Flicks with The Film Snob features a weekly film review focused on new independent releases and old classics. Chris Dashiell knows film, and he knows enough to know what’s worth watching and why. Produced in Tucson Arizona at KXCI Community Radio.
My Own Private Idaho
One of my favorite working American directors is Gus Van Sant. His adventurous style was evident in his early films, of which one of the finest is his 1991 effort, My Own Private Idaho.
In My Own Private Idaho, the late River Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a young street hustler wandering through the Pacific Northwest, who is subject to fits of narcolepsy. He tends to conk out whenever things get too difficult and stressful, and in his dream states we see images of his childhood and long-lost mother. He gets picked up by a Portland woman who takes him to her house, where it turns out there are already two other male prostitutes. Mike has one of his sleeping fits there, and is carried out in his helpless state by one of the hustlers, Scott Favor, played by Keanu Reeves. They become friends, and Scott introduces him to other denizens of Portland’s skid row.
Van Sant is most interested in evoking feeling states through visual style, and only secondarily in narrative. This film is about what it feels like to be a drifter, surviving from day to day, hanging out in diners and flophouses, smoking, talking aimlessly. Narcolepsy, which has its own drifting quality, is a perfect thematic device for this picture. The travels of the two main characters are punctuated with large, unexplained gaps: they just show up in places somehow. There’s a constant sense of sadness and disconnection here, but also a sort of devil-may-care sense of humor, the humor of young adventurers with nothing to lose.
We discover eventually, in a casual way, that Scott comes from a rich family. Here is injected the motif, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, of the profligate young Prince Hal (namely, Scott) and the older man Falstaff, both mentor and victim—in this case an old, overweight gay drifter named Bob, played by William Reichert, proud in his way but perpetually in need of money, the hope for which forms part of his attachment to Scott. Van Sant even incorporates some of the actual lines from Shakespeare’s play, and he’s in such control here that this doesn’t seem awkward at all. Throughout the picture, he aims for stylized poetic expression rather than realism, so the Prince Hal theme ends up fitting right in.
Keanu Reeves is required to play a self-centered character who resists vulnerability, and since that’s within his range, he does well. Phoenix’s character, however, is really the heart of the film—it’s impossible to imagine another actor who could’ve portrayed this figure of lost, wounded innocence and make it convincing, as he does. Among the film’s scattered journeys, the quest for Mike’s mother carries the central meaning. The child’s overpowering need for love and home is the one underlying fact, the key thread in this wistful, ragged tapestry of a movie.
An elegy for youthful wanderers, My Own Private Idaho is available on DVD.
A veteran of Soviet cinema presents a powerful drama about an incident in 1962, when factory workers in a Don Region city go on strike, and a true believer in Stalinism must face the consequences of the corruption she has supported.
Andrei Konchalovsky is one of the last of the great “second generation” in Soviet cinema. He started in Russia in the 1970s, and eventually came to Hollywood. He’s always had a penchant for big blockbuster-type movies, action thrillers and epics. So it’s an unexpected twist that, at 83 years old, and now back in Russia, he’s made something unlike anything he’d done before—a careful, quiet, serious historical drama, a portrait in black-and-white of what an autocratic regime will do to the people who believe in and work for it. Based on a little known incident in 1962, it’s called Dear Comrades!
The Soviet government presented itself as a society by and for the working class. By definition, it wasn’t supposed to have labor troubles. If there were any, we on the outside would never hear about it. But in ‘62, in a city in southwest Russia called Novocherkassk, the combination of food prices suddenly skyrocketing while wages were being cut led to an actual strike by factory workers, a thing unheard of for forty years. The strikers shut down the plant and marched on Party headquarters in an organized demonstration. So, did Khrushchev’s government negotiate with the workers? No. Did it send in the Army and the KGB to violently suppress the revolt? Yes.
Konchalovsky could have told this true story from the workers’ point of view, as a form of remembrance or even a rallying cry, but the way he chose to tell it is a stroke of genius. We witness these tragic events from the point of view of the Party functionaries, the people in charge of upholding the establishment against the strikers. This narrative strategy reveals the tortured, dishonest mindset of those who obey the authorities without question.
Our main character is Lyuda Semina, spokesperson for the local committee of security for the city, and played by the excellent Yuliya Vysotskaya. Lyuda is the widow of an officer killed in World War II. She has a teenage daughter, rebellious and defiant; and her aged father also lives with her, a veteran of the early revolutionary period. In the opening scene we learn that she’s having a soulless affair with some party big shot. She must have been beautiful in the past, and you can still catch glimpses of that, but in her face and eyes today we can see a lifetime of care and worry. Lyuda thinks the country is sliding into ruin. She wishes Stalin were still alive—if he were still around, she believes, things wouldn’t be going so wrong. The strike disgusts her and makes her angry, and one of the fascinating aspects of this film is watching her and the committee trying to cope with a crisis they refuse to understand.
The strike ends in massacre, and Lyuda is caught in the middle—Konchalovsky’s depiction of the resulting chaos in the streets is gripping in its matter-of-fact sense of horror. And then Lyuda discovers that her daughter, who worked at the factory, is not at home like she thought she was, and is in fact missing. Was she one of the people who got shot? The mother goes from hospital to morgue, from one official to the next, eventually enlisting the help of a weirdly sympathetic KGB officer, and seeking relentlessly for any clue of what has happened to her daughter. Along the journey, the conflict in her heart between the faith and devoted service she has always given to the state, and the possibility that her only child might have been taken from her, drives her to the breaking point. Rarely has such pain and disillusionment been conveyed this boldly in a film.
Went the Day Well?
One of the most unusual examples of propaganda ever filmed, made in the midst of the Second World War, imagines what it would be like if Germans captured a small English town in preparation for a major invasion.
Propaganda has gotten a bad name over the years. All it means, really, is information that presents a point of view, usually of a political nature, but so often it has meant governments trying to mislead people about facts and conditions in order to gain or maintain power. So this has become the general sense by which we understand the word. But propaganda has also been used to boost morale during wartime or other national crises, like the flag-waving films that were prevalent in America during World War II. However, in Great Britain during that war, they had some extraordinary filmmakers who weren’t jingoistic or pushing a hard sell message in their films, but genuinely tried to show the reality of the war, and especially the conditions and actions of people on the home front. These British films are works of art in their own right. And by far the most unusual, the most extraordinary movie of this kind was a work of fiction. Based on a short story by Graham Greene, and released in 1942 at the height of the conflict, its title was a question: Went the Day Well?
A group of soldiers arrives at the quiet little village of Bramley End—to conduct training exercises, according to their commander. The villagers welcome them, putting the officers up at various homes, while the regular troops stay at the town hall. Over the next couple of days, some odd details cause one young woman, the daughter of the local vicar, to be suspicious. One soldier claims to be from Manchester but is ignorant of certain details about that city. A scrap of paper used for scoring a card game features some words in German. The audience is eventually let in on the secret before the characters figure it out. These are German soldiers laying the groundwork for an imminent invasion of England. By the time the villagers figure this out, it’s too late. The Germans drop the pretense and herd everyone into the town hall, warning that resistance will result in mass executions. The people need to do something to get help and warn the outside world of the threat. But how?
The title Went the Day Well? is from a patriotic poem of the time: “Went the day well? We died and never knew. But well or ill, freedom, we died for you.” From the storyline I’ve described, you might expect the movie to be one of those lighthearted romps where the common people easily outwit the enemy, triumphing through their plucky ingenuity. But no, this is dead serious. Escaping the trap won’t be easy, and what makes the film really different is that the stakes are set as high as they would be in real life. The violence is ruthless and explicit, which is rather shocking for a movie from 1942. To defeat the enemy, people will have to put their lives on the line.
The film was designed to inspire courage on the home front during a war that was still going on, but despite the propaganda-style motive, this is actually a really exciting movie. In fact, it’s thrilling. Accepting the story’s premise, which is of course rather implausible on the face of it, leads the viewer into an intense and gripping drama of life and death. The British audience experienced how it might feel to be under enemy occupation, and the fear and desperation that would involve.
The director was Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian of Italian descent who emigrated to England in the 1930s, joining the national documentary unit and quickly becoming one of the more prominent, and adventurous, British directors. To make a film during the war that portrayed an infiltration into the
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Mikio Naruse’s great 1960 film presents a compassionate view of the life of bar hostesses in a disreputable section of Tokyo.
I find it puzzling that Japanese director Mikio Naruse didn’t become more well-known in the West. His films are honest, complex, and mature, done in a very modern, forward-looking style. In his great 1960 film called When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, he introduces us to an unusual realm: Tokyo’s Ginza district, with its many nightclubs and bars.
Keiko is a widowed bar hostess in Tokyo, a job that involves providing company to the bar’s male clients, many of them married, yet lonely. She supervises all the younger hostesses and is thus nicknamed “Mama.” As she approaches the age of thirty, her options are to either buy her own bar or try to get married. A younger former employee has purchased her own place with apparent success, and that’s what Mama is inclined to do, but her troubled family is constantly pressuring her for money, and there are a few customers whom she hopes might release her through marriage from what seems to be an increasingly dead-end occupation.
The director takes an elliptical approach to his story through several characters and situations before we finally get to know the main character, played with remarkable grace and intelligence by Hideko Takamine, Naruse’s favorite actress, who had already done nine films with him and would do seven more. The marvelous screenplay, with its careful interweaving of multiple characters around a central theme, was by Ryuzo Kikushima, who scripted many of Kurosawa’s best films. The widescreen black-and-white photography by Masao Tamai is exquisite. This is an exemplary production in every way, not a tearjerker but a multi-layered drama, measured in tone and covering a wide range of feeling and insight as embodied in its lead character, and reflecting the restricted choices faced by Japanese women.
Mama, like all the hostesses, is required to navigate the numerous and conflicting desires of men in order to survive. When the wealthier ones start frequenting her younger rival’s establishment, it’s a warning that her charm may be diminishing and her time running out. One rich man wants her as his mistress; she prefers another one as a possible spouse, but she feels conflicted because of loyalty to the memory of her late husband. Another prospect, shy and homely, seems intent on a proposal. Add to the mix the bar manager who is secretly in love with Mama, and a saucy younger hostess who finds her own way to get ahead, and you have an intriguing story presented with subtle artistry. In one brilliant and decisive scene, Naruse uses a child circling around aimlessly on a tricycle to underline a moment of shock and the collapse of hope. Our main character, however, does not collapse, but continues her life with quiet courage and resilience.
Five films from British director Steve McQueen, depicting the experiences of West Indian British families in London from the late 1960s through the 80s, is one of the great cinematic achievements of the century.
What have you been doing during the pandemic? Well, British director Steve McQueen, best known for the Academy Award winning film 12 Years a Slave, has been very busy. He released five motion pictures in 2020. That’s right, five. In the midst of one of the world’s great disasters, McQueen gave us one of the great achievements in cinema of this century. They comprise a film anthology for the BBC, that played here in the States on Amazon Prime. The title is from a Bob Marley song that mentions as a metaphor of resistance a big tree being felled by a small axe. Each film tells a story about West Indian immigrant families in London from the 1960s through the 80s. Small Axe was marketed as a TV series, which in a way it is because theatrical exhibition went down during the pandemic, and TV was the only way to show them to a wide audience. But make no mistake, these are films, each one with a different story and characters.
The first and longest is Mangrove, telling the true story of a London restaurant called The Mangrove, started by Frank Crichlow, an immigrant from Trinidad. The Notting Hill neighborhood was a center for the West Indian community in the late 60s. The restaurant there instantly attracts a host of loyal customers, not only for its excellent Caribbean food, but as a sorely needed place for people to meet and socialize. But the police don’t look kindly on black people gathering together, and headed by a racist constable named Frank Pulley, they conduct a series of raids on the restaurant, claiming that it is a source of drugs and crime. Crichlow is not an activist; he just wants to be left alone, but his friends rally to support him with a protest march. The cops surround the protesters and violence breaks out. Nine people, including Crichlow, are arrested and charged with rioting. The case of the Mangrove Nine sparks political controversy.
A large cast, headed by Shaun Parkes as Crichlow, brings the grueling ordeal of the long court case to life. McQueen, whose parents were from Grenada and Trinidad, conveys the behavior and conversation of these characters from the inside, as we are immersed in the atmosphere of the London streets in that era. There are no punches pulled; we witness the real effects of white supremacy as experienced by black Londoners. The honest depiction of truth has a liberating effect on the viewer. This is intense, vibrant movie making.
The second film, and the most highly praised critically, is Lovers Rock. It tells of a reggae house party put on by a group of largely Jamaican Londoners in the 70s. Once again, there are many characters whom we follow through a single day during the preparations and then the actual party, where people get high and dance to a mix of reggae and American soul music. Never have I seen a party so perfectly portrayed on screen. It’s as if you’re actually there—it’s a very seductive experience in which some difficult sexual politics get played out as well. The film finally narrows down to one woman and one man, making a profoundly emotional connection.
The third film is titled Red, White and Blue, which refers to the colors of the Union Jack. It stars John Boyega, who you might remember from the recent Star Wars films, as Leroy Logan, the first black officer in the London Metropolitan Police. H
The true story of the 2018 effort to rescue thirteen boys trapped in a huge flooded cave in Thailand is more exciting than most fiction.
There are true stories that are so exciting, documentary filmmakers must dream about the chance of covering them. A new film called The Rescue is a good example of this: it’s about the boys’ soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand in the summer of 2018. If you pay attention at all to the news, you would have heard about this. I did, but like a lot of news stories I only caught a few details at the time. I didn’t know how incredible and amazing the events really were. But the press did, and the film studios sensed it—there’s already been a Thai documentary, I believe, and apparently Netflix has bought the rights to dramatize the incident in a feature film.
The Rescue, the film I just watched, was directed by two filmmakers that are used to making movies about extreme situations, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, married climbers and the directors of two excellent films about climbing, Meru, and Free Solo, which I reviewed on this show. Those were fascinating stories about people who choose to put themselves at risk in order to achieve unprecedented feats of skill. But with The Rescue, there’s much more at stake.
A severe monsoon caused massive flooding in northern Thailand, and thirteen boys were reported missing. They had been exploring one of the country’s biggest caves when flash floods suddenly filled it. As the film opens, authorities don’t know whether any boys have survived. An Englishman named Vern Unsworth happens to live in the area, has explored the cave many times, and is also a diver. When the Thai government sends divers to try to explore the cave, their lack of experience in cave diving hampers their efforts. They ask Unsworth if he can find some expert cave divers. It turns out that he knows just the right people, and four British and Australian divers answer the call.
When they arrive in Thailand, the locals are skeptical. These are middle-aged men—the leader, Rick Stanton, a remarkable character we will get to know better as the film goes on, is 60 years old. They wear t-shirts and sandals and like to drink and tell stories. They don’t look like the guys who will save the day. But the thing is, they love cave-diving, the silence and the solitude and the great skill involved, and they’ve been doing it successfully for years.
Then the film provides more details and origin stories as the drama unfolds, getting us up to date on the situation. The divers need to find out if anyone’s still alive down there. That’s almost half the film, just exploring and searching for survivors in this cave that is over six miles long with different areas and branches. Then, after finally discovering that indeed they were still alive, deep in the cave, the question becomes: how in the world can they get the boys out alive? Even the Thai divers and SEAL teams became totally exhausted trying to swim through this cave, so these teen and preteen boys wouldn’t have a chance.
Now, if you followed the news story, you know how this turned out. But that doesn’t matter, because the film takes you into the suspense of the moment anyway, even though you know the ending, through actual footage taken by the divers mixed with beautifully executed reenactments. The tension of trying to figure out how to rescue the boys, and then pulling off the very difficult plan that they finally decided on, is some of the most riveting film viewing I’ve ever experienced. In addition, another important true character emerges later on—a doctor and diver who ends up playing a key role. Like I said, the story is amazing, better than anything you could