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Forgotten Films:World Music and American Violence

Please don't get me wrong. What follows is not an anti-American diatribe. It just so happens that the films I'm about to describe are mostly foreign, and the one American film—a rather great one—happens to be somewhat violent.

What Means Motley?

In 1999 a choir of 41 singers from Romania arrived in Dublin and vanished immediately, never to be heard from again. Here directors John Ketchum and John Riley envision how it might have happened. But the plot revolves around an Irishman down on his luck in Romania, and the difficulties he runs into with the Gypsy mafia. Fortunately he has an ally--a Romanian taxi-driver who wants to leave the country almost more than he does. The Irishman is a naive, never-say-die type, and he's been liberally endowed with the gift of gab. Once he's rescued a beautiful Romanian woman (whom her father has just gambled away in a poker game) from her pursuers a few times, the trio sets to work on a plan to make some money and pay off their underworld debts by smuggling some of the locals to Ireland as a Romanian folk choir.

Plenty of madcap confusion ensues involving Gypsy bands, the Irish consulate, a fake CD, and plenty of beer. The decrepit streets of Bucharest take on the golden luster of ageless punk beauties, the tired cars and abandoned buildings provide a perfect backdrop for a desperate scenario sustained only by good luck, imagination, and the comic chutzpah of Ardian Ciglenean in the role of the festival "agent."


The title is not memorable, but the film is. An Irish street-corner folk singer meets up with a Czech émigré who also happens to be musical. He's pining for lost love, she's wondering how her marriage is going to work out, considering that she's living in Ireland with her mother and her husband is off somewhere on the Continent. She responds immediately to the rather joyous pathos in his music, which makes her wonder why he's still in Ireland rather than pursuing his girl-friend to London. The two don't exactly fall in love, but they wander the streets of Dublin singing songs, they form a band and cut a record, and it's all rather charming. If you like the first scene, in which our hero sings his heart out and this strange woman responds, you'll like the film. If not, probably not.

La Vie en Rose

Traditional French culture seems to float in a scented bath of beauty and joie de vivre, so that people love, eat, drink, whine, cheat and betray one another, and occasionally commit crimes of passion within a hovering atmosphere of timeless sensuality and existential rectitude (now there's an interesting phrase) that renders the particular events being depicted somewhat inconsequential, no matter how germane they may be to life or the development of the plot. The pervasive charm of the whole trumps the moral implications of the storyline, and the message is always the same: C' est la Vie. We like the wine, the fresh bread, the streets of Paris, the rows of poplars leading up the drive to the country estate, and the commanding logic of l‘ Amour, which, for good or ill, obliterates everything in its path.

In recent decades—to judge from the films they're putting out—the French seem to have lost their charm. No sooner are these words out of my mouth, however, than I'm reminded of Joyeux Noel, a truly charming French film about trench warfare. So all is not yet lost. Yet the trend is marked, and the latest French blockbuster, La Vie en Rose, only serves to confirm it.

Now, everyone ought to have an Edith Piaf record. (The question is, Does anyone need two?) Though her signature numbers tend to be a little strident, they evoke the atmosphere of Parisian cabaret life during the inter-war years, which is when Piaf rose to prominence as a popular entertainer. Few of us were alive then, but it's easy to appreciate the romantic, nostalgic, bitter-sweet and also hard-edged flavor of the music, and Piaf's voice has no rivals in its power to get the mood across. There is enough crisp energy in a single one of her rolled “r”s to shatter glass, and her vibrato is so tight you could hang your wash out to dry on it. Piaf was only 4 ft 8 (the little sparrow, you know) and yet she could belt out melodies with remarkable intensity. No one who knows her music, I think, would hesitate to call it “great.”

Yet alongside the music, there is also the Piaf myth. She was raised in the street, in a brothel, in a circus. She was “discovered,” she wowed chic and wealthy Parisians with her expressive power. She became famous, performed in America, was on Ed Sullivan eight times, and along the way became an icon of her own nation, like Amelia Rodriguez in Portugal or Frank Sinatra (?) in the United States. Yet through it all she retained the impulsiveness of her lowly origins (Good for her!) became addicted to morphine, frequently spat on her patrons and benefactors, and burned out at the tender age of 47.

At any rate, that is the story we receive from La Vie en Rose , which is a strange and unsatisfying film, in which Piaf comes across as an egotistical maniac. Why is there no mention of her (often successful) efforts on behalf of French prisoners during WWII, or her contributions to the fledgling careers of Yves Montand or Charles Avnesvour? On the other hand, Piaf's affair with the Moroccan boxer Marcel Cerdan is elevated here to a position of Olympian devotion, “The love of her life!” yet she had so many affairs during the course of her career that no one could count them up. Piaf's artistry always seems to take a back seat to her brash and arbitrary personal whims, though the film does underscore how important the song-writers were to her success. And far too much time is devoted to her final years, when she was worn out and ill—she died of cancer. In fact, the director, Olivier Dahan, handles the time-shifts as if he had just been watching The Great Train Robbery (1903) .

In short, Edith Piaf was a far more interesting and attractive figure than the one being presented to us here. Yet like most bio-pics of musicians, La Vie en Rose , for all its shabbiness, does holds our interest. There is always the next song, the next insult, the next overdose. A more sympathetic portrait, and a better film, is Claude Lelouch's Edith and Marcel . And an excellent documentary was released in 1999 or thereabouts. I have a copy on VHS if you want to borrow it.

Gypsy Caravan

Bands of gypsies from India, Romania, Spain, and Macedonia tour the United States together in this documentary and the big question is, Why didn't they come to Minneapolis? Well, now we have the chance to see them perform, and also smoke cigarettes and chat in the bus. It's a fine collage which has often been compared to Latcho Drom. That's a bit of a stretch. But the movie does allow us to hear quite a bit of good music, and the film-makers actually went to the villages and homes of the performers, which offers a fascinating sidelight to the performances. It has been called the Buena Vista Club of gypsy music, but to my mind it's a far better movie than that one, because the cultures are more diverse and interesting.

After the Wedding

After the Wedding is a rich family drama in which skeletons emerge from the closet early on. Much of the film deals with how various family members deal with them. The acting is fine, the filming is fluid, and the characters themselves are intriguing, all of which compensates for an occasional whiff of melodrama floating in the air. And what's wrong with a little melodrama anyway?

Ah, there is the aesthetic question. In great drama, our emotional involvement is undergirded by sound character development, so that as we ponder the story later, its beauty and truth sink ever deeper. In melodrama, on the other hand, events are sometimes designed to pull our heartstrings, and they do, though the actions themselves may seem somewhat arbitrary of inconsistent when we review them in retrospect. The effect is pleasing but short-lived.

After the Wedding focuses on a few days in the life of a middle-aged Danish man who operates an orphanage in India. All the kids love him and they're a little upset when he informs them that he has to go back to Denmark to finalize a grant that the orphanage has received. Mads Mikkelsen, whom some viewers may remember as the bad guy with the suitcase of African money at the beginning of Casino Royale , is less malevolent but no less enigmatic here as the returning Dane. The gentleman who's planning to award the grant, played by Rolf Lassgård, is a flamboyant creature, a self-made man who's used to getting his own way and breaking the rules on occasion to do it. The two don't really like each other. Mads is reserved—he'd rather be back in India. Rolf is more than a little overbearing. Well, he's the one with all the money.

Rolf's daughter is getting married, and he invites Mads to the wedding. Mads arrives late and takes a seat in the back just as the daughter is informing the surprised guests in the sweetest way possible that her father is not her biological father, though she loves him no less for that. The girl's mother turns in her pew and catches sight of Mads. Need I say more?

The rest of the film examines how wife, daughter, husband deal with the presence of that figure from the past who has suddenly reappeared in their midst, and how Mads himself deals with the knowledge that he has a daughter. Further complications arise due to Rolf's serious health problems and his new son-in-law's impatience with this sudden shift in family focus. All kinds of emotions erupt, and that makes the film great fun to watch. But once we've been through this wringer of discovery and recrimination, love and loss, we arrive at a place that seems to satisfy the requirement of story-telling rather than to expose anything genuine about these people, or about life. Perhaps the terminal illness was one too many elements for a two-hour movie to bear.

To take a few examples, we really have no idea how deeply Mads and the millionaire wife once cared about each other. At the time he was so irresponsible that there was probably no hope for the relationship from the start. We don't know if Rolf already knew that Mads was the father of his child when he demanded that he come to Denmark as a requirement for the grant, though it seems not. We don't know if the daughter is an rich-girl princess airhead, though that's the way she's portrayed early on in the film. Her fiancé certainly seems shallow enough from the start.

One critic has written that “questions of responsibility haunt this film” but the larger question is, is this a film of love regained, or of idiots stumbling in the dark? The director has a responsibility to etch her characters in such a way that we gain an insight not only into how they feel, moment by moment, but also into who they are, or who they might become.

3:10 to Yuma

We have the West and also the “myth of the West.” Out of the myth of the West came the Western, and then came the “myth of the Western.” The myth of the Western is that all westerns follow a formula. They don't, and thus it seems odd to hear westerns being referred to as revisionist westerns. But thus it has always been. I would like to hear someone describe the common pattern to be found in The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), My Darling Clementine (1946), and Ride the High Country (1962). Or perhaps, widening the angle on our lens a little, I wonder if a comparative analysis of The Big Trail (1930), Stagecoach (1939), Shane (1953), and The Wild Bunch (1969) would bear fruit. I doubt it. No doubt there are recurrent themes, as there are in any genre. And there are also films set in the West that clearly have their attention focused on other things— Little Big Man , Buffalo Bill and the Indians , or Another Man, Another Chance, for example.

Westerns appeal to film-goers throughout the world because the settings are picturesque and the social veneer is so thin that the drama veritably explodes off the screen. The evil may be diabolical, the sentiments cornball, but the wide open spaces act as a benign and moderating force. Westerns are eternally irrelevant...but relevance itself is a passing thing, after all. Whereas art is eternal.

3:10 to Yuma is a remake of a western made in 1957, the year that also saw the release of Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns, Anthony Mann's The Tin Star, and forty-seven other Westerns. The current remake is a fascinating character-study of two flawed men thrown together by circumstances, one of them a highly-skilled criminal and the other a hapless dirt-farmer. One of them has no conscience, the other perhaps too much. In any case, in the hands of Russell Crowe and Christopher Bale their interplay takes on a degree of psychological interest that has little to do with the Wild West. Yet 3:10 to Yuma is unquestionably a Western, and there is plenty of shooting going on, not to mention the folks getting hurled into ravines, immolated in a stage coach, or stabbed to death with a dining-room fork. Scene after scene the film remains gripping, and not all of it is violent.

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