Monthly Archives: July 2013

Danzón (1991)

María Rojo

María Rojo

You’ve seen this story before. A middle-aged woman goes on a trip, has a brief fling with a guy, and then goes back home. There are dozens of movies that have used this premise. But in Danzón, it isn’t the story that matters. I get the feeling that director María Novaro isn’t interested in plot, she doesn’t care about drama. Her films are just about people. The characters in her films are vivid and lively, but never bigger than life. Novaro is most interested in the ordinary joys and sorrows of ordinary people. She wants to get as close to them as possible, moving right into their world, allowing us to see, to hear, to feel their lives unfold.

In the first frames we see a woman’s feet, clad in silver high-heel shoes, moving slowly across a dance floor as a band plays. The camera pulls back to reveal a large nightclub filled with couples, their arms posed in respectful embraces, their feet tracing short, precise movements in time to the music. This is el danzón. Originally from Cuba, this style of dance migrated to Mexico about a hundred years ago and has enjoyed huge popularity there. It is a very elegant, very formal ritual, and its devotees even adhere to a fairly strict dress code.

Every Wednesday night Julia comes to the Salon Colonia to dance with Carmelo. This is what she lives for. Julia is a single, middle-aged woman with a daughter who lives in Mexico City. During the day she works for the phone company as an operator. But she lives for el danzón. Her long-time partner, Carmelo, is a quiet, courtly man who seems to be at least ten years her senior. Though they’ve been dancing together for years, apparently their relationship doesn’t go beyond that. Then one day Carmelo disappears. Julia becomes depressed, frustrated, angry. Finally she decides to go looking for him in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico.

When Julia arrives in Veracruz the movie’s tone shifts. In Mexico City, a massive metropolis, everything is concrete and plaster, fluorescent and neon. In Veracruz we can feel the breeze rustling the trees, the sunlight warming the pavement. Novaro and cinematographer Rodrigo García make Julia’s wanderings in this port city a sensual experience. On the night of her arrival, one of the first things she does is walk down to the water. She smiles as the surf gently rolls around her feet. The pace of life seems to be slower in Veracruz. People seem to spend their days outdoors. Julia is still intent on finding Carmelo, but we can see her gradually relaxing in her new surroundings.

For the most part Novaro keeps the film firmly rooted in reality, but there is one extraordinary sequence that feels strangely unreal. Julia decides to go down to the port to ask about Carmelo. On her friend Susy’s advice, she’s wearing a sheer red dress, red earrings and a red flower in her hair. As she strolls past the workers, men turn to stare at her and she feels self-conscious. But then Julia comes to the docks, and her attention turns to the ships floating by. They bear names like Puras Ilusiones (Only Illusions), Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears), and Amor Perdido (Lost Love). A wistful song plays on the soundtrack, but there is no dialogue. Julia walks slowly along the docks as these massive ships drift past, and it’s almost as though her fantasies of love have taken shape in the gigantic vessels gliding across the water.

In playing Julia, Maria Rojo’s face is so open, so expressive, so naked that you feel like you can read every thought, every emotion. Julia is fragile and easily hurt, so she goes to great lengths to hide her feelings, and yet Rojo always allows us to see beneath the surface. At times it’s maddening to watch this woman pursuing her quest for a man she barely knows, but Rojo always keeps us on the character’s side, making sure we can relate to her.

As I said before, Novaro’s films are about people, and she fills the movie with a number of memorable performances. Margarita Isabel, Carmen Salinas and Víctor Carpinteiro all seem to live inside the characters they’re playing. Tito Vasconcelos is especially interesting as Susy, a man who dresses as a woman. Susy is excited by Julia’s romantic quest, but at times seems attracted to Julia herself. Rhapsodizing about love one minute, bitterly cynical the next, Susy appears to be intoxicated both by the joy and the sadness of life.

At the end, Julia returns to Mexico City, and Carmelo magically reappears. He doesn’t say where he was or why he went away. They simply start dancing again, and Julia is radiant with happiness. Nothing has been explained, nothing has been resolved. There’s no dramatic climax, no message to be gleaned from our heroine’s adventures. Life just goes on. And life is what Novaro is interested in. The director and her sister Beatriz, who co-wrote the screenplay, achieve something very close to what Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavatinni created in films like Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. They don’t create drama, they just dive into life. It’s enough for them to explore the joys and frustrations of friendship, the unpredictability of daily living, the beauty of the world around us.

Would You Buy a Digital Camera from This Man?

Gatsby 4
Okay. Digital production, digital projection are now pretty much the norm. Most everything I’ve seen in a theatre lately, except for revival theatres, is presented in one digital format or another. While the quality is mostly good, I have to say I’m still not a total convert. But to be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing.

First, let’s talk about The Great Gatsby, which I have to say I loved. Not sure why the critics had such a hard time with it. Fitzgerald is my favorite author, and I thought Luhrmann, DiCaprio and all the rest did an amazing job of bringing his vision to the screen. Anyway, to get back to the digital thing, I saw the film twice. The first time was at the Arclight, Sherman Oaks, and I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. It was one of those times where the images and the sound just washed over me and I was enthralled. I didn’t notice any problems with the image. I was just swept off my feet.

The second time, however, was a little different. Part of the reason I went back again was to pay more attention to the quality of the digital projection. This time I saw it at the Arclight, Hollywood. I still loved the movie, but watching it a second time I had some problems with the image. In the first place, it seemed just slightly fuzzy, as though the resolution was not quite adequate. I also felt that the colors were a little too soft, which I’ve noticed in other cases with films shot and projected in digital. It didn’t seem to have the richness or depth of color that you’d get with film. The blacks just weren’t black enough, and the image in general looked faintly washed out.

I went to IMDB, where I found that the film was shot with Red Epic cameras using Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. Under “Cinematographic Process”, it said the master format was digital intermediate (2K), and the source format was Redcode RAW (5K) (dual-strip 3-D). I won’t pretend this all makes sense to me. In the reading I’ve done about digital, I understand that even though there’s a lot of talk about 4K, most films we see are not coming from 4K masters. And I’m wondering why the master format for Gatsby was digital intermediate.

Not long after Gatsby I saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell at the Laemmle, North Hollywood. Just briefly I’ll say that it knocked me out, and I recommend it highly. As opposed to a big budget commercial feature like Gatsby, this is a small scale documentary. My guess is that it probably cost a few million to make. Like Gatsby, it was shot on digital, though the equipment and process were different. It’s important to say, too, that the finished film is a mix of processes, assembled from both digital footage and Super 8. But I thought it looked great. Where there is a deliberately bleached, grainy quality to the Super 8 work, the interviews (shot with a Sony CineAlta HDW-F900R) look crisp and there is a richness and texture to the image that seemed to me superior to Gatsby.

There could be a number of reasons for the difference in image quality in the two movies. It could be the cameras that were used in shooting. It could be the type of files that the content was transferred to. It could be the projectors. And I wonder if the size of the screen could be a factor, since the screens at the Laemmle are much smaller than those at the Arclight. Also, in reading about 2K and 4K, I’m learning that often people on the exhibition end don’t worry too much about the difference. Films can be shot in 4K, but then distributed as 2K files. Apparently it’s not uncommon for a film to be shot in 4K, distributed in 4K, but shown in 2K, since some projectors need to be switched over manually, and some projectionists don’t give a damn.

As you can probably tell, I’m confused. I know that with any new technology there’s going to be a certain amount of chaos, since you’ve got different companies with different technologies competing for a share of the market. But with digital I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing. If there’s anybody out there who can make this clearer, please feel free post a comment. I need help.

Eve’s Bayou (1997)

A lot of movies have been made about families, but not many honest ones. Most of the time, even if the film digs into some of the more difficult issues that arise between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, everything is resolved before the fade out. We may see anger, envy, cruelty, betrayal, but generally speaking it’s all explained away by the end of the story. Everybody has their reasons, everybody has their issues, and everybody ends up burying their problems to join in a big, warm group hug before the final fade-out.

And so a film that really examines the toll that lies, jealousy, desire take on a family is rare. Eve’s Bayou deals with all those things, bringing us into the world of a prosperous Southern family, gradually revealing the dynamics that both keep them together and tear them apart. And in spite of the brutal emotional conflicts, the overwhelming sadness, the film is infused with a radiant beauty. This movie is not about despair. It’s about life.
Like The Magnificent Ambersons, Eve’s Bayou isn’t just about a family, it’s about where they live. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons opens the film by telling us that the bayou was named after a slave who was freed by her master. She then bore him sixteen children. Their descendants, the Batistes, are the focus of the story. Their large, comfortable home is at the center of the film, but Lemmons also takes the time to show us the town, its people, its market, its cemetery. The family is well-respected, and proud of their standing in the community. In fact the father, Louis, is more than proud. He’s arrogant, cocky, and his brash confidence will be his undoing.

Another thing the film has in common with The Magnificent Ambersons is the way the director uses a party to bring us into the world of this family and to lay out the relationships. After a brief prologue, we find ourselves in the bayou at night, drifting across the dark water, floating past the heavy trees until we find ourselves in front of the brightly lit Batiste home. Inside there’s music playing, people are dancing, and everybody seems to be having a great time. But Lemmons gradually takes us deeper, allowing us to catch the careless gestures, the whispered gossip, the hurt glances that nobody notices. And before the end of the party, the main character, a young girl who worships her father, has had her eyes opened to an ugly truth that shakes her to the core.

This is the moment that sets everything else in motion. The realization by Eve that her father is not the hero she thought. She shares the secret with her older sister, Cisely, who is shocked at first, and then insists that nothing happened. Cisely tells Eve she just imagined it. That there’s nothing to worry about. Which is what children often do when confronted with their parents’ sins. You have to bury the knowledge, forget about it, go on as if nothing happened. And then maybe spend years or decades trying to keep the memory from rising back to the surface.

Starting with the opening shots of the bayou, Lemmons gradually draws us into the life of this small Southern town. She seems to favor long takes, slow tracking shots, allowing us to drink in the serenity and stillness of this melancholy world. The sunlight undulates slowly across the dark, smooth water of the bayou. The dense, green foliage seems to embrace life and death at the same time. In the audio commentary we hear Lemmons talk about her close collaboration with cinematographer Amy Vincent and editor Terilyn Shropshire. I was especially interested in what they had to say about finding “organic” solutions, which I took to mean finding simple, direct ways of expressing the story’s themes. Terence Blanchard’s score also plays a crucial role. His subtle orchestral textures, complemented by harmonica and guitar, perfectly match the emotional tone of the film.

As visually rich as the movie is, it wouldn’t mean a thing if the actors didn’t deliver. But not only does Lemmons get great performances out of the individual cast members, they work beautifully as an ensemble, making us believe that they’ve known each other all their lives. Samuel Jackson is smoothly confident as the philandering father who gets offended when anyone questions why he’s never home. Lynn Whitfield plays the beautiful, loving wife, who struggles to raise her children while the knowledge that her husband is cheating eats away at her. Meagan Good has all the poise and authority of a confident, radiant older sister who knows she’s her father’s favorite.

And at the center of the movie is Jurnee Smollett as Eve. It’s one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen a young actor give. She has all the trusting sweetness and all the bitter anger of a girl on the verge of adolescence. Her mood changes in an instant, projecting smug confidence one minute and absolute despair the next. She’s full of love and hate at the same time, torn apart by emotions she doesn’t even understand. Lemmons says she spent a long time looking for a girl to play Eve, but on seeing Smollett immediately knew she was perfect for the role. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.

Eve’s Bayou is one of the few movies that really captures families as they are, diving deep into the currents of love and jealousy, bitterness and loyalty that bear mothers and fathers, sons and daughters relentlessly forward. It doesn’t tell us that everything’s going to be all right. All of this will go on forever, and all of this will fade into the past.