Beyond the Multiplex

Natalie Portman is horribly misused in "Goya's Ghosts." Plus: "Summercamp!" -- the season's saddest, sweetest, most magical and deeply affecting movie.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 19, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Last week I wrote about all the indie-film distributors (and big-time Hollywood execs) who are terrified, as usual, that viewers are abandoning movie theaters and even DVDs. Now the technological villain is the iPhone, because it's been in the news, and all the ever-teenier hand-held electronic devices no doubt clattering down the pipeline in the months and years ahead. I said I didn't know anybody who had actually watched a movie on a telephone and that I wasn't even sure it was feasible.

Well, my plea for enlightenment was answered, gentle readers. I called out to you from the darkness of ignorance, and you did not let me languish there. None of you could quite explain why the film, music and television industries, which arguably should be at the forefront of technological innovation, have always fought tooth-and-nail against it. But I suspect that is a much larger philosophical problem, requiring recourse to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," Thomas Aquinas, and Horkheimer and Adorno's "Enlightenment as Mass Deception." So we'll leave that for another time.

Advertisement:

Meanwhile, it turns out I do know somebody who watches movies on his phone. Doug Moran, a film buff and frequent correspondent from Austin, Texas, gently informed me that he's been ripping and converting DVDs for viewing on hand-held devices for several years, going back to something called the Tapwave Zodiac, which he reports had almost exactly the same specs as the spanking new iPhone. (Not that Moran is anti-iPhone; he says he watched "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie" on his iPhone just the other day.) Moran reviews personal media players (PMPs) for Gear Diary, and he thinks the iPhone and similar devices are "going to have an impact on 'place shifting' entertainment watching, for TV shows, at least," the way TiVo has on "time shifting."

Still, even he doesn't see these technologies having a major impact on the movie business. He agrees that it'd be utterly pointless to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Yojimbo" (or, for that matter, "Transformers") on a hand-held device. Furthermore, Moran writes, "You can't share iPhone-watched movies. Despite the fabulous quality of the iPhone screen, even two inches from your face it doesn't match the 'sit in the comfy chair and watch the giant screen with 500 people' experience. So I think you and other 'cranky cinephiles' shouldn't worry overmuch."

I also heard from Marshall Eubanks, CEO of a Web site called AmericaFree.tv, which airs a surprising array of feature-length films, via QuickTime, absolutely free. (This week, they've got the 1961 Marlon Brando classic "One-Eyed Jacks," Howard Hughes' 1943 western "The Outlaw," Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard in "Made for Each Other," a new indie crime film called "Time of My Life" and lots of other stuff.) Eubanks reports that the site simulcasts everything in cellphone format (3GPP and 3GPP2, if you must know), but that less than 1 percent of AmericaFree's audience watches movies that way. He puts it simply: "People do do it, but not too many."

So there we have it. People can watch movies on their phones and various other tiny gizmos, and some small, slowly increasing subset of them will do it. But to construe that as a threat to the movie-theater business is ludicrous. I suspect that the rising quality and falling prices of home-theater systems, the broadening reach of video-on-demand, and the growth of Netflix, GreenCine and so on have a lot more to do with the sluggish box-office numbers of the last few years than do a handful of pioneers on the outer fringes of techno-geekdom.

Actually, as I also wrote last week, this summer's indie box office is looking pretty doggone strong. With exceptionally strong openings for Patrice Leconte's "My Best Friend" (on just three New York screens) and "Talk to Me" (in 33 big-city theaters) last weekend, the good news continues. In terms of the larger picture, though, I get a lot of letters from readers who say they just don't go to the movies. Whether it's the online service fee, the long lines, the sticky floors, the crowds of teenagers or the $4.95 sodas (plus the cost of baby sitting, gas, parking, etc.), lots of adult movie fans just don't find theatergoing to be congenial or pleasant or worthwhile.

So let's reopen a topic from last year: Why don't you go to the movies, and what might make you go more often? Mark Cuban's Landmark chain is specifically intended to address these problems and provide a grown-up-centric night out. Is it working? Do booze, food and other amenities (à la Texas' fabulous Alamo Drafthouse mini-chain) make a difference? Or if that's all just old-regime thinking, let's hear about it. Have you embraced the cocoon experience of home-movie watching as a liberation from group think and mass conformity?

Advertisement:

More to come. Meanwhile, weren't we supposed to talk about actual movies? I guess I've been delaying talking about Milos Forman's "Goya's Ghosts," which is a textbook case of what's wrong with the mid-budget international art-film business. But we've also got two utterly charming surprises. "Summercamp!" is a documentary about, well, about summer camp. But it turns out to be the saddest, sweetest, most magical and most deeply affecting movie of the season. And American audiences finally get a look at "Live-in Maid," another exquisitely made character study from Argentina, which despite its economic troubles continues to support the world's most eclectic film industry.

"Goya's Ghosts": News flash: Inquisition bad! Napoleon arrogant! War hell! Movie irrelevant!
Back when so-called art films were essentially a subset of the high-culture world -- when the people who attended them were also the people who went to the symphony, to art museums and to "serious" theater -- the pseudo-Shakespearean historical drama, lavishly costumed and loaded with British-style hambone acting, was a staple of the business. I guess Laurence Olivier's 1944 "Henry the Fifth," not pseudo-Shakespearean but the real thing, was the template to which all such movies refer, but I'm actually talking about later exercises in scenery-gnawing, like Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter," or Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold in "Anne of the Thousand Days."

Advertisement:

I'm not being snide, I swear. I was reverentially taken to those movies as a small child, since my parents and grandparents were precisely those kinds of high-culture filmgoers, and I'm sure they shaped my sensibilities in ways I can't even see. Pictures like those (and, I don't know, "Becket" and "A Man for All Seasons") still hit me, on a gut level, as being meaty and significant, even though I understand that many younger viewers must see them -- if they ever happen to see them at all -- as baffling curios of the cultural Pleistocene.

People keep making costume dramas, of course, with intermittent success, but it's perfectly true that they can't recapture the cultural heft of bygone days. No contemporary actor (except, maybe, Meryl Streep) has the mixture of theatrical respectability and movie-star cachet that Burton and Hepburn and O'Toole had, and the old high-culture audience has been whittled and niche-marketed down into insignificance. (Not a bad thing, but a double-edged sword.) Maybe all these circumstances go some way toward explaining the incoherent dreariness of "Goya's Ghosts," in which Milos Forman has spent lots of money and employed many people to re-create Spain at the turn of the 18th century. But also maybe not.

Twenty-three years ago, Forman directed "Amadeus," an adapted stage play that might be regarded both as one of the last old-school costume dramas and as one of the first in a new revisionist breed. Historical accuracy aside (because there wasn't much of it), "Amadeus" was an explosive big-screen spectacle, meant to humanize one of the most legendary of high-culture heroes. Presenting Mozart as a vulgar hedonist, a self-indulgent and self-destructive rock star of 18th century Vienna, was an ingenious way to appeal to a mass audience by explicitly rejecting the aristocratic mores of his society.

Advertisement:

"Goya's Ghosts," on the other hand, has no clear purpose, no clear message and no clear central character. Like most costume dramas these days, it dwells on the gore, filth and violence of the past (if not as much as Patrice Chéreau's outstanding "Queen Margot" or Tom Tykwer's intriguing failure "Perfume"), but toward what end is never apparent. Here are the historical insights put forward by Forman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière: The Spanish Inquisition was cruel, hypocritical and money-grubbing. Napoleon Bonaparte was a grandiose and deluded figure, driven by misguided idealism. Holy Moses! We'd better stop the presses.

Forman gets briefly interested in comparing Napoleon's ill-fated conquest of Spain in 1807 to current events. When French officers tell their troops that the Spanish people will cast flowers in their paths and embrace liberation from an oppressive monarchy and church -- and then, of course, the Spanish don't, and launch a bitter insurgency -- we're supposed to sit there and think, "Aha, plus ça change and all that." But it's a bogus historical parallel that gets dropped pretty fast, and we're left with a movie in which Natalie Portman is constantly being tortured and raped, Javier Bardem plays a simpering villain with silly hair (even sillier than the Ringo Starr do he wears in "No Country for Old Men") and Stellan Skarsgard plays the great Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya, who has almost nothing to do with the story.

OK, he does a little. Not much. In 1792, with the French Revolution going on next door, an ambitious monk named Brother Lorenzo (Bardem) gets permission from the leader of the Spanish church (Michael Lonsdale) to ramp up the Inquisition's hunt for heretics. For no special reason they drag in a girl named Inés (Portman), daughter of a rich merchant named Bilbatúa (José Luis Gómez), on suspicion of being secretly Jewish. Aforementioned torture, screaming and rape ensue. Goya's already on thin ice with the Inquisition for his anti-clerical cartoons, but the sinister Lorenzo likes his paintings, so Goya tries to help. This ends in a completely ludicrous scheme in which Bilbatúa kidnaps and blackmails Lorenzo, who flees across the border and becomes a French revolutionary. That's, like, the first third of the movie.

Advertisement:

You may have noticed that the actors mentioned so far include two Spaniards, an American, an Englishman and a Swede. This is one of those movies, all too common on the international scene, where name actors have been packed willy-nilly into various roles and everybody speaks English with a completely different accent. What is that meant to convey? Just a general tone of upper-crust old-timeyness? A universal concession to the global language of business, crime and sex? Or do we just accept the fact that, oh well, this way they could sell the movie almost anywhere without especially pissing anybody off?

So then the story abruptly skips ahead 15 years, to Napoleon and the dimwit brother he installs on the Spanish throne. Goya has become deaf and travels with a sign-language interpreter, which may be the one historically accurate detail in this whole movie but slows down his scenes considerably. There's also a firebrand Madrid prostitute named Alicia, and if we have any trouble figuring out whose bastard jailhouse daughter she might be, there's the fact that she and Inés are both played by Natalie Portman. Got all that? Believe me, you don't. The whole thing is handsomely mounted, with plenty of Goya paintings and supposed observations about the ironies of history and the cyclical nature of life, etc. Forman's always been a huckster, but I never thought I'd see him waste this many good actors on a movie this bad.

"Goya's Ghosts" opens July 20 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.

"Summercamp!": Memories of a precious summer (this one)
Whatever magic Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price employed to get so intimate with the young subjects of their documentary "Summercamp!," it's something most documentary filmmakers never get close to discovering. This is an unassuming little film that sneaks up on you; at first it seems like pleasant public-TV fare, a little ground-level time in the hothouse society of Swift Nature Camp in northern Wisconsin, where kids aged roughly 8 to 14 spend three weeks swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, doing archery and crafts, and eating tuna salad on hot-dog rolls. (That detail alone had a nearly Proustian impact on me.)

Advertisement:

But the more time you spend with the kids of Swift -- with their tears of homesickness, their battles with counselors, their whispered late-night confessions and summer-crush friendships -- the more universal and even operatic their emotional world becomes. I don't think you have to be a middle-class American with summer camp in your own past to appreciate this film, though that undoubtedly helps. Of all the films, fictional or non-, that set out to capture the terrors and wonders of childhood and adolescence, and the treacherous borderline between them, I've hardly seen any that affected me this deeply.

Many Swift campers are profiled in Beesley and Price's film, but the directors seem especially drawn to the strange kids, the near-outcasts. Some of them thrive at camp, like the Chicago girl genius with a precocious haircut who says she dislikes human beings and is all too eager to escape her parents. Others, not so much. More and more, "Summercamp!" focuses on Cameron, an overweight, hyperactive kid who could be the juvenile hero of a Stephen King story, and Holly, a wispy blond who speaks in a nearly inaudible murmur and seems bizarrely obsessed with chickadees.

If you did attend a summer camp somewhere in North America, you'll be thrilled and mystified to discover that summer-camp culture seems essentially unchanged since, I don't know, forever. The skits and songs seem to be the same ("Kumbaya"! "Little Red Wagon"!), the counselors seem cool, sadistic and buffoonish in familiar ratios, and the lake water is still freezing. They serve lime Jell-O at Swift! As one counselor says to a kid whom he has compelled to say "sorry" to another: "Was that so hard? All you had to do was say one four-letter word. Um, five-letter word."

Cameron and Holly's stories are heartbreaking, and there are occasional indications that the world in which Swift kids are growing up has not remained unchanged across the decades. Many campers are taking ADD/ADHD medication -- although one counselor wryly observes that all-day outdoor activity seems to make the symptoms disappear -- and there's a casual self-consciousness about the adult world that seems new. One likable kid, discussing his workaholic lawyer father, calmly says, "It pretty much sucks for me. I'll go home and it'll be like I don't have a dad." When you ask yourself whether these kids will be OK in the end, the only possible answer is another question: Am I? Is anybody?

Advertisement:

I wept more than once during "Summercamp!," but it's not easy to say why. Nothing terrible or amazing happens to any of these kids, yet watching them we know how closely they will hold these memories for the rest of their lives. Despite its unaffected manner, "Summercamp!" has something like a profound aesthetic vision; it calls up for the viewer the overpowering emotions of one's own childhood, while reminding us that others are feeling those same joys and fears even now, and will be hurt, disappointed and rewarded in roughly the same measure. This is a precious summer experience (with a perfect soundtrack of songs by the Flaming Lips), ephemeral as fireflies in the grass. Catch it before it's gone.

"Summercamp!" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, and opens Aug. 3 in Milwaukee, Aug. 10 in Boston, Aug. 17 in Lincoln, Neb., and Tucson, Ariz., Aug. 24 in Portland, Ore., Aug. 25 in Chicago, Aug. 31 in Los Angeles and Sept. 14 in Seattle. Also available on DVD.

"Live-in Maid": She has always depended on the kindness of ... servants
In closing, a few words on a film that deserves much more, the subtle and pitch-perfect social comedy "Live-in Maid," from Argentine writer-director Jorge Gaggero. Norma Aleandro, that nation's greatest living actress, gives a delicate performance as the noble if not entirely likable Beba, a middle-class Buenos Aires divorcée who's totally broke but can't quite readjust her expectations. She's slowly selling off the china, the silver and the jewelry, and as we gradually figure out, she hasn't paid her maid, Dora (Norma Argentina), in more than seven months.

Gaggero never stages big confrontations or explanatory monologues. What we learn about the blend of love, hatred and mutual dependency that lies between Beba and Dora we have to pick up along the way, by inference. If Beba, with her dithery manner and fashionable if outdated wardrobe, is the camera's main focus, then Dora, a block-shaped woman from the rural working class who gives nothing away easily, is the film's moral pillar. Both women, as we may eventually understand, are governed by pride, but in both cases the pride is complicated, unstable, mixed with pity and need and contempt. Both actresses do their work with body language more than words; they couldn't be more different and they're both amazing.

Advertisement:

You could call "Live-in Maid" a comedy, and as the polarity of Beba and Dora's relationship begins to reverse there are certainly some funny moments. It's never sadistic or gratuitous in its handling of Beba's descent into the indignity of poverty. (If there's something of Blanche DuBois in Aleandro's portrayal, Beba never falls as far or as low.) But it's a wrenching, often painful comedy with its roots in Bergman and Bresson and Chekhov, as well as in the extremely unfunny condition of the Argentine economy. Not a shot or a sentence or a line is wasted. "Live-in Maid" surely won't get much play here, but it's exquisite, diamond-tipped filmmaking, further evidence of the fine work Argentina's artists are producing under extreme circumstances.

"Live-in Maid" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with wider release to follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •