Monday, December 22, 2008

Rattling Their Cages

Most chefs will tell you that the proper way to cook a lobster is not to toss it into a pot of boiling water (which will cause its muscles to tense), but to put it in a pot of cold water, slowly raise the temperature to a simmer, and eventually bring it to a boil.  The slow but steady rise in temperature tends to lull the creature into a sleep-like state so that its muscles relax and do not tighten at the moment of death. Now think, for a minute, of the titles of your favorite daytime soap operas (Days Of Our Lives, As The World TurnsOne Life To Live) and how each title seems to signify the slow drip, drip, drip of time as it vanishes from our lives.

The other night, as I was exiting the Ashby Stage following a production of Macbeth by the Shotgun Players, I was struck by the simplicity of a large piece of art hanging in the hallway. Perhaps 10 feet tall and six feet wide, it was a slate-colored canvas with the word "tomorrow" appearing three times -- once at the top, once in the middle, and once at the bottom of the installation.  The words, of course, refer to Macbeth's final soliloquy in which he states:
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
Some films, though they may follow a narrative arc, often seem to have been structured like continued snapshots of the same scene so that the viewer can examine the breadth of change over an extended period of time.  For better or worse, they help us track the changes taking place in people's lives as time moves on and the environment in which they live is irrevocably altered by circumstances beyond their control.

As the final entry in a series of films about Italian Jews During Fascism, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (with help from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco) recently screened Unfair Competition (Concorrenza Sleale) (2001). In his attempt to show how Jews were affected by Mussolini's Racial Laws (which went into effect 70 years ago on November 17, 1938), filmmaker Ettore Scola concentrated on depicting family life along one block of Rome's Via Ottaviano.  We see streetcars come and go as children head to school, run through the rain, and two neighboring clothing merchants -- one Jewish (Diego Abantantuono) and one Catholic (Sergio Castellitto) -- continue to bicker over who is trying to steal the other's customers, sales techniques, and marketing ideas.

Unfair Competition (Concorrenza Sleale)

Diego Abantantuono and Sergio Castellitto 

As tensions mount and anti-Semitism increases in the neighborhood, the basic mesh of human relationships is torn asunder.  A good-for-nothing family parasite -- who is constantly ridiculed by his Catholic family -- finds a new sense of self-worth upon donning a soldier's uniform (even though his innate clumsiness can't stop him from shooting himself in the foot while trying to clean his gun).  The Catholic merchant's politically conscious brother (Gerard Depardieu) regrets not coming to the aid of a Jewish academic friend who lost his teaching job (and whose dead body was subsequently found under highly suspicious circumstances).  The Jewish merchant's daughter tells her lovesick Catholic boyfriend that they can no longer see each other.  

As Mussolini's bureaucrats continue to tighten their restrictions on Italian Jews (confiscating all radios), we see Jews slowly being stripped of their dignity, shunned by their neighbors, and eventually forced to relocate.  A Jewish watchmaker who believes he can bribe the proper authority so that he can relocate to America leaves the neighborhood convinced of his great, good fortune (only to end up being sent to a labor camp).  

At the center of the film are two young boys who have always played together, done their homework together, built science projects together -- even taken their cod liver oil together -- who discover that,  following the enactment of the Racial Laws, they can no longer attend school together.  Although the film's trailer lacks subtitles, it doesn't take much to figure out what will happen to the Jewish boy.  

The sight of Lele's family huddled in the back of a truck with their piano and other possessions as it disappears from the neighborhood is heartrending, made even more poignant by the confused young Pietruccio (Walter Dragonetti), who stands in the street trying to understand why he will never again see his best friend (Simone Ascani).

In her book, Italian Film In The Shadow of Auschwitz, Millicent Marcus writes:
"Eight years old at the time of the story's events (Scola would have been seven in 1938), Pietruccio is a witness to the persecution of the family of his best friend, Lele Della Rocca, who is Jewish.  Just as important as the voice-over commentary in establishing Pietruccio's role as narrator and focalizer is the final image of Concorrenza sleale -- the spectacle of the boy who stands alone in the street after the eviction of Lele and his family from the neighborhood. As the cart transporting the Della Roccas and all their belongings prepares to leave, there follows a montage of gazes that pairs each member of the exiled family with their counterparts in the family that is entitled to stay. With rigorous symmetry, the camera offers a series of matched closeups, beginning with the exchange of glances between the respective older siblings, then the exchange between the mothers, then between the fathers and, finally, between the two young boys.  As the cart disappears through the gate leading outside the confines of the neighborhood walls, the Della Roccas' expulsion from this haven of italianita into the segregated recess of the ghetto foreshadows the Final Solution for over one thousand of Rome's Jewish population. 
Now, the camera returns to Pietruccio and it remains riveted on the figure of the child for an uncomfortably long time as he stands in solitude, bereft of his bosom buddy, in the deserted street that had been the scene of so much neighborhood life and of the many childhood games that had made of the Pietruccio-Lele friendship a true Utopia. In filming this final sequence, Scola made the strategic decision not to conclude with a freeze-frame of the young boy, but instead to let the camera remain running while the child actor stood awkwardly awaiting a nod and a smile from the director to signal that the scene was over and he could leave the set. Since Scola did not give such a signal, the boy simply stood still in puzzled expectation for the several minutes that the camera continued to roll, creating the sense of considerable disquiet on which the film necessarily ends."

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A more light-hearted approach to futility can be found in Come In and Burn Out, which will be shown at the Castro Theater on January 19 as part of the 2009 Berlin & Beyond Festival. Set in a call center in Cologne (which is being threatened by competition from rival businesses in Poland), Andre Erkau's gentle comedy is based on his personal experiences as a telemarketer. 

As  foreign competition ratchets up the pressure to increase revenue, the operators keep trying to meet their sales goals for marketing DSL packages.  Some of their customers don't have computers, others don't want to be bothered with their phone calls. 

Their team leader, Richard Harms (August Zimer), is so desperately trying to keep his job that he is oblivious to his wife's boredom and frustration at home.  When they invite another couple over for dinner, all he can talk about is sales, sales, sales.  When their guest (whose wife is about to give birth) offers Mrs. Harms a job as a replacement receptionist at his dance studio, Harms is consumed with jealous suspicion.

Marie (Antje Widdra) uses her telemarketing job as a stop-gap measure to bring in some income while she tries to find work as a professional architect.  Another female operator has such low self-esteem that she is convinced she will be the first to be canned. 

Although he may be the firm's top salesman, Adrian Becher (the handsome and utterly charming Johannes Allmayer) is so painfully shy that he can barely muster the courage to speak to a woman. Following his mother's death, he has been living at home with his father and has no social life of his own.  

Meanwhile, the gregarious Sascha (Maximilian Bruckner), who is soon to become a  father, would like to believe that he is only doing telemarketing to supplement his work at a local television studio where, as a glorified errand boy and audience warmer, he dreams of a future in show business. 

Erkau's film captures the bleakness of life in a cube farm where people have scripts to follow but little to say about their personal lives.  As sales goals get pushed higher and higher, the pressure starts to take a toll on the workers.  One by one, they begin to act out and their relationships suffer.  

Come In and Burn Out often feels like an extended episode of The Office  (except for the moment when Harms walks into a storeroom and sees Sascha's naked ass pumping away at Marie as the two telemarketers share a quick fuck during a momentary break from the phone lines).  Tasty buns!

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Opening January 2 at the Roxie Film Center is a fascinating documentary written and directed by Luc Schaedler that should be of strong interest to many in the Bay area. Angry Monk: Reflections On Tibet is part historical meditation on the life and times of Gendun Choephel mixed with a hefty amount of travelogue footage about modern day Tibet and India.  Schaedler's charming documentary includes a great deal of historical footage showing scenes from Tibet and India in the early 20th century.

Born in 1903, Gendun Choephel was a bit of an overachiever.  Having developed quite a reputation for his skills at debating other monks, he became a fierce critic of traditional monastic curricula. He had a fondness for making mechanical toys (especially boats) from spare watch parts and, after being expelled from the monastery at Labrang in 1927, traveled to Lhasa  where he began to develop his skills as a portrait painter.

Unlike most Tibetan monks, Choephel traveled extensively, visiting Ceylon and India.  His travel journal, The Golden Surface, may well have been his greatest literary achievement.  His erotic manual (translated into English as Tibetan Arts Of Love: Sex, Orgasm and Spiritual Healings) was based on his many sexual encounters. A man who enjoyed earthly delights (drinking, sex, etc.,) he was quick to recognize the folly of those who couldn't wait to bathe in the supposedly holy waters of the Ganges despite the knowledge that it was filled with the waste products of men and animals.

Claiming that "I am an astute beggar, who spent his life listening," Choephel went on to write White Annals, the first political history of Tibet and translate the Kama Sutra for Tibetans. As late as 1938 he was still trying to prove to his isolated countrymen that the world was not flat.

Imprisoned in 1946, Choephel was released three years later.  After seeing Communist Chinese forces arrive in Lhasa in 1951, he is reputed to have said "Now, we're fucked!"  His death in 1951 was probably due in large part to alcoholism.  

Schaedler's documentary features interviews with Choephel's widow, some of his remaining friends, as well as Tibetan and Indian scholars who are familiar with his writings. Beautifully shot and chock full of rare historical footage, Angry Monk is well worth your time. Here's the trailer:

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