L.I.E. Has Three Memorable Moments of Truth; Bravo, Vengo

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Three scenes keep L.I.E. off the trash pile. Here are two of them: First, when high school student Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) finally susses out the sentimental weakness of local pedophile Big John (Brian Cox), recites a Walt Whitman poem to him, takes an outdoor piss?making sure John is watching?and then walks away. Second, when Howie is abandoned by his father and seeks solace at Big John's; instead of sex the older man teaches him to shave?a fatherly, loving gesture.

In these moments director Michael Cuesta's debut distinguishes itself as more than just an indie calling-card and more admirable than one of Larry Clark's chickenhawk fantasies. Each of these remarkable scenes?from the script by Stephen M. Ryder and Gerald and Michael Cuesta?adds fascinating complication to the film's premise about men (young or old) whose lives are lies. (That's the import of the awkward title, which is also an abbreviation for the Long Island Expressway?a strained metaphor for life's dangerous thoroughfares.) Cuesta unmasks hypocritical Long Island: the Jewish Howie suffers bigoted taunts; affluent parents like Howie's father Marty (Bruce Altman) hide their criminal dealings; and males from Howie and his trampy best friend Billy (Gary Terrio) to Big John, the community hero, mother's favorite son and nighttime pimp, create a small-time sexual pornocracy to vent their conflicting sexual impulses. Intent on defining a troubled place, Cuesta centers his film on its characters' emotional contradictions.

Howie's adult potential complements Big John's damaged manhood. From a first sinister encounter (after Billy coerces Howie into stealing Big John's gun collection), their relationship reveals common suffering and parallel histories of misled affection?Howie's bad-boy teasing with Billy and Big John's closeted exploits. This all looks like typical quasi-gay indie stuff until Big John responds to Howie's poetry-pissing coquetry with a question that shows the sudden reversal of power: "Are you seducing me?" These two social casualties, from different generations, have discovered each other's soft spots. Howie knows how to seduce only because he senses that Big John shares many of his own stifled interests?and at last the kid has the chance to flash them. The seduction isn't only sexual, it is, more importantly, one of emotional affinity. Cuesta doesn't always gauge that correctly; some of the bare-chested shots of Howie and his Joe Dallesandro nips dare delectation rather than candor. It's as if Cuesta were manipulating his subject rather than exploring it. But in the later shaving scene, staged in the dark, gloomy house where Big John lives with another kept adolescent, Cuesta's titillation unravels, leaving something unexpectedly ambiguous and surprisingly frank. Howie's submission to Big John's desire (complete with the threatening device of a straight razor) seems horror movie cheap (or homophobic), but then what starts out lurid turns toward filial intimacy.

And then there's L.I.E.'s third good scene?almost a coda to the second?where Howie aggressively but chastely displays his affection. Here, the film achieves a combination of emotional and erotic power once associated with Visconti (especially Rocco and His Brothers and Conversation Piece). Aside from that Spielberg film there's no other American movie this year with a scene that's half as affecting. Howie and Big John's problems are resolved in stock, not necessarily believable, ways that suggest the filmmakers' intentions were not as profound as what they discovered on the way. L.I.E. starts off as a Peyton Place expose but somehow?in Dano's sincere performance, in the sensitivity to Big John's pathos?the film gets to the essence of men's personal, sexual interaction. For anyone sick of the lies Larry Clark tells about errant sexuality, L.I.E. offers three memorable moments of truth.

Directed by Tony Gatlif

Junior media execs crammed into the screening for Marky Mark's Rock Star, and none of them guffawed at the film's many ludicrous, patently false representations of metal and other pop music cultures. Their respect for "the product" was greater than their sense of truth. Not nearly as many people attended the screening of Vengo, but it's a far better movie. Vengo not only resists glorifying careerism but it shows respect for flamenco by seriously explicating its emotional roots.

Set near Seville, Vengo's story shows a rivalry between two clans of flamenco-loving families. Both tortured by a history of senseless killings and blood feuds, the handsome, black-garbed men flock to the musicians and singers who make art of anger and passion. ("Your death burns me!" a singer testifies.) There isn't the contemporary American puritanical alarm here that these folk artists irresponsibly encourage murder. Instead, Vengo follows suave Caco (Antonio Canales) in loyalty to his family and mourning his daughter, as he gathers strength from having his need for vindication explained, recognized, validated. Problem is, the warring Caravaco family seek the same emotional sanction. When the two sides converge on the deck of a cruise ship?amid the furor of performers in spangly costumes, bright red and blue veils and wine hoisted in gold-trimmed goblets that sparkle against the black night sky?Vengo verifies the deep and immediate ecstasy of folk culture as few movies ever have. Next to this, the pyrotechnics and gender-bending makeup of Rock Star belong in kindergarten.

Too bad America has no equivalent to Vengo's director Tony Gatlif?an anthropological visionary who makes movies that accurately imagine a culture's ethnic history. (He won deserved international acclaim for the 1993 Latcho Drom, a joyous, widescreen musical history of Gypsy culture from its origins in Asia and expansion to Western Europe.) Vengo's brilliance comes from the way Gatlif transforms his anthropological curiosity into wonderful fiction without cheapening the music or the emotions behind it like Rock Star, Almost Famous and almost every piece of mainstream hiphop criticism. Hiphop, especially, has foundered of late because of misreadings and aberrant celebrations by journalists and media execs who only want their basest prejudices?or their careers?enhanced. That's why they encourage hiphop's romanticizing of American pathologies. Vengo enhances flamenco in better ways than Carlos Saura's stodgy, ethnomusicological films like El Amor Brujo.

Gatlif has innovated the roots musical. Vengo is another widescreen spectacular (blessedly not shot in digital video, therefore the images have sweep, the colors are vivid and detailed and the soundtrack gives amazing depth and clarity to handclaps, dance steps and the vocal timbre of various singers). One dark-haired, hard-staring woman, La Caita, seems pure Gypsy?her voice raspy, coarse and emotional. "Hurray for art!" soldiers shout to her. And Gatlif connects the violence on the Andalusian plains to the thunderous music, clapping and dancing. Gatlif the artist is somewhat like Caco, whose devotion to his handicapped nephew Diego (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez) is tied to an overall ethnic appreciation; pride defines both men's endeavors. Born in 1948, Gatlif is of the rock generation, with an intense love for the musical culture he grew up with, yet he puts that experience and energy into film, making roots music culture a great visual experience as well. (Last year's Korean song film Chunhyang attempted something similar.)

Despite Vengo's thin thread of a story, it works like a concept album; every scene presents an extravagant yet thematically connected moment. A Caravaco threat to "Get your knives out!" jumps to Caco picking pomegranates, his knife thrusting among the tree branches. Gatlif's constant juxtaposition of violence and nature, emotion and existentialism, is a unique kind of movie lyricism. It also helps that Gatlif's knowledge of folk verities gives his storytelling classical clarity. Vengo's clannish compulsions feel Shakespearean-rich rather than film-noir hip.

Though not quite as fully dramatized as, say, Zorba the Greek (still the ranking modern view of timeless ethnic customs), Vengo at least avoids the tainted chic of Spain-set films like Sexy Beast and Stephen Frears' The Hit and of Hype Williams' Belly. Gatlif's sense of ethnic tragedy feels fresh?and unsentimental. After buying a whore for his pitiful nephew, Caco inquires about the fun but is surprised by the sincerity of Diego's response: "It was good, but it wasn't love." Scenes like that make Vengo extraordinary. Seeing it should make you despise the idiocy of Rock Star, the shrillness and superficiality with which American writers and filmmakers have responded to their own musical culture.

Vengo takes folk art seriously. An aged female singer, El Moror, a gray-haired woman with a still strong, percussive voice (flamenco was a vocal art before it was a dance), shouts, "My soul, it hurts so bad. I'm telling you all because I've loved too much." Such direct performance stirs up the Andalusian spirit (including its infamous, all-too-human lack of reason). Gatlif also includes flamenco's Arab and African influences, sometimes visualizing the cultural mix?as in a montage of Caco's delirium. Images of a fly, dervishes, a funeral, a photo, a spider are better than Apocalypse Now's opening montage to the Doors' "The End," because they're about something clear, something you can feel.

By concentrating on flamenco's rituals of vengeance, Gatlif shames how much we disrespect our culture when appreciating it only as product and not as soul or social expression. The simplicity of hiphop's and classic blues' Saturday rituals is now interfered with by social deprivation and perpetuated by various media execs. Our own cultural industry has confused pure feeling, pure theater, pure art. Its essence is lost and distorted with almost every new hit?and with garbage like Rock Star. Gatlif commemorates flamenco music's personal tragedies to avoid a greater cultural tragedy. Bravo.

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