A Good Baby: Part Southern Gothic, Part Tone Poem, Part Folkloric Mystery; A Clueless French-Swiss Film

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



"American
Independent Visions," which kicked off early this year with Lodge Kerrigan’s
Claire Dolan and continues this week (Dec. 1-7) with Katherine Dieckmann’s
A Good Baby, is a quarterly series that gives one-week runs at the Walter
Reade Theater to independent films which so far haven’t attracted the sponsorship
of a distributor. As such, it’s a moderately happy solution to an increasingly
unhappy problem: While the Amerindie film boom began the 90s bristling with
promises of artistic intelligence and adventurousness, it ended the decade mired
in formula and marketing-think, with various interestingly ambitious films left
out in the cold. The loss in such a situation, of course, is not just the films
that fall through the cracks, but the way that young filmmakers, especially,
are more and more obliged to think in terms of what will sell rather than what’s
risky, offbeat, innovative.


By any reckoning,
A Good Baby marches to its own drummer. Set in the deep mountain hollows
of western North Carolina, its story opens with a scene of cryptic, Flannery
O’Connor-like menace in which a traveling salesman (David Strathairn) looks
upon a backwoods girlfriend’s increasingly evident pregnancy with more
malevolence than fondness. A bit later, the film finds a young man named Toker
(Henry Thomas) trailing along the back roads carrying a newborn infant. Offering
little in the way of explanation, he appears to want to find the baby a mother;
among those who reject his entreaties, Josephine Priddy (Cara Seymour) seems
like she might be able to scare up in interest in Toker, if not in his charge.
Meanwhile, the salesman we saw in the first scene begins to haunt the valley,
asking questions about a baby and the man carrying him.


Part Southern
gothic, part tone poem, part folkloric mystery cum downbeat romance, A Good
Baby
poses itself the tricky task not so much of straddling genres as of
bridging two worlds, one belonging to the real-life Appalachians, the other
to myth and dream. Adapting Leon Rooke’s novel, Dieckmann creates a form
of stylized dialogue that’s impressive for being both undeniably literary
and convincingly natural. With the help of ace cinematographer Jim Denault,
she pulls off a similar balancing act by visualizing the tale’s mountain
domain in a way that’s strikingly gorgeous yet never prettified, sensuously
evocative without ever getting dramatically rhetorical. The fact that the film’s
way-off-the-interstate setting is constantly, almost tactilely believable, yet
you’d be hard-pressed to say in which decade it takes place (any one between
the 60s and now, perhaps), says loads about the subtle stylistic alchemy Dieckmann
achieves.


The film revolves
around an image that seems to belong more to the deep psyche than to any movie
I can recall: a man cradling a baby, in a posture that is almost maternal. Obviously
this gender-flip of the traditional Madonna and Child will startle and resonate
with some viewers more than others, and even admirers may have to allow that
the story, particularly in its abrupt final section, doesn’t avoid the
pitfall of occasional sentimental softness. Even so, Dieckmann’s enterprise
has an extraordinarily solid cornerstone in Henry Thomas’ performance as
Toker. Formerly the kid in E.T. and soon to be seen costarring in All
the Pretty Horses
, Thomas brings an absolute and greatly clarifying conviction
to a part that might have begun and ended as a cipher. There’s something
pained about the character he creates, like a wound from the forgotten past.
Yet it is just this, perhaps, that allows him to succor one who now endures
his own former vulnerability–a strange beneficence that gives A Good
Baby
both its mystery and its heart.



Berlin-Cinema
(Titre Provisoire)


directed by Samira
Gloor-Fadel



If you were
a first-time filmmaker wanting to follow in the moody modernist footsteps of
Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders with a film meditating on absence, cities and
cinema itself, what better collaborators to invite aboard than Godard and Wenders,
right?


Think about
that proposition for two seconds, especially after seeing Samira Gloor-Fadel’s
Berlin-Cinema (Titre Provisoire), and you’re bound to realize what
a nonstarter it is. For one thing, the French-Swiss production says nothing
about the single question it most needs to answer: Why would cine-celebs like
Wim and Jean-Luc add their presences to the film of an unknown? Gloor-Fadel
perhaps wants us to assume that the ummistakable brilliance of her project is
responsible, but in fact that’s the one thing we don’t assume.
Second, doesn’t the filmmaker realize that her premise ultimately can only
underscore her own lack of originality, and the fatigue of the form she means
to celebrate?


Yup, Berlin-Cinema
is another film that’s both impeccably intellectual and essentially clueless.
Anyone who has seen recent Godard films like JLG par JLG and Wenders
works such as Tokyo-Ga and Wings of Desire will instantly recognize
the amalgamated pastiche cum homage that Gloor-Fadel delivers here, although
she departs from her sources by not using her own narration. Rather, we hear
recurrent off-camera musings by Godard, along with various soundtrack excerpts,
while the camera broodingly contemplates present-day Berlin and occasionally
drops in on Wenders, who muses on-camera as he talks with students, tours a
building site with an architect and directs the abysmal Faraway, So Close!
(Question: this Wenders footage dates from circa ’92–what took
so long?)


The auteurs
come and go, talking of Antonioni–plus Fassbinder, Beckett, et al.–but
mainly riding familiar hobbyhorses. Still, these guys are great musers, and
fans should be alerted that the film contains choice material from both. Godard
is his usual gnomic, aphoristic self. "I don’t think film is for seeing,"
he says, "it’s for thinking." And: "The image isn’t
what’s seen, it’s what’s formed." Wenders shows his maturity:
"For a long time I considered writing something opposed to my main work,
which is creating images. For me, writing was always the obstacle, a necessary
evil… I don’t feel like that any more. Today writing and words are…allies.
Words can capture what’s real, can capture poetry and life, better than
images can."


Godard and
Wenders are keenly aware that film is about to disappear. Both, in fact, have
taken the lead in advocating the use and exploration of video technology. Berlin-Cinema
listens respectfully to such advice without having the least interest in heeding
it; Gloor-Fadel’s images (black and white mixed with color), which handsomely
remind us of the lyrical materiality of film, have an elegaic feel simply for
being celluloid. The modernist esthetic she evokes is similarly shrouded in
mournful retrospection. As Godard says, "In 50 years, the cinema we’ve
known will be like the Dead Seas Scrolls." As if that’s not already
the case.


Berlin-Cinema
(Titre Provisoire)
will be shown at the American Museum of the Moving Image
Sat.-Sun., Dec. 9-10, along with Walter Ruttman’s 1927 Berlin, Symphony
of a City
(Sat.) and Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Sat. & Sun.).



A
Hard Day’s Night


directed by Richard
Lester



Among the things
that struck me in seeing A Hard Day’s Night (which goes into rerelease
this week) for the first time in many years: You never hear the word "Beatles"
at any point in the film. The name, in fact, is withheld entirely until the
end of the tv concert that climaxes the movie, when the group takes one of its
trademark from-the-waist bows and a gigantic BEATLES sign lights up behind them.
We then see the name twice more in quick succession (on publicity photos and
on the helicopter that, in the film’s epiphanic final shot, transports
the band heavenwards), but it is that first appearance that has the impact of
a spiritual coup.


Such withholding
touches on the primordial significance of naming, and in turn on the
fact that, though commonly regarded as an uncommonly successful pop group, the
Beatles were, in essence, a religious phenomenon. The name, the thing that most
directly connects the worshiper to the adored (the four-in-one), appears only
at the end, to fix and seal the drama of ecstatic longing; such is the secondary
status accorded the visual. Until then, and forever after, the real name
remains private because it belongs to the individual fan alone; inscribed on
the heart, it is uttered subvocally at every moment of the film, "Beatles…Beatles…Beatles…"


Likewise, the
Beatles themselves utter a private language. The word, of course, is love, same
as it was 2000 years ago, same as it ever was. Yet inasmuch as every word is
a betrayal, a shell, they relay their meaning in nonsense, puns, jokes, funny
voices and, of course, songs and singing that still sound like the very definition
of joyous, youthful exaltation. Never mind what the calendar says; the real
Harmonic Convergence happened in 1964, on the radio.


A Hard Day’s
Night
by all rights should have been little more than a shoddy knockoff.
Shot quickly in the spring of ’64 for $500,000, it emerged as an instant
classic due to a combination of elements and talents (including director Richard
Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen) that may as well be described as miraculous.
Seen today, it’s very much an artifact of its time. I hadn’t recalled
how extensive the World War II references are, or that Paul’s obnoxious
grandfather is an IRA man–"a soldier of the Republic," as he
cussedly puts it.


Technically,
the film belongs to that brief but glorious moment (the early 60s) between the
arrival of the lightweight, mobile 35 mm camera and the predominance of color;
its sinuous black and white gives us the Beatles at their most iconic and mod.
While A Hard Day’s Night shared an era with Breathless, The
400 Blows
and other masterpieces made under the same technical circumstances,
Lester’s film is perhaps best equipped for immortality. It’s my hunch,
at least, that long after the work of Godard & Co. has become the Dead Sea
Scrolls, the Beatles will still be the Living Word, as fresh and ineffable as
any four voices ever uplifted in harmony.


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