Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Good Woman (Is a Good Movie)

A Good Woman
(Mike Barker, 2004, 93 min.)

agoodwomanpubc.jpg

Marital bliss is a great burden to place on two people;
sometimes a third person is needed to lighten the load.

-- Oscar Wilde

It never fails to amaze me how many movies get off to a good start and then turn bad (or at least mediocre). Either that or they fail to live up to the promise of their opening act--let alone their opening credit sequence. I can only assume it's because a lot of directors feel that the first act is the most important. Some of the world's worst filmmakers can craft a compelling beginning, but an ending? That's the tricky part. For my money, even Steven Spielberg, with all his years of experience, almost always fumbles his endings. Of his recent films, Catch Me if You Can is the only exception that comes to mind (granted, I liked the ending to A.I., too, but I seem to be the only one). I often get the impression that he's more concerned about leaving the audience happy rather than satisfied. But I only like happy endings when they're earned. All of this is to say that A Good Woman is one of those rare films that gets better as it goes along. For the first couple of acts, in fact, I was concerned that maybe Britain's Mike Barker (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) wasn't the right man for the job and that the cast, notably Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets), wasn't up to the task.

It's not that the acting or directing are bad, just that I expected a more upbeat approach. Based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, A Good Woman is stuffed with witty epigrams. The lines are so good they almost sell themselves, but to really bring them home, the actors need to keep things light. Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson, the bad guy in Wilde) and Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore from Stephen "Wilde" Fry's Bright Young Things, an Evelyn Waugh adaptation with an admirably light touch) come across as effortlessly funny. Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt, who slung many a zinger on Mad About You) comes across as considerably darker. Despite her best efforts, her quips never seemed as clever, but by the end, I no longer cared. Turns out, she is darker. Cast against type as a predatory female "of a certain age," Mrs. Erlynne was married once--but didn't take to it--and now makes her living by sleeping with rich men. As the film opens, New York's upper crust has had enough of her, so she sets her sights on a new target, the wealthy Mr. Windermere (Mark Umbers, blandly effective). Sure, he's married, but that's never stopped her before, so she travels from the States to the Italian coast to pursue her prey. Shortly after arriving in Amalfi, she gets her man and he proceeds to pay all her expenses. Meanwhile, Darlington takes after Mrs. Windermere (Scarlett Johansson) as Tuppy takes after Mrs. Erlynne. They've heard the rumors about Mr. Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, and both feel these women would be better off with them.

I won't say more about the plot than that, because it's in the last act where all the threads come together and what had seemed like faults become strengths. There is, for instance, a major revelation I didn't see coming, although it makes sense in retrospect. Granted, I laughed a few times during A Good Woman (as did the rest of the audience), but not as often as I should have considering the piquancy of the dialogue. And I wouldn't consider it a fault that Johansson wasn't funny as she wasn't given a single comic line. Rather, Meg Windermere is the story's one true innocent, which is to say, a character Wilde could admire, but not one he could relate to. It's with the Lord Darlingtons and Mrs. Erlynnes that his sympathies lie. Consequently, it's debonair playboy Darlington--a real romantic, as it turns out--who gets to utter the classic line, "All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The play may be called Lady Windermere's Fan--and a fan does make a few crucial appearances--but it's really about Mrs. Erlynne. She may not be a "good woman" in the traditional sense of the phrase, but she's Wilde's kind of dame and, unlike the sweet and simple Meg, there's more to her than meets the eye. While I was at first afraid that Hunt's Oscar-calibre "seriousness" might sabotage the film, it's her graceful ability to pull off those final scenes that saves it from being yet another Masterpiece Theater-style period piece with lovely scenery, pretty costumes, and an empty little head, but something deeper. Not a major film by any means, but its near-perfect ending makes A Good Woman very good indeed.

*****

A Good Woman opens on February 3rd. Opening two weeks later is Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which David Jeffers wrote about back in November. Next to 24 Hour Party People, which also features Steve Coogan, it's Michael Winterbottom at his most irreverent. Doesn't add up to a lot, but it's fun while it lasts.

A Good Woman (Is a Good Movie)

A Good Woman
(Mike Barker, 2004, 93 min.)

agoodwomanpubc.jpg

Marital bliss is a great burden to place on two people;
sometimes a third person is needed to lighten the load.

-- Oscar Wilde

It never fails to amaze me how many movies get off to a good start and then turn bad (or at least mediocre). Either that or they fail to live up to the promise of their opening act--let alone their opening credit sequence. I can only assume it's because a lot of directors feel that the first act is the most important. Some of the world's worst filmmakers can craft a compelling beginning, but an ending? That's the tricky part. For my money, even Steven Spielberg, with all his years of experience, almost always fumbles his endings. Of his recent films, Catch Me if You Can is the only exception that comes to mind (granted, I liked the ending to A.I., too, but I seem to be the only one). I often get the impression that he's more concerned about leaving the audience happy rather than satisfied. But I only like happy endings when they're earned. All of this is to say that A Good Woman is one of those rare films that gets better as it goes along. For the first couple of acts, in fact, I was concerned that maybe Britain's Mike Barker (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) wasn't the right man for the job and that the cast, notably Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets), wasn't up to the task.

It's not that the acting or directing are bad, just that I expected a more upbeat approach. Based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, A Good Woman is stuffed with witty epigrams. The lines are so good they almost sell themselves, but to really bring them home, the actors need to keep things light. Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson, the bad guy in Wilde) and Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore from Stephen "Wilde" Fry's Bright Young Things, an Evelyn Waugh adaptation with an admirably light touch) come across as effortlessly funny. Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt, who slung many a zinger on Mad About You) comes across as considerably darker. Despite her best efforts, her quips never seemed as clever, but by the end, I no longer cared. Turns out, she is darker. Cast against type as a predatory female "of a certain age," Mrs. Erlynne was married once--but didn't take to it--and now makes her living by sleeping with rich men. As the film opens, New York's upper crust has had enough of her, so she sets her sights on a new target, the wealthy Mr. Windermere (Mark Umbers, blandly effective). Sure, he's married, but that's never stopped her before, so she travels from the States to the Italian coast to pursue her prey. Shortly after arriving in Amalfi, she gets her man and he proceeds to pay all her expenses. Meanwhile, Darlington takes after Mrs. Windermere (Scarlett Johansson) as Tuppy takes after Mrs. Erlynne. They've heard the rumors about Mr. Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, and both feel these women would be better off with them.

I won't say more about the plot than that, because it's in the last act where all the threads come together and what had seemed like faults become strengths. There is, for instance, a major revelation I didn't see coming, although it makes sense in retrospect. Granted, I laughed a few times during A Good Woman (as did the rest of the audience), but not as often as I should have considering the piquancy of the dialogue. And I wouldn't consider it a fault that Johansson wasn't funny as she wasn't given a single comic line. Rather, Meg Windermere is the story's one true innocent, which is to say, a character Wilde could admire, but not one he could relate to. It's with the Lord Darlingtons and Mrs. Erlynnes that his sympathies lie. Consequently, it's debonair playboy Darlington--a real romantic, as it turns out--who gets to utter the classic line, "All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." The play may be called Lady Windermere's Fan--and a fan does make a few crucial appearances--but it's really about Mrs. Erlynne. She may not be a "good woman" in the traditional sense of the phrase, but she's Wilde's kind of dame and, unlike the sweet and simple Meg, there's more to her than meets the eye. While I was at first afraid that Hunt's Oscar-calibre "seriousness" might sabotage the film, it's her graceful ability to pull off those final scenes that saves it from being yet another Masterpiece Theater-style period piece with lovely scenery, pretty costumes, and an empty little head, but something deeper. Not a major film by any means, but its near-perfect ending makes A Good Woman very good indeed.

*****

A Good Woman opens on February 3rd. Opening two weeks later is Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which David Jeffers wrote about back in November. Next to 24 Hour Party People, which also features Steve Coogan, it's Michael Winterbottom at his most irreverent. Doesn't add up to a lot, but it's fun while it lasts.

SIFF approacheth


Hey readers and contributors: SIFF is just around the dang corner. I'm calling a meeting. I'm a bit fuzzy on when exactly. What's good for you? I'd like to jaw about getting more contributors and perhaps actually assigning, oh, coverage responsibilities.



Mars


The NYT previews an IMAX film, in 3D, about the odds-beating Mars Rover program. Space and 3D: two great tastes that would go great together, if there was any way to actually experience depth perception beyond 100 yards in a vaccuum.


Spencer and Viv and I had the pleasure of viewing the Ron Howard / Tom Hanks jernt aboot ye Luna, which is also a space-themed 3D IMAX film, and I think that Spence and I also screened "Space Station 3D" chez IMAX. Seriously, it's the best.



Friday, January 20, 2006

I AM A SEX ADDICT

IAmASexAddict.jpg

No that is not a confession, though I will admit to liking sex a whole lot. However, as Caveh Zahedi points out in I Am A Sex Addict, enjoying loads of sex isn't the same thing as possessing a sexual addiction. The autobiographical film traces his history of compulsive sex with prostitutes, one which ruined two marriages and several relationships.

Although giving quite possibly the world's worst performance of a man receiving a blowjob [Crazy Guggenheim having a seizure springs to mind], Zahedi portrays himself in a candid manner and comes across as an amiably soft-spoken, nebbishy character. However, he displays a sense of situational ethics that would leave George Costanza breathless. Actually, he rarely displays any willful cruelty, mostly coming across as a somewhat naive, passive-aggressive man whose staggering lack of self-awareness careens him from one foible to the next. At one point Zahedi asks one of his girlfriends if she wouldn't mind watching him have sex with an Italian streetwalker on the theory that this might provide him with a kind of cleansing catharsis. In an odd way he's the inverse of Steve Carell's character in The 40 Year Old Virgin, who possesses a practical innocence, but is anything but innocent in his mind. However, self-awareness eventually dawns and he gets his act together, marrying his current wife at the end of the film.

Despite the potentially squirmworthy nature of the subject matter, Zahedi handles the material with a light touch. Like Shane Black in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, he uses reflexivity to add just enough irony to sugarcoat what might otherwise be an unpalatable pill. The result is flat-out hilarious and, at least at the screening I attended, only two people walked out. Indeed, given the number of couples laughing their asses off, it would appear to be a good date movie. That is not to say there aren't some serious moments, but overall the film is a humorous and sometimes graphic look at sexual relationships. Not only is film entertaining, but as you can see, it has one hell of a poster. I coveted it the moment I saw it and asked Adam Hart, Nora Weideman and Peter Lucas if I could have a copy. Not only did they grant my wish, but Nora got Zahedi to autograph it for me. I would like thank Adam, Nora, Peter and especially Caveh for their generosity in granting my wish and yes, Peter, I did get it framed and it is hanging in my bedroom.

In addition to begging for a poster, I contacted Caveh Zahedi to request a short Q&A. Conducted via e-mail, here it is:

The title of your film is 'I Am A Sex Addict' but it seems that it wasn't sex per se that you were addicted to, but sex with prostitutes. That it wasn't that you were having too much sex or that you didn't enjoy having sex with your wives or girlfriends, but that you had various sexual compulsions you couldn't express with them and that your inability to thoroughly enjoy intimate relations fed an obsession to seek release with paid strangers. Am I in the ballpark or am I being obtuse?

It's true. The film could have been called "I Am A Prostitute Addict." But "sex addiction," as defined by Sex Addicts Anonymous, includes any sexual compulsivity that "leads to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization." And my particular addiction is a classic case of the kind of sexual compulsions that one finds at Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. The term has nothing to do with having sex "too much." Who's to say what "too much" would be? The term "addiction" implies a kind of destructive acting out of unprocessed emotions.

Were there any factual changes and/or elisions that you had to make in your film in deference to the privacy or your ex- wives and girlfriends?

Well, I had to cover over one person's face, and I changed all of the names. Apart from that, I didn't make any factual changes.

Your film reminded me in many ways of the cartoons R. Crumb has done over the years on his sexual escpades, in particular the ones he published in the anthology 'My Troubles With Women.' His humor is perverted, self-lacerating, vicious and hysterically funny; an opinion which seems to be shared by his wife. What does your wife think of the film you've made?

It makes her a little uncomfortable, but she's been very supportive.

Were you really surprised to discover Rebecca Lord was an adult entertainer? I quite liked her acting in the film [not to make a value judgment, but most porn stars tend to make lousy actors]. What was it like working with her as an actress? Has she seen the final film? What does she think of it?

I had no idea Rebecca Lord was a porn actress when I cast her. She was the most easy-going, good-natured, cooperative actress I have ever worked with. An absolute delight. And yes, she has seen the final film, and she is an enthusiastic supporter.

Are you considering a commentary track for the DVD? I would think it would present another opportunity to add a layer of observation to your film. If so, would you also consider inviting any of the actors or their real-life counterparts to contribute commentary as well?

I'm actually not a big fan of commentary tracks. Instead, I have a "making of" documentary in the works, which will include interviews with all of the major participants in the film.

In an interview you said you asked Vincent Gallo to play you in the movie, but he refused. Are you happy that you played the part yourself or do you still wish someone else had done it? If Judd Apatow were to offer to do a remake with a name cast would you let him do it?

I'm happy that I played the part myself. That was always the initial idea, and it was only scrapped when it seemed that there would be no other way to raise the money. Who's Judd Apatow?

I AM A SEX ADDICT

IAmASexAddict.jpg

No that is not a confession, though I will admit to liking sex a whole lot. However, as Caveh Zahedi points out in I Am A Sex Addict, enjoying loads of sex isn't the same thing as possessing a sexual addiction. The autobiographical film traces his history of compulsive sex with prostitutes, one which ruined two marriages and several relationships.

Although giving quite possibly the world's worst performance of a man receiving a blowjob [Crazy Guggenheim having a seizure springs to mind], Zahedi portrays himself in a candid manner and comes across as an amiably soft-spoken, nebbishy character. However, he displays a sense of situational ethics that would leave George Costanza breathless. Actually, he rarely displays any willful cruelty, mostly coming across as a somewhat naive, passive-aggressive man whose staggering lack of self-awareness careens him from one foible to the next. At one point Zahedi asks one of his girlfriends if she wouldn't mind watching him have sex with an Italian streetwalker on the theory that this might provide him with a kind of cleansing catharsis. In an odd way he's the inverse of Steve Carell's character in The 40 Year Old Virgin, who possesses a practical innocence, but is anything but innocent in his mind. However, self-awareness eventually dawns and he gets his act together, marrying his current wife at the end of the film.

Despite the potentially squirmworthy nature of the subject matter, Zahedi handles the material with a light touch. Like Shane Black in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, he uses reflexivity to add just enough irony to sugarcoat what might otherwise be an unpalatable pill. The result is flat-out hilarious and, at least at the screening I attended, only two people walked out. Indeed, given the number of couples laughing their asses off, it would appear to be a good date movie. That is not to say there aren't some serious moments, but overall the film is a humorous and sometimes graphic look at sexual relationships. Not only is film entertaining, but as you can see, it has one hell of a poster. I coveted it the moment I saw it and asked Adam Hart, Nora Weideman and Peter Lucas if I could have a copy. Not only did they grant my wish, but Nora got Zahedi to autograph it for me. I would like thank Adam, Nora, Peter and especially Caveh for their generosity in granting my wish and yes, Peter, I did get it framed and it is hanging in my bedroom.

In addition to begging for a poster, I contacted Caveh Zahedi to request a short Q&A. Conducted via e-mail, here it is:

The title of your film is 'I Am A Sex Addict' but it seems that it wasn't sex per se that you were addicted to, but sex with prostitutes. That it wasn't that you were having too much sex or that you didn't enjoy having sex with your wives or girlfriends, but that you had various sexual compulsions you couldn't express with them and that your inability to thoroughly enjoy intimate relations fed an obsession to seek release with paid strangers. Am I in the ballpark or am I being obtuse?

It's true. The film could have been called "I Am A Prostitute Addict." But "sex addiction," as defined by Sex Addicts Anonymous, includes any sexual compulsivity that "leads to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization." And my particular addiction is a classic case of the kind of sexual compulsions that one finds at Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. The term has nothing to do with having sex "too much." Who's to say what "too much" would be? The term "addiction" implies a kind of destructive acting out of unprocessed emotions.

Were there any factual changes and/or elisions that you had to make in your film in deference to the privacy or your ex- wives and girlfriends?

Well, I had to cover over one person's face, and I changed all of the names. Apart from that, I didn't make any factual changes.

Your film reminded me in many ways of the cartoons R. Crumb has done over the years on his sexual escpades, in particular the ones he published in the anthology 'My Troubles With Women.' His humor is perverted, self-lacerating, vicious and hysterically funny; an opinion which seems to be shared by his wife. What does your wife think of the film you've made?

It makes her a little uncomfortable, but she's been very supportive.

Were you really surprised to discover Rebecca Lord was an adult entertainer? I quite liked her acting in the film [not to make a value judgment, but most porn stars tend to make lousy actors]. What was it like working with her as an actress? Has she seen the final film? What does she think of it?

I had no idea Rebecca Lord was a porn actress when I cast her. She was the most easy-going, good-natured, cooperative actress I have ever worked with. An absolute delight. And yes, she has seen the final film, and she is an enthusiastic supporter.

Are you considering a commentary track for the DVD? I would think it would present another opportunity to add a layer of observation to your film. If so, would you also consider inviting any of the actors or their real-life counterparts to contribute commentary as well?

I'm actually not a big fan of commentary tracks. Instead, I have a "making of" documentary in the works, which will include interviews with all of the major participants in the film.

In an interview you said you asked Vincent Gallo to play you in the movie, but he refused. Are you happy that you played the part yourself or do you still wish someone else had done it? If Judd Apatow were to offer to do a remake with a name cast would you let him do it?

I'm happy that I played the part myself. That was always the initial idea, and it was only scrapped when it seemed that there would be no other way to raise the money. Who's Judd Apatow?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mikio Naruse series at NWFF


Spencer, overdue as I have noted in the past for an account here, highlights a particularly interesting bit of global obscurantist cinema chez NWFF upcoming:


One of my duties as a volunteer projectionist at the Northwest Film Forum is to introduce the films. Which means sometimes I gotta (er, or at least should) bone up ahead of time. Starting there this week is a remarkable 10-film retrospective of works by the great (albeit under-recognized in the West) master Mikio Naruse, in honor of his centenary. (He died in 1969.) I confess I’ve never even heard of the man or his films, even though he was the first Japanese filmmaker to be reviewed in the New York Times (a full 14 years before Kurusawa’s Rashoman).



Please note that the Jan. 27 screening of the ultra-rare silent films Nightly Dreams (Yogoto no yume), and Flunky, Work Hard! (Koshiben gambare) will be accompanied live by the most capable Aono Jikken Ensemble (that’s pronounced, more or less, AH-no JEE-ken). Most of the films in the series play one night only, so get down on it, yo.


He kindly follows up with some linkies.


Holy shit! Japanese silents! I may have to be medicated!



Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Not so well preserved


FOM Spence has an interesting rant about the preservation of the fillum. He's threatened to get an account over here. i think it's high time.



Sunday, January 8, 2006

The Lost City


As Spence and I listened to Dennis James introduce The Ten Commandments at The Paramount this afternoon, I was amused when Dennis quoted David Jeffers' long and wonderful essay on the film that he published earlier this week on SIFFblog.


This bemusement turned to pleasure when Dennis in turn introduced David on stage to do the expert intro to the film.



Thursday, January 5, 2006

The Weeping Meadow, A Purely Cinematic Experience

2_Hanging_sheep.jpg

I would like the world to remember my work as a musical moment, as a musical phrase, suspended, which may reach some people. The important thing in my life is what I do, my work, what I see, feel, what I dream of.
-- Theo Angelopoulos

In The Weeping Meadow, Greek master Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze, Eternity and a Day) takes an elegant, impressionistic look at 30 years of Hellenic history. The first part in a proposed trilogy, the story centers around Eleni (played as an adult by Alexandra Aidini), orphaned as a baby, and Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), her adopted brother. The film begins in 1919 when the two are children, fleeing with their family from Odessa to Thessaloniki. A few years later, it is revealed that a romance has developed, but Angelopoulos opts not to portray it. Instead, he returns to the teenaged Eleni just after she has given birth to twins, who were promply put up for adoption. Along the way, their mother dies and father Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), crazed with grief, insists on marrying his adopted daughter. After taking her vows, Eleni, still clad in her wedding dress (which will reappear later), runs away with Alexis and they spend the next several years hiding from Spyros. These vows, incidentally, are not shown. Not long afterwards, they get their children back. This transaction also takes place off-screen. So, why did their adoptive mother agree to return the boys to a couple that can barely take care of themselves? It's impossible to say.

This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout the picture. Something significant transpires, but Angelopoulos either alludes to it or focuses more on its after-effects. Other developments include a voyage to America for Alexis and a sojourn in jail for Eleni (for harboring an insurgent). This cinematic subterfuge, if you will, makes Angelopoulos's twelfth feature as strikingly original as it is frustratingly remote.
But there's a lot to be said for beauty and The Weeping Meadow, shot by Angelopoulos regular Andreas Sinanos, is undeniably beautiful. That said, it's a rather ugly kind of beauty, like the indelible image of a tree bedecked with the bodies of slain sheep. Further, the skies are never sunny, but always overcast. The palette is unrelentingly neutral. In the press notes, Angelopoulos explains that, "The landscape you see is not an external one, it is an internal landscape." He's also fond of long takes and long-shots; in fact, they're his signature. This makes for some stunning sequences, but the avoidance of close-ups--until the final, tragic scene--kept me at arm's length from the protagonists. I never got a good look at the faces of Eleni and Alexis and I would have liked to. In fact, I needed to in order to understand them better and to sympathize with them more. This is not a reflection on the actors, all of whom are quite good--especially Giorgos Armenis as their insurgent friend and protector, Nikos the Fiddler--but on the way in which they were filmed. Too often, I felt as if I were watching symbols rather than people. Eleni and Alexis may well stand for all Greeks in exile, but I don't see why they couldn't have been granted greater dimension. Not once do we see them eat or laugh; they rarely even talk. (We never see them make love either, but the affection between the two is never in doubt.) Granted, many American films, both independent and mainstream, often show and tell far more than necessary--too many close-ups, too much exposition--but the opposite approach poses its own set of problems.
Misgivings aside, I was engaged by The Weeping Meadow and the three hours passed relatively quickly. It helped that the score by frequent Angelopoulos collaborator Eleni Karaindrou is so hauntingly lovely. And it isn't mere window dressing as Alexis is a musician. Angolopoulos: "Music in my films does not accompany the narrative musically. It is a dramaturgical element, it narrates, it participates. It is an integral part of the films' text. Without it, there would be a lack of something essential. In this sense music is an actor in the movie, a living element." On the strength of its use in this film, I'll buy that-"t was my favorite character! I'm not sure that's such a bad thing either, although I doubt it was his intent.
For those looking for a purely cinematic experience, The Weeping Meadow is essential viewing. Theo Angelopoulos is not attempting to duplicate reality or to create yet another conventional historical epic. Much of what takes place is perfectly possible, yet eminently improbable. He presents, instead, a personal approach to history. His history. Further, the films of this Palme d'Or-winning director are rarely screened in Seattle and this may be one of your few chances to see his work on the big screen.
*****
The Weeping Meadow plays at The Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill) 1/13-19, Fri.-Thurs. at 7pm and Sat.-Sun. at 3:30pm.

The Weeping Meadow, A Purely Cinematic Experience

2_Hanging_sheep.jpg

I would like the world to remember my work as a musical moment, as a musical phrase, suspended, which may reach some people. The important thing in my life is what I do, my work, what I see, feel, what I dream of.
-- Theo Angelopoulos

In The Weeping Meadow, Greek master Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze, Eternity and a Day) takes an elegant, impressionistic look at 30 years of Hellenic history. The first part in a proposed trilogy, the story centers around Eleni (played as an adult by Alexandra Aidini), orphaned as a baby, and Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), her adopted brother. The film begins in 1919 when the two are children, fleeing with their family from Odessa to Thessaloniki. A few years later, it is revealed that a romance has developed, but Angelopoulos opts not to portray it. Instead, he returns to the teenaged Eleni just after she has given birth to twins, who were promply put up for adoption. Along the way, their mother dies and father Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), crazed with grief, insists on marrying his adopted daughter. After taking her vows, Eleni, still clad in her wedding dress (which will reappear later), runs away with Alexis and they spend the next several years hiding from Spyros. These vows, incidentally, are not shown. Not long afterwards, they get their children back. This transaction also takes place off-screen. So, why did their adoptive mother agree to return the boys to a couple that can barely take care of themselves? It's impossible to say.

This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout the picture. Something significant transpires, but Angelopoulos either alludes to it or focuses more on its after-effects. Other developments include a voyage to America for Alexis and a sojourn in jail for Eleni (for harboring an insurgent). This cinematic subterfuge, if you will, makes Angelopoulos's twelfth feature as strikingly original as it is frustratingly remote.
But there's a lot to be said for beauty and The Weeping Meadow, shot by Angelopoulos regular Andreas Sinanos, is undeniably beautiful. That said, it's a rather ugly kind of beauty, like the indelible image of a tree bedecked with the bodies of slain sheep. Further, the skies are never sunny, but always overcast. The palette is unrelentingly neutral. In the press notes, Angelopoulos explains that, "The landscape you see is not an external one, it is an internal landscape." He's also fond of long takes and long-shots; in fact, they're his signature. This makes for some stunning sequences, but the avoidance of close-ups--until the final, tragic scene--kept me at arm's length from the protagonists. I never got a good look at the faces of Eleni and Alexis and I would have liked to. In fact, I needed to in order to understand them better and to sympathize with them more. This is not a reflection on the actors, all of whom are quite good--especially Giorgos Armenis as their insurgent friend and protector, Nikos the Fiddler--but on the way in which they were filmed. Too often, I felt as if I were watching symbols rather than people. Eleni and Alexis may well stand for all Greeks in exile, but I don't see why they couldn't have been granted greater dimension. Not once do we see them eat or laugh; they rarely even talk. (We never see them make love either, but the affection between the two is never in doubt.) Granted, many American films, both independent and mainstream, often show and tell far more than necessary--too many close-ups, too much exposition--but the opposite approach poses its own set of problems.
Misgivings aside, I was engaged by The Weeping Meadow and the three hours passed relatively quickly. It helped that the score by frequent Angelopoulos collaborator Eleni Karaindrou is so hauntingly lovely. And it isn't mere window dressing as Alexis is a musician. Angolopoulos: "Music in my films does not accompany the narrative musically. It is a dramaturgical element, it narrates, it participates. It is an integral part of the films' text. Without it, there would be a lack of something essential. In this sense music is an actor in the movie, a living element." On the strength of its use in this film, I'll buy that--it was my favorite character! I'm not sure that's such a bad thing either, although I doubt it was his intent.
For those looking for a purely cinematic experience, The Weeping Meadow is essential viewing. Theo Angelopoulos is not attempting to duplicate reality or to create yet another conventional historical epic. Much of what takes place is perfectly possible, yet eminently improbable. He presents, instead, a personal approach to history. His history. Further, the films of this Palme d'Or-winning director are rarely screened in Seattle and this may be one of your few chances to see his work on the big screen.
*****
The Weeping Meadow plays at The Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill) 1/13-19, Fri.-Thurs. at 7pm and Sat.-Sun. at 3:30pm.