Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Vexed In The City

I grew up in New York. As a result, big cities don't intimidate me. There is so much to do, so many things to explore, so much drama on the streets, and so many interesting faces passing by that I am never at a loss for entertainment.

For others, however, big cities can become places of crushing loneliness, intense alienation, and paralyzing fear. This is especially true when one arrives in a city where one is not fluent in the native language and cannot even read basic street signs. A stranger quickly realizes that his mobility may be severely  limited. Like Blanche DuBois, it may become necessary to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Sitting alone in a cafe where it's impossible to eavesdrop on conversations in a foreign language becomes less appealing. Bookstores and magazine stands where everything is printed in a strange alphabet quickly become intimidating.
  • In 1987, when I traveled to Scandinavia, I was assured that everyone spoke English and that I would have no problems communicating. However, upon visiting several small museums in Denmark, I discovered that all of the exhibit descriptions were written in Danish (as were the supertitles for the production of Richard Wagner's 19-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen that I attended in Aarhus).
  • I still remember the moment of panic I felt en route to Legoland when I found myself in a railroad car surrounded by students from the local school for the deaf.
  • Nor could I ever forget the ride from Cairo International Airport to the Cairo Marriott Hotel in early 1989, where the signs above the elevated highway were all in Arabic
  • My culture shock worsened the following morning upon entering the hotel's restaurant for breakfast. I was greeted by several Arab waiters wearing gingham shirts and bolo ties who tentatively inquired if I would like to order fajitas (this occurred during a period when the Marriott hotels in Cairo and Texas were engaged in a cultural exchange program).
  • A week later, I wound up visiting the temple at Abu Simbel on a day when no English tour guides were available. I soon found myself counseling several irate British tourists that there was nothing to be gained by throwing a hissy fit and demanding a refund. Instead, I advised them to follow the nearest group on the guided tour and make the best of the situation.
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Anyone who has actually been to Cairo will get a huge (and, I'm sure, unintended) laugh during Ruba Nadda's otherwise lovely film entitled Cairo Time. There is a scene, toward the end of the movie, when Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig) visit the pyramids at Giza very early in the morning. Not one tacky souvenir stand is anywhere to be seen -- a directorial feat that must have required placing a shitload of baksheesh into the hands of local vendors!
Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig) in Cairo Time
Clarkson's Juliette is the wife of a Canadian diplomat who was supposed to meet her for a long-overdue vacation in Cairo but became embroiled in a tense situation in Gaza. When she arrives at Cairo's airport after a long flight from Toronto, Juliette is met by Tareq, a tall, dark, and handsome Egyptian who used to work for her husband. Mark (Tom McCamus) has frequently told Tareq all about Juliette, his children, and their life back in Canada. If only by reference, Tareq feels like he has been a part of the family.

Battling a deadly combination of jet lag, exhaustion from her demanding job as a magazine editor, and the gnawing awareness that her children no longer need her, Juliette has nothing to do but sit around the hotel and wait until Mark can contact her via a secure phone call. As she starts to explore the area around the hotel, she is overwhelmed by the beauty of downtown Cairo and the Nile. She's also flattered and confused by the streams of hunky young Arab men who keep following and occasionally pinching her.

Poster art for Cairo Time
When Juliette takes Tareq up on his offer to call him if she needs anything, the two slowly embark on building an intimate friendship as they tour Cairo and travel by rail to Alexandria to attend the wedding of a young woman whose mother (Amina Annabi) was Tareq's childhood sweetheart. With Mark remaining stuck in Gaza, Juliette warms to the old-fashioned attention of the handsome Tareq and her extreme visibility as a white woman in a Muslim culture. As one of the film's producers, Daniel Iron, explains:
“This is a quiet love story about a woman at a crucial point in her life. She has a private epiphany and things happen to her that no one will ever know. While they are not overtly life changing, they are fundamentally life changing inwardly and this illuminates the world for her. Juliette finds an inner freedom that perhaps she always had, but being a working mother with kids and a husband who was away a lot, never had the opportunity to explore. This is very different from a 'my husband and I are having problems, so I’m going to have a fling' story. Cairo Time is beautiful and sad at the same time. The emotions are not clear cut, but there is clarity in their ambiguity.”
What makes Cairo Time so appealing is the relative maturity of its principals. There are no temper tantrums, marital spats, slamming doors, or car chases. Instead, this is a film marked by moments of introspection, wistfulness, gentle longing, trust, nuance, and chivalry. No matter how emotionally close Juliette and Tareq may grow in their platonic romance, it comes as no surprise that the minute Mark finally appears, his wife and friend instantly revert to their old patterns of behavior.

What is remarkable -- and most gratifying -- about Nadda's film is the way its two leads bring their characters to life with such seemingly effortless grace. Clarkson, who has always been a phenomenally gifted actress, is neither a delicate flower nor a predatory cougar. She is a mature married woman who is grateful for the kindness and hospitality shown to her by her husband's former employee.

As Tareq, Alexander Siddington is one of the most transfixing male leads to gently dominate the screen since the young Omar Sharif. The original score by Niall Byrne and cinematography by Luc Montpellier neatly cushion this tender platonic romance. Here's the trailer:

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Recently screened during the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film FestivalMan With A Movie Camera offers a mind-blowing glimpse of early 20th century Moscow with an emphasis on moving machinery: streetcars, hydroelectric dams, etc. Footage of people relaxing in parks is mixed with aerial shots and carefully edited to create strange passages in which urban traffic is slowly sped up until viewers almost become dizzy from the motion.

Long before Godfrey Reggio's three visually stunning art film/documentaries were released -- 1982's Koyaanisqatsi ("Life Out of Balance"), 1988's Powaqqatsi ("Life In Transformation), and 2002's Naqoyqatsi, ("Life As War") -- filmmakers were experimenting with a form that would eventually come to be known as cinema verite. Foremost among them was the Russian filmmaker, Dziga Vertov (born in Bialystock, Poland as David Kaufman), who saw film as a means of making artful documentaries using ordinary footage that had been meticulously edited for maximum dramatic impact.

Vertov, who had spent several years making newsreels, was very specific about the kind of musical accompaniment he wanted for his films. All three of Reggio's films boasted musical scores composed by Philip Glass.

In 1995, the Alloy Orchestra was commissioned by Giornate del Cinema Muto (the Pordenone Silent Film Festival) to compose a new score for Man With A Movie Camera based on the filmmaker's musical instructions. Using a new print from the Moscow Art Archive (with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying the screening of Vertov's 1929 classic), the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered audiences a program that was even more stimulating musically than it was visually. Many passages used Philip Glass's technique of repeating musical phrases as the tension builds onscreen.

As thrilling as it was to see Man With A Camera unfold on the giant screen inside the Castro Theatre, the good news is that you can watch the entire film (accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra on the soundtrack) on YouTube. Here's part 1:

For an extra treat, check out this "re-envisioning" of Vertov's film, shot in San Francisco and edited by Michael Lutman: