A Good Baby: Part Southern Gothic, Part Tone Poem, Part Folkloric Mystery; A Clueless French-Swiss Film

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"American Independent Visions," which kicked off early this year with Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan and continues this week (Dec. 1-7) with Katherine Dieckmann's A Good Baby, is a quarterly series that gives one-week runs at the Walter Reade Theater to independent films which so far haven't attracted the sponsorship of a distributor. As such, it's a moderately happy solution to an increasingly unhappy problem: While the Amerindie film boom began the 90s bristling with promises of artistic intelligence and adventurousness, it ended the decade mired in formula and marketing-think, with various interestingly ambitious films left out in the cold. The loss in such a situation, of course, is not just the films that fall through the cracks, but the way that young filmmakers, especially, are more and more obliged to think in terms of what will sell rather than what's risky, offbeat, innovative.

By any reckoning, A Good Baby marches to its own drummer. Set in the deep mountain hollows of western North Carolina, its story opens with a scene of cryptic, Flannery O'Connor-like menace in which a traveling salesman (David Strathairn) looks upon a backwoods girlfriend's increasingly evident pregnancy with more malevolence than fondness. A bit later, the film finds a young man named Toker (Henry Thomas) trailing along the back roads carrying a newborn infant. Offering little in the way of explanation, he appears to want to find the baby a mother; among those who reject his entreaties, Josephine Priddy (Cara Seymour) seems like she might be able to scare up in interest in Toker, if not in his charge. Meanwhile, the salesman we saw in the first scene begins to haunt the valley, asking questions about a baby and the man carrying him.

Part Southern gothic, part tone poem, part folkloric mystery cum downbeat romance, A Good Baby poses itself the tricky task not so much of straddling genres as of bridging two worlds, one belonging to the real-life Appalachians, the other to myth and dream. Adapting Leon Rooke's novel, Dieckmann creates a form of stylized dialogue that's impressive for being both undeniably literary and convincingly natural. With the help of ace cinematographer Jim Denault, she pulls off a similar balancing act by visualizing the tale's mountain domain in a way that's strikingly gorgeous yet never prettified, sensuously evocative without ever getting dramatically rhetorical. The fact that the film's way-off-the-interstate setting is constantly, almost tactilely believable, yet you'd be hard-pressed to say in which decade it takes place (any one between the 60s and now, perhaps), says loads about the subtle stylistic alchemy Dieckmann achieves.

The film revolves around an image that seems to belong more to the deep psyche than to any movie I can recall: a man cradling a baby, in a posture that is almost maternal. Obviously this gender-flip of the traditional Madonna and Child will startle and resonate with some viewers more than others, and even admirers may have to allow that the story, particularly in its abrupt final section, doesn't avoid the pitfall of occasional sentimental softness. Even so, Dieckmann's enterprise has an extraordinarily solid cornerstone in Henry Thomas' performance as Toker. Formerly the kid in E.T. and soon to be seen costarring in All the Pretty Horses, Thomas brings an absolute and greatly clarifying conviction to a part that might have begun and ended as a cipher. There's something pained about the character he creates, like a wound from the forgotten past. Yet it is just this, perhaps, that allows him to succor one who now endures his own former vulnerability?a strange beneficence that gives A Good Baby both its mystery and its heart.

Berlin-Cinema (Titre Provisoire)
directed by Samira Gloor-Fadel

If you were a first-time filmmaker wanting to follow in the moody modernist footsteps of Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders with a film meditating on absence, cities and cinema itself, what better collaborators to invite aboard than Godard and Wenders, right?

Think about that proposition for two seconds, especially after seeing Samira Gloor-Fadel's Berlin-Cinema (Titre Provisoire), and you're bound to realize what a nonstarter it is. For one thing, the French-Swiss production says nothing about the single question it most needs to answer: Why would cine-celebs like Wim and Jean-Luc add their presences to the film of an unknown? Gloor-Fadel perhaps wants us to assume that the ummistakable brilliance of her project is responsible, but in fact that's the one thing we don't assume. Second, doesn't the filmmaker realize that her premise ultimately can only underscore her own lack of originality, and the fatigue of the form she means to celebrate?

Yup, Berlin-Cinema is another film that's both impeccably intellectual and essentially clueless. Anyone who has seen recent Godard films like JLG par JLG and Wenders works such as Tokyo-Ga and Wings of Desire will instantly recognize the amalgamated pastiche cum homage that Gloor-Fadel delivers here, although she departs from her sources by not using her own narration. Rather, we hear recurrent off-camera musings by Godard, along with various soundtrack excerpts, while the camera broodingly contemplates present-day Berlin and occasionally drops in on Wenders, who muses on-camera as he talks with students, tours a building site with an architect and directs the abysmal Faraway, So Close! (Question: this Wenders footage dates from circa '92?what took so long?)

The auteurs come and go, talking of Antonioni?plus Fassbinder, Beckett, et al.?but mainly riding familiar hobbyhorses. Still, these guys are great musers, and fans should be alerted that the film contains choice material from both. Godard is his usual gnomic, aphoristic self. "I don't think film is for seeing," he says, "it's for thinking." And: "The image isn't what's seen, it's what's formed." Wenders shows his maturity: "For a long time I considered writing something opposed to my main work, which is creating images. For me, writing was always the obstacle, a necessary evil... I don't feel like that any more. Today writing and words are...allies. Words can capture what's real, can capture poetry and life, better than images can."

Godard and Wenders are keenly aware that film is about to disappear. Both, in fact, have taken the lead in advocating the use and exploration of video technology. Berlin-Cinema listens respectfully to such advice without having the least interest in heeding it; Gloor-Fadel's images (black and white mixed with color), which handsomely remind us of the lyrical materiality of film, have an elegaic feel simply for being celluloid. The modernist esthetic she evokes is similarly shrouded in mournful retrospection. As Godard says, "In 50 years, the cinema we've known will be like the Dead Seas Scrolls." As if that's not already the case.

Berlin-Cinema (Titre Provisoire) will be shown at the American Museum of the Moving Image Sat.-Sun., Dec. 9-10, along with Walter Ruttman's 1927 Berlin, Symphony of a City (Sat.) and Wenders' Wings of Desire (Sat. & Sun.).

A Hard Day's Night
directed by Richard Lester

Among the things that struck me in seeing A Hard Day's Night (which goes into rerelease this week) for the first time in many years: You never hear the word "Beatles" at any point in the film. The name, in fact, is withheld entirely until the end of the tv concert that climaxes the movie, when the group takes one of its trademark from-the-waist bows and a gigantic BEATLES sign lights up behind them. We then see the name twice more in quick succession (on publicity photos and on the helicopter that, in the film's epiphanic final shot, transports the band heavenwards), but it is that first appearance that has the impact of a spiritual coup.

Such withholding touches on the primordial significance of naming, and in turn on the fact that, though commonly regarded as an uncommonly successful pop group, the Beatles were, in essence, a religious phenomenon. The name, the thing that most directly connects the worshiper to the adored (the four-in-one), appears only at the end, to fix and seal the drama of ecstatic longing; such is the secondary status accorded the visual. Until then, and forever after, the real name remains private because it belongs to the individual fan alone; inscribed on the heart, it is uttered subvocally at every moment of the film, "Beatles...Beatles...Beatles..."

Likewise, the Beatles themselves utter a private language. The word, of course, is love, same as it was 2000 years ago, same as it ever was. Yet inasmuch as every word is a betrayal, a shell, they relay their meaning in nonsense, puns, jokes, funny voices and, of course, songs and singing that still sound like the very definition of joyous, youthful exaltation. Never mind what the calendar says; the real Harmonic Convergence happened in 1964, on the radio.

A Hard Day's Night by all rights should have been little more than a shoddy knockoff. Shot quickly in the spring of '64 for $500,000, it emerged as an instant classic due to a combination of elements and talents (including director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen) that may as well be described as miraculous. Seen today, it's very much an artifact of its time. I hadn't recalled how extensive the World War II references are, or that Paul's obnoxious grandfather is an IRA man?"a soldier of the Republic," as he cussedly puts it.

Technically, the film belongs to that brief but glorious moment (the early 60s) between the arrival of the lightweight, mobile 35 mm camera and the predominance of color; its sinuous black and white gives us the Beatles at their most iconic and mod. While A Hard Day's Night shared an era with Breathless, The 400 Blows and other masterpieces made under the same technical circumstances, Lester's film is perhaps best equipped for immortality. It's my hunch, at least, that long after the work of Godard & Co. has become the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Beatles will still be the Living Word, as fresh and ineffable as any four voices ever uplifted in harmony.

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