“Do you fall asleep during movies?”
That was the question most asked of me while attending the 10th Annual Sarasota Film Festival, a seemingly innocuous query, first time out, that took on a deeper resonance as it was posited, more and more, by family—with whom I was staying in Englewood, a nearby suburb—and festival-goers alike. The short answer given: “No, I don’t fall asleep during movies, though it isn’t for lack of trying.”
Expanding on the thought: Anytime I try to fall asleep in kino, I’m usually making a concerted effort to escape some awful, torturous, quite literal “thing” that deigns call itself a movie, though I’m happy to say such incidents are few and far between. Among the memorable worst: a college-mandated series of Italian short films and a ninth-circle-of-hellish first (and only) encounter with In the Bedroom—these two, in particular, sticking out because all my efforts at accessing dreamland (as always in such cases) were for purgatorial naught. But what of simple fatigue, a condition which, for the purposes of this piece, we might refer to by its accepted medical name—“festivalitis”? There too, no dice. Even at my most exhausted (“popped out at parties” to paraphrase Lucille Ball), I never succumb to the sandman as long as the images keep flickering.
The reason, I believe, is hinted at by that last descriptor: for me, movies approximate a dream state. The basic act of watching them is invigorating, my attention focused to a finely honed point. (I might as well be in REM mode.) Certainly movies are no substitute for a good night’s sleep, but they do a good job of fooling body and mind. It’s like an involuntary reflex, to the point that I can come out of even the worst films temporarily alert and refreshed, exhaustion remaining (for a few minutes, anyway) a disconnected step or two behind.
There were few excrescences at Sarasota ’08, though still plenty of opportunities to test my “fatigue theory.” My interest in attending was stoked by a sidebar program—a complete retrospective of Ingmar Bergman films starring or directed by Liv Ullmann (twelve works in total, from Persona through Saraband, several of which I had yet to see). Overall, these turned out to be disappointing, less for the quality of the films than for their various modes of exhibition. My initial excitement over viewing the rarely screened Face to Face was slightly tempered by Sarasota programmer (and all-around nice guy) Tom Hall’s introduction, in which he expounded on the problems of procuring a print. After much fruitless searching, Sony Pictures Classics chief Michael Barker helped to locate an archival copy, fading away to red-tinged obscurity in a West coast studio vault. Sven Nykvist’s spare, princess-in-the-castle visuals were thus being presented through a glass, darkly, but I felt the proper adjustments could be made—for all the romanticized waxing of late about the theatergoing experience, it’s rare, I find, to ever truly come upon the vaunted ideal. (I suspect it’s the disappointments (minor and major) that keep us coming back, as long as promise remains.)
More disappointments then: first, that this print of Face to Face was not the full 200-minute television cut (originally presented as four 50-minute episodes), but the trimmed 136-minute theatrical release (still preferable to the 114-minute cut—also purported to exist—that was mistakenly listed in the Sarasota catalog); second, that this version, also contrary to the program notes, was dubbed into English. This mattered little in the case of Ullmann, who I believe recorded her own lines, but hearing Erland Josephson (an imposingly bearded basso profundo) suddenly speaking in a whiny tenor was yet one more reason to curse the name of “presenter” Dino de Laurentiis, whose moniker boldly, BIGLY leads off this version’s opening credits. That Bergman would soon put over The Serpent’s Egg—that unsettling, Weimarish fever dream (which finds something of a genesis here in a bizarre background display of polyamorous seduction)—on Lord Dino and his checkbook is perhaps consolation enough for the muddle and mockery this dub makes of psychiatrist Dr. Jenny Isaksson’s (Ullmann) journey into a fantasy world heart of darkness.
Yet even with all these unintentional stumbling blocks, I suspect that, seen in Swedish full, this will still turn out to be lesser Bergman, a bit too on-the-nose in its metaphors (Ullmann as a red-hooded Grimm’s fairy-tale creation, confronting and succumbing to a variety of psychic wolves) and a bit too aware of the “brilliance” of its central performance. Ullmann’s first breakdown scene (occasioned by a failed rape that may or may not have happened, and done in a single, breathless take) is masterful, but Bergman has her return to that well once too often. By the time she’s tearing at her hair, convulsing maniacally, and bulging her eyes as if she’s just downed fifty Ingrid Thulin-infused power drinks, it’s all become exhaustive, self-serious hysteria, an Academy Award-sanctioned series of tics and twitters that cries out for Madeline Kahn to step in, cigarette in hand, and inquire, “Phallic-un zymbol?”
Ullmann herself was in town for various festival functions, one of which was a post-screening Q&A for her Bergman-scripted directorial effort Faithless. Her recollections of directing actress Lena Endre were particularly edifying in light of Face to Face, especially as regards a no-less impressive single-take breakdown scene, which Ullmann had her performer do twice on set, the first time to thunderous applause from the crew, the second, after some intuitive instruction (“That was your Academy Award performance; now do it like this…”), to devastated silence. It is the second take that appears in the film.
Faithless sees scenarist Bergman in baldly confessional mode: Erland Josephson plays a writer named “Bergman”, inhabiting a house very much like the abode the artist himself owned on the island of Faro. An early scene has “Bergman” calling forth his latest muse, Marianne (Endre), from the shadows of his conscience, after which she proceeds to tell him a gloomy story of adultery. The muse’s reality is never settled—this could be a regretful remembrance of things past on the part of “Bergman” or it could be a pure fiction torn from the ether. Ullmann directs with a continuously understated hand, perhaps too much so at times, but there’s an overall sense of tough-minded benediction and forgiveness that resonates with the public record of Bergman and Ullmann’s own stormy relationship. No easy endings, of course, but—in what we now know was the twilight of this great artist’s life—Faithless shows Bergman at a questioning crossroads, suddenly open to the possibility that, for the willing and able, there can be more than a glimmer of light at the end of our respective tunnels.
Not so much in Shame, Bergman’s apocalyptic 60s masterpiece, which was sadly projected from a DVD copy (with somewhat muffled audio) onto a nonetheless imposing screen at the Historic Asolo Theater, an appropriate venue what with its 18th-century decorative paneling and ornamentation, which made for a scabrous clash with the onscreen roundelay of sex and death, fire and destruction. Would that I could make a perils-of-Pauline proclamation likening the evening to the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre, but I must report to the contrary: the house was nearly empty, the reaction entirely muted and, outwardly at least, respectful. Pre-screening, I conversed with an usherette named Rita—older in years, but not in spirit—who spoke lovingly of her time attending Bergman films in their premiere engagements. Like me, she had yet to see Shame and so we promised to meet up afterwards and, per Coffee Talk, discuss (“A Bergman film is neither a man nor a film!”).
One of those fortuitous, unforeseen cinephile connections, bridging years and occupations: we had a splendid chat on the walk to our cars, slowing down our pace so that the conversation wouldn’t end as quickly as time and distance threatened. We might have been walking through the landscape of Shame itself, both of us blissfully ignorant of a war machine soon to force itself upon our lives, much as it does on Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan Rosenberg (Max von Sydow). Perhaps chaos reigns when we sense the total loss of control over time and its vagaries, and it cuts both ways: Shame’s central sequence sees von Sydow and Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand passive-aggressively fighting for Ullmann’s affections. Björnstrand wins the battle of wills, but brings out the weakling von Sydow’s inner straw dog. “What a wonder is a gun,” opined one-time Bergman adapter Stephen Sondheim, and it isn’t long before the flames of emotion become literal, bloodlust seeping its way through ash and rock to an endless sea more likely to swallow up its trespassers than deliver them to a promised land. My usherette companion and I had varying views on the ambiguity-laden finale, not necessarily opposing as at harmonized cross-angles. No shame in that.
No shame, either, in Jacques Nolot’s Dielman-dry examination of an aging gay hustler, Before I Forget. Nolot writes, directs, and stars as Pierre Pruez, an HIV-positive bottom boy-no-longer who navigates his ruined life and beauty with aplomb, sagging belly dragging him forever forward (as the extended opening sequence suggests) toward the inevitable. In lesser hands, it would play with the utmost narcissistic self-pity, but Nolot’s gaze is brutally direct, taking in the Parisian queer scene of the moment in all its devastated splendor. Pierre and his contemporaries barter for the company of youth, which rules the day. Pleasure hardly plays a part: everyone, so it seems, is going through the motions—of sex, of life. The arc of the film hinges on the seemingly simplest of gestures: Is Pierre willing to shave his pencil-thin mustache and dress in drag for a favored younger companion? In between, Pierre’s existence becomes increasingly fragmented, the side effects of his HIV medications affecting both his state of mind and the film’s aesthetic (implicit: “I am the movie, and the movie is me”). The death of a beloved older patron, née sugar daddy, seals his fate to some end, but is Pierre’s Norma Desmond-in-reverse curtain call (so “ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”) a tragic descent or a defiant triumph? The film’s lone non-diegetic music cue (an atmospheric snippet of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 3 in D Minor”) only bolds the question mark.
For a more affirmative take on queer love and aging, witness Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s Chris & Don: A Love Story. That I know and have posed for one of its subjects (portrait artist Don Bachardy) practically predisposed me towards a favorable reaction, and such is the case. If I fault Mascara and Santi’s efforts at all it’s in their—ultimately understandable—gloss on the respective work of Bachardy and his now-deceased elder lover, British novelist and writer Christopher Isherwood. It would indeed take a separate documentary to expound on the expatriate Isherwood’s frequently third-person memoirs-cum-fictions (Christopher and his Kind and the Cabaret-derived Berlin Stories among them) or on Bachardy’s voluminous single-sitting portrait work. (I was glad to see at least a few moments sprinkled throughout of Bachardy’s intimate creative process: take it from me all potential sitters—his intense, concentrated gaze must be met head-on.)
Chris & Don is more concerned with, as its subtitle suggests, the unlikely love that blossomed between the 18-year-old Bachardy and the 49-year-old Isherwood in early 50s California. Unlikely not only for the age difference (and the society, both Los Angelean and at-large, that would reject such a coupling), but also for the duo’s varied temperaments and backgrounds. Isherwood moved in a circle of famed literati and Hollywood bigwigs, while Bachardy was a fresh-faced, star-struck outsider, a gap-toothed suburbanite longing for a world beyond the proverbial picket fence. He came to know Isherwood through his older brother Ted Bachardy, with whom Isherwood had had an affair. Recalling his subsequent deflowering herein, Don deliciously assumes Isherwood’s third-person tendencies: “It was exactly what the boy wanted!” he laughs, a profound moment sure to rankle the rigid moral proselytizer in us all. It wasn’t long before Isherwood and Bachardy moved in together and developed all the familiar day-to-day habits of intimates (fights and dissatisfactions, equal displays of love and tenderness). There was no question that they were a couple and they presented themselves as such—no doubt this helped to sustain their relationship in the long term even though, at the time, queers all around them (e.g. Monty Clift, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins) were sublimating inner truth in favor of outward respectability.
Revolution begins in presentation, and Isherwood and Bachardy’s triumph came from their quiet, everyday defiance of the existing moral order (this, in tandem with brash, outspoken activism, is what challenges and changes reductive, oft-predominant ideologies). It could be somewhat facetiously argued that Bachardy and Isherwood lived so openly because of their whirlwind social calendar. Soon after the start of their co-habitation, the duo were off on a cruise ship to Europe, stopping over in Tangiers to smoke hashish with Paul Bowles (an experience that helped, in both Bachardy and Isherwood’s words, to solidify their attachment). There’s wonderful home movie footage herein of a young Bachardy smiling from a ship’s prow, of Isherwood doing his best Quasimodo in front of Notre Dame, of both Bachardy and Isherwood conversing with luminaries of the day (and friends) like Tennessee Williams and E.M. Forster. (My favorite snippet: Isherwood skipping arm-in-arm with fellow classmate/colleague/fuck buddy W.H. Auden.) Sections of Isherwood’s diaries are read in voiceover by Michael York—a perfect choice as he played the Isherwood facsimile in Cabaret (and was, reportedly, the only aspect of Bob Fosse’s award-winning film of which Isherwood wholeheartedly approved). And animated interludes (inspired by Isherwood and Bachardy’s frequent teasing missives to each other) visualize the duo as an inseparable horse and cat, prone to moodiness and a need for occasional distance, but still totally and tenderly enamored.
The overall sense in Chris & Don is of an ultimately unbreakable love’s consecration, which isn’t to say the more tragic and trying elements of the relationship are left unexplored. Perhaps the film’s saddest moment is when Bachardy (who acts as the film’s spry, energetic tour guide) goes to visit his brother Ted. The ravages of time (and multiple shock therapy treatments) have taken their toll on the elder sibling, and it’s heartbreaking to see, especially for the casual, unobtrusive way in which Mascara and Santi film the encounter. Ted and Don converse about one of their favorite subjects (movie stars), admiring the glossy mag beauty of Josh Hartnett and stating (at least for Don) how “uninteresting” he finds that Charlize Theron, but the sense of loss permeating the scene makes the laughter stick. It’s such moments as these that make one recognize the fragility of Isherwood and Bachardy’s relationship, how tenuous it always was and yet how simultaneously binding, a love unique in every respect—nothing to sniff at and forever to be treasured.
But back to queers and unspeakable tragedy: Savage Grace, a stylized biopic of socialite and murder victim Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) is sure to rile up a sizable portion of its audience, not least for its matter-of-fact presentation of incest and the perhaps unintentional equation of said perversity with homosexuality (epitomized here by drugged-out, longing glances and side-profile shots that discreetly obscure the kissing lips of the participants). Strange choices in a strange film—even a few days removed from experiencing it with an at-times hostile crowd, I’m not certain whether director Tom Kalin’s at first prim ’n’ proper, finally cold ’n’ foreboding episodic aesthetic (treading Far from Heaven post-modernism, but staking out its own rather bizarre and indefinable niche) is a work of ineptitude or genius. What I am certain of is the brilliance of Moore’s performance, an exercise in absolute, confrontational offense. Her Baekeland is an irredeemable, despicable human being, a money-grubber who marries into wealth (her husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) is heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune) and fucks up her son Tony (Barney Clark as the younger, Eddie Redmayne as the older) beyond all belief.
Moore sells Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s questionable modes of presentation and allusion through pure, undiluted diva artistry: when she embarrasses her son by forcing him to read a passage from de Sade’s Justine (introduction by Georges Bataille!) in front of a small gathering of socialites, it’s a potent familial cruelty to place alongside the best of Davis and Crawford (and not in a camp sense). A later sequence sees Barbara and her son wake up on either side of their shared bisexual lover (Hugh Dancy)—shot in a single take, the encounter moves from shock to hilarity to discomfiture to transgression with an impressive effortlessness, so much so that the downright luridness of the enterprise, and Kalin/Rodman’s disconcerting fascination-with-cum-maybe-exploitation-of the moment, is but a secondary thought.
The “scene”, then (as it’s sure to be referred to) is a cumulative tour de force, as Moore and Redmayne go all out in detailing sad-sack queen Tony’s forced descent into mommy-mindfucked madness. It’s the emotional terrain that stings, moreso than Kalin and cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz’s shaky visualizations (precise only in the technical sense), but that’s enough to justify the film’s all-round mortifying experience and likewise put the final nail in Barbara Baekeland’s all-too-deserving coffin. A good portion of the Sarasota audience (mainly older retirees) left before the end; among those who stayed a few were heard to query, not necessarily negatively, as to why Moore would accept such a role. “Art,” replied one among their number, an answer that hung there, in as much tottering uncertainty, as the film we had just seen.
I am assured of this: I can no longer stand the Garrel, namely Philippe Garrel, the director/co-writer of I Can No Longer Hear The Guitar, a 1991 fictionalization of his own relationship with Warhol mainstay Nico. This was my third experience with Garrel’s le cinéma du endurance (after 2005’s Regular Lovers—the first of his films to secure U.S. distribution—and 1979’s L’Enfant secret), recommended by a good many colleagues and cinephiles I respect. How, then, do I reconcile their very lucid and cogent enthusiasm (everything they say is indeed there onscreen) with my own reaction, which I likened to all within festival-going earshot as “an experience not unlike unanesthetized castration.” Maybe best to take a page from Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote of my beloved Married Life, “I think I’ll let people who actually liked Ira Sachs’ baffling period piece defend it without interruptions from me.” So it goes…
I attended one full shorts program, Shorts 10: Music + Video, mainly for the opportunity to big-screen view Brit wonder Dougal Wilson’s Bat for Lashes video “What’s a Girl to Do?”. This seemingly single-take dazzler tracks bicycle-riding Bat frontwoman Natasha Khan down a deserted nighttime road, at first alone, then followed by a bunch of BMXers in “furry” outfits (every now and then they recede into Khan’s shadow as if retreating into her subconscious). The Donnie Darko influence is more than apparent, but it’s got a mood and meaning all its own, and is all the more impressive in company with Wilson’s other video work (with artists like Goldfrapp and Jarvis Cocker).
Of the rest of the program, I was particularly enamored of Jem Cohen and Patti Smith’s Super-8, William Blake-referencing rendition of the Nirvana staple “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Aleksey Budovsky’s syncopated prison assembly line animation for (The Real) Tuesday Weld’s “Terminally Ambivalent Over You.” Ian Cudmore’s “Clap Your Hands Say Nina!” had me in its all-too-brief corner merely for the use (however now cliché, thank you Messrs. Mann, Lynch, and Cellular) of a snippet from the inimitable Ms. Simone’s “Sinnerman”, accompanying a quadruple split-screen of clapping hands. Roboshobo’s collaboration with Mastadon (“Sleeping Giant”) was suitably bizarre in its melding of bald skullcap sci-fi and mad scientist horror, as was The Guatemalan Handshake director Todd Rohal’s batshit crazy Ivan-Dimitrov-busts-loose video for Ola Podrida’s “Lost and Found.” The nightglow Mummenschanz routine in the Kris Moyes and Architecture in Helsinki effort more than lived up to its title: “Heart it Races.” As for Ace Norton and Simian Mobile Disco’s “Hustler” (an entry in the supermodels-defiled-as-critique-of-a-narcissistic-and-irrevocably-decaying-civilization genre), I can only say that Chris Cunningham dug deeper, in every respect, for his Aphex Twin phantasmagoria “Windowlicker.”
I have Spout blog’s Karina Longworth to thank for introducing me to filmmakers Mike Brune and James M. Johnston, both of whom, between post-screening conversations at a multiplex-adjacent Applebee’s and late-night jaunts to the nearby Longboat Key beaches, handed over DVD copies of their respective short films, The Adventure and Merrily, Merrily. Received wisdom says there’s little market for shorts—a shame considering the talent on display in both these efforts. The Adventure is an unsettling absurdist morality play: an upper-class couple (John Curran & Debra Childs) drive through a deserted park, searching for a place to picnic. Their conversation is peppered with the horrifying banalities of the glass-penthouse residing rich, a simple comment about the park’s natural beauty segueing into a discussion of how much it would cost to buy the land. The couple’s complacency is shaken by the arrival of a mime, who proceeds to act out his life story. As his tale drags on, the man and woman begin to lose interest, and then… well, let’s just say the film’s title is a knowing nod to Antonioni, who coincidentally died on the day Brune and company began principal photography. Though the Italian master’s spirit hovers at frame’s edge, it does not overwhelm—ultimately, The Adventure is less a film about existential crisis than its decided lack, about how easy it is to ignore the world’s disastrous and horrific elements at the slightest twinge of uncertainty or trespass into our personal space. The same, sad old song: Ignorance is bliss.
Johnston’s Merrily, Merrily goes off in its own unexpected directions, and I’d prefer not to spoil its central conceit, which adds several provocative shadings to this seemingly familiar tale of adolescent angst. Thirteen-year-old Merrilee (Emily Burgardt) moves through her awkward existence with a dour expression and gait, her perception of the world around her entirely, though quietly, introverted. A revelation from her father (Andy Sensenig) sheds some light on her feelings, but also fractures the boundaries of her reality—fact bleeds into fiction, and the whole thing closes out in the relative (dis)comfort of irresolution. Not simply a metaphorical treatment of growing pains, Merrily, Merrily also offers a subtle, striking portrait of a media-saturated age. As is made abundantly clear, Merrilee is starring in her own movie, but who controls her narrative, and at what point does it cease to be self-contained?
The state of the nation is addressed head-on in Battle for Haditha. Director/writer Nick Broomfield mounts an impressive Algiers-style re-creation of a 2005 massacre (by several shell-shocked U.S. Marines) of twenty-four men, women, and children in Haditha, Iraq, but—as in Paul Greengrass’ United 93—all the expert cross-cutting turns this unspeakable actual event into a cheaply tense thriller. Character psychology is as specious as in the Schwarzenegger canon: whether Marine or mother, terrorist or child, everyone seems driven by a purely singular purpose—hollowed-out automatons to the slaughter (and/or a facile fantasy redemption). Broomfield, like many a filmmaker of late, wants us to fully EXPERIENCE the horror. But experience does not always beget illumination, a quality that, to my mind, cinema should continuously strive for and one that many of the Iraq-themed films (both fictive and factual) decidedly lack.
To that end, I more appreciated Mark Brecke’s first-person journey doc They Turned Our Desert Into Fire. A war photographer whose most recent efforts have been given to photo-reporting the ongoing Darfur genocide, Brecke’s film documents his passionately lo-fi train journey to Washington D.C. where he is to present a series of his photographs before members of Congress. The majority of They Turned Our Desert Into Fire shows Brecke interviewing several of his fellow Amtrak passengers about the genocide—unsurprising that the majority of them have little to no knowledge of the depths of the atrocities. Brecke himself is a more ingratiating than intrusive on-screen presence, which makes it rather easy to overlook the film’s dependency on the tried-and-true tricks of the documentary trade. Talking heads revolve and the verité stylings are undistinguished, but this is the kind of important subject matter that tempers one’s desire to quibble with aesthetics. If anything, They Turned Our Desert Into Fire might have benefited from the inclusion of more moving pictures taken within Darfur’s borders, but given the tenuous state of the Sudanese nation, it’s amazing Brecke was able to get the images that he did. In its own way, the scarcity of such visual media is synonymous with the horrors of the Darfur genocide, just another factor denying this holocaust’s numerous victims (still being eradicated, even now) a necessary worldwide identity.
The tragedy of Romanian director Cristian Nemescu’s premature death—killed in 2006, along with his sound engineer Andrei Toncu, by a speeding driver—is only heightened upon seeing his feature directorial debut California Dreamin’. The film bears the parenthetical subtitle (Endless), which—when announced before the capacity crowd in the Sarasota Hollywood 20 multiplex’s largest theater—elicited audible groans. (Much like Lazarescu, California Dreamin’ will probably bear the sight-unseen descriptor of “that 155-minute Romanian movie.”) (Endless), though, is meant merely to refer to the state of the film, which is being screened, so far, as Nemescu left it at the time of his death. This portends an overall choppy experience, but what surprises and delights is how complete the work feels, finished in every way aesthetically and thematically, any longueurs or asides entirely part of Nemescu’s indelible emotional tapestry.
The film’s setup is culture-clash comic: U.S. Army captain Doug Jones (Armand Assante) and his troops are transporting military equipment across the Romanian border for a NATO-sponsored mission in Kosovo, but their train is stopped in a small town by resentful, Bill Clinton-cursing station-hand Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who insists on holding them there until the proper government paperwork arrives. When it comes to such agencies (per the picture painted in most of the Romanian cinema I’ve seen) the tail wags the dog more often than not, and so Jones and his crew are stuck for several days in this run-down burg. California Dreamin’s emblematic performer is Assante, who walks a tightrope between comic befuddlement and thinly veiled rage. Like his character, the film proper is permeated by an omnipresent threat that the situation’s general ridiculousness will suddenly turn on a dime to violent revolt (and this is, indeed, entirely, tragically followed-through on). Until that point, Nemescu paints a glorious, complicated portrait of the town’s many visitors and residents. A mid-film party sequence, featuring a Romanian Elvis impersonator as its central cog, is a marvel of staging and performance, the constantly swishing and swinging handheld camera as intoxicated with life (and its many contradictions) as the participants.
Nemescu’s magical-realist touches are also seamlessly woven in to the film’s fabric: an apparently dud WWII shell waits underground for the right moment to explode, sanctifying a moment of love between Doiaru’s daughter Monica (Maria Dinulescu) and U.S. soldier David McLaren (Jamie Elman)—the film quite literally shudders, a citywide blackout occurs, and manhole covers go flying in syncopated succession as the duo run, Jules and Jim-style, down a deserted side-street. But the film’s wondrous sense of fun-and-games eventually segues into no less profound darker territory. Assante has a particularly pointed tide-turning speech that satirizes the American tendency to stir up trouble and then head for the hills (feigning ignorance all the way) when the shit hits the fan. A climactic fireworks explosion acts as a disturbingly multifaceted metaphor, the privilege of the filmgoing audience’s omniscient point-of-view reflected back on itself in abject horror. A five-years-later epilogue finds two of the film’s primary characters engaged in mundane conversation, both acknowledging the devastation of their shared experience through tacit, between-the-lines nods, shrugs, and exhales. The Mamas & the Papas tune that gifts the film its title sings these two survivors out of frame, both heading in separate directions, not so contented as they might wish, but (one can only hope) a little world-weary wiser.
Finally, Munyurangabo, which tells of a Rwandan orphan, Ngabo’s (Jeff Rutagengwa), journey to kill the man who murdered his parents during the mid-90s genocide. In Ngabo’s company is his friend Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), the latter of Hutu heritage as compared to Ngabo’s Tutsi background. This fact alone adds an underlying tension to their relationship, a “sins of the father” strain that constantly threatens a coming-to-blows, perhaps at the end of the machete that the boys steal in the film’s opening scene. The majority of the film takes place in Sangwa’s childhood home where Ngabo witnesses the generational push-and-pull between his friend and his parents, as well as, due to his different tribal legacy, being shunned by Sangwa’s father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka). For a while, the film concerns itself with the everyday, so much so that the thread of revenge, which isn’t definitively introduced until a quarter of the way through, seems to be buried under the mere fact of eking out a living. But Ngabo is not to be deterred.
What occurs next is best described by Robin Wood in his recent Film Comment review (I offer him a virtual thanks for steering me into Munyurangabo’s path), so I’d instead like to focus on a shot from the film’s final passages. As we’re presented with plenty of beginnings in life, we’re also given our fair share of endings, and I knew that the image of Ngabo and Sangwa at a water pump, both fixed in silent contemplation, posed as to evoke the god Janus, should be the capper to my experience at Sarasota ’08. It had, in its uniquely powerful way, the open-ended finality of a nighttime reverie come to a close, that instant when we feel our wandering souls sink back into our bodies, alert, refreshed, and prepared, once more, to meet the day. A true moment of realization, and one that provides, I think, a more appropriate answer to the query that opened this piece, namely that I don’t fall asleep during movies, but I do—entirely, definitively, and continually—dream.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.