Beyond the Multiplex

A gritty drama about teenage girls that's the talk of the festival set. Plus: Two documentaries about a nation driven mad by terrorism.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 12, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

I'm getting to hate those words "Based on a true story." As recent events in the publishing world have reminded us, they don't always mean what they purport to. And what was that, anyway? Are we such suckers, such TV-addled zombies eager to sink our teeth into the meat and gristle of unambiguous reality, that we've lost all concept of what art is, and what it's supposed to do? (Don't answer that -- I'm depressed enough already.)

Even a movie I raved about last week, Lajos Koltai's Holocaust film "Fateless," begins with that irritating phrase. I had two responses: First of all, no, it's not. "Fateless" is adapted from a work of fiction by Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, Hungary's greatest living novelist. And second of all, well, sure it is: Kertész himself was in the camps, and the Holocaust is "a true story." But for Christ's sake, isn't every remotely realistic work of art -- and some that aren't realistic at all -- based on a true story?

Maybe "Citizen Kane," "In Search of Lost Time" and "Ulysses" should all come labeled that way; their characters and stories are largely drawn from real people, real histories and real places, after all. I suppose if Nabokov published "Lolita" today, he'd have to appear on Oprah (or send some wig-wearing transgendered surrogate) to recite poetry and mumble darkly about his tragic, misunderstood love affair with the real 14-year-old Dolores Haze.

We've got a grab bag column this week as we try to stay abreast of a rising tide of winter indies, but what got me launched on this tangent was "On the Outs," a gritty, compelling little drama about three young women surviving, more or less, on the streets of Jersey City, N.J. I've got nothing bad to say about the movie, except that I hope people won't mistake the realism of its terrific young cast, and its low-budget, digital-video photography, with reality as such.

Yes, writer and co-director Lori Silverbush apparently talked to real girls in the New Jersey justice system, and the film is shot in one of the country's dreariest and most downtrodden urban areas. But this is storytelling, not documentary. If it has that itchy you-are-there feeling of reality, that isn't because it's "based on a true story." That's because it's successful storytelling, in the long tradition of Dickens and Zola and Eugene O'Neill and Martin Scorsese.

New York City and its environs have a long tradition of producing this kind of street-level realism; what we won't know for a while is whether Silverbush and co-director Michael Skolnik have more to offer than the impressive dirty-fingernails chemistry of "On the Outs." I guess the ur-NYC realism movie is Scorsese's "Mean Streets," actually a work of fine craftsmanship that marked the beginning of a great and widely varying career. It's almost impossible to count the filmmakers who drew exactly the wrong lesson from "Mean Streets," cranked out an energetic early film with lots of cursing and petty crime, and then pretty much fizzled out. Test cases might include Matty Rich ("Straight Out of Brooklyn," 1991), Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity," 1992) and Salvatore Stabile ("Gravesend," 1997).

This week, we've also got a devastating pair of political documentaries, explaining what happens when a nation abandons all pretense of democracy and due process in its panicked response to terrorism. (No, silly, they're about Peru!) Then there's a delightful and completely unlikely French love story, my mini-surprise film of the new year, and a loving tribute to the greatest photographer (many would say) of the 20th century. And all of it 100 percent true to my limited understanding of reality.

"On the Outs": A scared-straight after-school special, but actually good
One film-critic cliché I definitely do not buy is the idea that audiences don't like didactic movies. "On the Outs" is a nearly classic fable about three teenage girls who make bad choices in tough situations and must face the consequences, and beyond the hip-hop soundtrack, gangsta attire and yo-wassup dialogue, it's as didactic as anything in Dickens or anything ever aired by ABC at 3:30 in the afternoon. It's also been racking up audience awards at film festivals around the world for more than a year, and gives every impression of becoming a breakout hit.

You could suggest that directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik (who are white) are marketing a form of inner-city porn, offering a look at the intimate lives of poor and desperate urban girls of color to middle-class film audiences. But I don't view "On the Outs" that cynically -- I have no doubt this movie will appeal to viewers of all races and classes. Sure, part of the appeal is getting to see young Latina and African-American actresses perform in the kind of big, complex roles they rarely get. But that wouldn't be enough if they weren't all pretty good, and if Silverbush hadn't written a compact, fatalistic little drama with its beats in all the right places.

Jersey City makes a great setting for this kind of movie -- above its rundown brownstones and low-end commercial strips, you can see the Manhattan skyline just across the Hudson River. Even with the murky production values of consumer-level digital video, this is a landscape of high visual drama. The lives we witness are no less fraught: Suzette (Anny Mariano) is a protected, naive girl bound and determined to get into trouble; Marisol (Paola Mendoza) loves her young daughter but can't stay off the crack pipe; Oz (Judy Marte) is an upstanding neighborhood entrepreneur, supporting her grandma and disabled brother by making and dealing drugs in large quantities.

Clearly the star here is Marte (also seen in "Raising Victor Vargas"), an androgynous tough cookie with a brilliant smile. Although the dealer who never uses (and who holds basically middle-class values) is by now a drug-movie archetype, Oz never feels canned. As Marte plays her, Oz is alive to every moment, almost viciously protective of her slow-witted brother, Chuy (Dominic Colón), and visibly bearing the burden of her own mother's crack addiction. While the three-part structure of "On the Outs" is natural enough, Oz's sections are so much stronger that her tribulations become the spoke around which the whole movie turns.

Marisol's segment is the weepiest -- any parent will have trouble holding it together as she gradually realizes that her addiction has cost her the only thing she really cares about. Mendoza's acting is also the most mannered of the three, perhaps because she has to play such primal women's-movie scenes as being locked in a jail cell while screaming, "I want my baby!" Mariano is something of a blank slate as Suzette, but she gets to play opposite Clarence "Don" Hutchinson as Tyrell, her no good, very bad boyfriend, who is such a slinky, muscular, bedroom-eyed charmer that we can well believe a long list of dewy virgins have tumbled beneath him.

"On the Outs" offers hope and despair in predictable portions: All these girls have it tough, but the one with the most stable family situation seems destined to destroy herself, while the one with the best odds of ending up dead or serving 25-plus will find a way out. Whether we actually learn anything new from a movie like this -- or come any closer to "reality" -- I don't know, but those may not be the right questions. "On the Outs" is an American moral fable, as familiar as the Horatio Alger stories or Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," and our appetite for such tales of salvation and damnation is undiminished.

"On the Outs" opens Jan. 18 in New York; Jan. 20 in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Washington; Jan. 27 in Austin, Texas, and Tallahassee, Fla.; Feb. 3 in Atlanta, Huntington, W.Va., and Westbrook, Conn.; Feb. 10 in Houston and Raleigh, N.C.; and Feb. 17 in Atlantic City, N.J., with more cities to follow.

Every few weeks I see another political documentary (or two, in this case) that seems to explain more about our current predicament. If Adam Curtis' BBC film "The Power of Nightmares" is still the reigning champion, with Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" (which I'll discuss next week) coming up fast, there still has to be a special place for "State of Fear" and "The Fall of Fujimori," a heartbreaking double bill that explores the madness and murder of Peru's 20-year civil war, which killed a reported 70,000 people.

Based on the findings of Peru's extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed after the collapse of Alberto Fujimori's dictatorship in 2000, Pamela Yates' "State of Fear" is one of the most remarkable explorations of recent history ever conducted. It takes us through the grisly story of the uprising by Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, an unusually bloody-minded group of Maoist revolutionaries who sought to sweep away all of Peruvian society, the poor along with the rich, and replace it with an earthly Marxist paradise.

As terrible as the Shining Path's murderous atrocities were, the Peruvian government, especially under Fujimori, outdid them. As one prominent Lima attorney, a beautiful blond woman who will later provide one of the film's most devastating moments, explains to Yates, no one in the middle class minded. They were terrified of Shining Path, and didn't care if a few innocent Indian villagers (or, say, tens of thousands) were killed along the way. So ordinary citizens disappeared in large numbers, and it was often unclear whether they had been kidnapped by the guerrillas or killed by the military. After dissolving Congress and essentially declaring himself dictator in 1992, Fujimori enjoyed the support of 70 percent of the population.

Yates interviews former Shining Path guerrillas (one of whom, completely unrepentant, is totally terrifying), military officers, Indian leaders, journalists and human rights activists. Almost everyone in this electrifying, frightening and profoundly inspiring work of nonfiction (with the exception of Fujimori's official spokesman) seems committed to understanding how and why their nation ran amok, and what lessons can be drawn from it. It should surprise no one that the United States enthusiastically backed Fujimori, right up to the point when his despotic and operatically corrupt regime finally imploded.

Ellen Perry's "The Fall of Fujimori" explores the same story from a quite different angle; while the two films obviously stand on their own, they have a special resonance if seen one after the other. Perry became mesmerized by the unlikely odyssey of this son of Japanese immigrants, a likable, even idealistic fellow with a common man's touch, who rose to become first the populist president, and then the unrestrained totalitarian ruler, of a Latin American nation.

Perry eventually tracks down Fujimori in Japan, where he has lived in exile since fleeing Peru, and gets him to tell his side of the story at great length. He's a bright, genial and apparently rational man, eager to convince people back home that, yes, mistakes were made, but you have to place all these things in context and he did what he had to do. It's a fascinating, haunting, unintentionally gruesome spectacle with, as Perry has said, echoes of Shakespearean tragedy. It just makes you grateful that Hitler didn't survive the war, later to be discovered in some Buenos Aires cafe by a documentary filmmaker. ("It really wasn't personal with me and the Jews, honestly. It was more of an institutional problem, a kind of misunderstanding. Final solution -- feh! Who uses such language?")

While the parallel between Fujimori's Peru and George W. Bush's America is more general than specific -- Peru really was facing a civil war, in which insurgents controlled more than a third of the country -- the lessons one can draw from these films apply to many situations. When people get scared for their lives, their kids and their property, they are willing to condone pretty much anything. And ever since the time of Machiavelli, political leaders have used such threats, real and invented, to consolidate their power. Class is dismissed.

"State of Fear" plays through Jan. 17 at Film Forum in New York. Upcoming screenings include Jan. 20-22 in Boston, Feb. 2 in Minneapolis, Feb. 6-7 in San Francisco, Feb. 6-9 in Cincinnati, Feb. 13 in Huntington, N.Y., Feb. 18 in Philadelphia, Feb. 21 in Pleasantville, N.Y., Feb. 23 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Feb. 25 in Berkeley, Calif., with more to follow. "The Fall of Fujimori" opens Jan. 18 at Film Forum in New York; other cities may follow.

Fast forward: "When the Sea Rises" recounts a delightful mini-romance; "Cartier-Bresson" spends time with the father of all photographers

If you take "Lost in Translation," reverse the genders of the would-be lovers, and transport it to a series of nowheresville towns in the north of France, you might end up with something like Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau's "When the Sea Rises," a delightfully off-kilter love story. I don't want to oversell this winsome little movie, but if you want a bittersweet but cheerful pick-me-up on a cold winter evening, it's just the ticket.

Moreau, herself a well-known French comedian, stars as Irène, a woman of 45 or so who makes her living by touring her one-woman clown show tirelessly from small town to small town. (The show we see in the film is apparently one of Moreau's staples in real life.) A mixture of wistful sentiment and bawdy humor, Irène's performance will only seem implausible if you've never been exposed to the distinctly odd flavors of French humor. Moreau is a few kilos overweight and none too young, and her onstage character is a sort of French-housewife caricature, simultaneously horny, ugly, bloodthirsty and romantic.

You'll grasp right away that Irène is a sweet soul, and pretty lonely in between phone calls home to her husband. But not until a moped-driving Belgian drifter named Dries (Wim Willaert), who is maybe a decade younger, begins to follow her around like a puppy do we notice that she is also, in her own aging earth-mama way, actually quite lovely. Dries has no visible means of support and lives in a warehouse full of giant carnival puppets (I swear, it's not as icky as that sounds), but you can see in his eyes that this ambiguous almost-romance with a performing artist -- albeit one who plays a lecherous murderess with leeks in her handbag -- is the best thing that's ever happened to him.

Give this a try without expecting too much, and you'll see. "When the Sea Rises" gets both a lot sexier and a lot funnier as it goes along, with a few patches of darkness along the way. Porte and Moreau also demonstrate a sharp eye for the flat landscape and vertical planes -- trees, power pylons and factories -- of the unremarkable countryside along the Franco-Belgian border. (For some reason I can't explain, that area has produced several excellent films in recent years.) This comic tale of l'amour fou is worthy of Irène's onstage harridan, and along the way it captures some remnants of a European performing tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages. (Opens Jan. 13 in New York; other cities may follow. DVD release will follow later in the spring.)

Swiss filmmaker Heinz Bütler's documentary "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" will mostly interest photo buffs -- but if that's you, then rearrange your Netflix queue today. This is an ambling, relaxed talking-head docu in the grand European style: I'm not sure that Isabelle Huppert contributes much to our understanding of the 20th century's defining photographer, the man who blended fine-art photography and photojournalism such that they could never fully come undone, but watching her sit there and leaf through his pictures is in a sense its own reward.

Bütler also talks to such important Cartier-Bresson disciples as Elliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka and Ferdinando Scianna, but the movie is most noteworthy for including both Cartier-Bresson's last extensive interview (he died in August 2004) and also one of Arthur Miller's last (he was a longtime friend). Thankfully, much of the film is devoted simply to admiring the remarkable geometric and documentary power of the great man's pictures, whether from 1930s Mexico, the Soviet Union, Nazi-occupied France, the Jim Crow South, Gandhi's India, and any number of other backwaters and hot spots. The more of these photographs you see, the more you realize that Cartier-Bresson didn't just capture the century, he defined the way we saw it and understood it.

(Opens Jan. 13 at the Quad Cinema in New York, and will be released Feb. 14 on DVD.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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