Beyond the Multiplex

A documentary masterpiece that shows us Iraq as it truly is. Plus: Ed Harris as Beethoven, and an exegesis on the word "fuck."


Andrew O'Hehir
November 9, 2006 4:00PM (UTC)

Like many of you, the staff here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ was up late on Tuesday night parsing electoral returns in rural Montana, the outer suburbs of St. Louis and inner-city Richmond, Va. As some readers are eager to remind me, the job of this column is to rise above the mire of politics, to hark only to the highest vibrations of Apollo's lyre, plucked in the empyrean realms of Art.

Well, forget it. As it happens, this week's most important new independent film is James Longley's documentary "Iraq in Fragments," winner of numerous festival awards, including Sundance prizes for directing, cinematography and editing. There hasn't been much audience for Iraq docs so far -- who wants to see a film about a place we all wish we'd never heard of? -- and I don't know that Longley's film will change that. But it's head and shoulders above the rest in its clarity, intimacy and poetry, and it illustrates the dreadful predicament America has created in Iraq, which drove so many angry people to the polls on Tuesday.

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Lest the empyrean realms go unrepresented, I'm also recommending Agnieszka Holland's old-school Europhile costume drama, "Copying Beethoven," starring Ed Harris as the greatest of all 19th century composers. Sure, even that premise risks becoming laughable, and the film plays so fast and loose with the facts of Beethoven's life as to be almost totally fictional. But Holland remains a big-canvas painter with a delicate touch, and even a made-up story about the creation of the Ninth Symphony, one of the two or three most important musical works in the Western tradition, is a powerful experience.

We've also got a wonderful little film from Mongolia for families and kids (if your kids are the brainy sort who don't mind subtitles) and a rambling, amusing mini-history of the most notorious word in the English language. Last but definitely not least, New York filmgoers can catch the opening of a touring retrospective devoted to Jacques Rivette, a cinéaste's darling who might be the most important living French filmmaker but who remains virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.

"Iraq in Fragments": Real life viewed as classic drama, in the ruins of post-Saddam Iraq
"Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" wrote a bemused but curious conquering general, the leader of an invading empire, some time back. He might have been talking about 21st century Iraq, although that country has been conquered by Donald Rumsfeld's legions only in the most technical sense. James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments" tells its story of life after Saddam in three discrete narrative segments: one in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, another in the Shiite stronghold of Nasariyah, and the last in the rural Kurdish north.

This level of organization already raises Longley's film above purposefully bewildering Iraq documentaries like "My Country, My Country" or "The Blood of My Brother," where we never quite know what's going on or what viewpoint the people in the film represent. But that's not why "Iraq in Fragments" is such a terrific film, something close to a documentary masterpiece.

Longley lived among his subjects for months at a time, earning their trust. He interviewed them extensively about their beliefs and life experiences and uses their own words as a running narration to what we see on the screen. His cinematography is daring, intimate, often harshly beautiful. He isn't afraid to build each segment of the film as a coherent narrative, full of pathos and adventure, so that "Iraq in Fragments" often feels like a dramatic film. A 34-year-old American who was trained at the legendary VGIK film institute in Moscow, Longley clearly sees the documentary film as a constructed act, an interpretation, rather than a morally neutral, all-seeing eye.

His first fragment tells the story of an 11-year-old Baghdad boy named Mohammed, a character straight out of Charles Dickens. Mohammed cannot read or write; he's in first grade for the fifth straight year, with no prospects of moving up. He works in an auto garage in the impoverished Sheik Omar neighborhood of old Baghdad, for a boss who is alternately affectionate and horribly abusive. His father has disappeared, and he keeps dropping out of school to support his mother and grandmother.

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Mohammed is still young enough to believe he will escape this neighborhood and his current life -- he dreams of becoming an airline pilot, so he can fly to someplace far away and beautiful -- but he wanders its chaotic, increasingly violent streets in a mood of deepening fear and uncertainty. The men who hang around his garage all day are totally fatalistic. America only came to Iraq for their oil, they tell Longley, so why don't they take the oil and leave us alone? "The future will be worse than the past," one says. "Today is better than tomorrow." Maybe Saddam abused and oppressed us for 35 years, another adds, but he was still better than anarchy and civil war.

After the cynical Sunni philosophers of the auto shop, Longley shows us the firebrand Shiites of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. There's no fatalism here; Sadr's men are energized and optimistic. They're on fire for Islam, devoted to civil disobedience against America and what they regard as a puppet Iraqi regime, half a step away from armed revolution. Even though Sadr's lieutenants reportedly suspected that Longley was a CIA spy, they allowed him remarkable access to meetings, rallies, battle zones and impromptu actions, like the capture and beating of several men accused of selling alcohol in Nasariyah's central market.

This central section is both exciting and terrifying, but it's clear that whatever the future of Iraq may hold, Sadr's Shiite movement will play a crucial part. (And no peace will ever be possible that doesn't include it.) You can't even say there's an ironic subtext here; it's all text. The United States occupation has bred a vigorous, populist political movement, which considers itself democratic and is not in any way allied with al-Qaida. Awesome, right? Except that it's also a stridently fundamentalist, anti-American movement that venerates the Ayatollah Khomeini. Isn't it the first and most stupid rule of all human relations that what goes around, comes around?

Attached to the film as a sad, gorgeous coda is the story of a Kurdish sheepherding family in a remote northern village known as one of Iraq's historically Jewish communities. (Few if any practicing Jews remain in the area today, but the family in the film may be descended from Jewish residents who converted to Islam early in the 20th century.) Following the chaos and fervor of the Shiite revolution, this segment is an intimate, sunset-hued story of father and son, affected only distantly by politics or religion.

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The father is an elderly man who believes he will die soon, but dreams of leaving an independent Kurdistan for his teenage son. The son harbors a dream of attending medical school, but has begun to face the truth: Herding sheep, and cutting bricks at a local brick oven, is his only future. Kurdish residents turned out by the thousands for the Iraqi elections of 2005, but autonomy for the Kurds can only mean the partition of Iraq, which, as someone in the film notes, was a scheme first proposed by the British during World War I.

Alone among the works I've seen and read about Iraq in the last three years, "Iraq in Fragments" captures the tremendous complexity and variability of the country, offering neither facile hope nor fashionable despair. It offers no prescriptions, and the ideology you bring to the film may well determine what you see in it. If it has a lesson for Americans, it might be: We bloodied our hands in this place. Before we try to wash them off and walk away, we owe these people the respect of seeing them as they are.

"Iraq in Fragments" is now playing at Film Forum in New York and opens Nov. 10 in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington; and Nov. 17 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

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"Copying Beethoven": Yeah, Ed Harris in a wig. But, wow, that music!
I probably need a back-door strategy to convince you that "Copying Beethoven" might be worth seeing, considering the kind of movie it is. We've got a movie star showboating as a great man of culture, an illustrious director working for a paycheck, a high-end multinational production delivered (mostly) in American English, and Eastern European locations standing in for the great 19th century cities of the West. This style of picture waxes and wanes but never goes completely out of style. Sometimes it's done well ("Amadeus") and sometimes atrociously (see Hilary Swank in "The Affair of the Necklace").

Yes, the dialogue in "Copying Beethoven" is occasionally silly; I'm not convinced that the great Ludwig stood around offering interpretations of his symphonies to employees as he was writing them. Any claim to verisimilitude in Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson's screenplay is idiotically thin. "This film was inspired by actual events," read the ending credits, and I guess that's true: There really was a dude called Beethoven and he really wrote a killer symphony in 1824, when he was sick and mostly deaf. The rest of it is totally made up.

Still, I liked it. Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland (best known for the Oscar-nominated "Europa, Europa" in 1990) is one of Europe's last, and best, big-picture makers. Even working with borderline schmaltz as a director for hire, she pours tremendous vision and sensitivity into "Copying Beethoven" and -- believe it or not -- elicits one of Harris' best performances. I've never loved his bigger-than-life portrayals (e.g., "The Hours" or "Pollock"), but he remains a prodigiously gifted actor, and after the first couple of scenes I had gotten past "Hee-hee, Ed Harris in a wig" and moved on to "Geez, Beethoven was a jerk!"

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In the film, Beethoven's harried, last-minute composition of the Ninth Symphony, the work that announced a break with the classical tradition and the beginning of what would be called the romantic period, is interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman. This is Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), and is she a messenger or perhaps a new maid, sent to clean the great composer's rat-infested Vienna apartment? No, she's an aspiring composer in an age where that was almost impossible, sent to him by his publisher, days before his new symphony's premiere, to create legible copies of his scribbling. (Beethoven did have copyists, but they were men. There was a female composer who emulated him, but she never met him.)

"Copying Beethoven" is essentially a romantic comedy, although mercifully one without sex. Beethoven is a crude, filthy bastard who pours dirty wash water through his downstairs neighbor's ceiling (into the goulash) and parades around half-naked in front of his modest new copyist. (He even moons her, and I'm not quite sure whether that scene is hilarious or only embarrassing.) Anna sticks to her tasks and finally wins his respect, even changing the key signature from B-major to B-minor in the symphony's central melodic phrase.

OK, it's all fairly dumb, but it's marvelously photographed (by Ashley Rose) and played with brio by all concerned, even if Kruger is no better than an earnest, pretty presence. Of course "Copying Beethoven" has an ace up its sleeve: the wonder and drama of the Ninth Symphony itself (heard here in Bernard Haitink's tremendous 1996 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw). The work's actual Vienna premiere was almost as dramatic as Holland depicts it, even if Anna is, at best, a composite character. Beethoven was an aging, deaf, lonely eccentric, widely seen as yesterday's man in the city's fashionable circles, who emerged from squalid semi-retirement with a hugely ambitious choral symphony that blew the doors off musical history.

That's a story worth telling, if even through fakery. In the daring extended sequence when Beethoven himself conducts a work he can't actually hear, "Copying Beethoven" transcends its own mode of middlebrow cheerfulness and flirts with the kinds of things Beethoven himself thought about: the mystery of artistic inspiration, the proximity of lowly, damaged human beings to a divine being we can't see or hear. That fades, and we're back to the B-plus costume drama. But so many of the films I see lack any obvious passion, or sense of theatrical flair, and whatever its flaws, "Copying Beethoven" does not stint on those.

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"Copying Beethoven" opens Nov. 10 in major cities, with more to follow.

Fast forward: "Fuck," entering "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," and a tribute to the last master of the French new wave
I really wanted to like Steve Anderson's documentary "Fuck," which attempts to engage the history of that ancient and notorious English word. It's going to be an entertaining and successful big-city date movie, let's say that. But it's essentially a mishmash of random ingredients, not very systematically presented and skewed to flatter its audience's presumed enlightenment. Steven Bochco, Chuck D and Janeane Garofalo are in favor of "fuck." Alan Keyes and Pat Boone are against it. What else do you need to know?

The film's grounding in actual history and linguistics is very slight, although the fact is that little is known about the word's origin. (It's probably Germanic, and it is not an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King" or anything else.) Mostly it's an amusing but not terribly sophisticated litany of the word's many uses, plus a rehash of the current political debate -- if that dignified word even applies -- over radio and TV content, and the Bush administration's stealth campaign to regulate it. If you see "Fuck," you'll have a good time (especially if you're fucked up), but if you fucking skip it, you won't fucking feel like you're a fuck-up. (Opens Nov. 10 in New York and Los Angeles; Nov. 17 in Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco; Nov. 24 in San Diego; Dec. 1 in Atlanta, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, Santa Cruz, Calif., Seattle and Washington; Dec. 4 in Austin, Texas; and Dec. 8 in Boston, with more cities to follow.)

A stunningly beautiful docudrama about a nomadic family and a thoroughly adorable little dog, "The Cave of the Yellow Dog" is the latest film from Mongolian-born director Byambasuren Davaa, who made the Oscar-nominated "Story of the Weeping Camel." It's not a picture with tremendous drama, and the entirely nonprofessional cast is sometimes a little stiff, but on sheer charm, intimacy and the pictorial wonder of its setting in the wide-open Mongolian grasslands, it's one of the family pictures of the year. As the indomitable heroine who holds on to her beloved pooch in spite of her father's initial hostility, little Nansal Batchuluun is cuteness personified. (Opens Nov. 10 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, with other cities to follow.)

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Jacques Rivette's films range from playful avant-garde experimentation (in his unscripted early-'70s masterpiece "Celine and Julie Go Boating") to austere realism (in "The Nun" and his two-part Joan of Arc saga, "Joan the Maid"). In recent years he's even become a viable art-house commodity, with "La Belle Noiseuse" (featuring lengthy shots of the naked Emmanuelle Béart) and "Va Savoir." A former editor of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Rivette is an avowedly intellectual director who makes long, unwieldy, often contemplative works. Are you shocked he doesn't have a vast popular following?

Beginning this week, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y., will host a rare opportunity to see all of Rivette's films, even the never-released "L'Amour Fou" and the 12-hour-long "Out 1." That's right, I said 12 hours. (Not sure that even I am that masochistic, though I have friends who definitely are.) Although the whole deal won't be viewable anywhere else, the retrospective will travel across the country to various venues throughout 2007, reaching the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, the National Gallery in Washington and elsewhere. Keep your eyes open, and the espresso maker fired up.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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