Tuesday 14 October 2008

Monday night film club

A month or so ago a friend invited me to come along to their Monday night film club at the Cameo cinema. Since I haven't been getting to the cinema as much as I might like recently (indeed, our first, last and only film review dates from May last year and, in truth, was written largely because Spider-Man 3 was simply a disgrace and something had to be done about it) this seemed like a wonderful idea. This has proved to be the case, and not just because it involves a trip to the pub afterwards. The Cameo is a nice cinema and, as we noted on our last visit for an opera relay, the seats are comfortable and the view good; there is also a nice bar, though they don't always have a good enough stock of food.

First up, about three weeks ago, was Die Welle or The Wave, for those who don't speak German. This is based on the 'true' story of Ron Jones, a teacher in Palo Alto, California who decided to show his pupils fascism rather than simply teaching it. It has been filmed before, but this new adaptation lends the story added weight by moving the action to Germany. Teacher Rainer Wenger, portrayed well by Jurgen Vogel, frustrated by his students' refusal to take the issues he is trying to teach seriously, dismisses his students for a break about ten minutes into the first lesson (if you will permit a brief rant, there is a perennial failure to portray teachers on film with even vague realism, how often do bells go when they seem to be in mid-sentence, teachers in films seem to have no idea how to plan a lesson). When the students return, he has broken the desks into well ordered rows, he insists they stand when speaking and do not do so without permission. He makes them do calisthenics in a way that conjures the Hitler Youth; however, by making it as much about disrupting the hated teacher below, the kids enthusiasm for it is all the more plausible.

The first few days of the week over which the film is set are extremely believable. Wenger's use of democracy, wherein he is selected as leader, where they choose a name, also reflects how such totalitarianism can rise through the ballot box. Slowly the class becomes more popular, a uniform is adopted and the student who choses not to wear it, as she doesn't feel jeans and a white shirt suit her, his marginalised horribly. Wenger gives a sense of identity and belonging to many students who clearly need it, coming from a variety of broken or dysfunctional homes. The justification for students copying each other, and seating the weak next to the strong, has a powerful logic: for the good of the unit. The use of modern communication, of text messages and video phones, is also well done. So far, so very compelling.

However, it is as things get more outlandish that the problems start. I had a slight sense that the makers of the film weren't quite sure how far to take it, or how to get out of the situation that had been created. One particularly troubled pupil starts showing up at Wenger's house (indeed the fact that all the pupils seem easily able to find his house is a little implausible) and he doesn't really take any action about it. (If you haven't seen the film, and don't want the end spoilt, I suggest you skip on a paragraph now.) Things become further removed from the story on which it is based in the close, where the same student, after Wenger has told them that The Wave must end and that it is no different from Nazism, doesn't take it well: it has given him an identity. He pulls a gun and ends up shooting one student before killing himself. This is a shame as up to they had almost ended it more convincingly: Wenger calls for a student who has suggested that The Wave is a bad thing be brought to the front, he has worked the crowd to a frenzy. They drag the student to the front and Wenger asks what they would do next, would they kill him if he asked it. That said, it is less clear why it is this student who finally convinces Wenger to end things: he comes to Wenger as he has just hit his girlfriend and blames The Wave when, in fact, it seems there is much more to it than that. Given some things that have already happened it is hard to see why this is the turning point.

Then there is the issue of how true the original story is. There is a lack of contemporary accounts and it was some years after the original event that Jones first wrote about it. It seems likely that Jones did try to use a different method to approach the topic. We'll probably never know the extent to which the students involved were actually caught up in it. It would be fascinating to see the experiment repeated today: in these times of endless reality nonsense here would be something actually interesting. But the flaws of the film should not in any way deter anyone from seeing it: it is powerful and extremely thought provoking.

A week later it Kristin Scott Thomas for Il y a longtemps que je t'aime or I've Loved You So Long for those who don't speak French. Scott Thomas, in excellent French, plays Juliette Fontaine, who has just been released from prison and moves in with her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). Over the next two hours the story of where Juliette has been and why slowly unwinds. Her crime, which we will not reveal, on the face of it abhorrent, prevents her from getting job after job and we see a very convincing portrayer of her struggle to rebuild her life, Lea's attempt to reconnect with her lost sister and the mistrust Luc has for her.

The main parts are all played very well. Scott Thomas does taciturn melancholy so wonderfully, but Zylberstein has a tougher role as her sister since she needs to carry much more of the emotional weight of the film. Luc's wariness, particularly when the children ask auntie Juliette to read them a story, is especially powerful.

The film unwinds slowly and reveals the story at about the right pace, keeping you curious but not too much so. This is to the credit of writer and director Philippe Claudel. People interacting with Juliette outside of the family are particularly interesting. There is a powerful scene when a friend of the family makes repeated demands at the dinner table to know where she has been for the last fifteen years. Finally she admits she was in prison for [I won't spoil it]. The offhand way she makes the remark leads everyone except Michel (Laurent Grevill), the love interest, to take it as a joke. In a funny way it reminds me of the scene in David Lodge's superb novel Changing Places wherein the English faculty of Esseph University are playing a game called humiliation. Each player must name a book they haven't read and scores a point for each player that has read it, i.e. you win by making yourself look stupid. It drives one player to distraction as he both cannot bear to lose but also cannot bear to be inferior. In the first rounds he names obscure German texts and gets no points, then he finally gives in and admits to not having read Hamlet. Of course nobody believes him and the party breaks up acrimoniously.

Not quite everything is perfect. For example, the story arc of the police officer to whom she reports on a weekly basis doesn't really seem to serve a purpose. But film is beautifully made and makes for a compelling few in the cinema.

Last week say How Ohio Pulled It Off. Written and director by Charla Barker, Matthew Kraus and Mariana Quiroga, this documentary purports to tell how the Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state at the time of the 2004 election, disenfranchised the voters in disadvantaged and predominantly African-American areas, and so stole the election for George W. Bush.

From the start there are problems. Perhaps for those who have no idea what an electoral college is it will grate less, but for people with a basic understanding of the system by which America chooses its president, the film is extremely patronising. Similarly the decision to juxtapose the 2004 election with Blackwell's battle to become the governor of Ohio in 2006, which hardened politicos will know he must have lost since that role is currently occupied by Democrat Ted Strickland.

It also lacks intellectual rigour. Now, that's not to say there isn't plenty of evidence that voters were disenfranchised, and I too am extremely wary of electronic and computerised voting systems for many of the reasons given (the ease with which they can be rigged and the lack of an audit trail). I am also no friend of President Bush and the result of that election was not as I had hoped for.

Here's the thing though: in 2000, in Florida, it came down to a couple of hundred votes. There is evidence of serious disenfranchisement in mainly democratic areas that would more than cover the difference. There is also the fact that Gore carried the popular vote (though it has to be noted that Florida would not have been an issue had he managed to carry his home state of Tennessee, and losing one's home state legitimately makes it harder to argue you were robbed). In 2004 Bush had the popular vote by over three million. Had Kerry fought on in the face of this he would have looked absurd.

The film, despite throwing around numbers of voters disenfranchised here and there never actually conflated these to the numbers by which Kerry lost, either in Ohio or nationally. I followed the campaign closely in 2004, and in many ways Kerry lost it through poor campaigning and gaffs. When the results came in and were as heavy as they proved to be it was not altogether a surprise.

It also ignored various other facts. If it really was all down to disenfranchisement, how did Blackwell lose in 2006? If all the voting machines are rigged, how did the Democrats manage their landslide in that same year.

It also ignores the fact that voting irregularities have a long and august history in America. There is evidence of irregularity in the 1960 election, where Kennedy defeated Nixon on behalf of the Democrats particularly in Texas and Illinois, though for some reason you rarely hear Democratic activists complaining; the film makers didn't either.

Film club took a break this week, and may be a little irregular until mid-November, owing in part to my friend jetting off to tour Japan with her band The Starlets, where's Runnicles' Japanese readers, of which I do not think we have any should check them out (or, indeed, our readers based anywhere else who happen to be in Japan at the start of November - incidentally, if you are reading this in Japan, do let us know via the comments facility).

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