Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gospel Girl

 Barbara Sukowa and Heino Ferch are creatures of habit in Vision.

Vision:From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

March is Women’s history month, so there’s perhaps no better time to consider Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard, the medieval German nun and abbess, has become something of a poster child for the recovery of notable but neglected women in history, as well as New Age/herbalist/alternative spiritualities. Her roster of roles was indeed long, ranging from visionary, theologian, moralist, preacher, healer, composer, artist and—if von Trotta’s mostly reverential treatment is any guide—a shrewd operator who was not afraid to exploit her celebrity for political advantage.
            The tenth child of a noble family, Hildegard was given away by her parents as a human tithe, taking the veil at a cloister in southwest Germany sometime early in the 12th century. As envisioned by von Trotta and portrayed by Barbara Sukowa (Berlin Alexanderplatz), she was given early to dangerous fits of humanism, holding that “God loves [human] beauty”. She also had an eyebrow-raising hunger for the wisdom of pagan antiquity. Her intellectual pretensions would ultimately have gotten her humbled at some point, if not for certain messages she claimed to receive direct from God. Though this in itself probably wasn’t so unique, the artistry implicit in her visions, coupled with her skill at projecting herself as nothing more than God’s weak, unworthy vessel, appealed to a number of powerful patrons. Even in the misogynistic middle ages, a woman with a direct line to God had certain advantages.
            Hildegard is said to have authored one of the first works of “liturgical drama”, on the Virtues. Von Trotta’s versions of her life, however, gives her a full assortment of vices too, including pride in her learning and her privileged status. She also conceives a passionate (but alas, Platonic) love affair with Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), a novice who seduces her with her enthusiasm but—like many a secular lover—proves less than constant in the end. These darker accents keep Vision from lapsing into mere hagiography. Though not as visually arresting, the film would make for an interesting double feature with Alejandro Amenábar’s similarly themed (but decidedly more downbeat) Agora.
            Feminist notoriety aside, Hildegard was probably sincere in believing woman to be the “weaker vessel.” Despite her endorsement of certainly worldly pleasures, she had some very negative views of lesbianism that might give certain of her contemporary fans pause. The real Hildegard would not have seen herself as neglected history at all—she was uncommonly privileged for her time, and her works are better preserved than virtually all her contemporaries, males included. Though she lived centuries closer to us in time, Hildegard would surely have been even less at home in modernity than any of her pagan heroes. That may say more about the legacy of the Church than it does about women’s history.
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Eagles and Angles

Channing Tatum is a girl toy with stoic virtues in The Eagle.

The Eagle. Written by Jeremy Brock, based on a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
There’s a memorable passage in Heart of Darkness (1899) where Joseph Conrad has his narrator, Marlow, imagine the experience of a young Roman arriving for a tour of duty in a certain remote province. “No Falernian wine here,” he says. “Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush…There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable.” The place Marlow describes is not Africa, but ancient Britain, and the analogy is compelling. Britain, which in Conrad’s time stood at the apex of the modern world, was once akin to the equatorial jungle where Marlow will encounter “the horror”. To the civilized Romans, it was the painted, skin-clad Britons who once presented the face of savagery. And under the right circumstances, in the right kind of wilderness, who’s to say they (or we) couldn’t go savage again—or that yesterday’s savages won’t be masters in their turn?
            It’s to the credit of Kevin Macdonald’s new sword-and-sandal actioner, The Eagle, that it evokes—however briefly and obliquely—the spirit of better stories. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, it tells the story of Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a young officer assigned to command a fort near Hadrian’s Wall, at the northern extreme of the Roman world. Marcus is dashing and dishy but mopes a bit under a cloud of family dishonor, for it was his father who once led a legion to defeat north of the wall. Worse, in a symbolic calamity apparently more unforgiveable than the death of five thousand men, the elder Aquila let his legion’s eagle—its regimental standard—be captured by the enemy. The gilded bird is still somewhere up in the Highlands, it is whispered, worshipped as a god by the dirt-wearing natives.
            Sorry, no points for guessing how young Marcus aims to retrieve his family’s dignitas. No points either for deducing the titles of other, better movies Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has ransacked for inspiration, from The Four Feathers to Braveheart to Apocalypto—or the bromancy direction the  partnership between Marcus and his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) will develop. The film offers action, to be sure, but the herky-jerky kind used in Gladiator, where you can’t really see whose fist is hitting what where. In the end, The Eagle is about as predictable as the fact that Romans will banquet lying down (a fact Macdonald strangely forgets, by the way).
            That The Eagle rises to watchability is due to Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe, Public Enemies). Looking like Josh Harnett with a wrestler’s neck, Tatum has girl-toy bona fides yet,  surprisingly, projects the kind of stoic competence that the real second-century Romans patiently cultivated. That, and a few tense scenes in the early going, when Marcus’ band of legionaries are forced to arm themselves at night, in total silence, against a native attack they’re not sure will ever come. For those few moments at least, Macdonald indeed manages to capture the spirit of those who, as Conrad describes them, “were men enough to face the darkness.”
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Isabelle Huppert's  plantation is upside down in White Material.

White Material. Written by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye & Lucie Borleteau. Directed by Claire Denis.

Though it has no formal name, there is a cinematic equivalent of Impressionism. By this, I mean movies that, like Impressionist paintings, rely on our faculties of perception to pull together what, up close, may look like a haphazard collection of brushstrokes. In films the “brushstrokes” are often small incidents that in themselves don’t mean much or go anywhere, but taken together, evoke a theme. For better or worse, Claire Denis’ White Material is a good example of this “filmpressionism.”
            The scenario by Denis et al. deals with a civil war in an unnamed West African nation. Marie and Andre Vial (Isabelle Hupert and Christopher Lambert) are the white owners of a coffee plantation, trapped by the stuggle between the national army and a militia of machete-toting, pill-popping child soldiers. With scant concern for her own safety, Marie moves heaven and earth to get their beans harvested; Andre, meanwhile, connives with the local “chérif” (William Nadylam) to sell his property and get out of Dodge. Both are puzzled and alarmed by the behavior of her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvachelle), who veers from utter torpor to head-shaving Travis Bickle-sque lunacy quicker than a tropical sunset.
            White Material should not be confused with the more conventional (and far more fun) White Mischief (1987), which was also set in Africa and likewise dealt with the twilight of European privilege there. Instead of kinky imperial escapades, Denis has structured her film as some kind of fever dream, stringing out a succession of languorous moments broken by Marie’s suggestive—but rarely dramatic—memories. The aim seems not so much to tell a story as to gesture at one that we are invited to concoct for ourselves.
            The gestures have some power. There’s a mood in the empty domestic spaces Denis surveys, filled with trophies of a culture the whites will never be part of or understand. There’s pathos in the feckless indomitability on Huppert’s face (still lovely at 48). But there are no real performances here, because there’s no drama to play—just a series of pregnant silences. In tone, the film actually resembles the “plantation dinner” scene that was left out of the original Apocalypse Now (but that does appear in the Redux version), wherein Willard and his crew share a tense, overlong dinner with a family of French aristocrats holding out in their jungle chateau. Much like Coppola’s version of French colonialism, White Material is interesting, evocative, and but by the end, about as lively as a wake. We end up somehow intrigued and bored.
            This is unfortunate, because there’s plenty of promising material in Material. Like Rwanda, atrocities in this fictive African nation are abetted by hateful talk radio; like Zimbabwe, the whites are targeted though, in most cases, their families are every bit as native-born African as the thugs unleashed on them. Good as it was, Hotel Rwanda didn’t exhaust the possibilities for storytelling about modern Africa—as long as the teller remembers actually to tell a story.
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Second Life

It's a doll's life in Jeff Malberg's Marwencol.
Marwencol. Directed by Jeff Malberg.
Today, we tend to associate living in an intricately-constructed fantasy world with digital simulations, such as “World of Warcraft” or “Second Life”. But as Jeff Malberg’s fascinating documentary Marwencol vividly shows, the analog variant still has certain advantages.
            The story begins a decade ago, when a self-absorbed sketch artist and alcoholic named Mark Hogencamp was nearly beaten to death outside a Kingston, NY bar. Brain damage robbed him of basic abilities like speaking and walking, as well as most of his memories. By the gentle logic of America’s health care system, the destitute Hogencamp was kicked out of rehabilitation just as he began the arduous task of rebuilding his life. Without a past, without work skills, and still suffering from post-traumatic stress, he might well have ended up a permanent ward of the state, if not for a particular development: in his back yard, he has poured his time and energy into creating a 1/6 scale model of a WWII-era Belgian village. He calls the place “Marwencol”.
            Though he can no longer draw, Hogencamp’s latent artistic skills are very much in evidence in his creation, cobbled together out of household odds and ends, recycled trash, and materials donated by a local hobby shop. The village is populated by a motley collection of war toys and no fewer than 27 Barbie dolls, each lovingly customized. In fact, they are modeled on real people in his life, including his mother, his boss, and a leather-jacketed “Mark Hogencamp” avatar based on a Nicolas Cage action figure.
            As Malberg’s film documents, building and living through Marwencol has healed its maker in many ways, from restoring his manual dexterity to helping him sort through his emotions about the real world. His photographs of life in Marwencol—strikingly evocative slices of doll-life with a Tarantino-esque edge—have remarkable power whose casual intimacy are almost embarrassing to behold, as if we are all ten-inch tall peeping toms. Hogencamp’s blissful retreat is finally threatened by its own success, as the owner of a New York gallery offers to show his photographs. The artist is flattered, but perplexed, for in his eyes this isn’t “art” —it’s more real to him than reality. What to do when your refuge is so appealing, the outside world wants in?
            Thematically, Marwencol boasts an embarrassment of riches. It is a story of the redemptive power of art—and a challenge to the very definition of art itself. It’s also something of a psychological fable in the Oliver Sacks tradition, reflecting both the precariousness and the resilience of the constructs we call our “selves”. Hogencamp’s fascination with Barbies (and with full-scale women's shoes) is ample grist for the mill of feminist criticism. He might even be taken as a kind of DIY deity, in the old Gnostic tradition of crazy gods who cobbled together our imperfect world. Indeed, if there’s anything wrong with Marwencol, it is feeling that it has bitten off—and failed to digest—more than it can chew. In this case, such sins are easy to forgive.

Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro