Beyond the Multiplex

Three movies you should rush out and see. Plus: Which is better, the crack pipe or the meditation retreat?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 18, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

Wow! The year in movies gets off to a rousing start this week -- maybe too rousing. By the time you read this, I'll be en route to Utah for the kickoff of an intriguing Sundance lineup. (It's cold there; poor me!) Meanwhile, outstanding Russian, French and micro-American films are opening in limited release and may get lost amid the swag-bag parties, clank of official-sponsor cocktail glasses and sightings of fur-bearing celebrities. That's a shame, because at least one of them is a once-in-a-lifetime proposition that you hardened New York film geeks must not miss. But before we get to all that, a few words in praise of boredom.

Perhaps I should rephrase. There are two kinds of movies, and I am not now resurrecting the theory, first broached in this space many moons ago, that all Amerindie art-type films can be classified as either belonging to the Jim Jarmusch family or the David Lynch family. That remains true (well, as true as it ever was), but I'm talking about something at least a little different. Let's consider a spectrum: At one end are the kinds of movies that seek to elevate your pulse rate, constrict your pupils and pump up your endocrine system. These are the Crack Cocaine Movies (CCM). At the other end, we find movies that aim to zone you out, send you into a big-headed contemplative state, relax your muscles and open the endorphin gateways. Let's call those the Zazen Movies (ZZM).

I could expend the rest of this column making lists of these, and that would be fun. Let's leave that for later. I'm not trying to impose a value judgment here, or claiming that the altered mental state produced by either kind of film is inherently superior. "Memento" is a CCM (one of the ultimate CCMs of all time, in fact) and Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev" is a hardcore ZZM, but both films will leave you feelin' pretty trippy as you make the voyage back to your ordinary life.

Each end of the spectrum (as is normal in dichotomous systems) embodies something of its opposite. "Pulp Fiction" and "The Matrix" are big-time CCMs, but they also access or refer to the ZZM tradition in places. "Vertigo" switches back and forth schizophrenically between the two modes. Kubrick's movies usually offer you a few healthy drags off the crack pipe in order to lure you into what is, essentially, a ZZM universe. To use the famous definition of ZZM auteur David Lynch, both kinds of movies can "make you dream," although the depth and intensity and significance of the dreams are, I suppose, open to debate.

OK, inescapably there is a value judgment here, but to that extent I'm judging myself as much as anybody else. Almost everybody prefers the crack pipe to the meditation retreat, almost all the time. Don't lie! You and me too, bud. Even if you belong to the tiny handful of people who've sat through "Sátántangó" or "Out 1" or even "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," how does that compare with the hours you've spent watching cheeseball stalker thrillers or movies where cars blow up? CCMs are exciting (at least on the surface). ZZMs are boring (ditto), and in an attention-deficit culture like ours and, well, everybody's, they just don't get much love.

I'm here to preach what I do not necessarily practice. In short order I will get to Philippe Garrel's film "Regular Lovers," the transformative filmgoing experience of the last few months for me, but also a movie that would bore the pants and several layers of skin off many, many viewers. This kind of movie demands that we turn off the phone, stow the watch in a pocket and surrender to a sense of time that is altogether disconnected from our everyday lives. It's the same surrender demanded by old-school works of high culture, by Wagner's "Parsifal" or Brahms' Third. (And by Chinese opera, Indian classical music, Noh theater and other things I know even less about.) It's condescending to say that surrender isn't easy to manage; for many of us, much of the time, it isn't even possible.

On Friday morning, I'll be back with a special report on "Chicago 10," the exciting-sounding documentary that opens this year's Sundance festival, along with a quick preview of the varied and twisted CCM/ZZM delights on view in Park City. Without giving much away, let me tease you with "Red Road," a gritty, sexy thriller from Scotland (CCM all the way, but with a coiled snake of mystery around its heart), and "Away From Her," a pale, lovely love story from Canadian actress turned writer-director Sarah Polley (major ZZM, with a few surprising CCM-style plot twists). My guess is that "Teeth," about a young woman who discovers that she has unusual, um, anatomical properties, is a CCM, while "Zoo," a documentary about men who have sex with horses, is actually a ZZM. But I hope to be surprised.

"The Italian": A runaway in the ruins of Russia
Despite its title, the lovely and heartbreaking feature debut of Russian director Andrei Kravchuk has literally nothing to do with Italy, except maybe as the symbol for a distant world of privilege its characters can barely imagine. The Russian entry for this year's foreign-language Oscar, "The Italian" enlists itself in a long tradition of European gutter-level realism about poor children set adrift in the adult world. Kravchuk's title, in fact, may be an oblique reference to Vittorio De Sica's postwar masterpiece "The Bicycle Thief," which inaugurated the genre in its modern form.

In the overcrowded St. Petersburg orphanage where he lives, 6-year-old Vanya (played by the astonishing child actor Kolya Spiridonov) becomes known as "the Italian" because a visiting couple from Italy has picked him out of the mob of ragamuffins for potential adoption. The Italians seem like nice people and clearly this would be like hitting the lottery for young Vanya. But Kravchuk makes clear what's going on here: A matronly businesswoman known as "Madam" (Maria Kuznetsova) is selling Russian kids to wealthy Westerners for 5,000 euros a pop, and splitting the proceeds with the orphanage's drunken headmaster (Yuri Itskov).

When the grief-stricken mother of one of Vanya's friends shows up, only to learn that her son has already gone overseas, Vanya becomes intrigued by the idea that he has a mother somewhere too. He navigates the feudal, Mafia-style world of the orphanage -- in which younger kids wash windows, pump gas and gather cans, while the older girls turn tricks on the highway -- teaches himself to read, steals his personal file from the director's safe. Along the way he has to endure beatings, abandonment, hunger and a long train journey by himself. In Spiridonov's pugnacious little face we can see that none of these things are surprises; a movie like this plays off the obvious irony, or obvious horror, of a 6-year-old who already understands the world far too well.

You could say that "The Italian" does not offer many surprises. It's based partly on a newspaper account of a real case, in which a Russian boy ran away from an orphanage in search of the mother who had abandoned him, and partly on "David Copperfield." But it's a carefully and almost classically balanced combination of ingredients, blending dirty-faced realism (so much more damning because it judges and condemns no one) with mystical fable of quest and homecoming. Other runaway children abuse Vanya, but at the right moment prostitutes and street drunks protect him, and a philosophical night watchman offers him shelter and nurture when he needs it most.

Of course a wistful, wrenching picture like "The Italian" is playing on sentiment, and daring to be sentimental. We long for Vanya's quest to be successful even as we recognize that in the ruins of post-Soviet Russia (as in so many other places) many children, whether braver or more fearful than him, will find no mother and no shelter. But lighting a lantern of hope in a wintry landscape is surely no crime. Kravchuk, a veteran of Russian TV, means to show his countrymen how they have failed kids like Vanya. But also to convince them that Vanya and his friends can still be saved, without becoming Italians.

"The Italian" opens Jan. 19 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.

"Regular Lovers": Young, stoned and revolutionary (at least in your own mind)
There are those of you who should seek out "Regular Lovers" by any means necessary, and those of you who should avoid it like the spotted plague. Then again, how do we tell the difference? I might not have bestirred myself to go see Philippe Garrel's three-hour, black-and-white epic about the revolutionary generation of 1968 Paris if it wasn't my job. But it was truly an amazing, redemptive experience and I'll forever be grateful that I did.

It's not that things don't happen in "Regular Lovers." Lots of stuff happens. François, an idealistic young poet-slacker-revolutionary type (played by the filmmaker's remarkably handsome son, Louis Garrel) participates in the legendary riots of May 1968, when students and labor unions nearly overthrow the Gaullist government. He dodges military service, but gets caught and has to kiss ass before the authorities he claims to despise. He meets a sculptor named Lilie (Clotilde Hesme) and falls in love. He hangs around smoking hash and opium with his rich, indolent friend Antoine (Julien Lucas) or arguing politics with Nicolas (Mathieu Genet).

It's just that outlining Garrel's plot doesn't get you anywhere. "Regular Lovers" isn't about its story, exactly, and I'm not even sure its events add up to a story. It's about spending time with these alternately romantic and cynical young drifters, walking the night streets of Paris with them in boredom or in terror, experiencing their stupid arguments that aren't about what they purport to be, feeling the pull between lover and friend, between getting high and getting laid, as if it were happening to you. (Because it has happened to you, may still be happening, may happen again.)

There were periods during the long, lovely, anarchic drift of "Regular Lovers" when I felt suspended in two worlds. I was watching François and the lanky, boyish Lilie, and I was summoning up memories of particular evenings I spent in houses in Baltimore in 1983 that I might not have thought about since. Sure, at moments I became frustrated and thought to myself, well, honestly, the pace of this movie is pretty slow. Then I would get lost again in William Lubtchansky's amazing widescreen black-and-white cinematography, in the lazy faces and bodies of the actors, in the fragments of my own life all of that brought back to me.

"Regular Lovers" will inescapably be compared to the other Paris 1968 movie, Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" (Garrel even has a character turn to the camera and mutter, "Bernardo Bertolucci," as if it were a mystical invocation). I think this is a far superior picture, in the sense that it inhabits the political, moral and spiritual anxiety of that era in a way "The Dreamers" never does. I suppose we're still waiting for a movie that actually explains the context and history of that revolutionary moment in linear, narrative fashion; this defiantly and definitely is not that movie. This is, however, a magical and supernally beautiful meditative drug-trip head-space picture (a full-fledged ZZM, q.v. above) for which all Euro-film masochists should rearrange their schedules. It'll be out on DVD soon, and that's great. But Garrel's films are almost never seen on the big screen, and this one's worth it; if you live within six hours of New York, make the trip.

"Regular Lovers" opens Jan. 19 at Cinema Village in New York. Other engagements may follow, and DVD release is scheduled for May.

"The GoodTimes Kid": The ultra-indie '80s spirit lives on!
Just a footnote to New Yorkers, urging you to catch Azazel Jacobs' second feature, "The GoodTimes Kid," during its brief run this week. A zero-budget L.A. filmmaker somewhat in the vein of Jacques Rivette or the early Godard or the early Jarmusch (OK, a lot in the vein of the early Jarmusch), Jacobs is building a small but growing cult following, and is about as close to being an underground hero as you can get in the 21st century.

Jacobs himself plays a slacker idiot named Rodolfo, who abandons his wry, cute, long-legged girlfriend (Sara Diaz) to a near-silent sailor who has exactly the same name as him, and who has crossed his path at an Army induction ceremony. (Don't ask, because I can't really explain it.) Rodolfo No. 2 (Gerardo Naranjo) moves through the film in a nearly silent state of rumpled, Chaplinesque dignity, even as Diaz's character dubs him "Depresso," performs a beautiful Converse-sneaker soft-shoe routine for him, and then beats him up for following her.

Those two take a bus ride and spend the night on a boat, where Rodolfo No. 2's psycho girlfriend shows up, the one who has spray-painted "FUCK YOU I HATE YOU CALL ME" across his door. Then they go back home, where Diaz (character and actress have the same name) smashes Rodolfo No. 1's favorite punk albums and draws a mustache on the sleeping girl he's brought home. That's really about it; it's plenty. "The GoodTimes Kid" has a whimsy, a passion, a sophistication and, above all, a vigor that's mostly drained out of Amerindie cinema over the last decade or so. (It plays at Anthology with "Two Wrenching Departures," an experimental feature by avant-garde film pioneer Ken Jacobs, who is Azazel's father.)

"The GoodTimes Kid" is now playing at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Other engagements may follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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