Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

The "power of one" is often unavoidable. The numeral one, after all, is the first integer. One is also the term used to designate a person's singularity. Popular slogans such as "One person, one vote" and "One for all and all for one" have become a part of our political landscape.

We often speak of "one shining moment," "one giant step," "winning one for the Gipper," or "one for the record books." However, when things come down to an extremely personal level, the concept of "one" can go in various directions. During his run for the White House (as well as since becoming President of the United States), Barack Obama has cynically been referred to as "The One." In the following video, Harry Nilsson's song, "One," gets the Claymation treatment:

The big finale in Michael Bennett's 1975 show, A Chorus Line, is also entitled "One." In this number, all of the dancers who were chosen during auditions get to appear as anonymous members of a chorus line worshipping the "one" who is that special star.  The following clip, taken from a 1980 television special entitled "Baryshnikov on Broadway," gives Bennett's number the full-blown treatment it deserves, allowing audiences to examine its brilliance from both sides of the footlights.

Sometimes, however, being an individual is not about glamour or loneliness. Sometimes it's about the people who manage to stay under the radar. Whether they need to remain invisible (due to their participation in a witness protection program), prefer not to draw attention to themselves, or are easily overlooked, many of these people provide plenty of source material for writers and filmmakers.

Sometimes self-inflicted loneliness is due to brains rather than brawn. Over the years I've met many people whose intelligence has frightened people much more than it has horses.  Their lack of good looks has insured that they will go unnoticed by the "A" crowd.

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1972, I went on a diet and lost nearly 60 pounds.  One of my roommates confided that he no longer felt afraid to be seen standing next to me (he's now a blowsy drag queen in San Antonio, Texas).  The man I followed out to California snarled "If I'm nervous around you in company, it's because I never know what you're going to say."

Several years later, I wrote a piece for The Advocate about my experience of losing weight and joining a gay gym.  Entitled "In Search of Designer Tits," the article mentioned how fat people are often invisible in gay society (this was before the bear revolution). I also recalled what a shock it had been, once I looked more "acceptable," to realize that people were actually cruising me

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Over the years I've found solace in books like Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto (by Anneli Rufus) and Cruise To Win (by Lenny Giteck). On occasion, I've wondered what kind of movie could be made about a curmudgeonly romantic.

The answer to that question can be found in The Hedgehog, a poignant film adaptation of Muriel Barbery's 2006 novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The action mostly takes place in a Parisian building that houses eight luxury apartments on one of the most elegant streets in the Left Bank. Most of the buildings inhabitants are upper class families with fairly superficial interests.

The Josse family is headed by Paul (Wladimir Yordanoff), a retired politician/bureaucrat whose wife (Anne Brochet) has been on anti-anxiety medications while going to therapy for the past 10 years. Their two daughters are Colombe (Sarah Le Picard), who resents her younger sibling and prefers to dote on her goldfish, and the precocious, 11-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic).

Poster art for The Hedgehog

Paloma, to put it mildly, is a piece of work. Intelligent, articulate, and artistically gifted, she thinks the adults in her life are vain fools. She has no friends and rarely condescends to speak with her family.

Instead, Paloma spends most of her time filming the goings on in her apartment building for her video diary and making pencil drawings (which evolve into animation sequences in the film). Her disgust with what the future might bring has caused Paloma to set June 16th (her 12th birthday) as the most logical date to commit suicide. While she has considered jumping from her bedroom window, she has also been hoarding and crushing her mother's anxiolytic pills.

Garance Le Guillermic as the precocious and suicidal Paloma

With the intense curiosity of an 11-year-old, Paloma has also let her sister's goldfish swallow one of her mother's pills.  The pet's resulting trip to "toilet heaven" becomes an important turning point later in the film.

Another target of Paloma's curiosity is the building's rather odd janitor, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko).  A frumpy old widow who has worked in the same job for 27 years, Renée does her job well but lacks basic social skills. Nor does she have much patience with the building's rich tenants.
Renée (Josiane Balasko) digs into a copy of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Instead, she prefers to hide in a room filled with books and listen to music in a place where she can read Tolstoy to her big, fat cat (appropriately named Leo). Although she must occasionally prevent one of the local homeless people, Jean-Pierre (Jean-Luc Porraz), from hurting himself, Renée prefers to keep to herself.

Now 54, Renée's take on life is that "to be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age." Her situation changes, however, when a rich, elderly Japanese widower named Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) moves into the building.

As he is being introduced to Renée by one of the tenants, Ozu quickly catches her use of a phrase from Anna Karenina. When Kakuro invites her to dinner, Renée is as horrified by the thought of having to dress up as she is by the realization that accepting his invitation would force her to cross a distinct class barrier between the building's wealthy tenants and its poor janitor.

Togo Igawa as Kakuro Ozu

Every now and then, the press notes for a film reveal an unexpected gem. I particularly liked the response given by Izawa (who primarily works in Britain) to an interviewer who asked what it was like for him to work with French people.
"Eating a full meal with good wine, served on a nice tablecloth, without ever having to wait in line! On an English shoot, you are always served chili con carne or spaghetti that are way past the al dente cooking time, and with over-cooked vegetables. Once the cook has finished filling your plate, he yells: 'Next!' If we were served meals like yours in the UK, we wouldn't call that a canteen… The five day working week was also a remarkable difference for an old man like me!"
The Hedgehog is very much a character-driven piece, with some touching help from Ariane Ascaride as the building's maid, Manuela. It is the kind of film in which a respect shown for intelligence and a passion for learning stand out in sharp contrast to the selfishness of Paloma's older sister, who thinks nothing of awakening Renée early in the morning with a personal complaint.

Lovingly directed by Mona Achache, The Hedgehog is a perfect film for people who like to read, listen to classical music, and fill their lives with the cultural riches of film, theatre, art, and opera. It's also a natural for cat lovers.

Some reviewers have been quick to compare The Hedgehog to 1971's Harold and Maude, but I think that comparison is severely misguided. Harold and Maude was all about impulsiveness and spontaneity. The Hedgehog is very much about intelligence and deliberation.

Unlike so many heavily amplified action adventure films, Gabriel Yared's delightfully tender score leans more toward solo passages for cello. Here's the trailer:

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Sometimes a person's intelligence can make him too smart for his own good. Think of people like Michael Milliken, Bernard Madoff, and Adolf Eichmann. Each of these men used his formidable brainpower to accomplish impressive, if ethically questionable goals. Only one achieved any kind of measurable rehabilitation.

Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi official who devised and supervised the deportation of Jews from their European ghettos and their transport (via railroad boxcars) to the concentration camps where they were killed. Although he could boast of making the trains run on time, the results of Eichmann's clinical efficiency were nothing to brag about.

Following World War II, when Eichmann was discovered to be living in Buenos Aires, the story of his capture, kidnapping, and transport to Israel (where he stood trial for his war crimes) read like a suspense thriller. Recently screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film FestivalRaymond Ley's television documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death, focuses on the events that led up to the kidnapping which were quickly overshadowed by the huge amount of publicity that accompanied Eichmann's trial. The story also served as the inspiration for the stage and screen versions of Robert Shaw's 1967 novel, The Man in the Glass Booth.

Herbert Knaup as Adolf Eichmann

Like some other Nazis, Eichmann fled to Argentina after World War II. Having lived under a series of assumed names (including Ricardo Klement), he often socialized with former Nazis who were more than happy to keep in touch. After being approached by Willem Sassen (a Dutch journalist who was a former member of the SS), Eichmann agreed to agreed to sit for more than 50 sessions of interviews.

Although he had kept himself hidden in plain sight, the chance to open up to a seemingly trusting journalist gave the former Nazi an opportunity to justify his actions as part of Hitler's regime. The transcripts of those tapes showed Eichmann's insistence that he was merely a cog in the Nazi machine who was following orders and trying to meet the goals that had been set out for him.

In 1956, Eichmann's son, Klaus, fell in love with a pretty young schoolmate named Silvia, whose father (Lothar Hermann) had been imprisoned at Dachau. Although nearly blind, when Hermann's daughter introduced him to her new boyfriend, Hermann suspected the young man might be anti-Semitic.

After contacting the German State Attorney General, Fritz Bauer, Hermann's efforts were stymied by an Israeli Mossad agent who refused to believe that a blind man could have tracked down one of the world's most notorious war criminals.  As a result, Hermann had to use his daughter to verify Eichmann's identity (after the kidnapping Silvia was sent to live in the United States).

Cornelia Kempers and Herbert Knaup as Vera and Adolf Eichmann

Ley's style of fictional documentary is most effective, mixing interviews with people who knew Hermann and his family with reenactments of events in Germany and Buenos Aires that led to Eichmann's capture. During the narrative scenes, he gets strong performances from Herbert Knaup as Eichmann, Ulrich Tukur as Willem Sassen, Judith Engel as Miep Sassen, Axel Milberg as Fritz Bauer, and Michael Hanemann as Lothar Hermann. Henriette Confurius (Silvia) and Johannes Klaußner (Nick) have strong appeal as the young lovers. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

jasustar said...

Excellent argument. The videos you include clearly illustrate that a mix of newsreel and reenactment is more effective than wading through hours of proceedings. Thanks for this. (I don't know how I managed to join whatever I joined to leave a comment, but you would have many more if it were more straightforward! :-)