Beyond the Multiplex

Robert Greenwald's powerful new Wal-Mart film. Plus: Gay sex in the 1970s, the New York Dolls, a history of ballet, and a Kiyoshi Kurosawa ghost story.

Published November 3, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

If talk radio and talk TV have largely become a province inhabited by right-wing know-nothingism (sure, there's Air America, but they're just a drop in the bucket), documentary film is now the land of lefty agitprop and muckraking. Is there some Marshall McLuhan-style proposition to discover here about the nature of these media, and the way they segment their audience? Maybe so. Red-faced guys in ties bloviating in real time makes for a "hot" medium, distilling unfocused rage and fear out of the atmosphere. The refracted shimmer of the documentary medium is much "cooler," with its quasi-naturalistic blend of talking-head interviews and archival footage, provoking a more detached, intellectual response.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the way documentary film has become a branch of advocacy journalism -- but, hey, I don't hate it as much as the executives at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. do. Robert Greenwald's new film, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices," has subjected the retail industry's Goliath -- already on the defensive after waves of lawsuits and bad publicity -- to new and harsh scrutiny. By my count, stories casting Wal-Mart in a dubious light (at the very least) have appeared in the New York Times five of the past seven days, most of them on either the front page or the front of the business section. While Greenwald's film didn't prompt all these stories, it's mentioned in all of them, and Wal-Mart now has a "war room" full of skilled political operatives principally devoted to countering the accusations it raises.

We didn't know about any of this alleged bad stuff, Wal-Mart insists -- and that happy little yellow Low-Pricey Man throws his gloved hands in the air and does his best impression of a frown. But as you watch Greenwald's movie that response becomes more and more incredible; what the chain's execs presumably didn't know about their global quest to drive costs, wages and prices ever downward dwarfs the already galactic scale of what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney presumably didn't know about Iraq. It's a crude analogy, but the same philosophical approach to the world is at work here, and it's no accident that Greenwald's earlier films -- which pioneered his distinctive guerrilla-marketing approach -- have tackled Fox News, the Iraq war and the 2000 presidential election.

Beyond the question of that polo shirt you bought for $3.79, for which some Indonesian teenager who gets two days off a year got paid 4 cents, it's a massive week for cultural history. We've got a documentary reminding us that for gay men, the 1970s weren't about poppers and coke and Fire Island parties and mind-blowing amounts of sex -- well, OK, yes they were -- but also about a culture and a community discovering itself, right before being hit with a veritable holocaust. We also witness the unlikely reunion of the New York Dolls from an even unlikelier perspective, and learn the impossible, delightful story of how ballet traveled from the 19th century Russian aristocracy to American popular culture. We've only got one fictional feature this time out, but it's a doozy for those so inclined, a creepy, slow-moving existential ghost story from the enigmatic Japanese master, Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

For you regular visitors to this space, no, your memory's not playing tricks. It's only been a week since my last catalog of oddities and obscurities, and starting right now Beyond the Multiplex will be appearing every Thursday. Partly that's because there are too damn many interesting movies to cover any other way, and partly it's thanks to the love and guidance of my awesome editors. But mostly it's because of you. So please -- drop a line when you can, tell me when I've endorsed yet another pretentious snore-fest or sneered at a masterpiece, point me at amazing things you've seen in overseas film festivals or your neighbor's collection of pirated DVDs, or tell me how I can make this space more friendly and useful. Just like the good folks at Wal-Mart, my goal is to work hard, embrace change and always try to do better.

"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices": Freedom is slavery -- but we're cutting prices!
If Enron marked one extreme of turn-of-the-century capitalism, Wal-Mart, as depicted in Robert Greenwald's grimly mesmerizing film, marks another. You can't say that either company behaved irrationally: Both exist in a system that lavishly rewarded greed, falsehood and exploitation, and that never made clear where the acceptable limits lay or even whether they existed at all.

Enron was encouraged to lie because the financial markets had demonstrated, at least in the short term, that they didn't care whether reported profits were real or not. Wal-Mart's logic is even more inexorable: By virtually enslaving workers in third-world sweatshops and keeping its retail employees at home systematically overworked and underpaid, the chain could not only undersell all its competitors but also create a marketplace where low wages and low prices became mutually necessary. Nobody in the film quite puts it this way, but Wal-Mart was the Perfect Storm of the downshifting American economy. The cut-rate colossus didn't just ride the tide that sucked industrial jobs out of our towns and cities and spat out low-wage service-sector jobs in the sprawling exurbs -- it helped create it, and at the very least drastically accelerated it.

You probably know most of the information that appears in Greenwald's film by now -- a laundry list of anti-Wal-Mart indictments has been aired in the news media over the past few years -- but it remains a powerful experience to see it gathered together and supported by witness after witness. On various levels, "Wal-Mart" is a more effective and impressive film than either Greenwald's "Uncovered: The War on Iraq" or "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism." The target is more elusive, arguably more dangerous and definitely less well-understood, so Greenwald and his team have had to dig deeper and weave together many different strands of research and reporting. Knowledgeable critics of the Bush administration or Fox News are relatively easy to find. Whistle-blowers who know about the inside workings of Wal-Mart are few and far between, and this film will make you appreciate their courage and convictions.

Greenwald's star is probably a man named Weldon Nicholson, for 17 years a member of Wal-Mart management whose primary job was to travel from store to store, forcing out employees suspected of being actual or potential union organizers. Nicholson also testifies to other now-notorious management practices, most of them never written down in training manuals: forcing store employees to work unpaid overtime; hiring undocumented immigrants as overnight cleaning crews at sub-minimum wage; making cash payments to local zoning and planning officials; directing underpaid workers to Medicaid, food stamps, childhood nutrition programs and other forms of government assistance.

We also meet the owners of longtime local businesses destroyed by Wal-Mart -- places like Esry's Grocery, of Hamilton, Mo., and H&H Hardware, of Middlefield, Ohio -- African-American and female employees who worked eagerly and hard for years at poverty wages and were told there was no place for them in management; customers victimized by crimes in the stores' vast, unpoliced parking lots; and a former global-services manager who says he was fired for reporting the truth about the chain's factories in Latin America. What makes the movie so powerful is the totality of the portrait, both in its details and its sweep. Most of these people are entirely unexceptional Americans from the working class or lower-middle class, believers in flag and country and God and capitalism, not left-wing activists or academics with some theoretical critique. Most of them believed in Wal-Mart, too, and were genuinely horrified to learn that its low prices depended on enforced poverty, whether theirs or somebody else's.

For me, the crippling moment arrives when Greenwald takes his cameras to a factory in China, where workers toil 14 hours a day, seven days a week, to make toys for Wal-Mart. They're paid roughly 30 to 40 cents an hour (with rent for the factory's dormitory, with its triple-decker bunk beds, deducted) and perhaps an economist could convince me that's a decent wage in that context. But for me these workers and their painful, hopeful stories recalled the righteous anger of Chapter 4 of Marx's "Capital," with its descriptions of the Industrial Revolution's workday that began long before dawn and went deep into the night, of women locked in sweatshops and 8-year-old children fed their lunches inside the machinery. I started anxiously reading the labels on my shirts and asking myself questions: Where did I buy this -- I'm hoping the answer is the Salvation Army -- and where did it come from before that? And am I really willing to buy a shirt at a price that would pay the person who made it a decent wage?

Greenwald's film ends with a couple of genuinely inspiring case histories of very different American towns whose people have come together to keep out Wal-Mart. But it never quite asks its audience the question I just asked, nor does it acknowledge that the vast service-sector economy that is now the bedrock of American life depends on the wide range of low-price commodities available at places like Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Ikea and so on. Some of those stores are better than others, and the evidence here and elsewhere suggests that Wal-Mart is a particularly insidious form of capitalist carcinoma. But Wal-Mart did not create the current stage of global capitalism. We've all played our roles in accepting and maintaining it, and if we want it to change, keeping the big box out of our own neighborhood isn't really enough.

"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" opens Nov. 4 in New York and Los Angeles, Nov. 23 in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., Dec. 2 in Minneapolis, and Dec. 9 in Chicago, La Jolla, Calif., and Royal Oak, Mich., with more cities to follow. DVDs and VHS tapes are available from the Web site, and more than 3,000 screening parties will be held all over the country, beginning Nov. 13.

"Gay Sex in the 70s": An age of revolution -- and also mustaches
One of the interviewees in Joseph Lovett's "Gay Sex in the 70s," an African-American photographer in his mid-50s, is asked by the director whether it was true that gay New York in that legendary decade experienced a period of sexual indulgence unknown since the late Roman Empire. It's been a sober conversation to that point, and you can see the guy processing the question for a second, wondering whether he's supposed to say something diplomatic. Then a slow smile creeps across his face -- and it's not a sad or rueful smile or anything like that, either -- and you know what the answer is.

Lovett's film is a finely balanced and loving work of history, which never tries to sugarcoat elements of the explosion of gay sexuality three decades ago that may seem excessive or disturbing to some contemporary viewers. He's well aware that some people, both gay and otherwise, view the sexual revolution of the 1970s and the deadly epidemic that followed through a moral lens, and you can read his movie that way if you insist on it.

But as a veteran producer and director of TV specials and documentaries about AIDS and other deadly disorders, Lovett says, "I've done my share of equating sex with death." What he's after here, instead, is recapturing what he calls "a time of exploration, a time of surprise," which not only galvanized a nascent gay community -- no such thing really existed before the Stonewall uprising in 1969 -- but transformed all Americans' ideas about sex and sexuality, regardless of our gender or those of our preferred partners.

Mixing contemporary interviews with the era's survivors -- sadly, that's the only word to use -- and often startling file footage and still images, Lovett distills the slightly dangerous vibe of an almost unrecognizable New York. In a city plagued by crime, suburban emigration and a crumbling infrastructure, young gay men poured in by the thousands after 1969, claiming its abandoned spaces as zones of sexual adventure. Gay bars bloomed in every neighborhood, empty health clubs were reborn as the now-legendary bathhouses. The decrepit Hudson River piers and the tractor-trailers parked overnight in the meat-packing district became well-known cruising spots -- although maybe it's euphemistic to refer to sex in complete darkness with someone you can't see as "cruising."

When Lovett telephones me from his Manhattan production office, I suggest that it takes balls to put all this stuff in a film, even 30 years later. Was he concerned at all, I wondered, about how the James Dobsons and Samuel Alitos of the world would react to this movie and its tales of legendary debauchery? He sighs sadly. "It disturbs me that you have asked that question," he says. "I was a child during the McCarthy period, and I saw what keeping silent did. I do believe in telling the truth about who we are and where we've been. I believe the truth will set you free."

Those who hate gay people, he suggests, aren't likely to hate them less if he conceals the truth about how easy it was to get a blow job on the piers of lower Manhattan in 1975. And of course he's right. It's not as if Phyllis Schlafly doesn't know that gay men have a reputation for sexual libertinage (which has always seemed suspiciously fascinating to activists on the far right), and Lovett is trying to put the raunchy delights of the piers and the trucks and the bars in a larger context. Ultimately, this movie is less about sex per se, he says, than the liberation that came with it.

"It's about the end of repression, and what lifting repression can do to you, and for you," he continues. "I wanted to look at the wonderful things that happened along with that -- the fact that so many gay people began to accept themselves, and came out to the other people in their lives. They began to be able to incorporate their fantasies into their sense of the future, which was very important. You didn't have to be somebody who segmented your personality, who kept your sensual life locked in a little box."

Whether you find yourself shocked or delighted (or both) by all the mustachioed man-flesh on display, "Gay Sex in the 70s" is an often-hilarious tribute to its city and its era, full of pumping disco tunes, scenes from vintage porn films and Fire Island parties, and the none-too-subtle posters that advertised bathhouses and all-night booty-shaking hoedowns. It doesn't shy away from the question of how the party ended, with the arrival of a catastrophe that devastated the gay community and made impossible demands on its newfound sense of identity and unity. Lovett's film should remind all of us that the homosexual experience in America, however you wish to interpret it, is that of a distinct and harshly oppressed minority.

"We have been vilified, we have been attacked in streets, we've had laws made against us," says Lovett. "We are like the Jews in Germany, and I do not make that comparison lightly. We need to talk about who we really are. We can't try to appease the far right, because they can't be appeased. With this film, I get to sit in the theater and hear people laugh. Then they come to me afterwards and say, 'Thank you, I never knew about that,' or 'Thank you -- I had forgotten that you could have sex without fear, without thinking about death.'"

"Gay Sex in the 70s" opens Nov. 4 at the Quad Cinema in New York, Nov. 18 at the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles and Jan. 20, 2006, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, with more cities to follow.

Fast Forward: A world of electronic ghosts; how ballet conquered America; twilight of the Dolls
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not related, either by genealogy or aesthetics, to the late Akira Kurosawa, but if the elder Kurosawa was the most illustrious Japanese director of his generation, the younger one may be on the verge of assuming that mantle himself. Although fans started picking up on his enigmatic genre films like "Eyes of the Spider" or "Serpent's Path" in the late '90s, this Kurosawa still suffers from brand identification problems and lacks much of a Western audience.

I'm not sure that's likely to change with "Pulse," his influential 2001 horror film that's finally getting a limited U.S. release, but it's a powerful, dreamlike work that conjures a peculiar spell. I could tell you that it's about ghosts using the Internet to invade our world and provoke a suicide epidemic, or that it's a teen drama of anomie and loneliness, or that it ends up as one of those nuclear-war allegories where a shrinking group of survivors tries to keep going in a depopulated world. That's all correct, but doesn't do much to capture the movie's essence.

Like a lot of films in the latest wave of Japanese cinema, "Pulse" moves in wavelike rhythms that will enthrall some viewers and bore others into a deep slumber. It has a plot, sort of, and offers explanations, sort of, for its spectral apparitions. But the ghosts halfway trapped in the walls of crumbling buildings, the murkily frightening images that appear unbidden on computer screens, the doors sealed with red masking tape that you really, really wish the characters wouldn't open -- I feel stupid saying these things are symbolic, or archetypal, or whatever, but it's true.

Kurosawa uses the conventions of genre movies to contain semi-experimental meditations on loneliness and mortality and the fact that the technology that was supposed to liberate us has instead filled us with despair. If he helped launch the wave sometimes unfortunately known as "J-horror," his aesthetic goals are bigger and murkier than that suggests. I'm sure I'll end up catching the Wes Craven-scripted remake Harvey Weinstein's new company has in the works, but the distinctive altered state induced by Kurosawa's "Pulse" is almost certain to get lost in translation. (Opens Nov. 9 at the IFC Center in New York; other cities may follow.)

If you have some received ideas about ballet as a snooty art form imposed on the upper levels of the bourgeoisie by its culture ministers -- as I more or less did -- then Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's marvelous documentary "Ballets Russes" comes as a humbling corrective. In telling the amazing story of how a group of dancers who sprang from the exiled and impoverished Russian aristocracy in Paris conquered America and the rest of the Western hemisphere, this movie reminds us that culture flows in all directions at once. It's a profoundly optimistic and delightful movie, for balletomanes and neophytes alike. It made me happy for days afterward.

The original Ballet Russe was the troupe founded by Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev in 1909, which captivated French society but collapsed with the coming of the Great Depression. Geller and Goldfine sketch that history quickly, but focus on the story of the second (and in fact third) Ballet Russe, which produced many of the legendary choreographers and dancers of the 20th century, and spread the art form to all corners of the globe. Small and middle-size cities in Missouri and Queensland and Uruguay have ballet companies and ballet schools today because of the Ballets Russes' indefatigable touring schedule.

Amazing as all this history is, the real fun comes from meeting the former Ballet Russe dancers, a supremely confident and defiantly eccentric bunch who have lived extraordinary lives and in many cases are still living them. Legendary ballerinas Mia Slavenska and Tatiana Riabouchinska taught in Los Angeles into the 21st century. Nathalie Krassovska taught at her Dallas ballet school until the day she died last February -- and we see her here, rehearsing a famous Ballet Russe duet with her longtime partner George Zoritch, who founded the ballet program at the University of Arizona.

It goes on: Irina Baronova, one of the Ballet Russe's famous "Baby Ballerinas" in the 1930s, lives in Australia, is still vibrant at 86, and is planning to publish her memoirs. Frederic Franklin and Marc Platt, the two great male dancers in Ballet Russe history, are still doing choreography, and even dancing a little, at age 90. Maria Tallchief, the American Indian girl from rural Oklahoma who became one of the greatest 20th century ballerinas (and George Balanchine's wife), remains strikingly beautiful. And why not? As Ballet Russe alumni go, she's a baby at age 80.

The various Ballet Russe companies were such a big deal that they were filmed extensively as early as the '30s, and for dance fiends this movie is going to be a much-lusted-after DVD. As a story of -- can I even write these cornball words? -- the power of art to infuse individual human beings with a prodigious sense of purpose, and to penetrate all imaginable boundaries of class and race and nationality, it offers the kind of pleasure you can't put a price on. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York. Opens Nov. 4 in San Francisco; Nov. 11 in Los Angeles, San Jose, Calif., and Washington; Nov. 18 in Boston, Chicago and Seattle; and Dec. 2 in Salt Lake City and Santa Barbara, Calif., with more cities to follow.)

Staying with the inexpressibly strange and inexpressibly sweet, we conclude with Greg Whiteley's film "New York Doll," which I guess details a Ballet Russe-style reunion for the '70s glam-rock generation. Truth be told, Dolls lead singer David Johansen, with his battered-leather visage and age-inappropriate mop-top do, looks a lot worse than some of those 80-year-old Russians.

But this film is not about Johansen's ambiguous voyage from counterculture rock legend to whatever he is now, but rather about Dolls bass player Arthur "Killer" Kane, who dropped out of music not long after the Dolls' 1975 implosion, and wound up in the early 2000s as a Mormon who rides the bus to work at the church's Family History Center in Los Angeles. Kane clearly suffers from various kinds of physical, psychological and perhaps neurological damage the film never discusses, but while his story could be called pathetic it never descends into bathos or kitsch.

I really admire Whiteley's rigorously nonjudgmental handling of the material. He interviews not just Kane's friends from the music world, like Morrissey or Johansen or Blondie drummer Clem Burke, but also his advisors and bishops from the Mormon Church, and all without a hint of condescension. In fact, leaving aside whatever preconceptions or political opinions you may hold about Mormons, it's clear that Kane's spiritual mentors are genuinely thrilled to have a member of a revolutionary proto-punk band in their fold, and want to help him mend the decades-old rift with Johansen and Syl Sylvain (the only other surviving original Doll).

When Morrissey decides to bring these three together for a Dolls reunion concert in London, it seems impossible that A) this damaged, embittered, 60-ish man could get up on a stage and play those songs, or B) that it could possibly be a good experience for anybody to witness or hear. But life, and even reunions of long-defunct bands, can surprise you. Killer Kane and his band rocked the house at the Royal Festival Hall. Those elderly Mormon sisters who worked with him at the Family History Center, the ones who call themselves "Arthur Kane groupies," bubbled over with excitement. Three weeks later, Kane was dead of undiagnosed leukemia. As sad stories go, this is a happy one. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles. Opens Nov. 4 in Phoenix and Salt Lake City; Nov. 11 in Las Vegas, Ogden, Utah, and Provo, Utah; Nov. 18 in Seattle and Boise, Idaho; and Nov. 23 in Chicago and Dallas, with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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