Hypothetical Film Festival #12 – Working Class Heroes

Film has had a strong focus on the lives of the working class since the silent pictures and work of Charlie Chaplin. Through fictional stories and hard hitting documentaries cinema has taken a look at the struggles to feed, clothe, and house a family in America and while, the images are not always pretty or uplifting, they are always infused with truth.



The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
Starring Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson

Adapted from the incredibly popular John Steinbeck novel, John Ford was forced to take the film in a less bleak, but still as honest as he could it make it direction. Tom Joad (Fonda) has just been released from prison and returns to his family’s homestead in Oklahoma to find them victims of the Dust Bowl. The Joads pack up and head towards California where they believe their fortunes will change. Ford removed or was forced to remove Steinbeck’s more socialist themes which is a shame. The film still tries to look at the hardships of the the Okies and the utter lack of hope in their struggle to stay above drowning. John Carradine has always been my favorite as Jim Casy, the wandering preacher.



On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb

“I coulda been a contender”, the oft repeated line came from this film by Hollywood legend Kazan. Terry Malloy (Brando) is a dock worker in Brooklyn whose boxing career ended when his brother, Charley (Steiger), a lawyer for the mob-controlled docks makes Terry take a dive in a fight. Now Terry is a broken man who hopes to find love with Edie (Saint), however Terry was part of an effort to kill her brother who was going to testify against the mob. It’s a tale grounded in tragedy from the start and the performance that really set Brando on fire. It should also be noted that Steiger is excellent in this picture as well and has always been a criminally underrated actor.



Salesman (1969, dir. Maysles Brothers)

Cinema vérité is a style of documentary filmmaking where the director simply lets the camera roll, they may interview the subject, but the majority of the work is just life unfolding as it happens. The Maysles employed this as they followed a group of Bible salesmen in the late 1960s. The film is chock full of amazing and real moments that if we experienced them in our own lives would be dismissed as mundane. However, captured in this frame they vibrate with life and insight. Paul Brennan, the middle aged Irish focus of the documentary, is a thousands times more interesting than most characters a screenwriter can churn out. We see him fighting to make his quotas, trying to sell an product that from our exterior view seems to be an extravagance.



Harlan County, USA (1976, dir. Barbara Kopple)

Another cinema vérité documentary, this one chronicles the battle between striking miners of the Duke Power Company and the brutal strikebreakers brought in to stop them. I was surprised with how riveted I was by this film. The anger on both sides is palpable through out the entire picture. The focus on the strikers side falls a lot on the miners wives, these are strong capable women whose upbringing in the harsh hills of Kentucky have shaped them into formidable fighters. Kopple catches some truly terrifying moments on film, including a nighttime drive-by shooting on the strikers. Though the film takes place in a small town in the hills, throughout we are given information about the work of the unions and how one of the strikers’ best hopes is found murdered with his family in their home.



Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, dir. David Mamet)
Starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce

Mamet adapts and directs his own stage play about four real estate salesmen feeling the pressure of quotas and the demands of the management. Shelley Levene (Lemmon) is the focus as the oldest salesman and the one being looked at to get the axed if he can’t perform. Baldwin makes a one scene performance that has gone on to be one of his most defining roles. Leads to new properties have come in, leads that are guaranteed to sell, but before the salesmen are allowed access to them they must dump lower end properties. A couple salesmen take it upon themselves to steal the leads from the manager’s office and this where things begin to fall apart for them all.



Chop Shop (2007, dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Starring Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales

Set in Queens, New York, the film follows Alejandro (all actors play characters using their real first names), a twelve year old orphan who has set up in the Iron Triangle, a neighborhood full of auto body shops and scrap metal merchants. He spends his days scavenging and hording his money to support he and his older sister. The film is shot in a very loose documentary style with lots of improvisation on the part of its young actors. Because of this openness the picture comes across a feeling more like a slice of life documentary than a work of fiction. Alejandro goes through a complex and meaningful character arc that leaves him in a very different place from where he began and works to highlight the plight of the people who live in poverty their entire lives.

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Import Fridays – The Lives of Others



The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme

What if we were able to see Big Brother not as a faceless entity, but as a series of human cogs that make up the machine? And, what if we could see each of those cogs, doing their duty in the name of the state, as an individual human being who possesses empathy and compassion. This is the scenario this Academy Award winning German seeks to explore the humanity of a “Statsi Man”, one of the grey men who did the dirty work of the German Democratic Republic so that the authorities could successfully arrest and detain suspected dissidents.

Wiesler (Muhe) is the best the GDR has to offer in terms of surveillance and interrogation. He’s a natural pick to monitor the playwright Dreyman and his live in girlfriend/actress Christa-Maria. Dreyman has been associating with a number of dissidents and secretly an East German official covets Christa-Maria and wants to ruin Dreyman. Wiesler’s crew wires Dreyman’s apartment and begins his ever constant vigil listening to the daily life of the couple. Slowly but surely Wiesler finds himself becoming captivated with Dreyman’s joy and sadness. The death of a close writer friend cause Dreyman to become inspired to write an expose on the GDR’s efforts to cover up suicide statistics and this puts him in a lot of danger. Wiesler is compromised and must make a choice between his duty to the state and his duty to his fellow man.

Wiesler is comparable to Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Harry Caul in the similar wiretapping film The Conversation. Both men are trapped in a world of paranoiac seclusion. The nature of their jobs planted seeds of mistrust and now they live lives of solitude, only feeling safe when they are alone, yet simultaneously feeling empty. Wiesler is glimpsed mostly sitting alone in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment with headphones on, transcribing what he hears through his typewriter. He finally breaks when Dreyman receives a phone call telling him his friend has killed himself. Dreyman grieves by playing a piece of music this friend gave him and its inter-cut with images of Wiesler weeping.

The film comes to a dark conclusion but emphasizes its hopeful message through its series of denouements. The film wants to remind us that even in the most oppressive of times and the most tightest chokeholds, that human compassion can never be predicted. No matter how loyal a person has become to an authoritarian body all it takes is a brief moment of human connection to forever change that instrument into a full human being.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Great Dictator



The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner

The comparison was all because of the toothbrush mustache. That little flourish is what linked Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler at the time. Chaplin was disgusted by Hitler, and the way the American and British governments tried to keep him happy or ignore what he was doing at the time. It was also noted that Hitler was jealous of Chaplin’s popularity during a Berlin visit the actor made. To further rub it in, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced The Great Dictator, a send up of the Nazi actions in the build up to World War II.

The Little Tramp is now a Jew living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, fighting against the Americans in World War I. He’s clunked on the head and ends up in a military hospital unaware that on the outside dictator Adenoid Hynkel has come to power and is blaming the Jews of his nation for the post-War depression. The Tramp is eventually released from the hospital and is disheartend by the world he discovers on the outside. He eventually falls in love with fellow resident of the ghetto, Hannah and is spared execution by a Tomainian whose life he saved in the War. All along the way the film bounces back and forth with the Hitler parody of Hynkel, leading up to a Prince and the Pauper-esque role reversal.

This was probably the least funny of all Chaplin’s films I have seen, and most definitely the longest, hitting the two hour mark. I can see the challenge Chaplin would have making this picture, because he wants to make a comedy but he also wants to skewer Hitler and convey some sense of the pain being inflicted on the Jewish people. Later Chaplin admitted if he had known the extent of the treatment of the Jews and in particular the Holocaust he would have never made this film. Interestingly, the Jewish community was very welcoming to the film and its portrayal of their people despite Chaplin’s injection of comedy into the proceedings. The jokes in the film never create the sense of hilarity of early works because they typically involve the Little Tramp being brutalized by Tomainan storm troopers.

The film has a lot of heart and that hurts its comedy in comparison to the earlier films. The chief redeeming moment is one where Chaplin is playing the Tramp and completely drops the persona and it is Chaplin speaking. He conveys his concerns with the direction of humanity and reaffirms his belief that we are capable of so much more. While definitely harmful to the picture as a film, it is a very strong and well thought out political statement.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Obsession



Obsession (1976)
Starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow

Throughout his early career, de Palma was either referred to as a director who made homages to Hitchcock, or was blatantly ripping the master director of thrillers off. And its a very fine line de Palma walks, particularly in this melodrama that is an obvious reference to both Rebecca and Vertigo. In fact, Hitchcock himself was reportedly furious that de Palma’s Obsession was so incredibly close to Rebecca. And its interesting to note that Hitch’s trademark composer, Bernard Herrmann, once again composes the score to a de Palma thriller. So how does this furiously melodramatic Hitchcock knock-off stack up?

The story opens in New Orleans in 1959, where land developer Michael Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. Courtland’s business partner, Robert Lasalle helps him raise the money, but at the last minute the police decide to drop a phony suitcase with a homing device in it. The kidnappers find out they have been duped and escape their hideout with police in pursuit. Courtland watches from the back of the lead detective’s car as the vehicle carrying his wife and daughter explodes in a ball of flame. Jump to 17 years later, and Courtland is still haunted by this incident. He takes a trip to Italy where, while touring a cathedral, he happens upon a woman who is the spitting image of his late wife. A romance begins, but Courtland’s intentions sink further and further into reshaping this new woman into a facsimile of his wife.

The soundtrack to this film never lets up. From the opening title to the closing credits, the music is not present maybe three times, and those are only for a minute or two. The rest of the film is filled with the rise cry of despair from a choir or the operatic dissonance of a church organ. The music compliments the plot of the film which is an over the top, melodramatic gothic tragedy. At points the melodrama can become so overblown its laughable and the actors play along with this tone. John Lithgow in particular is some times comical with Foghorn Leghorn-esque take on a New Orleans businessman.

Courtland’s wife, Elizabeth feels like a non-character. She appears on screen for all of 6 minutes and never speaks and so it was hard for me to buy into Courtland’s undying love for her. Though, this could be an intentional choice, by not making her an actual character it passes judgment on Courtland. At one point in the film, Sandra, the new wife discovers Elizabeth’s journal and learns that her predecessor saw Courtland as uninterested in his family, and more concerned with his land developments. The final brutal twist of the film operates on two levels, as well, and recalled the 2006 South Korean mind twister of a film Oldboy. Courtland ends up in an embrace that can be read as a beautiful denouement or as a disgusting and bizarre finale.

Import Fridays – Lilya-4-Ever



Lilya-4-Ever (2002, dir. Lukas Moodysson)
Starring Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Pavel Ponomaryov

A young girl, face swollen with bruises, cut across her lip, runs through the overcast streets of an anonymous European city. The streets are littered with refuse; broken bottles, crumpled and empty chip bags. She stops on an overpass and stares down at the cars zooming by below. This is how director Lukas Moodysson introduces us to Lilya, an 16 year old Estonian girl trying to overcome a hopeless existence she was born into and unlikely to get out of. Moodysson is grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to watch this very real tragedy unfolding before their eyes.

Lilya’s mother and stepfather are leaving Estonia, but promise they will send for her once they are settled there. As soon as they leave, Lilya’s aunt claims the girl must leave the flat she shared with her parents for a smaller, more affordable apartment. She ends up in a rundown tenement and befriends Volodya, a boy thrown out of his house by his parents. Lilya is tempted into prostitution as her money and hopes dwindle down. Eventually, she meets Andrei, a man who shows genuine interest in her and gives her hope of leaving this place where she has no chance to better herself.

The film feels completely honest in its characters and the universe it builds around them. Lilya feels painfully real and could be one of millions of teenagers in any country across the globe living in abject poverty. The film doesn’t leave anyone out as responsible for the situation either. The entire system in place to protect children like Lilya is a farce. Teachers ridicule her intelligence so its no surprise she has no interest in finishing school. Her parents abandon her and her only relative, her aunt, dumps her on her own with no money or food. Every adult she comes in contact with wants to use her for sex or abandon her. Its no surprise that she resorts to prostitution as a means to survive. What is interesting is how her mother and her aunt are also sympathetic in their own ways. The women in this culture are fighting to survive, they may have to hurt another in the process, but they have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail. Even Lilya ends up committing the same betrayal when she has an opportunity to leave Eastern Europe.

Lilya-4-Ever could just as easily be remade in the United States and feature the oft vilified Hispanic population. Immigrants are people looking for hope that their homeland couldn’t provide. They fall into crime many times because they are reaching out for anything to hold onto so they don’t sink further. What is most touching about the film are the dream sequences Lilya has in the days where life has gotten the worst. She dreams of having wings, righting the wrongs she made in her past, fixing her life so none of this has happened. That painful regret is what tears at you the most in the end, and breaks your heart to see a life of such potential destroyed.

Charlie Chaplin Month – A Woman of Paris



A Woman of Paris (1923, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Adolphe Menju, Lydia Knott

This is not the sort of film you expect to see in a series on Charlie Chaplin. The main reason being Chaplin only makes an uncredited cameo, face away from the camera as a bellhop. The second reason being this is a very straight drama, with a few moments of humor woven into it. A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first production with United Artists, an independent film production company founded by he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Because there was no studio pressuring Chaplin to make a slapstick comedy, he decided to write, direct and produce a film for his longtime romantic interest, Edna Purviance.

The film follows Marie St. Clair, a young French girl living in a rural village, about to leave with Jean, her fiancee and move to Paris. Both youths’ parents disapprove, and Jean’s father drops dead the night he planned to leave with Marie. Marie is left at the train station by herself, believing Jean has become scared, so she leaves on her own. Cut to a couple years later, and Marie is the mistress of Parisian businessman Pierre Revel. Marie is invited to a party in an unfamiliar quarter of the city and ends up knocking on the wrong door. It ends up being Jean’s apartment with his mother. Jean is now a painter and Marie, hoping to rekindle something they once had before commissions him to paint her portrait. Marie becomes caught up in the comfort provided by Pierre and her lost love for Jean.

The interesting part for me was how the two rivals for Marie are meant to be portrayed one way, but come across the exact opposite. Jean is supposed to be the passionate, compelling artist and Pierre the philanderous cad. However, Pierre is always much more fun to see on screen, even though he treats Marie as a passing fancy. Jean is just too brow beaten by his mother to be sympathetic or likable at all.

The film was a commercial disaster for Chaplin and Purviance both. The public had so solidified Chaplin in their mind as the Little Tramp, so when a film advertising it as his next venture was seen, the audience expected a comedy. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is a unique piece of cinema in his filmography. Chaplin has anticipated the public reaction and on the night of the premiere, and even in the opening credits, there are notices that he does not appear in the picture.

What A Woman in Paris represents in a larger context is Chaplin’s personal declaration of independence. He has fought against the constraints of studios since he took the screen, and now with his own company and crew he could make any film he wanted. The failure of this picture would cause him to return to more familiar territory for his next few ventures, but he would experiment again with the audience’s expectations.

Wild Card Tuesday – Eve’s Bayou



Eve’s Bayou (1997, dir. Kasi Lemmons)
Jurnee Smollet, Samuel L. Jackson, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debii Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Vondie-Curtis Hall, Branford Marsalis

The thesis statement of Eve’s Bayou is declared early on in the main character’s voice over as an adult, recalling the events that transpired in her 10th year. “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain”. This is a story told through the filter of years gone by and originally seen through the eyes of a child. Adult Eve tells us that when she was 10 she killed her father and the film gives us a couple explanations for this, emphasizing the distortion that occurs as a result of experiencing time passing.

The story begins with young Eve (Smollett), a resident of a Creole parish in Louisiana who lives comfortably on the estate of her doctor father (Jackson). It’s the early 1960s and the patriarch of the family is caught by Eve having sex with one of his patients in the carriage house during a party in the home. He negotiates with the little girl afterwards, trying to convince her she didn’t see what she thought and making promises of lavishing her with more attention than her older sister, Cicely (Good). More and more people in their small town become aware of what is going on within Eve’s family and it becomes apparent that things will end on a dark note.

Eve’s Bayou is full of classic Southern Gothic atmosphere, yet evoked a lot of European slow paced family dramas. Think William Faulkner meets Ingmar Bergman. The film is stylistic rich and uses the Creole religious practices as a framework for foreshadowing and mixing the dreamed up with the real. When Eve is told stories by her family we see them acted out around her, the characters appearing suddenly in mirrors and Eve standing in the middle of them. The film can can delve into the overly melodramatic at times, but because of the setting and general tone it doesn’t seem too out of place.

Eve’s Bayou isn’t a perfect film, but for a first time venture into directing it is incredibly impressive. Director Simmons uses many African-American female crew member (including an amazing cinematographer) and focuses her story around the women of the family. What is so fascinating to me is the otherworldly nature of the place and time Simmons is capturing. The Creole culture has always occupied a different place in the racial history of our nation, and it is interesting to see a pocket of America where the economy and culture were driven by African-Americans. Eve’s Bayou is about these places that seem unreal and about how our minds retain and discard the details of our history.