mattresses, pillows, sufficient food, warm showers, and even luxuries like records and a ping-pong table. Better yet, the guards are under order to leave them alone.

But those privileges can always be revoked, and the penalty for being caught defying orders is death. The constant fear of discovery keeps the hum of danger in the air, making the men lash out at each other at times.

A few bits, like the subplot about Sorowitsch’s surrogate son and a montage of obtuse remarks lobbed at Sorowitsch by the camp commander’s clueless wife, strain too hard to create an effect, but nearly every scene lands with the clarity and emotional impact of a seminal memory. Naturalistic lighting and a camera that acts as an unobtrusive witness help keep you firmly grounded in Sorowitsch’s world, while chilling glimpses and sound bites keep him – and us – from ever forgetting what’s going on in the camp outside.

The Counterfeiters makes you wonder how it might feel to be trapped in a place like that – and whether you’d have enough courage and faith to buck the system.