A hateful white cop mumbles words of affection to a black woman he barely knows. Enraged mobs lynch and burn black folk in historic old Manhattan. A tale of uncommon desires and gender roles — featuring some of Hollywood’s best actors — unfolds so matter-of-factly as to seem like the air we breathe.
Something, people, is going seriously awry. In fact, the last 12 months or so at the movies have been downright eye-opening. The celluloid dream factory (surprising in the wake of 2001’s national trauma and mass paranoia) has been speaking the perennially unspoken, examining the real but repressed other, as never before.
It all began last year at this time with Monster’s Ball, director Marc Forster’s excruciating triple-dip into the racist anguish we live with daily in America. Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a guard assigned to death row in a Southern penitentiary, a man so consumed by rage and prejudice that bad karma follows him around like a cloud of flies. By the time we’ve watched him drag through the grimy first hour of this film, we’re wondering if anything good can possibly come of all this alienation. But when Hank meets Leticia (Halle Berry in her historic, Oscar-winning role), the impossible occurs. This woman — whose man Hank helped execute — finds solace in the arms of our hopelessly racist turnkey.
In a way, it’s a stretch to believe such things can ever happen. Though what surprises us, stuck as this culture is in the common (non)sense of race mythology, is not just seeing crossover attraction on the screen, but the intensity of these human casualties’ growing love for one another. That and the intense fucking that they engage in. At first, Leticia and Hank get down as if possessed, with Forster’s treatment of these scenes leaving little to the imagination. But then Hank begins to demonstrate a true selflessness, making gestures of compassion big and small that show how far he has come from who he once was.
Monster’s Ball turns this unlikely encounter into a signal to all of us — about what it will take, what we’ll have to jettison and what we’ll have to embrace, before we can love each other like humans, not “blacks” and “whites.” And the film’s ultimate message concerns everyday relations, not just erotic ones.
There’s a similar yearning in Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’ homage to the look and feel of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas (particularly 1959’s Imitation of Life) in which we get an eerie flashback to America under apartheid. But desire this time gets trapped in that straitjacket of manners and taboos known as the Eisenhower years. Though there’s barely more than the threat of violence in Far from Heaven, its race-crossed wishful lovers, Cathy and Raymond (played brilliantly by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert), are tragic figures in a banally segregationist Connecticut, a place that would have fascinated Kafka with its just-below-the-surface nightmare of constraint.
As we watch ’50s racism in 2003, a strange mixture of awe and embarrassment fills the theater. When a well-dressed white man on the street yells at Raymond to back away from Cathy, calling him “boy” and staring him down until the black man complies, we see how little such distinctions as “liberal North” and “segregationist South” really meant at the time. And we understand how little it matters that Cathy and Raymond seem eminently suited to each other, because no one can imagine them working this “little problem” out.
Sirk had a way with tragic melodrama and made all the parts of his productions — from screenplay to acting to cinematography — fit together like a shiny Buick from Hollywood that took us on a ride through fields of impossibility. Haynes’ similar attention to all the details — right down to matching the colors of women’s dresses to those of the autumn New England landscape — re-creates a world in which everything has its place and the rules are never broken … or else.
Sandwiched between the release dates of Monster’s Ball and Far from Heaven were scores of movies with the sole purpose of making us forget … about reality, poverty, eco-devastation, the threat of war … anything we don’t want to think about. Sure, it’s healthy to laugh and dream, but it’s also vital to look the hard truth in the face. And right on the heels of Haynes’ sad look backward at the all-too-recent past came Martin Scorsese’s bloody visit to mid-19th century America, Gangs of New York.
Now, is it a coincidence that our best directors keep pushing our noses into the manure of our own making? And is it a surprise that, like Scorsese, they sometimes have to lure us in with a hearty spectacle or two? If, instead of promising a kick-ass tale of revenge starring heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and joint-throb Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York had been billed as “a grim look at racist violence in Civil War-era Manhattan,” do we really think our fellow Americans would have been eager to see it (the film, as of this writing, having grossed more than $65 million)? Yeah, right.
Gangs is one of a very few productions in anyone’s memory to take up the issue of American terrorism (whether spontaneous or state-sponsored) against blacks in the post-slavery period. The last time a film portrayed racist lynching and hysteria at this fever pitch was John Singleton’s devastating Rosewood (1996, starring Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Jon Voight). In fact, some sequences of that movie were so graphic as to be almost unwatchable. Singleton’s only mistake was to make Rhames’ character into an action-superhero, thus deflating the story’s impact. But maybe the director thought the sight of what really happened in Florida in 1923 would be more than anyone could bear.
We probably won’t be seeing the film version of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., white riot (in which a whole black community was razed and its inhabitants slaughtered) anytime soon. But what we can peruse, like a sobering letter from a long-lost friend, is Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. In this re-creation of World War II Warsaw, from the 1939 Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto to the city’s liberation by Russian forces in 1944, Polanski puts us in the shoes of a Jewish classical pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who struggles to survive the events unfolding around him.
But Polanski’s adaptation of Szpilman’s memoir has a foot in another reality, the director’s own harrowing wartime experiences as the son of Polish Jews in Krakow. And it gives us a primal key to understanding Polanski’s career-long fascination with horror, psychosis, confinement and deception. In such brilliant, truly unsettling films as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant and The Ninth Gate, this artist who has been an outsider wherever he tried to put down roots (Poland, France and the United States) has made the uncovering of the bitter truth a constant plot device: What lurks behind that door or behind that unconvincing smile? What do the neighbors think? Why can’t we ever go outside? And what is life as others live it really like? The Pianist gives us a realist’s response to questions that have, until now, remained purely fictional.
Yet Polanski also does something insidious — he causes us to identify with a completely apolitical man, a fragile soul teetering at the brink of death, and has us share vicariously in his torment and isolation. Szpilman hides and we hide. He waits and we wait. He speaks timidly and we want to cry out in sympathy. And because Polanski has made the Poles (Jews and non-Jews alike) in his film speak English, while the Germans and Russians speak their own languages, American viewers get hooked in on a subliminal level. There’s almost no resisting this stark, desperate retelling of the Holocaust from an unexpected point of view. For two and a half hours (and perhaps for years to come) we know what the other has felt.
As our movie marathon winds down to the time at hand, we notice a film that focuses on the present tense, The Hours. Not the years and the months, but the smaller units of existence, the specific moments we remember. Lips touching a cheek, a glowing afternoon with someone no longer here, the lives of three women that intertwine by means of the written word — Stephen Daldry has directed an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel that retains all of its temporal and emotional complexity. In this recounting of English novelist Virginia Woolf’s inner turmoil and writerly obsessions, the characters are involved in a series of love relationships that just about cover all the bases: hetero, homo, bi, conjugal, maternal, sisterly, etc.
Anchored by superb performances from Nicole Kidman (as Woolf), Julianne Moore (great again as Laura) and Meryl Streep (as Clarissa, whose life partner, Sally, is played by Allison Janney) — as well as Ed Harris (as Richard, a poet dying from AIDS) and Jeff Daniels (as Richard’s former lover) — The Hours manages to avoid Hollywood stereotypes or self-consciousness about untraditional liaisons and gender. It’s one of those rare moments when the big screen has given us desire without patriarchal strings or moralizing attached.
Once, as teenagers, Clarissa and Richard were in love. Now all they have are their memories and caring for one another, especially Clarissa’s nursing of his illness. And before it all, in the background, in the past, is Woolf in her study, writing the lines that will encompass and inspire these Americans of today.
It’s one of the most beautiful, most intelligent films to come along in quite some time — and it’s part of an important new breed of honest, eyes-wide-open filmmaking. Dare we call it a New American Cinema?George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com