Time on His Side
Clockwise from top left: Singapore's food-stand feature, Chicken Rice War; local film Pure, from Susan Braun (last-minute replacement for Manfast, with our own Tara Solomon!); out of northern Florida, the supposedly controversial documentary about a rape in Gainsville, Raw Deal; and from Spain, Anita No el Tren;
David Poland is huddled with his cell phone, cinching the deal on one more film. The new director of the FIU Miami Film Festival thought he'd lost Chicken Rice War, a version of Romeo and Juliet set among Singapore food stands. The quirky romantic comedy won the audience award at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival last fall, giving hope to hip young director CheeK (Cheah Chee Kong) that his movie would see commercial release well before the Miami fest. "Everybody thinks they're selling their movie tomorrow," Poland observes, happy that this time the delay worked in Miami's favor.
Since taking the reins from beloved festival founder Nat Chediak five months ago, Poland has been working against the clock to heighten Miami's profile while appeasing long-time festival supporters disgruntled with the transition. "There hasn't been enough time for us to hold the hands of the existing community the way we should, at the same time we reach out to a new community," he worries.
Encamped on the patio of the National Hotel, Poland meets with the press to explain the many changes he brings to the nineteen-year-old festival, including expanding the location from the Gusman Center downtown to the Regal and Colony theaters and this official hotel site on South Beach. Adjusting his black leather jacket, the fast talker in his late thirties reels off the list of complaints festival stalwarts have unleashed. On the Bud Boedecker retrospective: "People are complaining about a 51-year-old movie"; on Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish: "People are saying, You're showing a twenty-year-old flop'; on emptying the theaters between shows: "Apparently people used to leave their stuff there and watch four or five movies in a row"; on selling rush tickets for empty seats immediately before each film begins: "People are saying, You mean I can't come twenty minutes late?'" And all those documentaries! "We're showing twice as many films as in the past," Poland points out. "So if you want the same festival you knew in the past, you can find it. But you can also find something else. People have to realize we're not killing their memories."
Poland also has been besieged by critics at Florida International University, the festival sponsor since 1999, who contend he is not doing enough to justify the school's investment. "You can't have a major film festival out on Tamiami Trail," he concedes. "But by growing the festival, we are creating more opportunities for students and faculty."
Indeed Poland sees his mission as adding professionalism and prestige to what has long been a very good, local festival. "I want it to be everything Miami is," he dreams. "Controversial/fun, sexy/family, Cuban/Jewish, gay/straight, tuxedos and shorts." Some day, he believes, the film-savvy might mention Miami in the same breath with Toronto, Telluride, and Sundance. "A lot of people with a lot of hopes," says Poland, himself chief among them. "I think the festival could fulfill them. It might take two or three years...."
Some days later Poland is reminded why Miami is not Toronto, film festival or no. He's back on the phone to hear the scheduled Miel Para Oshun (Honey for the Goddess of Love) has fallen through, owing to the mysterious machinations of the Cuban government. In a one-line e-mail, the ICAIC (the Cuban film institute) claims that neither the film nor director Humberto Salas will be available for the Miami Film Festival after all. "That's completely false," protests Poland, who has been in close communication with Sundance, the last festival to show the film. "The frustrating thing is that I was hoping we would slowly be able to build a relationship that would work for the Cuban community here and bring over films that need to be seen," Poland sighs. "But this is just another indication we can't work with [the Cuban government] or trust them." Some hopes time cannot realize. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado
In some cultures wars don't just end, they die down for a while and flare up again. That's the case in Hollywood, which is still suffering the lingering effects of the Fifties' Red Scare. The movie kingdom's civil war never was bloody, but it certainly was brutal. When Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to investigate Communist influence in Hollywood, the town split down the middle, between right-wing "patriots" (the studios and their allies) and the left-wing "freedom lovers" (the writers and their supporters). The internecine struggle was so bitter that lifelong friendships split apart, never to be reconciled.
That was the case of the great filmmakers Carl Foreman and Stanley Kramer, whose sad story is depicted in Lionel Chetwynd's documentary, Darkness at High Noon, which chronicles Foreman's downfall from, and partial return to, Hollywood power. Narrated by Richard Crenna, Darkness follows Foreman's early days as a young writer working with the peripatetic Kramer, who had landed a fat contract with Columbia Pictures. The pair were an exceptionally productive team, turning out intense, socially conscious pictures from Foreman's scripts, which garnered seven Oscar nominations: Champion, a gritty boxing picture; The Men, which dealt with disabled veterans (and gave Marlon Brando his first film role); Home of the Brave, a simplistic but blunt attack on racism in the military; and the notable José Ferrer version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Foreman pushed for his Western project High Noon, and Kramer agreed to assign Foreman to produce the picture as well as write it. Foreman moved ahead into production with Fred Zinneman directing Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Meanwhile the HUAC hearings were plodding along in Washington without much public awareness, until McCarthy and his advisors (Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon among them) realized that zeroing in on Hollywood would be a media coup. Stars, moguls, and creative staffers were paraded through the hearing rooms. Some, like Adolphe Menjou and Ronald Reagan, were friendly witnesses. Some refused to cooperate in what the left termed "a witchhunt."
When Foreman was called to testify, his relationship with Kramer soured. Kramer and Columbia ordered him off High Noon, but Foreman ignored the demand and continued producing the picture. Cooper and Zinneman spoke in Foreman's defense, and for a time Foreman was safe. But during production he had to testify in Washington. When he refused to cooperate, his fate was sealed. Hedda Hopper blasted him in print. John Wayne did so to his face. Blackballed by the Hollywood studios, Foreman hastily moved to England before High Noon finished shooting. There is no onscreen producer credit in High Noon, but when the film received critical and popular acclaim, Kramer took credit as producer of the film and claimed Foreman's cut of the picture was his own, according to this documentary.
Foreman's exile had lasting personal consequences. His marriage fell apart, and he suffered writer's block. He finally managed to return to his craft, penning major films, including David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, but did so anonymously. That his script finally won an Oscar for that screenplay must have been a supreme irony: He was never credited for it during his lifetime. Foreman managed to return to the United States some years later and started his own production company, for which he wrote and/or produced many significant films, some with his lasting British connections: The Guns of Navarone, The Mouse That Roared, Born Free, and Young Winston. But the divisions of the McCarthy era never completely ended. Although Wayne reconciled with Foreman, Kramer never did. Even when they accidentally met in an elevator, they never spoke to each other again.
Darkness makes excellent use of High Noon footage to illustrate Foreman's plight. Just as the Cooper character, a troubled marshal, faces an evil gang of thugs while the townspeople forsake him and hide, so Foreman believed his allies had abandoned him when he stood up to McCarthy. His enemies also took High Noon seriously. When the marshal throws his badge in the dirt, critics screamed this was evidence of Foreman's subversive message. Chetwynd includes some compelling interviews with Foreman's ex-wife, his daughter, and his industry pals. Kramer fares very badly here, and Chetwynd doesn't bother to offer much in his defense. Film and history buffs will find this account intriguing, but the documentary flies along too quickly, failing to clearly establish the era and the political situation. Unless a viewer is well versed in HUAC and McCarthyism, much of the film's early going may be confusing. Nevertheless it is a compelling account of Hollywood's darkest hour, the shadow of which still can be felt to this day. -- Ronald Mangravite
Havana's Salón Rosado Beny Moré de La Tropical, popularly known as La Tropical, has a storied past, both as a prerevolutionary working-class dance hall and an extraordinary contemporary music club that reached its peak in 1997, with a 100-hour, 95-band, Guinness World Record-breaking marathon of son . "The cathedral, the conservatory of Cuban music is the Tropical," a narrator in David Turnley's documentary named for the venue explains. "The majority of dance steps ... of Cuban music were born at La Tropical."
La Tropical will disappoint viewers expecting a celebration of Cuban music. Those interviewed for the film allude often to the longevity and popularity of the place and its performers, and there are myriad shots of dancers bumping and grinding in the open-air dance hall. But La Tropical never really shows us what all the fuss is about, conveying little of the spirit and soul of the music. While the soundtrack -- featuring recent hits by Orishas, P18, Issac Delgado, and others -- effectively sets the film in the present, bands make only cameo appearances. Early on we're introduced to Grammy Award winners Los Van Van, and singer Pedro Calvo jokes about making himself some gold teeth out of his trophy. Then the band takes the stage briefly and disappears, leaving uninitiated audiences to wonder just who they are. Voice-over comments refer to how important audience reception at La Tropical is to the success of bands on the island, but mediocre musicians and sanctified stars are given equally short screen time with no further exploration or explanation of their sound or status.
The film focuses on a handful of people who have some connection to the club: dancers in the floor show, long-time MC Juan Cruz (Cuba's answer to Dick Clark), a Santería priest who moonlights as a cabaret singer, a 77-year-old Tropical regular, four sisters who front a timba band, an aspiring vocalist and his pregnant girlfriend. Through these characters, the film meanders through Cuban social issues such as sex tourism and the frustration of young Cuban men displaced by their girlfriends' foreign paramours; socialist health care; poverty in Havana; the prevalence of abortion as birth control; the exasperation of Cuban youth yearning to escape the island; and, principally, black culture, Afro-Cuban religion, and racism.
Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, shot La Tropical in black and white. With a realist eye that looks unflinchingly yet unsensationally at social decadence in Havana, he casts a bare-bulb light on a dancing woman with her dress riding up around her hips, flashing her panties; afternoon bar patrons guzzling rum from a bottle; a boozy man in a broken-down car in the Tropical parking lot woodenly praising Fidel for the camera, and many others. There are moving, simply beautiful scenes here too -- notably of a young dancer practicing alone in his modest bedroom in his mother's concrete-block house; a singer of raunchy timba songs spontaneously crooning an old bolero to the beat of his hands on a table; a santera's funeral service in which mourners send off the spirit with laughter. In its best moments La Tropical evokes the whirlpool of emotions experienced during a typical day in the life of Havana.
But the film attempts to cover too much ground. At its core are enlightening observations about class differences and racial strife in Cuba, rooted in the Salón Rosado's beginnings as a dance hall for the black workers at the Tropical beer company. (The company's lush beer garden, a few blocks away, was reserved for the Spanish executives and those of their class.) Turnley overextends himself, however, trying to touch on too many related -- and unrelated -- issues to let the film flow. Each of the central character's stories seemed "ripped from the headlines," and some points forced. The problems with the treatment of music is indicative of the documentary, in which there are too many brief encounters, self-conscious performances for the camera, and throwaway scenes in bars or at the beach that serve only to weaken the narrative.
La Tropical is thankfully devoid of nostalgic or exotic overtones, although the black-and-white photography, raw and artful as it is, brings an unfortunate pathos to a place in reality characterized by vivid colors. (Cubans who adhere to Santería do not wear black; colors have symbolic meaning for followers of the religion.) But there is a true sensitivity evident in the making of this film, attesting to Turnley's twenty-year career as a celebrated photojournalist. His still photographs of Havana flash onscreen for several minutes in the middle of La Tropical. These photographic portraits and street scenes, superb vignettes of Cuban life, have the focus the film lacks. -- Judy Cantor
Exploitation maven Doris Wishman, auteur of dozens of "nudie" and "roughie" films from the Sixties and Seventies, including 1975's Satan Was a Lady , makes a comeback of sorts with 2001's Satan Was a Lady , a deliberately cheesy tale of tawdry sex and blackmail. Wishman, an octogenarian who is credited by some as the most prolific female director ever, has garnered a cult following for her films, with titles such as Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls , Blaze Starr Goes Wild , and Dildo Heaven . Despite their titles these films are mostly not pornographic, avoiding explicit sex but always displaying plenty of top-heavy females in frequent dishabille. Such is the case with Satan , which features the curvaceous Honey Lauren as Cleo Irane, a money-hungry dominatrix hooker who blackmails her wealthy male client more than once in the tortured, silly story line. Cleo also has problems with her boyfriend, Ed, a louche layabout played by Glyn Styler, a New Orleans singer/songwriter who adds his crooning tunes of heartache to supplement the plot.
Production values are amateurish, as are most of the performances, though Lauren, a Hollywood veteran, gives some credibility to the film despite spending most of it taking off or putting on some of the ugliest lingerie seen in recent memory. Styler, with a mid-Sixties mod mop of hair combed forward over ever-present sunglasses, isn't an actor exactly, but his persona and songs are so tongue-in-cheek, he fits the mood rather well.
As a director Wishman demonstrates a what-the-hell attitude about basics such as continuity, pace, and composition. But say what you will, there's a certain personal signature on this picture, with a look and feel that seem right out of Wishman's movies from four decades ago. This will not please most filmgoers, but cultists can at least appreciate its individuality. That's something most films lack nowadays. -- Ronald Mangravite
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