Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Two Americas

During his run for the Presidency, John Edwards often stressed the difference between "the two Americas." Much of his platform focused on the gaping disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest Americans. In his stump speeches, Edwards often highlighted the indignities caused by the poverty suffered by so many compared to the luxuries enjoyed by the richest of the rich.

While two new films focus on two very different areas of American life, they are tied together by a single word: Manhattan. The states of Kansas and New York each have a Manhattan. But consider the differences between Manhattan, Kansas and the island of Manhattan.
  • Manhattan, Kansas is flat. The other Manhattan is noticeably vertical.
  • Manhattan, Kansas is a small college town. The other Manhattan is an international center of art and commerce.
  • Manhattan, Kansas is often seen as the center of the country -- the so-called "Heartland of America." By contrast, Manhattanites are convinced that their home is the center of the world, if not the universe.
  • Manhattan, Kansas is predominantly white and Christian. The other Manhattan is a huge melting pot, with only 44.1% of the population identified as white.
  • Manhattan, Kansas covers a metropolitan area of 1,888 square miles. The other Manhattan covers only 22.96 square miles.
  • Manhattan Kansas has a metropolitan population of approximately 113,600. The other Manhattan has a population of approximately 1.6 million that speaks nearly 170 languages.
  • Manhattan, Kansas has a metropolitan population density of 60.18 people per square mile. The other Manhattan has a population density of 71,201 people per square mile.
  • Manhattan, Kansas (often referred to as "Eutopia" or "Manhappiness") has taken to calling itself "The Little Apple" as opposed to the other Manhattan, which is known internationally as The Big Apple.
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In 2004, Thomas Frank gained national notoriety with the publication of his book What's The Matter With Kansas? -- How Conservatives Won The Heart Of America. One of the more startling discussions prompted by Frank's book was about why working class people in Kansas consistently seemed to vote for a party that actively worked against their interests.

A new documentary based on Frank's book helps put faces to the people of Kansas, many of whom cling to their guns and Bibles while insisting that the United States was conceived as a Christian nation. This is, after all, a state where any disaster -- whether due to Mother Nature, global economics, changing political tides, or one's own stupidity -- can be rationalized as having been "God's will."

As directed by Joe Winston, What's The Matter With Kansas? does not preach (although it shows many who do). Nor does it bear false witness (although it shows many who do).

Instead, Winston's film simply witnesses what's going on in Kansas and talks with some of the people who reflect the state's culture. The Kansans interviewed range from Angel Dillard (a Republican activist who named her children after Ronald Reagan) to Donn Teske (the President of the Kansas Farmers Union) and an ornery folk sculptor named M. T. Liggett who doesn't hesitate to speak his mind.

Although Kansas may have once been home to the nation's largest socialist newspaper, the state's culture and politics are now dominated by white Christian conservatives. This is the state where the loathsome Fred Phelps heads up the Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka. This is the state where Terry Fox (who, in 2006,was forced to resign from his 6,000-member congregation at Wichita's Immanuel Baptist Church) tried to set up a new church in a theme park named Wild West World.

Not only does Winston visit the Kansas State Fair (where anti-abortion activists offer plastic toy babies as souvenirs to people who visit their booth), he pays his respects to some of Kansas's original liberal thinkers who are buried at the Radical Cemetery. An archivist tells Thomas Frank about Appeal To Reason, a socialist newspaper that, in 1910, had a weekly circulation of 550,000 (after moving to Girard, Kansas, Appeal To Reason published the writings of such progressives and socialists as Mary "Mother" Jones, Helen Keller, and Eugene Victor Debs).

Winston also accompanies the devoutly Christian Barden family as they visit the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Not only does this museum falsely depict man coexisting with dinosaurs, it features a sculpture of a triceratops with a saddle that lets children pretend they are riding a dinosaur.

For a mind-bending adventure in Christian propaganda and misinformation, watch this clip:

What's The Matter With Kansas? (which will soon be screened at the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival) offers stark contrasts between the serene beauty of the Kansas landscape and the ugly hatred fomented by Christians who refuse to accept any kind of wall between the interests of church and state. It's interesting to note that the only black person seen in the film is the cab driver from Sierra Leone who picks up Donn Teske during his visit to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress about farm issues.

As one watches footage from Operation Rescue's 1991 Summer of Mercy in Wichita, Kansas and listens to conservative politicians who are determined to fight abortion and gay rights, it becomes very clear just what's the matter with Kansas. Kansans have been brainwashed by religious opportunists who prey on fear and ignorance. Here's the trailer:

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When one contrasts the narrow-minded Christian perspective that dominates What's The Matter With Kansas? with the sophistication and worldliness of New York, I Love You, one can't help but be impressed by what happens when people live in a diverse population with millions of love stories just waiting to be told. An astonishing collection of beautifully crafted vignettes in which great actors (who have either had long careers or are now box office draws) get to indulge themselves in creating brief but concise character portraits, this is a movie to be savored slowly and often.

The second in a series of films (after Paris, Je T'aime) that producer Emmanuel Benbihy calls his "Cities of Love," this collage of colorful characters caught in surprising moments of emotional and intellectual intimacy will soon be followed by similar films highlighting what love is like in Rio and Shanghai (2010) and Jerusalem and Mumbai (2011).

“This movie is absolutely not an anthology,” insists Benbihy. “The ambition of this format is not to string a bunch of shorts together but, rather, to make a singular feature film experience that just happens to be created by many different directors. We wanted the characters not just to live inside their own stories but to bump into each other, cross paths, and form a community so that, from that diversity, comes a sense of unity. It is similar to other films made by a single director (Crash, Magnolia, Babel, Short Cuts), films with storytelling that audiences have reacted very strongly to -- but the difference is that we have many directors.”

Among the directors who have shaped the vignettes in New York, I Love You are Fatih Akin, Allen Hughes, Mira Nair, Natalie Portman, Brett Ratner, Shunji Iwai, Jiang Wen, and Yvan Attal. When Anthony Minghella (to whom the film is dedicated) passed away following surgery, Shekhar Kapur took over the direction of a haunting, surreal segment in which Julie Christie portrays an aging opera star and Shia LaBeouf appears as a mysterious bellboy with a limp.

Julie Christie and Shia LaBeouf

Benbihy further notes that:
“I didn’t want to go to the usual New York suspects (Spike Lee, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese) because we all already know their way of seeing New York so intimately. Instead, I searched for directors who would view the city in ways yet to be seen. I consciously went to younger, newer directors from all around the world, directors who are edgy in their approach, who are pushing cinematic borders, who might be able to see New York not as it used to be, but as it really is today. Right now.

In some cases, this film was the director’s first taste of filmmaking in New York. For others, it was a chance to revisit the city from a different perspective. The final group is full of diversity, a collection of men and women with very different styles and very different visions of relationships, yet what they each share is an original eye from which to view love, life, and New York.”

The filmmakers were given very specific parameters for their screenplays:
  • Each story had to be visually identified with one or more of New York's neighborhoods.
  • Each story had to involve some kind of broadly defined love encounter.
  • There would be no fades to black at the beginning or end of any segment.
The result was 11 surprisingly intimate and intricate vignettes, each about eight minutes long. Once the screenplays had been completed, a strict set of rules was issued with regard to the actual process of filming:
  • Each director, along with his chosen DP and cast, would shoot for only two days.
  • Then, while a new director and cast would start shooting another segment, the first director would go to the production's editing facility with his (or her) chosen editor for seven days of intense work.
  • The production designer, costume designer, and all below-the-line crew would remain consistent throughout the entirety of the eight-week shoot.
“There just doesn’t exist a structure in filmmaking for making a movie with more than two directors, so it had its own unique process. There had to be really good communication between everyone on this new production format," explains Benbihy. "We shot continuously from day one, without a break, revolving straight through the directors. The organization required for doing this was extremely challenging and very specific.”

While each sequence has its own fascination, I was especially thrilled to see Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta cast as Dante, a "manny" who looks after a young girl during the day and performs at night in a segment directed by Natalie Portman. Another segment, directed by Mira Nair, features Portman as a Hassidic bride-to-be interacting with an Indian diamond salesman (Irrfan Khan) who is a devout Jain.

The segment in which Anton Yelchin takes a wheelchair-bound Olivia Thirlby to his high school prom has a dry wit and a delicious surprise ending. In another vignette, Ethan Hawke goes into a grand riff about his sexual prowess as he tries to seduce a woman who has a truly delectable surprise in store for him. Others in the cast include Bradley Cooper, Drea de Matteo, Rachel Bilson, James Caan, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Robin Wright Penn, Andy Garcia, Hayden Christensen, and Chris Cooper.

Toward the end of New York, I Love You Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach appear in a segment about two elderly Jews going for a walk in Brighton Beach that is so beautifully executed it's hard to believe they're acting. According to that segment's director, Joshua Marston:
“Too often, and mostly for commercial reasons, we're bombarded with movies about kids in their twenties, characters who don't know anything about the world. The older people are, the more life experience they have. I am interested in that, and I’m interested in the habits and dynamics that couples and families form over time. So all those things, plus a memory of my own grandparents, contributed to the creation of this piece.

Working with Cloris and Eli was a complete treat. They had met and worked together in the Actors Studio (depending on which one you ask) 50 or 60 years earlier but hadn't seen each other since. So it was a sort of reunion. At 82, Cloris Leachman is unbelievably alive, with an uncontainable energy. She was completely committed to creating a character, which meant spending time with a Jewish family in Brooklyn, working on an accent, developing a hair style. She truly formed her on-screen character. And Eli was full of a thousand stories about all the great actors and directors he had worked with. At one point, as we were losing light and struggling with our opening master shot, he pulled me aside, wagged a finger at me and said, ‘Let me tell you how Elia Kazan directed...’ That was the best part of the entire experience, getting a lesson on directing from Elia Kazan, transmitted by way of Eli Wallach. When I look at Eli and Cloris on screen I see the embodiment of the characters I imagined when I wrote the script. There is no greater pleasure than that.”
New York, I Love You offers audiences an embarrassment of riches. It contains some wonderful writing and beautiful directing, all of which frame a cornucopia of magical moments crafted by skilled artists at the top of their game. Don't miss it! Here's the trailer:

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