Salt Flats and Music: Tuesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two films, both documentaries, at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Tuesday. One was about the world coming to a previously isolated stretch of Bolivia. The other was about music of the world.

B+ Salero

Before the screening, Director Mike Plunkett told us that the film was “a passion project of mine. It took six years to complete.”

This exceptionally beautiful documentary looks at change from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want it, although the film itself seems neutral on the subject. Moises Chambi Yucra lives in the small town of Colchani , next to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A husband and father, he’s harvested salt all of his life. He cannot imagine another life for himself or his family.

But Lithium has been found in massive amounts in the area–enough to make Bolivia a significantly richer country. What’s more, the government is taking steps to bring tourism to Colchani. Moises life can no longer go on as it was.

Plunkett feels considerable empathy for Moises, but he also shows the considerable advantages that come from the changes–advantages that appear to be helping the people who live there. The film contains some of the most mouth-watering images seen at this year’s festival.

Plunkett did a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after it started, but I caught this comment:

“I was really just struck by the landscape. If the landscape could have a voice, it would say something.”

I saw Salero at the Roxie. It was the last screening of the film at the festival. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to get a theatrical release.

A- The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Before the screening, director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) told us that he was delighted to be in the New Mission‘s Theater 1. “I think I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 3 here.”

Since this film will get a theatrical release, I can only give a very short review here:

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma took his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created the Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them. This documentary follows Ma and other musicians as they work, play, and talk about their lives. Many came from repressive regimes and war-torn lands, and their stories are often tragic. But the beauty of making music keeps them going. The film’s one problem: Not enough music.

After the screening, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights:

  • How the project began: It’s one of those instances of jumping off a cliff. Yo-Yo called and wanted to talk about filming a concert. He started telling off-color jokes. I said “I’ll follow you with a camera everywhere.”
  • What role does culture serve in society? In the West, we tend to take culture for granted. It’s discounted because it’s a soft influence.
  • We started talking to Yo-Yo. Then we started talking to the ensemble, and we saw how much material there was.
  • On the film’s visual style, which involved a lot of moving, swooping camerawork: Early on, we decided the camera should float amongst these cultures.
  • Advice for new filmmakers: Get good sound. It’s the most overlooked thing in film. If you have great sound you can make a great film.
  • It’s become so much easier to make films because of the technology.

The film will screen once more for the Festival, Thursday, 4:00 at the Pacific Film Archive. But don’t worry if you miss it. It will open in Bay Area theaters June 17.

Wesley Morris, Sidney Poitier, and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s State of the Cinema Address

Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Critic at Large for the New York Times, gave this year’s State of the Cinema Address. His theme: The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier. It was in the Victoria Theatre on Saturday afternoon, and it was wonderful.

Coming on stage in a snappy red suit, he warned that he would give spoilers for In the Heat of the Night. There really weren’t any. The identity of the murderer was not revealed in the clip shown.

“Why Poitier?” he rhetorically asked. “It occurred to me looking at the trajectory of racial climate, something is changing about how race is depicted in popular culture. Black people are talking to black people in the movies.” For that change, “Ground zero for a lot of how we think about race is Sidney Poitier.”

Morris proved to be a very funny, entertaining talker. He mused on the moral complexities of the upcoming Harriet Tubman $20 bill. “Do you pay your weed dealer with a Tubman? Or put Tubmans into a stripper’s G-string?”

He talked about the people who objected to LBJ’s depiction in Selma. “People were mad because they turned the white president into ‘the help.’ They didn’t make it a white savior movie.”

Poitier “was first. White liberals wanted him to be good. Blacks wanted him to win. Before the slap [see below], they needed a black actor.”

He talked and showed clips from two of his more important films–Lilies of the Field, for which he became the first non-white to win a leading-role Oscar, and In the Heat of the Night.

By the time of Lilies of the Field, “America was ready to let Poitier spend time with white women, but only if they were nuns.”

But the real shock came in 1967 with Heat of the Night. This was the film where Poitier slapped a white man–and one who very much needed slapping. Even today it’s a powerful moment in a film that for the most part hasn’t aged well.

He also talked about some of his early, bad movies. He had particular contempt for Band of Angels, which he called “really racist” as well as really bad. I have to admit some curiosity.

“”His job was to comfort white people into accepting being comfortable with black people.”

In the end, Morris summed up what Poitier meant. “What did we lose when we lost movies interested in dealing with race? A lot of his films weren’t that great, but they kept a conversation going.


B+ Social issue drama

Written by Jeffrey Dean Brown and Joseph Kwong

Directed by Jeffrey Dean Brown

Sold is a message movie. The filmmakers want you to know that something horrible is going on, and that we all need to do something about it. The film has the sort of single mindedness of message that we’ve learned to expect in documentaries, but seldom find in a narrative fiction film like this one.

In Sold‘s favor, the message is an important one, and we all really should be doing something about it. Every year, millions of children are kidnapped or sold into slavery–often sexual slavery that forces them into prostitution. The parents go along with it, at least some times, because they have been lied to; they think their children will have better lives elsewhere.

Sold dramatizes this huge crime by concentrating on one 13-year-old victim, Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia). Taken from her home in rural Nepal under false pretenses (she was told she’d be doing housework for a rich family), she winds up in a brothel.

Her life soon becomes horrible. Rape is constant. So is cruelty and torture–punishments for any sign of resistance. There are bars on her window, and not to keep burglars out.

But it’s not as if escaping is a reasonable alternative. What could she do? To be a prostitute outside of her prison would be worse than being one inside. And shamed parents don’t want to take their “disgraced” children back.

To the filmmakers’ credit, they show that life isn’t horrible 24/7. Lakshmi finds friendship and camaraderie with other imprisoned prostitutes. She especially bonds with the young son of an older prisoner.

As she becomes acclimated to the horrible conditions, she finds secret ways to rebel, and begins working on a plan to escape, despite the dangers.

If the film had stuck with Lakshmi, I would easily have given it an A. Unfortunately, there’s a subplot, following a group of good people working against this exploitation. This subplot seems to be inserted for two reasons:

  1. So that the movie can preach directly to audiences about the horrors of child prostitution, and how they’re working to fix the problem.
  2. So that the film could have two white, American movie stars–Gillian Anderson and David Arquette–playing good guys. (Anderson, who plays a photographer just arrived in India, has the role of the newbie whom everyone has to explain things to so the audience can hear the explanations.)

Although shot and set in Nepal and India, with a Nepalese protagonist, this is very much a British/American film. Director Jeffrey D. Brown lives in the Bay Area. British actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson is an executive producer. The dialog is all in English.

For a while, I thought this was going to be a white savior movie, where the blonde American saves the helpless brown girl. I’m happy to say that that didn’t happen.

Sold is a very good film with a very important message. If the picture had stuck with its protagonist, it might have been a great film.

Warning: Spoilers below

Arquette’s character connects with Lakshmi by pretending to be customer, telling her that there’s a safe place in the city she can get to if she successfully escapes.

And she does escape by her own resourcefulness, and gets to that place, an orphanage called Hope House. The film has a very happy ending.

But Sold would have been so much more effective, with an even happier ending, if we, like her, couldn’t be sure that this safe house was real until she got there.

Bicycle Thieves as great as ever on Blu-ray

If the point of cinema is to create empathy, both for the characters on the screen and for real people, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is the greatest film ever made. It’s about desperate poverty, and how the desperately poor feed on the desperately poor because they have no other options.

I wrote about this film back in 2014. But I’m returning to it now because of Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray release. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

You probably already know the story. Unemployed Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), desperate to feed his wife and children, finally finds a job. But the job requires him to use his own bicycle, which is currently in hock. His wife sells their sheets to get the bike out of hock. But on his first day on the job, someone steals the bike. The bulk of the film follows Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they wander through Rome, searching desperately for the precious machine that will keep them from starving.

You may know the film as The Bicycle Thief–the title used for this Italian film’s initial American release. In recent years it’s been retitled Bicycle Thieves–a closer translation of the original Italian name, Ladri di biciclette.

Whatever you call it, it’s generally considered the great masterpiece of Italian neorealism, a short-lived, postwar movement that looked at life as it was. The ethos of neorealism called for shooting on location and using real people instead of professional actors.

But realism is always questionable is cinema. While it’s true that Maggiorani had no acting experience when De Sica cast him in the lead role, it’s pretty clear that his handsome, movie-star face helped him get the part. And Staiola, eight or nine when the film was shot, is easily one of the most adorable children in the history of movies.

De Sica was a commercial filmmaker. He throws in occasional comedy relief, usually around Bruno. He also plays with our expectations early on, making us think that the bike is about to be stolen well before the actual theft. Alessandro Cicognini’s romantic, lush music also reminds us that we’re watching a movie.

But Bicycle Thieves is still primarily a realistic film, and a sad one. When we finally get to know the thief, he’s as desperate as Antonio, and the ending can break your heart.

How It Looks

Carlo Montuori shot Bicycle Thieves in black and white, and in the full-frame 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

Criterion’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer comes from a new 4K scan of a fine grain master only one generation away from the original camera negative. It has the high-contrast, slightly-washed out look of Italian films from the 1940s. It looks, I believe, the way it was meant to look.

How It Sounds

The uncompressed, Linear PCM, 24-bit, mono track delivers De Sica’s original mix. Criterion, thankfully, did nothing to “improve” it.

The disc also has an alternative, English-dubbed track.

And the Extras

  • Booklet: 33 pages. This paper-based extra contains a very good essay by Godfrey Chesire, and six remembrances by people who worked on the film, include De Sica and Sergio Leone (a volunteer gofer). Also included: film and disc cast and credits, and About the Transfer.
  • Timeline: As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, you can save bookmarks on the disc (well, technically, they’re saved in the player). When you insert the disk for the second or subsequent time, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.
  • Working with De Sica: 23 minutes; 1080i. Documentary with interviews recorded in 2005. The interview subjects include one of the writers, a film historian, and the former child actor Enzo Staiola. It’s all in subtitled Italian. Interesting.
  • Life as it is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy: 40 minutes; 1080i. Film scholar Mark Shiel discusses neorealism. His voice gets a little monotonous, but it’s still interesting.
  • Cesare Zavattini: 56 minutes; 1080i, but clearly from a 4×3 standard definition source. Documentary on the screenwriter and co-founder of neorealism, who was also De Sica’s most important collaborator. Zavattini comes off as a larger-than-life, unique individual.

Criterion’s Blu-ray goes on sale March 29.

My Thoughts on Night of the Living Dead

Tuesday night, in the seasonal holiday spirit, I finally saw the original Night of the Living Dead. It really is one of the greatest horror films ever made. This is fear without compromise. The terror and suspense never let up. There’s absolutely no room for a happy ending.

The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (no one ever calls them zombies, that name came later) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. After countless imitations, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear haven’t gone away.

First-time director George Romero shot Night in black and white to save money, and I’m glad he did. As I pointed out in Black and White Films in a Color World, gruesome imagery delivers a greater emotional punch without color. We react to gushers of red blood as gory spectacle. But when the blood is dark gray, the emotions go deeper. Night of the Living Dead has been colorized three times (it’s in the public domain, so anyone can do it), but I see no reason to watch anything except the original version.


It’s also, quite unintentionally, a comment on race relations in America, then and now.

Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, as the film’s hero. The director insists that it wasn’t intentional; Jones simply gave the best performance at the auditions. That is, of course, the way it should always work, but we all know that it rarely does.

And yet, in scene after scene, things he does and things that are done to him take on imagean additional, racial significance. When he slaps a hysterical woman to calm her down (maybe I should be addressing gender issues here, too), the act seems especially daring because it crosses so many taboos. When an older, cowardly and selfish white man argues loudly and angrily about strategy, we react to him as a bigot, even though there is nothing in the dialog to suggest that he is. I won’t describe the ending, but it takes on additional, probably unintended racial weight.

The very fact that the star’s skin color makes a difference tells us something about the invisibility of whiteness. We’re conditioned to look at a black man as a black man, and a white man as simply a man.

Racial issues aside, Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on the dangers of government research, a look at American society, or simply as one of the scariest horror films of all time. For more on the subject, see Race and Casting in American Movies.

Bit of trivia: Romero’s first professional filmmaking job involved shooting short movies for a local public television children’s show hosted by Fred Rogers. He went on to create a truly terrifying day in the Neighborhood.

Happy Halloween.

Violence as Light Entertainment–The Moral Question

I love a good turn-off-the-brain action movie–one where the hero gets to dispatch multiple bad guys without remorse but with plenty of clever quips. But the older I get, the more I begin to wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with these pictures. Do they teach us that we can solve our problems by killing the right people?

I’m not talking about thrillers, which usually involve a relatively normal person stuck in a dangerous situation and having to find a way out. I’m talking about movies with an exceptional hero, a high body count, and absolutely no moral ambiguity.

Some personal history:

I was a very serious young cinephile in the spring of 1974. I loved Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and The Seventh Seal (I still do). I thought of cinema only as a serious art form in the service of fixing the world. I also loved Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, but I justified these on the grounds that.great comedy was inherently subversive, and thus doing it’s part for making the world a better place.

But action movies? Unless they were black satires, or lessons in the horror of violence, I had no interest in them.

That spring, I attended a special afternoon screening devoted to three-strip Technicolor. It included two features, the second of which was The Adventures of Robin Hood.

That movie was a revelation. I had no idea that a simple action movie, with a silly plot, witty dialog, and beautifully-choreographed but utterly unbelievable fights, could be so much fun. I discovered a whole new purpose for cinema, and I was hooked.

I still consider Adventures of Robin Hood the gold standard for mindless (but not witless) action. Other such movies that I love include the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), The Flame and the Arrow, Die Hard, some of the James Bond movies, and the first and third Indiana Jones movies.

None of these movies are entirely amoral. The villains are unquestionably evil, whether they’re imperialists, usurpers, exploiters of the working class, heartless murderers, and/or Nazis. Not using violence would only result in more innocent deaths.(Actually, I don’t really see usurpers as necessarily evil. The fact that your father was king doesn’t–in my book–make you the right person to rule the country. But the usurpers in these movies are always far worse than the rightful king.) But in real life, things are never that simple. Even Nazis have mothers, wives, and children. Most of the hero’s victims are mere henchmen who, for all we know, were forced into serving evil.

There’s a wonderful shot in The Bridge On the River Kwai. A new recruit has just killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It was, in the context of war, an entirely justified act. But the camera briefly lingers the dead man’s Buddhist prayer beads and a photo of a smiling family. That sort of nuance never shows up in mindless action pictures.

Real conflicts don’t just dirty the hero’s hands–they dirty his (or her) soul. Sometimes, they kill the hero or people very close to him. In Adventures of Robin Hood, with all of its battles, not a single merry man takes a mortal wound. By contrast, Harry Potter is very realistic.

So what do these movies tell us? That violence, when in the cause of good, is trouble-blackswanfree? That killing the right people will solve your problems and not cost you anything except a minor wound and a few hours’ annoyance?

In these movies’ defense, I could argue that they’re so unrealistic that I have a hard time believing that anyone would take them seriously. I’ve shown these movies to my kids when they reached appropriate ages–and with Robin Hood, that was very young. I don’t regret it. And I’m not going to stop watching them. After all, what serious examination of the horrors of violence can match something like this video (which I unfortunately can’t embed).

But I wonder…

Race and Casting in American Movies

Try this exercise:

Start with a large selection of American feature films. They could be your all-time favorites, the ones you own, or AFI’s most recent 100 Best American Films list. Or simply the unsubtitled movies currently in theaters.

Now, remove all of the films where the protagonist–the central character or hero–is portrayed by a white actor (or actress).

That gives you a considerably smaller list. But let’s make it smaller:

Out of that tiny list, remove any titles where the lead role really couldn’t be played by a white person. Perhaps it’s based on a true story–you can’t very well star Brad Pitt in Hotel Rwanda. Or where the story is specifically about race, so that making the character white would have been an entirely different story. In the Heat of the Night would have just been a mystery if it had starred Marlon Brando. Also, remove anything that was made for a predominantly non-white audience, such as Tyler Perry’s work

Got anything left? Okay, remove all films where this non-white protagonist is a cop, criminal, or member of the military.

You may have one movie left–perhaps Night of the Living Dead. But there’s a good chance you won’t have any.

I’m sure you already see what I’m driving at. Hollywood studios and independent distributors have always been shy about casting non-whites in lead roles. They need a reason–and it has to be a good one. In fact, even when the story is about race, studio heads prefer a white protagonist (see The Help; or better yet, don’t see it).

It all comes down to the invisibility of whiteness. Americans see a white doctor, a white scientist, or a white high school student, and we think “doctor,” “scientist,” and “student.” But when we see a black doctor, scientist, or a high school student, we notice skin color. In a movie, an actor’s race inevitably becomes part of their character–unless they happen to be white.

But why is it okay if the protagonist of color is a cop, criminal, or member of the military? I suspect that studio executives believe that Americans can accept non-whites in those particular careers. How often have Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or or Will Smith gotten to play characters who didn’t fit one of these categories? Occasionally, but not often. In I Am Legend (a movie I liked very much), there’s absolutely no reason why Smith’s character, a brilliant scientist and doctor, is also a Lieutenant Colonel. It was just a way to make him more palatable to the perceived audience.

The good news: The trend changed a bit in the last 15 years, especially in children’s films. Family-friendly comedies such as Dr. Dolittle, Spy Kids, and The Game Plan all had non-white leads in stories where race simply wasn’t an issue. None of these are great films (although I liked the first Spy Kids very much), but they broke the racial barriers more than any serious drama I can think of. Perhaps the studios could figure out that the kids who grew up on these movies are now old enough for adult fare, and adjust their casting practices accordingly.

But I doubt it.