Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 15/3/2012)
As the daughter of a Jewish father whose parents died in the Warsaw Ghetto and a Catholic mother who fought in the capital's 1944 Uprising, Agnieszka Holland is well placed to assess the thorny issue of religion and resistance in Poland during the Second World War. Having previously examined the clashing ideologies battling for supremacy in Eastern Europe in Europa Europa (1990), she returns to the conflict to mark the 70th anniversary of a little-known episode involving an unlikely hero in the Oscar-nominated drama, In Darkness.
Drawing on Robert Marshall's study In the Sewers of Lvov, this earnest exposé of occupation opportunism challenges some of the rapidly calcifying conventions and caricatures of the Holocaust movie and owes more to gritty accounts like Andrzej Wajda's A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1957) than such glossy Hollywood reconstructions as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) and Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002). Yet, for all its laudable efforts both to disprove the myth that ordinary Poles knew nothing about the Final Solution and suggest that human foible was not exclusively the preserve of the persecutors, this still trades in emotive tropes to make the audience feel rather than understand.
Although he works as a sewer inspector, Robert Wieckiewicz is also something of a chancer. Thus, when he and accomplice Krzysztof Skonieczny witness German troops chasing and executing a group of naked Jewish women in the woods outside the city of Lvov in 1941, he realises there will be empty properties to loot in the ghetto. Despite detesting the Nazis for invading his homeland, Wieckiewicz is also inveterately anti-Semitic and readily accepts a commission from onetime cellmate-turned-collaborationist Michal Zurawski to search the labyrinthine sewerage system for any Jews who had eluded the mass round-up.
However, on encountering a small band of fugitives living in stinking, rat-infested darkness, Wieckiewicz cuts a better deal and agrees to supply provisions in return for cash and valuables. Keeping the arrangement secret from wife Kinga Preis, Wieckiewicz informs Skonieczny that he will aid the Jews until the funds run out and then turn them over to the Gestapo in return for a handsome reward. But his conscience begins to get the better of him and his determination to protect his charges comes to be driven more by morality than hopes of remuneration.
His efforts aren't always appreciated, however, and Holland quickly makes it clear that not everybody in this subterranean refuge is as irreproachable as Anne Frank and her fellow attic dwellers or Itzhak Stern and his co-workers. Reformed crook Benno Fürmann may be prepared to sneak into the Janowska camp to rescue feisty Agnieszka Grochowska's sister, but affluent couple Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup are prone to moments of snootiness in seeking to limit children Milla Bankowicz and Oliwer Stanczak's contact with riff-raff, while Marcin Bosak betrays his wife and daughter in choosing to smuggle mistress Julia Kijowska into hiding and promptly disowns her when she realises she is pregnant and the group has an appalling decision to make about a baby whose cries could easily give them away.
Suspense naturally plays its part in proceedings, as Bankowicz and Stanczak get lost in the maze of tunnels and a sudden rainstorm causes water levels to rise dangerously. But the focus remains on Wieckiewicz, who continues to take reckless risks despite knowing that his actions could jeopardise the safety of his own family. Thus, as in Europa Europa, Holland manages to present both sides of a complex story without trivialising or compromising it. However, this is never as compelling or convincing as her adaptation of Solomon Perel's autobiographical account of his experiences while masquerading as first a young Communist and then a Hitler Youth to avoid detection as a Jew.
One of the problems is slightly born of necessity, as the imagery has to be murky to give an authentic impression of the conditions in which the outcasts are living. But cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska submerges so many scenes in dense shadow that it's often difficult to see what is going on and Daniel Pellerin's sound design only partially compensates. Nevertheless, it is still possible to discern the ingenuity of production designer Erwin Prib's sets, which look more like the real thing than studio constructs and convey a palpable sense of entrapment, menace and imminent peril.
Similarly, the characterisation defects derive from screenwriter David F. Shamoon's determined bid to have a flawed hero succour some unsympathetic victims. However, Wieckiewicz is admirable as the Catholic profiteer who questions accepted values, while Marcin Bosak is courageously odious and Benno Furmann displays defiance rather than bravura in opting for active resistance. Holland might have paid more attention to the arduous tedium endured by the confined, but the social, sexual and psychological tensions between them ably reinforce the sense of life carrying on as normally as the claustrophobic situation allows.
Only 300 of Lvov's 200,000 Jews survived the war. Among them were the cabal assisted by Leopold Socha, who now ranks as one of the 6000 or so Poles deemed a `Righteous Gentile' by the Israeli government. Holland dedicates the film to these unsung heroes, along with Marek Edelman, the Jewish leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and this gesture encapsulates the estimable, if not always wholly efficacious equanimity of the entire enterprise.
Stillness has always been a key facet of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's cinema. Having studied photography since the age of 15, he applied the static camera technique developed while taking portraits to the films he started making while doing his national service in the Turkish army. However, such passivity is highly deceptive, as much is revealed in the long takes employed to study the crises of existence endured by the protagonists in such acclaimed features as Distant (2002), Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008), which drew comparisons with such masters of measured dissection as Robert Bresson and Michael Haneke.
But Ceylan's unique ability to capture of environment and atmosphere is road tested in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as he brings his distinctive brand of composed observation to picture that is in equal parts an odyssey, a police procedural, a whodunit and a satire on official corruption and ineptitude and the growing insecurity of the modern Turkish male.
In the sleepy southern backwater of Keskin, Firat Tanis confesses to killing buddy Erol Erasian with his slow-witted brother Burhan Yildiz. However, as he was drunk on the night in question, he can only remember that he buried the body beside a fountain and police chief Yilmaz Erdogan insists on bundling the suspects into driver Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan's car and heading off in a convoy containing another car and a jeep to locate the corpse. As everything has to be done by the book, the party is accompanied by Ankara prosecutor Taner Birsel and local doctor Muhammet Uzuner.
Following a break in the journey to dine with small-town mayor Ercan Kesal (whose pretty daughter, Cansu Demirci, has a profound effect upon them all), Birsel attempts to relieve the tedium by telling Uzuner the story of a woman who predicted her own death, However, he succeeds merely in unintentionally initiating another mystery, as the sceptical medic is curious to know if an autopsy was ever performed on her body. But, while suspicions rise that the woman in question may well have been Birsel's own wife, Kesal cracks under the pressure of tiredness and remorse and reveals that Erasian was killed in a fracas after he let slip that he was the father of his son Fatih Ereli with wife Nihan Okutucu. The body is recovered and taken back to town, where Ereh throws a stone at Kesal as he is led into the police station. But one final secret remains to be unearthed and re-concealed.
Ceylan confirms his reputation as a cinematic master with this audacious meld of disparate screen genres. What appears to be a simple crime story, as three vehicles snake across a bleak, storm-threatened nocturnal landscape in search of a buried murder victim, slowly evolves into a compelling road movie, a dense human drama and a deceptively trenchant socio-political critique. The cadaver proves hard to find, but attentive viewers will note the significance of Chekhovian snippets of information dropped into seemingly casual conversations about everything from yoghurt and lamb dishes to ethics, social hierarchies and the complexities of family life and will begin to piece together a profound, poignant and pessimistic snapshot of Turkish manhood and its ambivalent attitudes to the law, faith, bureaucracy, death and, most tellingly, women.
The actors appear to be upstaged by the majesty of Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography, but the devastating denouement reveals the full extent of their subtle brilliance. Nonetheless, the star here is Ceylan, whose control of composition, character, mood and pace is impeccable. Yet, what is perhaps most striking about the scenario written by Ceylan, his wife Ebru and Kesal, is the dry wit that prevents the compassion for these hapless males from becoming mawkish.
Hitting the right note is crucial in a proselytising documentary and director Ross Ashcroft and writer Dominic Frisby take a considerable risk in adopting a passive aggressive tone in Four Horsemen, as they warn viewers that the concepts they are going to discuss will be dismissed as left-wing propaganda by the inveterate disciples of capitalism about to come under attack for bringing the planet to the brink of disaster. It's an emotive gambit and one that rather sums up this interesting, but deeply flawed diatribe that seeks to explain the reasons for the current crisis and offer solutions that refine existing systems rather than overthrow them. But how audiences respond to these ideas will very much depend on their reaction to being lectured on fiscal, corporate and governmental malfeasance by those who once profited from it and now make a very decent living by denouncing it.
The basic premise of this laudably coherent and accessible picture is that a new variation on the biblical quartet of apocalyptic horsemen is stalking Earth. Instead of Conquest, War, Famine and Death, we should now be concerned about Empires, Banking, Terrorism and Resources. The nomenclature is hardly catchy and it somewhat betrays the difficulty Ashcroft and Frisby face in trying to match their thesis to the eponymous conceit. Yet, while the approach may be a little cumbersome and the scope is frustratingly limited to the United States and Britain, this represents a commendable effort to explain some complex issues and ideas using travelogue and archive footage, expert analysis and amusing animations.
According to Ashcroft and Frisby, humankind excels at adapting to circumstances. However, such is the power that the corporate elite exercises over our cognitive map that it has been possible to impose a collective delusion that correcting existing inequalities in global society would be disastrous for rich and poor alike. While the plutocrats controlled the media, people were content to trust the lines they were being fed. But the Internet has encouraged the free exchange of information and ideas and it is now the duty of the educated and the committed to find out about subjects the sinister powerbrokers would prefer to obfuscate and bring about change before the 21st-century horsemen begin to ride.
Empires have risen and fallen throughout history. On average, they tend to last for 250 years or 10 generations and pass through six distinct stages. All the signs seem to point to the fact that Western supremacy (admittedly a rather nebulous imperial construct) has already passed through its pioneering, conquering, trading, affluent and intellectual phases and is now manifesting such indicators of decadence as an over-large and ill-disciplined military, the conspicuous display of wealth, a gross disparity between rich and poor, a desire to live off a bloated state, an obsession with sex and the debasement of the currency.
In the opinion of the talking-heads assembled here, the current recession is a classic end of days symptom, as is our obsession with sport and celebrity chefs, which harks back to the bread and circuses' notion of Roman times. Silver investor David Morgan, Lawrence Wilkerson (the former chief of staff to Colin Powell) and MIT Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky lament the mistakes of the Baby Boom generation and despair of the defect in the human make-up that prompts seemingly decent individuals to recklessly pursue their own ambitions in the knowledge that they will damage the prospects of their own descendants.
The makers have, thus far, been more earnest than persuasive. So they move on to banking in the safe knowledge that most will share their disgust at the unregulated excesses of private banks that disrupt the economy and ruin the lives of those on the lower rungs by printing money on their own initiative and gambling on potential losses. Moreover, in order to bolster their complaint that duplicity, corruption and failure should disqualify bankers from earning colossal bonuses, Ashcroft and Frisby enlist a number of poachers turned gamekeeper, including ex-traders Tarek Al Diwany and Max Keiser, economic hit-man John Perkins, assistant editor of the Financial Times Gillian Tett, former World Bank economist Herman Daly and Joseph Stiglitz, onetime IMF chief economist Simon Johnson, Cambridge academic Ha-Joon Chang, ResPublica director Phillip Blond, GoldMoney Foundation director James Turk, Schumacher College founder Satish Kumar and Mexican Civic Association Pro Silver honco Hugo Salinas Price.
All speak with insight, eloquence and passion about Fiat currencies, the Classical and Neo-Classical schools of economic theory, the discredited legacy of Milton Friedman and the calamitous deregulation of both the banking business and the stock market and Bill Clinton's 1999 repeal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1933 Glass Steagall Act, which once again, allowed banks to speculate with investor funds and facilitated the shocking statistic that 97% of the current money supply is bank-created credit. But it isn't easy to assuage the suspicion that several of the talking heads are whistleblowing to salve their consciences while continuing to enjoy the comforts that seemingly repented deeds have brought them.
One of the consequences of Wall Street becoming a vast casino with powerful lobbying and donation clout in Washington was the strengthening of ties between elected officials and unaccountable executives. Thus, the Bush administration was persuaded not to prosecute companies in Baltimore that had conspired to lend to African-Americans and Hispanics at higher rates than those offered to other sections of the community. Moreover, it was reluctant to intervene when the same institutions started foreclosing on sub-prime mortgages at the same time they were demanding bailout funds to stave off their own collapse.
Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs come in for particular criticism here, with Chomsky claiming that the latter's `big short' policy of betting on the failure of mortgages they had sold and profiting from the ruin of their own customers was tantamount to bank robbery, while the Reverend Donald Reeves (the founder of The Soul of Europe) can barely hide his fury at the insistence of Goldman vice-chairman Lord Griffiths that inequality was a price worth paying for prosperity. But tangible proof that the so-called `trickle down' (or `horse and sparrow') theory of wealth dissemination is provided in the section on terrorism.
Britain's first Muslim life peer, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, economist Kaiser Bengali, journalist Najma Sadeque, Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh and US government policy adviser Michael Hudson join forces to castigate the manner in which foreign aid is distributed to benefit the already affluent and the outside contractors hired to undertake infrastructure projects at the expense of the impoverished, who are saddled with World Bank and/or International Monetary Fund debts. American foreign policy is condemned for being driven by the dictates of the military industrial complex and for peddling a brand of democracy that suits its aims rather than the need of the liberated.
Most agree that terrorists are driven to rebel by penury (although the omission of any reference at this juncture to religious or political ideology seems dubious in the extreme). However, Noam Chomsky reminds viewers that terrorism is simply a term used to describe what adversaries do to us and he recalls the first 9/11, when the CIA backed the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to show how crimes committed in our name are dressed up as acts of liberation.
Concluding with a plea for the Western democracies to put their own houses in order to prevent neo-colonialists from being able to perpetuate economic injustice, this is easily the weakest section of the film, with a fleeting discussion of the situation in Pakistan holding the fort in the absence of any mention of the world's other major trouble spots. Similarly, the decision to ignore the effect that developing nations like China, India and Brazil are having on the environment and the race for raw materials diminishes the effectiveness of the section on resources.
Echoing Herman Daly's concern that the world is at risk of being overrun by man-made capital at the very point in history that natural capital is being exhausted, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson claims that we are the first generation to experience economic growth without attendant social benefit. Indeed, rather than bringing happiness, rampant consumerism has simply speeded up the depletion of resources, with the result that the conflicts that would inevitably arise from shortages pose a greater threat to future well-being than global warming. No wonder Shell has prepared two scenarios for how things might pan out before 2075. The first is called Blueprint and envisages world leaders reaching an agreement on how to share resources and develop viable alternatives while the second is known self-explanatorily as Scramble. As Lawrence Wilkerson reveals, Shell predicts the latter as the most likely.
Yet there is still time to avoid such conflagration. In a brief coda that some may consider glib and others endearingly naive, Ashcroft and Frisby posit ways of waylaying the horsemen. The abandonment of neo-classical doctrine, the reform of the monetary system (based on a possible return to a gold standard) and the cancellation of national and personal debt (as happened in postwar Germany) would represent a good start. Then tax policy should be realigned to take account of consumption not labour, while a return to the Industrial Revolution concept of worker ownership would give people a stake in their future and overcome the apathy that the media (owned largely by the corporate big hitters) use to condition the masses into believing that change is impossible.
The conclusion that, while it may currently be ruinously debased, capitalism has worked in the past and can prove effective again is eminently reasonable. As is the suggestion that the elite need to be brought to account by those supporting them on the socio-economic pyramid. However, it will take much more than good intentions, moral outrage and some rather smug pronouncements to bring about the kind of revolution that these movie-makers have in mind. But, if this ambitious and undoubtedly intelligent treatise gets people thinking, talking and, just maybe, acting, then it will have more than served its noble purpose.
Although many would prefer the detached anonymity of an Albert Maysles or a Frederick Wiseman, the personality documentary has proved hugely popular with audiences around the world. Jonas Mekas, Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have all shown how it is possible for a quirky and/or combative on-screen presence to provide a focus for a story and goad reluctant participants into divulging information that they or their employer would rather keep secret.
The major problem with the `me doc', however, is that any viewer resistance to the maker's personality virtually dooms the enterprise. One suspects, therefore, that the breezy glibness of Daniel Edelstyn has prompted some of the negative reaction to How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire. He is certainly no shrinking violet and seems to share the unfortunate sense of timing that David Bond exhibited when he chose the final weeks of his partner's pregnancy to conduct an experiment to see if he could vanish off the face of the earth in Erasing David (2010). Moreover, Edelstyn might well have been more sensitive in his discussion of both the Russian Revolution and the economic plight of the Ukrainian town whose fortunes he vows to revitalise. But he manages to hit a decent balance between family history, culture clash satire and self-promotion, while also finding some visually innovative ways to tell his engagingly chaotic tale.
Musician-cum-film-maker Daniel Edelstyn knew very little about his Jewish grandmother until he discovered her diary in an old suitcase. Suddenly, Maroussia Zorokovich became the glamorous heroine of a perilous adventure that saw the 20 year-old forced to flee her Ukrainian village after the Bolshevik coup and make her way across Europe with her new husband Max, who had married her after seeing her fall off the stage while entertaining some White Russian troops. While he worked in Belgium, Maroussia came to London and danced at the Palladium and even had tea at the Savoy with HG Wells. However, shortly after Max came to join her, she became pregnant with Daniel's father, George, and the family relocated to Hull before arriving in Belfast in the 1930s.
Struggling to tap into her maternal instincts, Maroussia began to grow apart from Max, converting to Catholicism while he became increasingly involved with Masonic and Orange lodges. Falling victim to the wartime shortage of antibiotics, she died following surgery in 1943 and Edelstyn became so convinced that her life as an exile, writer, dancer and painter would make a compelling film that he began preparing a costume drama. However, it soon became clear that the real story lay in a blend of the past and the present and he changed tack and started work on a documentary.
The impetus came from the discovery that while the majority of his Ukrainian relatives had been executed by the Nazis in Kiev during the Second World War, the vodka distillery run by his great grandfather on his north-eastern estate in Dubouviazovka had survived. Business was hardly booming, however, and Edelstyn decided that the best way he could honour his ancestors and help revive the local economy was to start importing high-quality vodka to the UK.
The dream was simple enough, especially as Edelstyn realised that it could now become the co-subject of his film. But the reality was very different, as not only did it take some time to find a winning formula for Zorokovich 1917 Vodka, but he also struggled find a market niche. Moreover, the amount of time and effort that Edelstyn was devoting to his projects before and behind the camera that it began to effect the health of his now-pregnant artist wife, Hilary Powell (who was also playing Maroussia to his Max in the stylised silent flashback sequences).
Partially funding the movie with contributions from an online Vodka Club and presenting sneak previews of the work in progress on the Babelgum site, Edelstyn has proved himself to be the entrepreneurial match of his Ukrainian kinfolk. Moreover, he has also demonstrated himself to be a capable film-maker, as he shifts from travelogue encounters with hostile locals and corporate pow-wows with smug Saatchi executives to iris-shaped tinted reconstructions and wonderfully homemade-looking model animations, while also holding the threads together on screen as a kind of plummy version of Morgan Spurlock.
Ultimately, it might have been nice to learn more about the reaction of the residents of Dubouviazovka to the stranger in their midst and his plans to help them. It also sometimes feels rather intrusive to be presented with so much intimate detail about Edelstyn and Hilary's occasionally rocky relationship. But as a work of family mythology and a cinematic and commercial case study, this is never anything less than dogged, innovative and intriguing.
A more self-effacing character takes centre stage in Richard Press's Bill Cunningham New York, a profile of the 82 year-old photographer who is as happy snapping ordinary folks on the streets as he is hobnobbing with celebrities at black-tie charity functions and glamorising fashion models on catwalks. Making for a compelling contrast with Smash His Camera, Leon Gast's portrait of paparazzo Ron Galella, this not only eulogises a consummate professional, but it also affords a fine showcase for Cunningham's near-anthropological obsession with the changing face and tastes of the Big Apple and if Press fails to uncover much about the reclusive shutterbug's private life, he nevertheless creates an urban love letter of which Woody Allen would be proud.
Chatty, opinionated, but rigorously discreet, Cunningham cycles around Manhattan with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. Each week, he produces two columns for the Sunday Style section of the New York Times: `Evening Hours', which presents notables in their finery, and `On the Street', which captures the personal fashion statements of everyday residents that epitomise the spirit and vigour of the city that never sleeps. In reflecting how consumers appropriate and influence haute couture, Cunningham has set several trends and remains true to the ideals established while working with Annie Flanders on Details magazine. Indeed, integrity is crucial to Cunningham's credo and he famously quit Women's Wear Daily early in his career after they changed his copy to mock the women he had photographed on the street wearing runway outfits.
Despite focusing on the man and his camera, Press sketches in some background about the millinery business Cunningham ran with the help of socialist Rebekah Harkness before being drafted into the US Army in 1951. But, while he cajoles him into admitting that he goes to church every Sunday and hasn't had time for a serious relationship (gay, straight or otherwise), Press discovers little that Cunningham doesn't offer freely and is forced to make extensive use of a 1989 interview to present any aesthetic-intellectual insights.
Along with cameraman Tony Cenicola, Press is more successful at capturing Cunningham in action, however, whether he is negotiating the downtown traffic on his 29th bicycle (the others have all been stolen), loitering on corners to capture the next candid image or being ushered into Parisian fashion shows or chic soirées by organisers aware of the kudos that a Cunningham image can bring to their cause. Press also conveys the affection with which Cunningham is regarded by luminaries like Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, novelist Tom Wolfe, Paper magazine editor Kim Hastreiter and Metropolitan Museum of Art bigwigs Harold Koda and Annette de la Renta, as well as such frequent subjects as Patrick McDonald, Kenny Kenny, Iris Apfel, Shail Upadhya and Anna Piaggi.
Even regular collaborators like Lesley Vinson and John Kurdewan, who are fully aware what a prickly perfectionist he can be, have nothing but good things to say about him. And the same is true of such long-time friends as floral decorator Toni `Suzette' Cimino and 98 year-old photographer Editta Sherman (the so-called `Duchess of Carnegie Hall', who once danced for Andy Warhol's ever-eager movie camera), his neighbour in the Carnegie Hall studio complex that he is being forced to leave after several decades because the trustees can make more money by renting out the space to faceless corporations.
This latter episode might have made an interesting hook for the picture and allowed Press to examine Cunningham's achievement through the prism of the creeping philistinism that is enervating the New York art scene. But he prefers to watch the genial octogenarian repairing his rain cape with masking tape and discussing his preference for the durable blue jackets worn by Parisian street cleaners over any designer wear. More than anything, however, he is fascinated by the ascetic bohemian in his element and these fleeting moments of mundanity are very much in keeping with Cunningham's genius for locating the significant in the seemingly unremarkable and say much more about him than his charmingly awkward Franglais speech on receiving the officier rank of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
In this section
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 23/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 23/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 25/4/2013)