If you want a good seat for a day's worth of screenings at Ebertfest, you choose breakfast or sleep. Thursday of Ebertfest presents another temptation, as attending the morning panel can sabotage your chance of getting a good seat, since by the time the panel's over, the line at the Virginia Theatre will be stretched around the block. This year I chose good seats over all else, so the panels went by the wayside, and I spent the mornings growing a sunburn in the direct morning sunlight, trying vainly to read a little, making some conversation, staring at the Green Party activists as they asked, again and again, if I was a registered voter in this district. Something new: a petition was being passed down the line asking for reserved seating at next year's festival. I didn't sign it (although by the end of the festival, after so much line-bred misery, I was having second thoughts). My thinking was that I would hate to be stuck with bad seats for the entire festival just because I couldn't get online to buy the tickets fast enough, and I'd always want the freedom to move where I pleased. And besides, who wants to be a snob like those V.I.P.s? We of the morning line would lose all our tough cred (and don't forget our average age is 68).
Man Push Cart (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Ramin Bahrani
It might be uncool to compare Man Push Cart to The Bicycle Thief, since the latter film has fallen somewhat in stature over the years. But both are neorealist portraits of men in precarious states of survival, completely dependent on a set of wheels to support themselves--a bike, or in this case, a push-cart for selling bagels and coffee. Both are barely keeping their heads above water, and to watch either film is to become immersed in the protagonist's anxiety. Ahmad Razvi plays a Pakistani street vendor who is making payments against his push-cart, and each day tugs it uphill through the streets of New York City like, as Bahrani pointed out in the Q&A, Sisyphus, who in Greek myth was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity; each time he reaches the summit, it falls back to the bottom. Razvi's vendor has just taken a fall, for in Pakistan the vendor was a rock star, but he came to America, his wife died, his in-laws took custody of his son, he lost his money, and now he's reduced to rolling out the cart each morning and making small talk and food for businessfolk who make a more comfortable living. One of them, another Pakistani, offers him work renovating his posh apartment. Then he recognizes him--"I think I even have one of your albums somewhere!"--and Razvi seems to be hiding his anguish. But the man can help him. He has contacts. He can maybe even get him a place to perform. All he has to do is schmooze at some clubs, take a simple job there, get to know people in important places. All of this Razvi doesn't seem to want to do. He's humiliated by the state to which he's been reduced; he's been helpless for so long, he can't stand to help himself, even when he has the potential to form a connection with the pretty Spanish girl in the newsstand down the street.
Man Push Cart is a film of details. Bahrani follows Razvi through each morning's routine, and we see the process of taking the cart out of a storage locker, dragging it uphill through tight traffic, prepare the food. Some small hints of a past emerge, like the small triceratops sticker on the wall that he scrubs with soapy water. Eventually we see a flashback, but it's brief and uncertain; the only details that don't emerge fully in this film are those from the character's past, and that's as it should be. Like Razvi, we are constantly fixed on the present. There's no time for the past when you worry over how you're going to make it to the next day.
As Bahrani points out in the Q&A, Albert Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus" treated the Greek tragic figure as an everyman hero; "Sisyphus is happy," Camus concluded. When I read that in high school, in stuck with me for years. Will that be my lot in life, to tire over pointless goals until I've exhausted myself to death? Now that I've entered the workforce, it's appropriate to be reminded of the existentialist's essay. Bahrani also named Lodge Kerrigan as an influence; Kerrigan was in the audience, to present Claire Dolan, the story of a New York prostitute, a few days later, and the similarity in the gritty approaches of both directors quickly becomes obvious. Both films are about people who resort to low professions to pay a debt and hopefully raise their status, while the audience can only suspect the pursuit is futile. The pimp of Claire Dolan threatens to never let her go, even though she only owes him a limited amount to pay for her late mother's care; the street vendor of Man Push Cart expects to stop treading water when he can finally own his push-cart, but the man he's paying is just as untrustworthy--a simple event can become a great tragedy for someone in his fragile position. The existential philosophy is prominent in Man Push Cart's final half-hour, as the vendor's shame threatens to become self-sabotage, and he practically pushes the boulder back down the hill all on his own. Claire Dolan, at least, ends with a greater note of optimism.
Bahrani shot the film guerrilla-style in the streets of Manhattan, and at least one of the actors isn't up to snuff, but Ahmad Razvi, an amateur (shades of Italian neorealism), is spectacular, and Bahrani, a self-avowed film "nerd," shows complete confidence with his camera. It's a good film, and I suspect his next one, which he is shooting now in Chicago, will be even better.
Duane Hopwood (U.S., 2005) * *
D: Matt Mulhern
Sometimes you wish you'd only just read the three-and-a-half-star review and left it at that. Sometimes you wish you hadn't let yourself down by actually watching the film, which, it turns out, is not nearly as good as the one Ebert planted in your brain. The film is a portrait of a drunk; sounds good so far. David Schwimmer is the title character, his wife is played by Janeane Garofalo, and together they seem like a cute couple, making faces with their kids, while the opening credits roll and a pop song plays. This will be the first pop song montage of about 632 that will occur in the course of the film, so strap yourself in. At the end of the credits, Duane is pulled over for drunken driving by a cop who's also an acquaintance, and he's about to be let off the hook until the cop sees Duane's daughter in the back seat. He loses his wife. He accepts a roommate, a co-worker in a New Jersey casino who isn't all that funny, but wants to be a stand-up comic. He has two shy, gay neighbors, played by Dick Cavett and Bill Buell, who should really have a movie of their own, or at least twice as many scenes. But so far so good. The problem is that nothing is all that well-written or well-acted; there's an early scene in which Janeane Garofalo has to reach dramatic heights that she's never before had to scale as an actress, and she doesn't quite scale them here, either. (She gets better as the film goes on.) You never forget that she's Janeane Garofalo, taking a break from her Air America gig, and she's probably just holding back laughter while thinking about something funny Sam Seder or Ben Stiller did once. She's just Janeane. And David Schwimmer is okay, but that's it; I still want to hand him a Kleenex whenever he talks, or ask him to close his mouth please. Hey, there are plenty of films I love with stars who never quite get me to forget that they're stars. That's okay. It's just that nothing here rises above mediocrity, better performances would have helped (for the record, Cavett is great).
A film with such a simple plot--a drunk watches his life fall apart--needs some really powerful scenes. Scenes that last more than two minutes. Scenes in which the dialogue isn't muted by a pop song. There are two scenes here upon which Duane Hopwood pivots: the confrontation between Garofalo and Schwimmer on a pier early on--which falls apart when Garofalo falters--and an A.A. scene in which Schwimmer finally breaks down. The problem is that he only recaps the entire plot and motivation in dialogue, then storms out of the A.A. meeting. ("Will you come back?" "Yeah, sure." Awww...hope!) But just try to tell director Matt Mulhern the scene's weak. In a post-film Q&A that bordered on parody, Mulhern explained how Schwimmer did one take of the scene, and Mulhern was so impressed that he refused to shoot more. Apparently Schwimmer offered to do another take, but Mulhern wouldn't have it. Wouldn't you know it--the dailies (or, I should say, "daily") proved the scene to be out of focus. But would Mulhern reshoot? No way! Instead he spent months and thousands of dollars digitally touching up the scene so that it would appear just slightly less out of focus. Surprisingly, going to all this work and spending all this money just because Mulhern refused to let Schwimmer do a second take upset some important people involved with the film. Mulhern isn't apologetic. You know why? He's a maverick. He's a wild card. That's the path taken by genius. Oh, and the ending? "It's earned!" Mulhern declared. Because why wait for a critic to tell you that the ending of your movie is earned? He sounded a trifle defensive. (At this moment I'm failing to kill the snark; sorry. But this was the low point of the festival, and I'm glad it came early.)
Spartan (U.S., 2004) * * * 1/2
D: David Mamet
Oh, but Spartan I love. I saw this the night it opened in Madison, and my wife and I must have been the only people in the theater. Scratch that--David Bordwell, Madison professor and author, said he was the only person in the theater opening night in Madison, so it must have been just the three of us, completely oblivious to each other.
Spartan is both typical and atypical Mamet. Typical, in that it's obsessed with head-games, twists, and forcing you to reevaluate what you've seen--although never in the extreme manner of his earlier films. Atypical in that it's a thriller with a budget, and it looks like a thriller with a budget. Val Kilmer stars, and that's my theory as to why it sank at the box office (a big topic in the Q&A); Kilmer hadn't taken top billing in a good movie since--well, Michael Apted's Thunderheart, and that was 1992. (He's had better luck as a character actor in supporting roles.) Kilmer plays a Special Ops agent given the mission of finding the President's missing daughter, a college student; she may or may not have been having an affair with her professor, who may or may not have anything to do with her disappearance--same goes with her boyfriend, or the prostitution ring that may or may not be involved. The joy of watching Spartan is that it never stops to give exposition; you simply hang on and ride with it. Much like in the opening scene, where Kilmer is putting young recruits through a brutal training rite; never mind if you're losing your breath, son, you better keep running if you ever hope to catch her. The plot doesn't turn out to be that complicated, by the time you reach the end. It's just that Mamet doesn't take the quickest route between two points; instead, he draws a maze, and explores every corner. A nice example of Mamet's use of distraction is the protracted preparation for a massive raid on a safehouse in Dubai. At the last second, it's called off, for reasons I won't reveal. You start to wonder just what the last ten minutes of set-up were for. Well, there was some genuine set-up there, it's just that what Mamet never tells you what he's setting up. You enjoy this kind of thing if you enjoy an author who likes to toy with formula and plot structure, so although none of the scheduled guests appeared for Spartan's presentation, it was appropriate that David Bordwell, who's written extensively on plot mechanics, should take the stage to discuss the film's twists. Although I overheard him say the next day, "Honestly, I don't know why Mamet made that film. He's really into machismo right now," and right before Spartan began he let off, "I just hope they don't ask me what that movie's about!"