Category: American Independents

GFF19 #8: Alice’s Restaurant (US 1969)

Arlo and his friend Roger are arrested for ‘illegal dumping’

The free programme of archive prints at GFF this year was dedicated to a group of films that challenged traditional Hollywood in 1969 and the festival strand was entitled ‘The End of Innocence’. Alice’s Restaurant is a particulary good example of a film that fits the selection criteria and was introduced as such by the GFF co-director Allan Hunter. It’s a rarely-screened film from 1969 and we watched a digital print from Olive Films in the US.

The director of the film was Arthur Penn who alongside the other two ‘Ps’, Peckinpah and Pakula, belonged to the maverick group of 50s/60s directors who began in TV or theatre and were never really happy with the studios. Robert Altman was another and this quartet were older and possibly wiser than the Movie Brats who formed the next generation. Penn had his big success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (sharing its success with producer-star Warren Beatty) and he was in a position to make this unusual film with a reasonable budget. Hunter made two useful statements when first he told us that Arthur Penn himself had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an ‘experimental college’ with an emphasis on art and that he was therefore predisposed to make this film about the ‘counter-culture’ based around various events in the life of Arlo Guthrie and celebrated by the young folk singer in a long narrative song which appeared in 1967.

Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) on their wedding day

Secondly, Hunter quoted Penn himself saying that his film was the most ‘authentic’ of the studio pictures attempting to capture the brief period of the counter-culture. I’m not sure if there is much competition for such a title, but certainly Penn’s film feels authentic, not least because of Arlo himself in the lead. There are others in the cast too who are non-actors, some of whom were directly connected to the original events that form the basis of the narrative. Alice and her husband Ray are played by the actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick (and the real Alice and Ray) have small parts. Alice is the familiar ‘earth mother’ figure of the commune narrative whereas Ray is the older figure, a man around 40 who perhaps fought in Korea and is now enjoying a kind of delayed adolescence.

The Thanksgiving dinner

The film is conventional in including scenes of the clash between the young ‘long-hairs’ and the conservative townsfolk of the small Montana town where Arlo attempts to become a student to avoid the Vietnam draft and then, after his expulsion, the antics he gets up to ‘fail’ the draft board medical. By contrast the initial opening of the restaurant and the founding of an ‘alternative community’ in a de-consecrated church in Massachusetts at first goes well. The incident at the centre of the narrative when Arlo and his (real) childhood friend ‘Roger’ (Geoffrey Outlaw) illegally dump the garbage from the Thanksgiving Day party when they discover the town tip is closed now appears the oddest act in the film. No self-respecting ‘alternative’ group today would despoil the countryside with litter.

Pete Seeger playing for Woody with Arlo’s accompaniment

Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie was hospitalised with Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary and ultimately fatal nervous disease. He died in 1967. Woody is played in the film by the actor Joseph Boley but when Arlo goes to visit on one occasion he discovers Woody being serenaded by the real Pete Seeger with his banjo. I was surprised to see a couple of reviews stating this performance was out of place in the film. Pete Seeger is one of the great men of the 20th century for me and when Arlo joins him on harmonica, I found this to be the most emotional moment in the film. It was nearly matched by a later song at a funeral when Tigger Outlaw sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’. (Tigger was possibly the first wife of Geoff Outlaw according to one internet source?)

I’m not sure what I make of the film from this 2019 viewing and I can’t remember whether I saw it the first time round. The music still resonates and it stitches the narrative together in following the song lyrics. Arlo is a likeable character and Pat Quinn as Alice is very good but the more generic sequences don’t do much for me, especially the extended party scenes. The sub-plot about trying to help a heroin user carries more weight but not enough to support the narrative on its own. Perhaps what surprised me most was the importance of the motorcycle sequences, which seem to hark back to the 1950s as a ‘challenge’ to conservative America. They also create some tension with the sense of a peaceful alternative community.

Arlo during his draftboard medical with M. Emmet Walsh

The counter-culture didn’t last that long in North America, perhaps from 1967 to 1970? In the UK, despite being in London during that period, I felt the impact of the ideas about ‘alternative lifestyles’ wasn’t really evident until the later 1970s. Fortunately Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, one of the few times the UK didn’t slavishly follow US foreign policy. Arlo Guthrie in one interview has stated that for him the anti-war rallies were the high point of the 1960s.

One of the other points that Allan Hunter made was again to quote Penn in saying that it was a white middle-class alternative lifestyle. I think in general that’s probably true, but there are actually African-American musicians in the film and Arlo’s girlfriend is Asian-American. I’m glad I saw the film but questions about the ‘End of Innocence’ were always more likely to be raised by the next programmed archive screening of Medium Cool.

[I haven’t included a trailer because there seem to be several free online offers of the film that you can explore.]

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.

I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.

Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him –  the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.

I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.

I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.

Sorry to Bother You (US 2018)

Tessa Thompson as ‘Detroit’ and Lakeith Stanfield as ‘Cash’

This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.

I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.

Cash at his phone cubicle with Langston (Danny Glover)

In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.

At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.

Director Boots Riley with Steven Yuen as ‘Squeeze’

The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.

The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief: