Cinematic Rebellion

By Lucinda Henderson and Brian Robinson

i-am-love-luca-guadagnino.jpgI am Love, 2009

Robert Redford was keen to stress at the opening press conference his desire for the Sundance Festival to return to its roots. The slogans at the start of each film proclaimed "This is the renewed rebellion" … "The recharged fight against the establishment of the expected", but the back to basics mantra may have had much to do with the reported reduction in this year’s festival sponsorship, rather than a reduction in crowds or celebrities.

I am Love is a film of hollow footsteps and hard edges in the lowland city, Milan contrasted with overwhelming exuberant vegetation in the mountainous rural retreat above San Remo. Tilda Swinton is outstanding as Emma, Soviet Russian born wife of Tancredi Recchi, who assumes he will soon be sole heir to the family fortune and business, just as he assumed ownership of Emma more than two decades earlier.

From the outset, Milan is portrayed as monumental, concrete and marble in the anticyclonic gloom of winter, peopled with tiny inconsequential pedestrians moving through an urban landscape softened only by snow. The sequence slides into the vast neo-deco Recchi villa to display the obsessive detail involved in the planning of a formal dinner to celebrate the birthday of patriarch and founder of the Recchi textile empire, Edoardo Recchi Senior. This is an old northern Italian family struggling to sustain a code of upper middle class values into the new millennium. Each succeeding generation is desperate to find some personal space within this stifling milieu, as the company upon which their lifestyles are built, passes from the founder to succeeding generations.

Superb food created for the film by Milanese maestro, Carlo Cracco, is at the heart of Io Sono L’Amore, signifying at various times celebration, formality, restriction, love, togetherness, and betrayal. Emma finds herself uncertain about the relationship between her favourite son, Edoardo Jr, (Flavio Parenti) and Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef of modest means with a passion to open his own restaurant in an obscure location in the mountains. Through Edoardo’s carelessness Emma learns of her daughter’s discovery of a sexual and artistic identity at odds with Recchi expectations. Through Edoardo's persistence with Antonio, she begins a journey of self discovery and quest for freedom.

Io Sono L’Amore represents a quest for director, co-writer and producer Luca Guadagnino which has spanned the decade since he completed his first full length film, The Protagonists, in 1998 with Tilda Swinton. His drive and attention to detail has created an iron corset of society from which several of the characters try to find their true selves. The storyline is actually operatic in devices such as the discovered note in the pocket and the significance of the Russian fish soup. Yet there is sufficient subtlety and ambiguity, for example in Antonio’s motives for bringing a cake to the Recchi household or in the nature of the relationship between Antonio and Edoardo junior, to keep us focused on the principal thread of the needs of many of these characters for self discovery and personal release.

Emma, her autocratic recently widowed mother in law, Allegra and her son’s fiancée Eva meet for lunch at Antonio's. Here we see Allegra assessing Eva as a prospective novitiate into the Recchi order. In contrast the family's insularity and insensitivity is nowhere better expressed than when tragedy befalls Edoardo Jr and the family hugs and consoles everyone except his fiancée, her prospective role now redundant.

We see this societal tension when Emma, fluent in Italian and Russian, finds herself, the impeccable hostess, unable to converse in English. This surfaces even more forcibly when she secretly travels to support her lesbian daughter at an exhibition in Nice and en route stumbles across and initially avoids Antonio in San Remo. Various strands are left dangling. Will there be consequences to Emma rushing from the shop forgetting to pay for the art book?

man-next-door-mariano-cohn-gaston-duprats.jpgThe Man Next Door, 2009

One star of Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprats' Argentinian drama, The Man Next Door, is the only Le Corbusier house in the Americas. Built between 1948 and 1953 on a confined urban plot in Buenos Aires, Casa Curutchet contains both working and living areas, with the advantage of sunny perspectives to a nearby park. The script by Andrés Duprat, an architect who has written an article on Casa Curutchet, was written with the house in mind. He and the directors worked for five years to persuade the College of Architects in Argentina to allow them to film in this largely empty building and to transform it into its original purpose as a family home and workspace.

The theme of the film will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a protracted neighbour dispute. The scriptwriter / architect experienced a similar dispute with a neighbour. In the film, Leonardo (Rafael Spregeburd) is an internationally renowned industrial designer, made famous by his creation of a chair. His friends and work colleagues are all highly sophisticated. His home and office is a world famous architectural shrine to the Modern Movement.

Leonardo and his wife Ana are awakened to a rhythmical thump of what turns out to be a sledgehammer. One of the walls into a tiny lightspace in the Casa is being violated by workmen instructed by a neighbour whom Leonardo has never met. The neighbour, Victor, wants a window to transform a room in his own modest dwelling. "I need a bit of the sun that you don’t use". But this invades the privacy of Leonardo’s family, staring into their living space and taints the purity of the architectural masterpiece.

Victor is played by Daniel Aráoz, familiar to Argentinian audiences for his portrayal of primitive ‘hard man’ roles. Privately Leonardo calls him tacky and a troglodyte. Victor attempts to negotiate with and befriend Leonardo, his wife Ana and their teenage daughter Lola. His peace offering of home-made marinaded wild boar appears as a recipe in the credits. One scene where Victor creates a finger puppet show for Lola in the offending window space is particularly effective. The sculpture he offers to Leonardo made from bullets is sufficiently grotesque that one of the intellectuals thinks it is serious art.

There is a wonderful scene where Leonardo and one of his friends are in the Casa listening to some highly dissonant modern music. The friend comments on the brilliance of the sub-woofer undertones from a random base beat, which of course turns out to be more demolition.

At first we are largely sympathetic to Leonardo, trying to conduct his international business from home, holding conversations in foreign languages disrupted by Victor’s boorish drilling and pounding. However, through subtle scripting and direction we unobtrusively pass a tipping point where we realise that Leonardo and more particularly his wife are intransigent, self-centred and insensitive. At the same time, Victor remains a figure of menace, used to dealing with problems from a blue collar frame of reference very different from that used by his bourgeois neighbours.

Victor persistently tries to tempt Leonardo onto his territory, to meet him in a bar or similar venue to sort things out, man to man. Leonardo twists and turns to avoid these advances, finally agreeing to meet in Victor's van. Spregabund's black rimmed spectacles and foppish hair contrast totally with Aráoz's menacing bald head, furrowed brow, brash jewellry and stiletto stare. Both actors are wholly convincing. The film has a neat but shocking conclusion.

obselidia-diane-bell.jpgObselida, 2010

Obselidia won the Albert P Sloan prize at Sundance 2010 for an outstanding feature film focusing on science and technology as a theme. Diane Bell's gentle debut film explores, with a light touch, the huge issues of sustainability, obsolescence and threats to survival. George (Michael Piccirilli) is a former encyclopaedia salesman turned librarian with an obsession about the pace of change and things becoming obsolete. The opening titles are interspersed with icons such as telephones and radios from fifty and sixty years ago followed by letters striking the page from an old manual typewriter. George is a geek, filled with obscure knowledge but uninterested in social skills which would facilitate social interaction. His autodidactic quest is to create an encyclopaedia of obsolete things. He seems determined to focus on this task until he interviews a member of a threatened profession, a cinema projectionist named Sophie (Gaynor Howe).

There are simple juxtapositions to illustrate George's Luddite attitudes. At work, as a librarian, he types on a computer but at home he refuses to buy one because computer sales will threaten the existence of libraries. George cycles in a suburban street wearing a trilby hat and two bits of a three piece suit. Even this sustainable transport is overtaken by a lycra clad successor.

When Sophie turns up on the doorstep, having found him from the phone book, George is highly embarrassed. Eventually she persuades him to accompany her to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, scenes which are shot with subtle lattices of light and shade and reflections in the glass of a butterfly display case. At the Museum, intimacy slowly develops. A certain suspension of belief is necessary here to avoid the gulf between George the nerd and the attractive young woman who is pursuing him.

The film switches to a road movie when Sophie persuades him to accompany her on a trip to Death Valley after he receives a letter from a maverick scientist, Lewis Fordham, who lives alone there. Of course, George, who lives in Los Angeles, cannot drive.

Lewis, the scientist, escaped to the desert and has not missed a sunrise in 15 years. He believes that the human population will be reduced by 80% by 2100. When Sophie disputes this, Lewis points out that 90% of bees worldwide have died in the last 17 years. "The Titanic is going down and we are re-arranging the deck chairs". However the hermeneutics of the scientific hermit are delivered without proselytising fervour.

Sophie and George share a tent in Death Valley with role reversal of terrified man and confident woman. The following day the pair detour to the ghost town of Ballarat, which existed for only 20 years. What they find thereafter on their Death Valley trip emphasises the transient nature of human existence.

Obselidia avoids a trite ending. It will appeal to those who are comfortable with a modicum of New Age thinking, those who are apprehensive about the race track into the future and those who enjoy spotting cinematic references. The film also won a Sundance Award for Excellence in Cinematography in the US dramatic category, not only for the expansive Death Valley vistas but also for the exquisite interiors, all shot in 18 days on a tight budget.

secrets-of-the-tribe-jose-padilha.jpgSecrets of the Tribe, 2010

Secrets of the Tribe, by Brazilian Jose Padilha, lays bare almost fifty years of internecine warfare amongst anthropologists who have studied the Yanomami people on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. On the surface, this is a series of academic controversies about the way that the Yanomami organise their lives. Underneath are allegations of highly questionable decisions made by several western anthropologists. Their behaviour towards the Yanomami has left many of these Amazonian people thoroughly disillusioned and disgusted with the contact which they have had with academics.

First in the field in the 1960s was Napoleon Chagnon, a man of substantial ego, who claims that about 40% of all Yanomami males over the age of 25 have committed a homicide. His research indicates a complex system of controlled violence usually enacted when men of the tribe are intoxicated on drugs. Most of the violence involves arguments over women, sex and infidelity and first born girls are often slaughtered. Killers have more than twice as many wives and three times as many children as non killers. This is the principal thesis of his seminal book "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" and his subsequent writings.

Ranged against him is Marvin Harris who claimed that most of the warfare amongst the Yanomami was a result of protein deficiency and a struggle to have enough to eat. At this point the documentary seems largely about a run-of-the-mill academic spat although some of the footage at the beginning has suggested otherwise.

Kenneth Good enters the arena supporting the Marvin Harris thesis. However after two years in the field this 34 year old man was offered an 11 year old bride called Yurima. Good subsequently brought his wife and their children to the United States. He appears several times in the documentary and tries to justify his decisions. Relations between Chagnon and Good have long been at a level of substantial personal animosity.

Good's behaviour appears almost reasonable compared to the allegations levelled against the French anthropologist, Jacques Lizot. The verbal evidence of Yanomami men is translated asserting that Lizot was a paedophile preying on young boys of the tribe in return for western goods. The documentary claims that Lizot's protégé status with the iconic structuralist, Levi Strauss, helped protect him from earlier exposure and that missionaries working near the Yanomami did not intervene to discourage the Frenchman's behaviour. Lizot declined to be interviewed.

The final major allegation involves Chagnon and geneticist James Neel who conducted an expedition to the Yanomami in 1968. This was linked to a genetic research study on immune systems and a desire to take blood samples from a people with no exposure to radiation. Neel and Chagnon inoculated significant numbers against measles at a time when some members of the expedition were already carrying disease into these vulnerable communities. Many hundreds of Yanomami died. Neel and Chagnon are accused of partial responsibility. This charge was made in detail in a book by journalist Patrick Tierney almost ten years ago, and Tierney is interviewed.

The problem with this documentary is that for many anthropologists very little of the subject matter is likely to be new. For people outside the "anthropological tribe" it is somewhat like discovering a fifty year old war in the academic jungle and then asking the equivalent of Arabs and Jews for a potted history of their conflict.

Padilha's strength as a film-maker is that he has turned the lens on the anthropologists rather than the over-analysed Yanomami. He appears to give each interviewee enough time to express a personal view and progressively we begin to form our own opinions of some of the major participants. Hence the documentary seems to be an exposé but not apparently a hatchet job. One difficulty is that some of the evidence is verbal and comes from the Yanomami. This requires translation and the anthropologists dispute even the accuracy of translation.

Nevertheless, Secrets of the Tribe does raise some fundamental questions about the ethics of anthropological research. As one interviewee comments: "Anthropologists are humans, and sometimes humans do things that are very shameful, very embarrassing, very shocking." The long pan around the heavyweight world of the anthropological conference, with its piles of erudite tomes on sale and serious debate is in stark contrast to some of the allegations of what took place in the rainforest.

my-perestroika-robin-hessman.jpgMy Perestroika, 2010

My Perestroika follows the lives of five Russians who were at school together under Soviet communism in the 1970s. The film explores how their lives have changed in the last 35 years as their country has reduced in size and adopted something notionally resembling capitalism. The lynchpin of the film is the Meyerson family. Borya is from an intellectual Jewish family. He, his wife Lyuba, and their fourteen year old son Mark all attended Sundance. Ruslan has always been one of Borya's best friends. Both have a strong rebellious streak and Ruslan was a punk rock star with the band NAIV in the 1990s. Olga, the prettiest girl in the class, is now a single mother living just above the poverty line although she is called a 'manager'. She works for a company who rent out billiard tables in Moscow. The final member, Andrei has material success and has just opened his 17th store selling expensive French cotton shirts.

Director Robin Hessman first spent eight years in Russia during the 1990s working and studying. The filming of My Perestroika, originally intended to last three months, took almost three years as she uncovered vast treasure troves of home movies and personal photographs which are interwoven with Communist propaganda and Russian newsreel footage. Asked whether she had any message for young people interested in delving into challenging cultures, Hessman said: "Rather than taking a gap year and gaining a superficial glimpse of many cultures, it would be better for universal understanding if young people did a one year exchange with a family."

Borya and Lyuba are now history teachers at the same Moscow School #57 where their son also studies. Hessman offers an aphorism, "In Russia, it’s the past that is unpredictable", as history is re-interpreted. Yet with Orwellian gloom, some things remain the same. Whereas in the 1970s young people were taught how to behave in a nuclear attack, nowadays they are prepared for a terrorist attack. Yet Lyuba says it is very difficult to explain Soviet history to children today; it’s a kind of fairy tale.

Although four of the five might now be termed as close to a middle class as exists in modern Russia, their material circumstances are modest and cramped by western standards. The Meyersons live in the same apartment where Borya grew up. The exception is Andrei whose home displays lavish clean lines more reminiscent of Channel 4's Grand Designs. Stylistically, the documentary is not adventurous, but the sheer richness of material and the loving care with which it has been assembled, make this a fascinating insight into ordinary folk trying to survive political earthquakes.

Lucinda Henderson and Brian Robinson are leisure consultants specialising in film.