Beyond the Multiplex

A giddy documentary about Gypsy music. The abortion movie everyone should see. Plus: The true tale of a communism-toppling crane operator.


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Andrew O'Hehir
June 14, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

We've got a ceaseless onslaught of movies this week, but don't blame me for the pileup. Blame capitalism! I came back from Cannes ready for the normal doldrums of the post-Memorial Day calendar: Some little Azerbaijani film about kids and geese in a village, some little documentary about crazed English rosarians with dogs. Well, forget about it.

Not only are there lots of good new movies, but the market for "specialty releases" is surprisingly decent, so I can stow my usual Cassandra act in a sunless location for the time being. Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf bio "La Vie en Rose" had a terrific opening week, and the utterly charming Irish musical "Once" has already grossed $1.7 million and looks like a certifiable summer hit. Among last week's releases, let's point a big, glowing neon finger at "12:08 East of Bucharest," the latest dry, droll, dark comedy out of Romania, which opened strongly at New York's Film Forum. A merciless satire about a small-town TV talk show commemorating the 16th anniversary of the anti-Ceausescu revolution, Corneliu Porumboiu's picture would submerge you in alcoholic despair if it weren't so damn funny. (That seems to be the Romanian mode of expression.)

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No time to ruminate on the past; let's move on! We've got a rich variety of products for all customers this week, beginning with an impressive, messy film about the birth of Poland's Solidarity movement from master German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff. There's also a thrilling, giddy, intoxicating documentary that captures the diverse energy and abundant spirit of contemporary Roma (aka Gypsy) music; an inside look at antiabortion activism that's guaranteed to get under every viewer's skin, regardless of political orientation; and the latest emotionally bleak, cinematically lush work from Finnish ascetic Aki Kaurismäki. Throw in a puzzling doc about a spectacularly cruel Czech art-hoax (in some ways my favorite film of the week), and a willfully quirky little love story from New Zealand. If that's not enough movies for you, just wait till you see next week's list.

"Strike": The "stubborn little crane driver" who brought down communism
Volker Schlöndorff admits that his new movie, "Strike," is kind of an awkward concoction. The word he uses is "impure," by which he means that "Strike" combines a bunch of miscellaneous ingredients. It's partly an impressive widescreen docudrama, shot almost entirely at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, where the Solidarity labor movement was born in the 1980s and the first serious cracks began to show through the edifice of Soviet communism. It's partly a biopic about Anna Walentynowicz, the spunky crane operator whose firing in 1980 precipitated Solidarity's first big strike, which virtually paralyzed Poland's economy.

Furthermore, "Strike" is also a work of ironic history, a view of Poland's revolutionary moment and the collapse of communism through an outsider's eyes and almost 30 years' distance. This may be why, as Schlöndorff explains when we meet for coffee in New York, Walentynowicz herself, along with many Polish critics, feel bitter about his film.

"When we were in school, we were taught that history is made by great men: Napoleon, de Gaulle, Churchill, Mao Zedong," says Schlöndorff. (His English is accented but completely comfortable; with "Strike," made in Polish, he has now shot films in at least four languages.) "Then there was the leftist theory that history is made by the conflict of classes, from Hegel onward, and it can't help being progress, always forward, always faster. Both theories don't hold water for me."

With the story of Anna Walentynowicz (called Agnieszka in the film and played by German actress Katharina Thalbach), Schlöndorff says he saw something at work "that was like evolution. One tiny little accident in a gene leads to something. Here we have this one stubborn little crane driver, and she can make history change without wanting to, and without even knowing she was doing it. This gives a whole new meaning to the question of our own personal ethics. We always have to behave with integrity, and we may have an impact on history."

If Thalbach's fiery performance is the heart of "Strike," her costar is the vast and impressive Gdansk shipyard itself, which is slated to be demolished for a housing and shopping complex, an inevitable symbol of Poland's transformation into a consumer society. Returning to that city brought Schlöndorff back to the site of his biggest success, his 1979 Oscar-winning adaptation of Günter Grass' novel "The Tin Drum." (Grass was born and raised in Gdansk, when it was the semi-independent German city of Danzig.)

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"Of course there was an attraction there," Schlöndorff says. "If the birth of Solidarity had happened somewhere else, maybe in the steel factories of Upper Silesia, I wouldn't have made this film. First I wanted to go back and see the city, and then I wanted to go and see the shipyard, thinking that surely it has all changed since the socialist days. Instead, it is virtually the same.

"You go there and you see these billions of little plates with numbers on them, everywhere on the ground, and ultimately that becomes a ship, you know? I'm a boy! This is fascinating, I want to know how this works! They still use the exact same methods as they did in the old days; we only had to change the hard hats and some of the welding torches. Socialism had left a heavy heritage there. I thought, this is a chance to make the last proletarian movie, in a true proletarian setting."

As "Strike" makes clear, Anna/Agnieszka was an illiterate World War II orphan, both a devout Catholic and a true believer in communism (in Poland this was not seen as a contradiction), often celebrated as a "hero of labor" for her prodigious output. She became a shipyard activist only after it became clear that the lazy and corrupt bureaucracy was getting workers killed and injured, and that the official union was just a limb of the Communist Party's ruling apparatus. (Nothing could testify more eloquently to the abject failure of Soviet-style politics than the fact that the seed of communism's destruction sprouted among the industrial working class.)

Schlöndorff was a founding member of the "new German cinema" of the 1970s, which was often identified with the non-communist left. But his portrayal of Poland's "worker's state," in the pre-Solidarity years, is neither exceptionally harsh nor especially sympathetic. One might almost call it wistful, a look back at the remnants of a dream whose nobility only seems more pathetic in light of its terrible results and enigmatic aftermath.

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"Strike" was originally meant as a television film for the German and Polish markets, Schlöndorff says. "But I said, no, we have to shoot this in 35 mm. We have to shoot this as if these were the days of socialist filmmaking. It's as if we celebrate the proletarian worker and then show how it all backfires. We use footage from the socialist propaganda films; we have music [a Wagnerian score by Jean-Michel Jarre] they would have loved. One Polish film critic wrote, this was the movie the socialists dreamed about but never succeeded in making."

In documenting the Lenin shipyards and their now-receding role in history, Schlöndorff says, he is providing perhaps "the last requiem for this utopia." Referring obliquely to his countryman Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-winning film "The Lives of Others," he adds, "You have to remember that socialism was not only the Stasi, the police state and all that. It was this utopian idea of a better world that we came to understand didn't work. Does that mean there is no alternative to a global market? It's infuriating. Man would like to take fate into his own hands, and not leave it to the market. But history seems to prove there is nothing we can do about it."

"Strike" opens June 15 at Lincoln Plaza in New York; other cities should follow.

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"Gypsy Caravan": From Michigan to Rajasthan on a thousand-year road of joy and suffering
Music documentaries are harder to describe than other films, and harder to convince people to see. I think the best thing I can say on behalf of Jasmine Dellal's thoroughly wonderful "Gypsy Caravan" is that I was thrilled and transported by it. It's a two-hour movie, and I'm only sorry it isn't two or three times as long. Let me read your thoughts: You're not much interested in Gypsy music, and the historical and cultural stuff might be pretty dry. That's what I thought too: Wrong and wrong.

What begins as a concert-tour doc about a varied group of Roma musicians (aka Gypsies, a term rejected by some Roma and embraced by others) as they travel the United States keeps getting broader, richer and deeper until it becomes a cinematic and musical experience that's absolute magic. "Gypsy Caravan" -- Dellal's full title, wisely abandoned for marketing purposes, is "When the Road Bends ... Tales of a Gypsy Caravan" -- veers from an illegal fishing trip in downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., to a backwoods village in eastern Romania to Rajasthan in northern India to the flamenco heartland of southern Spain.

Somehow all the disparate people, places and musical styles of this film -- the Roma are a worldwide diaspora, with numerous languages, religions and cultures -- come to seem coherent. You will learn a hell of a lot about Roma history from "Gypsy Caravan," but believe me it never feels like education. You'll be too busy marveling at the "knees dance," as performed by an astonishing male dancer (in drag) along with the Indian combo Maharaja, or weeping and howling at the over-the-top theatrics of Esma, a house-size Macedonian chanteuse who was a major star in the former Yugoslavia. (Her black-and-white music videos from late '60s Yugoslav TV are approximately the coolest things I've ever seen. Ever.)

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Then there's Antonio el Pipa and his irascible aunt Juana, who led an electrifying flamenco ensemble from Jérez de la Frontera in Spain. And Taraf de Haïdouks, a manic string band from a tiny Romanian village (who have somehow become friendly with Johnny Depp). And Fanfare Ciocarlia, another Romanian group whose brass-band style borrows from the martial music of the Ottoman Empire. Dellal follows this random, cheerful, not-always-reliable assemblage around America and back to their home countries, illustrating the thousand-year Roma odyssey out of India and across Eurasia with nary a lecture or a chart.

As Juana says late in the film, the world owes a debt to the Gypsies, who have been persecuted for centuries (Hitler tried to exterminate them with just as much ardor as he did the Jews) without ever starting a war or even having a nation of their own. Instead of seeking retribution, the worldwide Roma caravan has enriched the musical tradition of almost every country. You can't really talk about the spirit or essence of this music without lapsing into cliché: Are these musicians tied together by something reckless, something fatalistic, a willingness to embrace laughter and tears in the same moment? Whatever it is, it's a gift to all of us, whether we deserve it or not.

"Gypsy Caravan" opens June 15 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York; June 29 in Los Angeles and Washington; July 6 in Boston, Monterey, Calif., New Haven, Conn., San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Calif.; July 20 in Philadelphia, Rochester, N.Y., San Diego, Santa Fe, N.M., and Seattle; Aug. 3 in Ithaca, N.Y., and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Aug. 10 in Athens, Ga., Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas; Aug. 15 in Portland, Maine; Aug. 24 in Chicago; and Aug. 31 in Detroit, with more cities to follow.

"Unborn in the USA": The abortion movie nobody wants to see (but everyone probably should)
Late in Stephen Fell and Will Thompson's documentary "Unborn in the USA," there's an angry altercation between a passing pedestrian -- a woman, presumably a liberal with pro-choice views -- and a group of antiabortion protesters who are displaying some of those gruesome poster-size photos of aborted fetuses on a street in Flint, Mich. (I think it's pure accident that this happens in Michael Moore's hometown.)

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Visibly livid and horrified, the woman begins screaming angrily at the church pastor who's leading the protest. At first he remains calm, but when she insists that she's a better Christian than he is, he tells her she's a hypocrite and calls her "a servant of Satan." She slaps his face once, then twice, and in the ensuing melee ends up hitting his 3-year-old son, presumably by accident. Handcuffed and led away by police, she screams and sobs, utterly unable to control herself.

I can sympathize. Whatever your personal feelings or political opinions on abortion, Fell and Thompson's film is likely to make you feel wretched. It's an uneven but fascinating survey of views and tactics in the contemporary pro-life movement, especially in the wake of federal laws (ill-advised and probably unconstitutional laws, in my opinion) that criminalized certain kinds of abortion-clinic protests. As "Unborn in the USA" makes clear, these activists are now attacking the issue at its most vulnerable point, the undeniable fact that most of us don't want to know much about abortions, about how they are actually conducted and what the results really look like.

That woman is not the only pro-choice passerby provoked to irrational rage in this film by the pro-lifers and their pictures of chopped-up fetuses, although she's the only one who escalates to actual violence. The pictures, I am sorry to report, appear to be legitimate. In the 1980s, before disposal methods at abortion clinics became more sophisticated, anti-abortion activists scavenged hundreds of fetal remains from dumpsters and used them to create their infamous photographic library, since reproduced for protests in virtually every large city, college campus or state capital across the country.

"Unborn in the USA" may likewise infuriate many pro-choice viewers, since it pretty much allows pro-lifers to form their arguments and make their case without rebuttal. As the film demonstrates, this is a movement that has grown more sophisticated and diverse in recent years. It still includes terrifying nutcases like the Rev. Don Spitz, self-appointed leader of the Army of God, which advocates killing abortion doctors and blowing up clinics, and is still largely based in hard-line elements of various Christian faiths. But it also includes the "post-abortion" movement, meaning women who now say they regret having abortions and mourn their unborn babies. Irrespective of political logic or coherence, it's impossible for any adult, and especially any parent, to watch these women testify without a lump in your throat.

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Still, the entirely reasonable counter-arguments -- for example, that abortion may be unpleasant, but banning it would only make the underlying social problems worse -- are never expressed in this film. There's an integrity to this, surely; Fell and Thompson just want to depict the pro-life movement in its own terms, as it stands on the cusp (probably) of its greatest victory. If I had to guess, I would say the filmmakers are challenging the pro-choice movement to recognize that its opponents are people of deep conviction, and to examine its own beliefs in the harshest possible light.

"Unborn in the USA" opens June 15 at Cinema Village in New York. Other cities, and DVD release, will follow.

"Lights in the Dusk": Loneliness and self-destruction -- in glorious Technicolor!
OK, I don't think Aki Kaurismäki's new movie "Lights in the Dusk" is actually in Technicolor. It just seems that way. Much of the comedy in Kaurismäki's latest work of Nordic austerity -- and yes, if you're perverse enough some of it is actually funny -- derives from the fact that the story belongs to the tradition of Chekhov and Dostoevski and the deadpan acting to that of Robert Bresson, but the damn thing looks like an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie."

Shot as a kind of lurid artifice, part Edward Hopper painting and part '50s crime film, "Lights in the Dusk" as a visual experience is all sharp suits, glass-and-steel buildings, blond wood furniture and vintage European cars. As a story, however, this film is unrelentingly grim, with a protagonist so inscrutable and so isolated that many viewers may feel too distant to care about his fate. Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is a handsome enough fellow but a lifetime loser, a security guard so lonely his metalhead-idiot co-workers won't invite him along for drinks.

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Into his empty life comes a mysterious blonde (Maria Järvenhelmi) right out of a noir film, along with her sinister mobbed-up benefactor. Even Koistinen understands that she's no good, but he can't quite help himself. It's customary to say that Kaurismäki sympathizes with outcasts and the downtrodden, but I don't find that sufficient; one of the themes of "Lights in the Dusk" is that Koistinen is the author of both his own destruction and his own possible redemption. Koistinen is deluded but not completely idiotic, and he understands that the passably pretty girl who runs the local hot-dog grill (Maria Heiskanen) likes him and is far less likely to be poisonous.

Koistinen takes his new girl to the movies, and all we hear is a hilarious pileup of Hollywood sound effects: screaming, surging violins, machine guns. Before long, she gets what she wants from him, and his foreordained downward spiral into unemployment, prison and destitution begins. "Lights in the Dusk" is so stylized and slow-moving (even at a spare 75 minutes) that you may have trouble adapting to its hypnotic rhythms -- but if you can, there are sumptuous visual rewards to be found, plus the faintest emotional uptick right at the end. No director with this much affection for old movies can be completely unsentimental, after all.

"Lights in the Dusk" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York. It opens July 13 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, July 20 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Aug. 3 in Seattle, Aug. 17 in Austin, Texas, and Aug. 24 in Cleveland, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Geek love from Kiwiland in "Eagle vs. Shark"; film-school pranksters poke fun at the "Czech Dream"
So the latest contender for the Napoleon Sunshine cuddly-awkward award is a movie called "Eagle vs. Shark," by the young New Zealand director Taika Waititi. Maybe this tale of the on-again, off-again romance between a weedy burger-flipping gal named Lily (Loren Horsley) and a mullet-head video-game enthusiast named Jarrod (Jermaine Clement) had a completely spontaneous and genuine genesis. I wouldn't know. It has some charming animated sequences (involving partially eaten apples) and both actors give nicely unsteady performances.

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But it sure feels like Waititi got a look at "Napoleon Dynamite" a few dozen times on video and decided, heck, I can do that, and with cuter accents too. We've got a crusty dad in a wheelchair, who can walk just fine, it turns out. We've got a cheerful sister and brother-in-law who sell egregiously ugly tracksuits of their own design. We've got a party where you come dressed as your favorite animal. (Jarrod comes as an eagle and Lily as a -- you get it.) We've got an intense tournament involving some pre-Mortal Kombat arcade game. It's a perfectly cheerful time at the movies, without any hint of drama or surprise. (Opens June 15 in major cities, with wide release to follow.)

Last and defiantly not least, I direct you to "Czech Dream," the result of an impressive spoof perpetrated by Prague film-school students Vit Klusák and Filip Remunda, who mounted a massive advertising and P.R. campaign for a superstore ("hypermarket," in European terms) that didn't exist. They borrowed Hugo Boss wardrobes, commissioned an ad agency, and recorded commercials complete with a Celine Dion-worthy ballad, all without the slightest intention of ever building or opening a store.

On one level, this is an altogether obvious lesson about market capitalism. Of course you can motivate people to buy or want useless (or even nonexistent) products. We all know that by now. Perhaps by accident, Klusák and Remunda's prank becomes an examination of the Czech soul -- and, I guess, everybody's -- a generation after the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, now that the values of the market have saturated the entire earth.

When thousands of people show up for the "grand opening" of Cesky Sen (literally, "The Czech Dream"), which turns out to be a plastic facade erected on bare scaffolding in a suburban meadow, only a few of them are genuinely angry. One man points out that he's a fisherman, so he's used to waiting around for nothing. Some are fatalistic: You can always fool the Czechs, they say, we're a bunch of idiots eager for bargains. One older couple seems delighted. We needed to get out of the house, they tell the camera. And it's a beautiful day! We can have a picnic. (Opens June 15 at the IFC Center in New York, with more cities and DVD release to follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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