Sunday, October 12, 2014

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days

I had the chance to visit Romania back in '77, as part of a tour the original Red Clay Ramblers were on. It was just after there'd been a major earthquake, and our concerts, state sponsored, were in part a benefit. Bucarest was lovely, grimy, broken by the quake, paranoid. We were only there for about 72 hours. When we landed every local on the plane filled their pockets with shot bottles of whiskey from the plane's attendants. The airport featured anti-aircraft batteries and lounging soldiers in combat gear, with bandoliers of large caliber bullets crossing their chests and sub-machine guns on their shoulders. You better believe we did not get out of line. But as guests of the state we were actually treated very well, and as I recall we did a good show in a big hall that was well attended.

As a result of my brief but memorable encounter with Romania, I like to watch Romanian movies. A year or so back I saw Police, Adjective. I highly recommend it. Last week I watched Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, a film directed by Cristian Mungiu, which was released back in '08. I couldn't recommend it more. Although many reviews suggest that the film is "about" that dark old, vanished time when a despot ruled Romania, it is in fact about the essential facts which being a woman, anywhere, anytime, entail. I harbor the faint flickering hope, like a candle in a mine where the oxygen is diminishing, that if people could only watch a movie like this they would come to a better understanding of what real life is about, which would mean an end to the inexorable drive to make abortion once again illegal, thus converting pregnancy into a cruel and life-threatening punishment upon women who find themselves trapped by their condition.

Four Months is brilliantly filmed, acted, and directed. It doesn't preach, it just shows. The main character is not the pregnant girl, an accomplished liar and denialist who is supposed to be going to college and is expecting a visit from her doting father on the very day the illegal abortion takes place. The hero is her roommate, who has no stake in any of it but her deep friendship for and to her friend. Aiming to simply aid in helping her room mate find the abortionist, she is soon entangled in a series of terrible events driven by the illegality of the procedure, as well as her own commitments to a nice upstanding boy friend whose mother happens to be having a birthday that day. Before the movie is well started, the hero is browbeaten into having sex with the abortionist as partial payment for the procedure. Her pregnant friend waits demurely in the adjoining bathroom. By the end of the day she finds herself in the dark streets searching for a place to dispose of the abortion remains. It's a scene as harrowing as something out of a war movie. When she returns from this gawdawful "mission" she finds her ditzy roommate having a late dinner at the hotel where the abortion was accomplished, relaxing with a glass of wine.

I won't "tell" any more of the film. It struck me as utterly true. It is how it is, in the real world, with real people. As the director says in a good interview about making the film which was included on the DVD, he likes to go back and think about the dark days of the dictatorship. But this world is the world our Republicans are aiming to create, in toto, state by state, right here. It's the world we used to live in, until Roe V Wade realized that women are equally citizens with men.

Seems like here in the US we aren't making movies like this much any more, or if we are, they are certainly not being made by the people who have access to the big money and the big stars. That's probably just as well in some ways, but it does lead to some strange comparisons. I watched Counselor this week too. It's Ridley Scott's latest, and slam packed with stars, men and women who have so much filmic charisma that you can't take your eyes off them even in a bad movie. I started watching Counselor once, via Netflix, and turned it off. Its cynicism is so complete and so deep that I decided I really didn't want to sink my mind into it. I sent the disc back the next day, but then it appeared on one of our dish channels this week, so I did end up watching at least most of it. I do realize that there are drug cartels, and people who kill other people without compunction. Just the other week here in our little town where nothing happens, a guy was shot 14 times late one night in the trailer he rented and allegedly used for drug transactions. I drive past that trailer every time I go to town to get the mail.

Counselor amps all this grimy reality up to 14, or maybe 14000. The murderers and the murdered are movie stars--Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz. Their characters relish the actual "art" of murder, waxing eloquent about a nifty new device that will actually garrotte a person automatically once it is dropped onto a neck and activated. At the end of the story we watch it happen to Brad Pitt. Cameron Diaz, who turns out to be the arch villain and femme fatale of the story, has the implement invoked on Mr. Pitt. She then muses nostalgically about her true joy--watching her pet cheetahs catch flushed jack rabbits in the desert outside of Juarez. Sadly, she's now on the run, with only a bag of diamonds to aid in her survival. (Quell fromage, as my friend Patric from Nantes used to say.) We've seen her enjoying this hunt earlier, with Bardem, sitting like white hunters under a tarp, sipping martinis, watching the action with binoculars.

I did find a review of Counselor which made the point that Scott directed this movie whilst in the grip of grief over the sad death of his director brother, Tony. Grief, the review argued, was the true subject of the picture. The central character is the Counselor, played by Michael Fassbender. I thought the reviewer had a kind of point. But in Counselor, the only real actors are the powerful, the murderers. There is no mercy and no compassion, and no empathy either. The Counselor's grief is just another jackrabbit's ultimate fate, savoured by the unseen eyes of an ice queen who views it all from a far distance, with binoculars.

This is typical American big-time film-making these days. I'd imagine Ridley Scott has wryly joked that of all things, just as his movie was getting some momentum up, damn if these monsters now running loose in the Levant aren't beheading people all over the place. His best bit of social commentary might be the fact that the macguffin of the whole story, cocaine, is being smuggled around the place in septic tank emptying trucks. There's a nice scene when the stuff arrives at its hijack location and the literal shit is hosed off the sealed barrels.

Counselor is entertainment, just like Ultimate Fights, the heart of Fox Sports. We are not to think about those jack rabbits. Four Months is a much more difficult movie. It's a story about jack rabbits trying to survive. It's a story about real people. It's a story about us. We ought to care about real people, because that is who we are. Too much of our current world works tirelessly to convince us that we are not real people at all, but wealthy beautiful observers, sipping martinis while we enjoy the endless spectacle.

Last night we watched the Charlotte NASCAR race. Richard Petty made several appearances during the commercial moments which probably took up twice as much time as the actual racing going on. He smiled his big smile and said in his friendly North Carolina twang to vote for Tom Tillis "and bring your neighbors," because Tom Tillis was a winner. That was the whole pitch. Tillis is, among other things, wanting to make abortion illegal. He's also worked to keep black folks, students, and older people away from our polls on voting day. He's real strong for fracking too. He's running in NC against Senator Kay Hagan.

Why the hell would anyone vote to be a jack rabbit running for its life from a cheetah?

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