Friday, March 24, 2006

TO DO IN LOS ANGELES 2006 Silverlake Film Festival

Taking place this week (March 23-31) the Silverlake Film Festival will be presenting over 200 films, 85 of which are premieres. A selection of independent film and video, the festival showcases films that might otherwise not be seen, especially on the big screen. Series within this year's festival will focus on third world cinema, new medias, films promoting social change, and a tribute to notorious Hollywood legend, Fatty Arbuckle. The films will be shown at LACE, the ArcLight, the Vista, and several other venues on the Eastside, making this a communitywide event and special programs and panels will include local and nationally recognized filmmakers, actors, activists, and politicans.

Information on times, locations and special events at the website of the 2006 Silverlake Film Festival

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Season of the Biblical Epic

Several Easters ago, there was a Jesus-Christo-a-thon on TV wherein they showed only biblical epics for 24 hours. Of course, I was there...proving to all that I had no life, but in my constant search for meaning-through-kitsch it was essential that I experience this cultural moment. Of course, among many other things, I and my partner in societal scrutiny noticed a trend in the casting of Pontius Pilate in the New Testament films. Whether it was in the older Biblical Epics (we'll call them B.E.s for short) or even the more recent examples, there seems always to be a bizarre tendency to portray P. Pilate as a femmy Brit! In the 1961 Nicholas Ray classic King of Kings, P. Pilate is played by the fey Hurd Hatfield (of Dorian Grey fame), in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ he is played by David Bowie, even in Monty Python's Life of Brian, Michael Palin camps him up as being just a bit of a nancy. He has a lisp and everything. In all, I noted only one example where this was not the case. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, starring Max Von Sydow in a stylish array of robes in Calvin Klein hues, Pilate is played by Telly Savalas, which as you can imagine is completely unbelievable as he is altogether too butch for the role. I didn't believe him for a minute.

This Easter we are planning to do the whole thing again, an activity I highly recommend to you. We shall dye Easter eggs, eat See’s Chocolate Bunnies, and take in the cheesy glory that is the B.E. You can test out our theory and watch the films of the New Testament or if you’re really keen, enjoy a Passover/Easter Combo. Kick off the weekend with the C.B. De Mille Old Testament extravaganza, The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses, with Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Yvonne de Carlo, Debra Paget, and many, many others. Follow up with a Victor Mature film or two, Samson and Delilah or The Robe, and experience the paramount achievements of early 1960s cinema with King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. The experience will change your life and improve you as a person, I guarantee it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


“Why are you running away? You came to have fun. Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me."

I Am Cuba was made in 1964 as a propaganda film by the Soviet government. Coauthored by Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet and directed by Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, I am Cuba explores European and American influences on Cuba during the pre-revolutionary period and chronicles the events leading up to the revolution itself. The first segment looks at Cuba under Batista and portrays it as a playground for Americans whose presence encourages the exploitation of women. The second segment tells the story of an elderly man living in poverty because the land on which he grows his sugar cane is sold to the United Fruit Company, an American agricultural corporation and the third segment follows a group of university students who plot against the Batista regime, but are caught and become martyrs to the revolution. In the final segment, a peasant joins the revolution after being driven from his home by Batista’s bombs. He goes to a rebel camp in the Sierra Maestra and joins Castro's troops to fight for the revolution.

The film begins with aerial shots of the Cuban landscape. Starting at the coast, the camera moves inland and a woman’s voice recounts the history of the Spanish conquest of Cuba beginning with Christopher Columbus’ visit to the island. Cuba is depicted as a country of great natural beauty that is colonized for the wealth that it can bring to the Spanish colonizers. After this brief introduction the film cuts to pre-revolutionary Cuba under Batista and looks at the long term consequences of colonial influence on Cuban culture.

In one of the most arresting scenes in the film, Kalatozov presents one of the main themes of the film: American domination through intimidation and the corrupting influence of American culture. The scene begins with the interior of a lavish nightclub decorated in a jumble of early 1960s Tropical style, Easter Island heads, and Africana. The camera examines a group of beautiful women who sit at the bar listening to a singer reminiscent of Otis Redding perform a nonsensical love song. As the camera moves away from the women, a group of American men sit discussing which of the women they want, claiming them proprietarily. A young woman, Maria, enters the nightclub and is taken to one of the men. She dances with him and, in a metaphor for American aggression, is dragged around the floor, repeatedly pushed into the arms of the other men. As the music becomes more rhythmic she moves involuntarily and the camera mimics her confusion by moving wildly among the sticks of cane that hang from the ceiling. In the background, women are shown dancing in bikinis and pseudo-African masks, showing how they are objectified and exotified for the American tourists.

This scene can be seen as an extended metaphor for American political, economic, and social relations with Cuba during Batista’s control. The American men in the nightclub feel they own Cuba and its people. The men feel a sense of ownership over Maria and treat her as a plaything, brutally, as if she has no say in her treatment or fate. She and the other women are seen as quaint and exotic and seem to be designed for the American’s pleasure and use. The visual aspects of this scene reinforce this idea. The nightclub’s background which provides a generalized sense of the tropical and exotic reveals that the Americans do not really know where they are or what culture it is they are visiting. For them, Havana is simply a vacation spot where their actions have no consequences and they may do as they please. The American soul music sung in Spanish increases this sense of confusion for the men, blurring the line which separates the United States from Cuba.

When one of the American men goes home with Maria, he wakes up to a different Havana from the one that existed for him the night before. He leaves the shanty Maria lives in only to get lost among the ramshackle buildings where small children beg him for money. He begins to panic and run from the crowd that has gathered around him. The woman’s voice from the opening of the film returns and asks him, “Why are you running away? You came to have fun. Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me." The rich American becomes lost in the Cuba that exists to support his playground; the world of pleasure that the rich Americans come to Havana to enjoy falls away and all that remains is the poverty of the people who must sell themselves to foreigners in order to survive.

Though I am Cuba was created as agitprop for the Soviet government, the film’s critical insight and incredible cinematography work together to create a film of great power. A must see for fans of international film.

Read a review of I am Cuba by Gary Morris at Bright Lights Film Journal