Sunday, May 27, 2012

#597: Tiny Furniture

(Lena Dunham, 2010)

OK, I'm going to start here: Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture is a refreshing and honest film that unquestionably taps into the contemporary art and cultural zeitgeist and is a superb representation of modern American independent filmmaking. It unquestionably deserves its place in the Criterion Collection, and people who single it out as a uniquely problematic inclusion are doing so out of animosity towards a filmmaker who is a young woman.

I'm making all kinds of big sweeping statements, so let's unpack this a little. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture was made in 2009 for $45,000 and starred not only Dunham, but her sister, mother, and childhood home. It caused a big enough firestorm at SXSW in 2010 to be bought by IFC - which of course put it on the shortlist for Criterion inclusion - and to provide its creator with the chance to develop her HBO show Girls. The film was subsequently released in theaters to mostly positive reviews (though there were a few big detractors). When it was leaked last year that Criterion would indeed be picking up the film for its main line, there was a huge uproar within both the general film nerd and specific Criterion fan communities. The basic complaints (beyond just "I hated this movie," which is fair enough) generally fell into three categories:

1. This is going to irreparably damage the Criterion brand.
2. Lena Dunham is an obnoxious person who had everything handed to her and some friend of her parents is secretly delivering her to stardom and artistic legitimacy.
3. Who cares about this rich white girl from Manhattan and her hipster problems?
4. This movie is totally derivative and poorly made - there are 1000 movies by obscure Foreign filmmakers that Criterion should be focusing on instead of this garbage.

There's a lot of bullshit here, so I'll just systematically demolish these.

1. This is going to irreparably damage the Criterion brand.

This is obviously the most absurd of the four statements. First of all, since the film has now been in stores for three months, I can officially confirm that the Criterion website is still live. Second, let's run down a few titles under the Criterion banner: ArmageddonChasing AmySweetieThe Life AquaticThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Border Radio. Regardless of how you feel about any or all of these, they are all movies that have been cited as drags on the Criterion Collection, and have been largely decried by a large number of film fans. There are plenty of other films in the Collection that could be considered equally controversial (OK, maybe not as controversial as Armageddon, but you get the picture). Dunham's promise as a filmmaker could be a losing gamble for Criterion - but no matter, they've lost that gamble before with George Washington. Even the IFC collaboration that has yielded so many spectacular Criterion titles has certainly produced work just as inconsequential if not more so - think The Secret of the Grain, A Christmas Tale, or the fascinating but deeply flawed Gomorrah. Let's move on.

2. Lena Dunham is an obnoxious person who had everything handed to her and some friend of her parents is secretly delivering her to stardom and artistic legitimacy.

This is a common argument on the internet, but it's only employed selectively. I'll refrain from listing the hundreds of people who have gained fame and success in the entertainment industry simply because of their family connections, but for some reason we only hear about these connections when people are decrying someone's work (I am certainly guilty of this with regards to someone like Sofia Coppola, who I find to be supremely untalented). I'll explain later why I think Dunham's obnoxiousness is actually one of her biggest assets, but it should be made clear that obnoxiousness is generally a subjective claim. Finally, do we really have to take seriously the idea that Criterion has somehow given in to some mass conspiracy among the New York elites to anoint Dunham a legitimate filmmaker? Regardless of how you feel about Girls, the show's ability to enter the cultural discussion and generate disparate perceptions of its significance and quality should indicate that she is able to hold her own. There are plenty of well-connected "artists" languishing in insignificance.

3. Who cares about this rich white girl from Manhattan and her hipster problems?

This really drives me crazy. Is every movie ever made supposed to be focused on poor people in some far-flung corner of the world? Are we expected to ignore the existential crises in our own lives simply because we know other people have it worse? Is "there are starving kids in Africa" really meant to be a stand-in for film criticism? I don't believe in the "write what you know" ethos 100%, but I do think that someone who chooses to reflect their own life on screen should not be dismissed simply because they are privileged, particularly when, like Dunham, they are so intently focused on avoiding any skewed depictions of their lives that would seek to glamorize or idealize themselves. This is extremely hard to do in film, just by nature of producing a conventional narrative work with a central protagonist, and should not be overlooked as an enormous accomplishment in Tiny Furniture. The fact that the film happens to be about a woman with a very specific, rich background (both in terms of financial situation and cultural currency) is not relevant - dismissing a film simply for being too familiar or devoid of true suffering rings to me just as false as dismissing a film for being too foreign or too depressing in its authenticity. I'd also like to point out that the greatest movie ever made is about a rich guy who just wants to be a kid again and play in the snow.

Finally, I'm not really sure what qualifies Dunham as a hipster. That her parents are artists? That she is from New York? Neither of these characteristics are true of most hipsters who live in New York. Maybe it's that her film premiered at SXSW, or that she gained notoriety through YouTube and continues to use new media and contemporary cultural signifiers in her work? This again rings false to me - certainly artists should not be faulted for existing within and even reflecting their own realities. Perhaps the oddest thing to me about identifying Dunham as a hipster is how much this now-pejorative term has come to be intertwined with irony - yet Tiny Furniture is almost certainly one of the most genuine depictions of youth seen in the last decade. Comparing the film to something like Garden State - which was ostensibly authentic but was steeped in quirky winks to the audience and saturated with cultural cash-ins in the form of over-utilized indie-tastic music and an unearned happy ending that even the characters seemed to be surprised they could get away with - makes this new earnestness feel decidedly anti-hipster (note: this is admittedly certainly changing - fast). This is not done in an intentional way, even, but instead feels like a byproduct of the true goal of Dunham's work, which is to be totally honest with herself and her audience. Of course, it's every person's right to decide what problems are legitimate and what movies they want to watch based on the legitimacy of the conflict within the film. But to dismiss out of hand a specific point of view simply because its creator hasn't earned the cultural caché of living the struggle feels condescending not just to privileged people who go through real difficulties but to those artists who actually do struggle by reducing their hardships to an entry pass into legitimacy.

4. This movie is totally derivative and poorly made - there are 1000 movies by obscure Foreign filmmakers that Criterion should be focusing on instead of this garbage.

The first half of this statement is the hardest argument to dismiss since it is mostly subjective. So I'll address the second half first. Let's look at the first 25 movies in the Collection. This list includes movies like This is Spinal TapThe Silence of the Lambs, and Robocop, three movies that would certainly have been (and eventually were) treated to deluxe editions by their respective studios. Yet even at that early stage Criterion was selecting mainstream films by well-known directors "at the expense" of movies like The Apu Trilogy or films by any lesser-known, much-lauded filmmaker. My point is that - even if it's what most of us value most about the brand - Criterion is not and has never been solely a vehicle for obscure and/or unavailable titles. In fact, my guess is that if it wasn't for the difficult process of attaining the rights to each movie we would see a lot more mainstream and American films in the collection - one need only look to the list of laserdisc releases to confirm this. So Tiny Furniture did not take the place of some other film that would have your film geek pants all messy, and it's not in the Collection to earn Criterion a little extra cash. (Although who can fault them for supporting releases like their Imamura boxset with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?) It is because - like it or not - the powers that be at Criterion thought the film was relevant enough to be included in the conversation about what film means, both in general and in 2012.

I've been spending a lot of time on why arguments against including the film seem misguided, but what are the reasons in favor of including the film? First of all, I want to make clear that I don't think Tiny Furniture is a "Great" film, and offhand I can think of five IFC/Criterion releases that are vastly superior to it: Fish TankCarlosSummer HoursRevanche, and Certified Copy. However, I do think the film is funny, heartfelt, and extremely relatable. These are subjective viewpoints, and I don't think enjoying a movie alone should qualify it for inclusion. I also think it's beautifully shot, particularly on such a small budget, but there are countless terrible, beautiful movies, so again I would hesitate to select it just on that basis.

I think what makes Tiny Furniture so valuable from a film history perspective is its unique ability to zero in via both form and content on what constitutes an artistic life in the modern world. As someone who gained a small, tiny amount of success by blogging, I know what the weird relationship is that develops between the reader and the blogger, how strange it is to navigate between the internet and reality, and how different success is within the context of a website or viral video. What I think Dunham is able to accomplish particularly well in the film is lowering her character to the viewers' level, mimicking the internet's instant feedback, person-to-person dynamic within the context of a medium which has consistently avoided this relationship - first with the glamorous, unattainable lives of flashy stars, then with scaled-up epics that went literally bigger than life and have particularly in the CGI age trended heavily toward the fantastic. Tiny Furniture's bare honesty - not just borne out in its creator's complete willingness to be seen as the superficially anti-feminine female in terms of body image and psychological approach to sexuality, but in the impressive ability to craft an authentic (if carefully crafted) depiction of her own life - leaves the viewer feeling like they know the core of this person. The fact that her character can do stupid things or act selfishly or immaturely and present herself in a narcissistic, obnoxious way strengthens the perceptions of relatability by heightening the disconnect between Dunham's protagonist and the protagonists of the vast majority of movies. Her authenticity shines through as character flaws. Even if the viewer doesn't recognize themselves in what they see, they feel comfortable building up or tearing down this image that Dunham has constructed of herself.

With this accomplishment so central to the success and legitimacy of Criterion's selection, the vitriol and vaguely sexist comments that the release elicited were actually a confirmation of this legitimacy. If Dunham's work felt more rarefied (as a film like Fish Tank seems), the unruly commenting masses might not have felt as comfortable rejecting it so viciously. Part of what Tiny Furniture achieves - if again unintentionally - is a sort of DIY manifesto: by positioning her heroine as an honest and almost hideously relatable portrayal of herself, the viewer can't help but wonder why they haven't made their own movie starring them. The fact that Dunham's onscreen persona is so antithetical to the conventional persona of a filmmaker enhances this perception; after all, if a young, insecure, self-absorbed, immature girl can make a movie, certainly I can, too!

Of course, I've put off the elephant in the room long enough, which is that word: girl.  It's used a lot with Dunham, and sexism undoubtedly plays a significant role in the backlash against Tiny Furniture. To be clear: not liking Tiny Furniture - a specific and personal movie with a very unique tone - does not make you sexist. In fact, I would imagine most people who watch Tiny Furniture won't like it. But I would have a hard time believing that the same type of film made by a man (or, to a smaller degree, an older woman) would engender such antagonism. It doesn't take a Google expert to find countless comments throughout the online discussions of the film (and of Dunham in general) that invoke her appearance/age, while many more comments circle around the issue of femininity, often dismissing the film's subject matter and relevance to cinema. Tiny Furniture is a movie about women - even if it's about this one woman - and movies about women are much easier to reject in a male-dominated medium. But even more, the fact that Dunham is confident enough to present herself in such a naked manner - especially in areas which are typically identified as problematic for women - opens her up to this kind of gender-based criticism. Dunham is often compared to Woody Allen (which seems a bit premature even to me), but even Allen's persona was afforded some degree of glamour by getting all the good lines (and the beautiful girls). You might dislike all of of Allen's whining, but at least he's funny! Dunham, on the other hand, refuses to stress her character's redeeming qualities, instead asking you to relate to the darker side of her personality. This is extremely intentional, and it is not how women are supposed to behave, particularly in Hollywood, where a nudge nudge, wink wink ugly performance by a leading actress can give her an Oscar for her bravery.

I certainly understand the legitimate complaints about Tiny Furniture. The film is undeniably self-centered - though, again, this is more a style than a complaint since there have been countless great works of art that were entirely narcissistic. Though I found Dunham's protagonist relatable in a negative sort of way, I could see how someone would find her complaining and selfishness insufferable - but is this any different than the characters on Seinfeld? From a plot perspective, Dunham breaks virtually no new ground here - it really is a rather bland presentation of the quarter-life crisis that has been beaten into the collective psyche over the past ten years, with only the fact that it is from a female perspective lending any real novelty. But anyone who has spent time in New York (and I suspect most people who haven't) will recognize the bulk of these characters from their lives, and even the smallest role is fleshed out and given a unique voice - perhaps Dunham's greatest natural technical skill is her ear for dialog.

I've probably said too much here, but I don't feel like I've come across a full defense of the film's inclusion in the Collection, and I thought it deserved it. Tiny Furniture isn't going to become legendary or make anyone's Sight and Sound ten best list, but I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this moment in time as a turning point in both filmmaking from a micro-budget - and consequently deeply, almost terrifyingly, personal - perspective and a shift in the collective tone from one of removed irony to one of naked and genuine emotion. Tiny Furniture, like its title, is a small and somewhat silly representation of that larger picture, a little movie that points to a much bigger, subterranean cultural shift.

Friday, May 25, 2012

#436: Before the Rain

(Milcho Manchevski, 1994)

The Balkan war was a distant distraction to America in the mid-1990s, a religious and cultural battle that was mostly framed around  Clinton's peacekeeper doctrine of engagement and Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes. The public had little understanding of either, making Before the Rain a film that is completely divorced from cultural context - or at least it was until 9/11 placed the centuries-old battle between Islam and Christianity at our doorstep. Without going into the politics of that horrifying day, a modern viewing of Before the Rain makes clear not just the significance of the conflict the film depicts, but the timeless nature of its message.

Before the Rain is composed of three interconnected stories: a monk who has taken a vow of silence hides an Albanian girl being hunted down by Macedonians, a London photo agent deals with her affair with a war photographer, and the same photographer returns to his home in Macedonia after years away. What's most interesting about the structure Manchevski uses here is that it has been separated not just from linear chronology but from a logical one as well. Really, there is no way the events of the film could have happened in the way that they do (unless the second story is wildly fractured), since people are dead who come alive and vice versa. This illogical plot separates the film from its ostensibly docudramatic intentions, just as the film's themes have been separated from its literal grounding. This "print the legend" philosophy ties in nicely with the interesting comparison between the film and the Western genre made in Criterion's accompanying essay (though I was surprised Christie didn't point out the most obvious connection: the scene of a group of kids circling a turtle, a direct nod to Peckinpah's opening of The Wild Bunch).

The recurring saying of the film is "Time never dies, the circle is not round." This line - which as far as I can tell is native to the film - is in the mouths of characters and graffitied onto the walls of London. Unsurprisingly, it's the key to the film's central message of violence begetting new violence in a neverending spiral of hate and destruction. This is not a new message, of course, so beyond the cultural novelty of a Macedonian film providing a unique perspective from an area of the world to which we are rarely exposed (or I guess, as claimed in the depressing first sentence of the New Yorker review of the film, an opportunity for us to expand our cultural bragging rights) Before the Rain needs more to offer. Fortunately, Manchevski's elliptical plotting, beautiful cinematography, and compelling characters (most notably the photographer, who is the heart and center of the film) make the movie not just relevant, but truly moving. I wouldn't call Before the Rain a masterpiece, but labels are for another time and right now I'm glad Criterion has made this little movie widely available for an American audience that is so rarely shown the humanity of the overlooked corners of the world.

Monday, May 14, 2012

#126: Ordet

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1955)

At some point during Ordet, around the time when a couple of old men with weird beards are sitting around a table smoking long pipes in a dreary house and discussing God and children, I remembered that The Avengers made $200 million dollars in three days and I laughed out loud. I haven't seen The Avengers and I plan on watching it at some point, so I'm not speaking to the quality of that film, or even really to the inaccessibility of this one - in fact, from a technical perspective, Ordet is actually not that difficult of a film (philosophically and emotionally, of course, it is intensely challenging). What seemed so absurd to me was just how big cinema is, that it can encompass both of these galaxies.

Like Day of Wrath before it, Ordet is a movie about faith. But Ordet is based on a play written by a preacher (who was later killed by the Nazis) so this isnt' going to be an indictment of Christianity - instead, it's a confirmation of God's existence (apparently made more literal in the film than in the play). What was so frustrating to me about the ending of Ordet was not the confirmed miracle, but the implication that it was this miracle which gave the husband faith in God. Faith is not the knowledge of something, but the belief in it despite its absence. When his wife is resurrected, the husband is no longer becoming faithful, but merely acknowledging the truth before his eyes. To me, this seems like the exact opposite of the intension of both the film and religion in general.

I certainly don't want to come off as rash or foolish, but Ordet is not a movie for me, as anyone who has read this blog has probably figured out. Still, it's a masterfully made film. Dreyer uses sweeping pans and subtle tracking with a dogged consistency that avoids becoming tiresome because it's so brilliantly incorporated into the tone of the film. The movie's swaying fields and sets that alternate between stage-like and realistically open (most notably in a couple of subtle but masterful 360˚ turns) call to mind another Scandinavian director who focused on faith, Ingmar Bergman, who was just hitting his stride around the time Ordet was released. (One funny similarity about Bergman and Dreyer: if you believe the DNA tests from last year regarding Bergman being switched at birth, both directors were not raised by their biological parents.) Bergman's films are more clearly accessible than Ordet for the atheist or agnostic because his characters are constantly questioning the absence (or at least as one movie was titled, The Silence) of God, but they also ring truer because they are not directly about faith or religion, but about people (the HUGE exception to this is probably The Seventh Seal, though a handful of other Bergman films might be debatable). Ordet didn't feel that way to me, so the film strikes me more as a cultural oddity than an emotionally memorable work.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

#125: Day of Wrath

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1943)

Day of Wrath is a dark movie about characters filled with rage, spite, and crushing guilt. To the casual viewer (if there can be a casual viewer of Day of Wrath), the film might seem like the typical Christian picture, meant to force the viewer to atone for his or her own sins and focused intently on the penitence necessary to walk the path of God. It's exactly the opposite: an angry rejection of religious zeal and timeless indictment of both authority and the way women are treated. However, Day of Wrath is not an intentionally political film. Instead, its success as a film is confirmation that all art is political - that any confrontation of the nature of humanity and the society it created must speak to the structures and mores of its creator's world.

Nothing good happens in Day of Wrath. An innocent woman is burned at the stake, accused of being a witch, while another has been unwillingly taken as an older man's wife so that her mother was able to avoid the same fate. The wife falls in love with her husband's son, a weak and guilt-wracked individual who we realize quickly has no hope of being her savior. Finally, these characters get what's coming to them, whether they deserve it or not.

But despite the austere setting and dark subject matter, Day of Wrath is surprisingly engaging. This is partially because the film's simplistic plotting and tragic structure recall the melodramas of earlier times (especially silent films like Sunrise), but it's mainly because Dreyer's unique visual style and honest depictions of adult themes point towards modern filmmaking. Day of Wrath might look older than it is (and this is not Criterion's best print) but it feels a decade or two younger. That its witch-trial setting pointed towards The Crucible a decade later should be no surprise, and the reason why Dreyer, often overlooked by cineastes and critics, is so beloved by actual directors and cinematographers is clear from this film alone. With two more films in this collection (plus a documentary about Dreyer), I'm looking forward to delving further into his work.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

#433: Patriotism

(Yukio Mishima and Domoto Masaki, 1966)

Yukio Mishima is not especially well known in the West, and Paul Schrader's biographical film Mishima has a much higher profile within the Criterion Collection. So Patriotism might seem like a companion piece to that film, an oddity that would feel more at home as a supplement on that DVD. I'm not sure I would have disagreed with that choice, but I also see where Criterion was coming from with a full release. Patriotism is a provocative and beautiful film, made with a stylistic eye and a conservative radicalism that must have seemed ever more outrageous in the Japan of the 1960s.

The story of the film couldn't be more basic. In fact, the complexities of the plot take place off screen and are described in scrolls handwritten by Mishima at the beginning of the film. By summarizing what might be the bulk of a more conventional film, Mishima downplays the specifics of his protagonists' deaths and places all of his focus on their final acts. This is further emphasized by his choice to place all of the action of the film on the Noh stage, eliminating most sets and further detaching the events of the film from the world around it (while simultaneously underscoring the unity of the suicides with the core of Japanese culture). It does not matter why the friends of Mishima's character chose to murder high ranking members of the cabinet, only that they did so with the Emperor's best interests at heart and that now Mishima's only honorable choice is seppuku. It does not matter where he and his wife live, what their relatives or friends or acquaintances think of their decision. It does not matter who they were or who they will be. Do they have children? Do they have plans for the future? Mishima is not interested in tying these characters to relatable responsibilities or dreams. They have chosen to die, and this provides them with the greatest love of all.

Despite the graphic depiction of disembowelment in the film, the most controversial element is undoubtedly the parallel drawn by Mishima between true love and ritual suicide. Love in this case is meant in both senses of the word, both emotional and erotic. The lieutenant's wife Reiko is enthusiastic about killing herself along with her husband because she loves him as much as he loves the Emperor and Japan (the equivocation of the relationships between husband and wife and country and man is predictably patriarchal). But even more chillingly, when they have finally decided to stab themselves to death, the film becomes an erotic depiction of their sexual freedom, brought on by the liberating realization that their bodies will no longer be their own. (It's important to note that Mishima's scroll only speaks to Reiko's liberation from shyness, not the lieutenant's; it seems that men do not need to devote themselves to self-mutilation to have great sex - though ostensibly it doesn't hurt.) That Mishima films their suicides as lovingly and sensually as he does their sex scene is no surprise, then. Sex is death, but more importantly death is sex.

Patriotism is a loving and obsessive ode to a morally corrupt and destructive ideology. In this way, it's similar to one of the greatest and most morally repugnant documentaries of all time, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will. However, while both films speak to the respective cultures that created them, where Hitler's self-aggrandizing propaganda was a message about humanity as a whole, Mishima's Patriotism is more personal. Of course the comparisons break down rather quickly and start to seem absurd - Mishima is no Hitler. And really, if it wasn't for the simple fact that the author-turned-director ended up committing seppuku himself less than five years later, it might be easy to dismiss this film as a simple provocation. But he did, so here we are, presented with a chilling paean to killing yourself in the name of honor. It's a psychotic and terrifying thesis, one that places the turmoil of Japanese culture front and center in all its ugly beauty.

#567: The Makioka Sisters

(Kon Ichikawa, 1983)

OK, here's my theory on why every movie made in the 80s is so obviously made it in the 80s - even movies like The Makioka Sisters (and the last film I watched, Danton) that are set in the past. 80s trends were almost entirely focused on the end of history and the beginning of the future. The decade in fashion, design, music, and visual arts was essentially a ten-year-long infomercial for the coming digital revolution. There's nothing that's so dated as commercials, because commercials are written in the future tense - you are watching what your life will be like when you have whatever is being advertised, not what it is like. The 80s were like that, too. We were supposed to be partying like it's 1999, going Back to the Future, and smashing the vision of 1984 with your new Apple computer. When the 80s stopped being the present and started being the past, nothing stood out like the outdated image of a future that never came to pass.

Depending on your viewpoint, The Makioka Sisters is either hobbled or irredeemably crippled by its decade. Kon Ichikawa wouldn't be the first director you would imagine being taken in by contemporary trends considering his rich history and his obvious affection for the source material of the film. But his musical choices, dominated by synths, and his lighting and cinematography decisions are questionable to even the viewer who is able to appreciate them for what they must have seemed at the time. Because it seems so out of place here, the film's potential as a true classic is somewhat lessened.

Beyond these elements, however, The Makioka Sisters is a beautiful and surprisingly engaging epic of Japanese domesticity. The way Ichikawa films his characters and their spaces is unique and decidedly non-Ozu, making for a fascinating visual experience when he doesn't slide into neon mode. The performances are reserved but extremely moving - I really love the way the relationships between the sisters are depicted. Japan, too, looks beautiful here, most obviously as the cherry blossoms bloom in Osaka. The combination of vivid characters and visuals makes the nearly two-and-half-hour running time fly by, an especially impressive feat considering the fact that nothing stereotypically thought of as conflict in cinema happens.

This is what might be most impressive about the film. Despite taking place just before the Second World War, The Makioka Sisters is a gentle film about the final moments of a lost time in Japanese history. There are only mild challenges for the sisters - one must relocate because of a husband's job, one's poor choice of lover leads to a casual payoff. Even the core conflict of the film centers around a simple challenge: the third sister must be married off before the fourth can do the same, but she is shy and picky, leading to difficulties for the family. This sounds decidedly uneventful, but the small moments in these women's lives become extremely engaging in Ichikawa's hands, and the connection to history manages to shine through without being forced. It's really a beautiful movie that, despite some time-related missteps, deserves the higher profile this release has given it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

#464: Danton

(Andrzej Wajda, 1983)

Danton is about democracy, communism, and other tools of oppression. The film belongs to a subgenre of the historical drama whose main thesis is that everything old is new again: Danton is not meant to highlight a past historical event, but to illuminate contemporary politics (technically, all historical works should strive for this goal, but Danton and its like are designed with a specific contemporary issue in mind, rather than generally delivering a timeless lesson). Wajda has apparently denied that the film was a metaphor for modern Poland, but the evidence seems beyond doubt. Along with the simple fact that Wajda chose to make the film at this time, there are other clues: he changed the sympathies of the original Communist-slanted version of the play from Robespierre to Danton, and - most importantly - he cast French actors as Danton and his people and Polish actors as Robespierre and his people. (By the way, this makes for some brutal dubbing, which you'll just have to pretend isn't happening by focusing intently on the subtitles.)

Nearly 30 years later, the politics of the film remain scarily relevant in post-9/11 America. With two successive presidents from different sides of the ideological spectrum embracing torture, supposedly "targeted" bombings, and civil liberties violations which verge on the unprecedented (including the legalization of assassinating American citizens) - not to mention the continued acceptance of the illegal machinations of Wall Street and the thoughtless support for corporations over individuals - the question of democracy vs. corrupt oligarchy is just as relevant in today's USA as it was to Wajda's Poland in the early 80s, even if the impact of the current philosophical crises are not felt as directly by the average American as they were by the average French person in the late 18th century or the average Eastern European person in the late 20th. (This is, of course, by design, as government has become more sophisticated in its ability to conduct itself in totalitarian ways without ruffling the feathers of the middle masses necessary for a true upheaval - a process that might be the true unsung genius of the political system in America.) All of this means the film plays as viscerally and razor-sharp as it did in the early 80s.

I loved all three films in Wajda's war trilogy, so I wasn't especially surprised that I loved this film. What was a pleasant surprise, however, was Gerard Depardieu's performance as Danton. The actor has given memorable performances before, though his American films have been almost universally horrible (except of course My Father the Hero). But his turn as the titular character is obviously essential to the film's success, and he pulls it off wonderfully, most notably perhaps in the key scene where he confronts Robespierre in person and offers him food and drink before cooly getting down to business. Depardieu manages to give Danton the heft and charisma to be a powerful presence, but he sticks him with the vanity and narcissism that makes his character much more complex and realistic. The script itself only hints at this complexity (Robespierre is the livelier figure on the page, which makes sense since he is the true protagonist of the film), but Depardieu's performance wrings it out of his best moments with natural ease.

Danton is a warning to the people. While its message cannot be misconstrued, the skill of Wajda's direction and the film's performances make it far more than a message film. It turns out after all to be one of those timeless explorations of the world's greatest challenge, a society answerable to the people that delivers safety and justice, freedom and protection from restriction, sacred ideals and broad tolerance, all in equal measures. Art isn't meant to give easy answers to this challenge, merely to illuminate the necessity of the pursuit of those answers, something Danton does beautifully.