Wednesday, March 09, 2005

No Hope For Humanity – The Misanthrope’s Film Festival 

More film festivals are on the way! Dan did the honors yet again in picking up our tickets for the New Directors/New Directions Film Festival at Lincoln Center which is in a couple of weeks. And after the excellent experience we had with the documentary screenings at Sundance, K. and I are also seriously considering going to Durham, NC for Full Frame, the documentary film festival.

Given that all of these events are on the horizon, I thought it might be time for another Evangelist Film Festival post. These are my opportunity to program a mini-festival in your living room, focused on a single theme. This time around, its misanthropy.

I have no patience with misogyny, but having a bit of a fatalistic streak I have a lot of patience for misanthropy. I think the first time I had a good taste of filmic misanthropy, it was probably Heathers. (By the way, haven't you always wondered what the heck happened to Heathers director/writer team Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters? The answer is not pretty. Their next big endeavor was on the notorious flop continuum alongside Ishtar, Heaven's Gate and Waterworld. The film's name? Hudson Hawk. To add insult to injury, Waters' brother helmed 2004's massively successful, Heathers-lite flick, Mean Girls.)

That was the first time I recall seeing a character so disgusted over his fellow humans. Heathers remains, however, a teen comedy and so I did not include it here. While some of the films in the Misanthrope's Film Festival are also comedic, they are generally more adult in tone and present more incisive arguments for dislike of one's fellow man and perhaps all fellow men.

American History X
Anchored by Edward Norton's searing portrayal of an American neo-Nazi, this film powerfully depicts the ills of American racism at its worst. The film is truly unforgetable and will give viewers new insight into just how awful people can be to each other. In fact, the film manages to encapsulate in a single sound effect how evil might inhabit each and every one of us when pushed to extremes. (If you've seen the film, you know just what that sound is. If you haven't, you will recognize it as the foulest, most effective sound effect you've ever heard the moment you hear it.)

It's hard to know who to credit for the film's potency. Director Tony Kaye was supposedly yanked from the project during editing and later sued to have his credit listed as Humpty Dumpty! The buzz was that Norton wrapped filming and helmed the editing process as well. In any case, I found it to be quite an eye opener and well worth seeing.

Citizen Ruth
Everybody loves writer/director Alexander Payne after Sideways, but it's worth taking a trip back in time to see this earlier effort.

Laura Dern stars as a drug addict named Ruth whose especially cheap brand of entertainment is "huffing" spraypaint. When Ruth turns up pregnant, she becomes a political pawn between right-to-lifers and a band of old-school feminists. Comedy ensues as each side does their best to use Ruth for their own purposes, desperately pretending to themselves and the world that Ruth's welfare is their paramount concern.

It sounds strange to say, but it is Dern's brave and essentially unlikeable characterization of Ruth make this film work and also make it worth watching.

Dancer in the Dark
This film began my "von Trier habit". About 15 minutes into the film, I said to myself, "Wow, he really hates women." By the end, I said, "Wow, he really hates all of us!"

The film tells the story of woman's gradual descent into blindness and her attempts to save enough money from her factory toils to save her son from the same fate. The cruelty of her situation is compounded by the way some of her co-workers deal with her situation.

As difficult as Dancer in the Dark is to watch, it is truly original filmmaking that makes excellent use of cinematography, music and as unlikely as it might seem, dance.

Von Trier strikes again. This time a Brechtian saga with an whiff of Cold War paranoia. A young woman enters a mountain mining town, perhaps on the run from someone. What should the townspeople do?

A fascinating film. Potentially a searing endictment of America. Maybe a messiah myth. All depends on your point of view. Here's the thing: you cannot help but have an opinion. There is no neutral response to this work.

Another early work by Alexander Payne featuring wonderfully hateful performances from both Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Quite an achievement, don't you think?

Centered around a high school election, the film tells the story of a teacher who so dislikes a student that he cannot stand to see her win. Payne uses the election as a filter not only for American politics, but also as a way of examinging human competitiveness. Weird, funny and very nasty.

Who can make you have empathy for a child molester? Only one man: Todd Solondz. In this film, Solondz takes an Altman-esque approach to examining sexually maladjusted American suburbanites (a favorite target.) Skillfully weaving together several storylines, Solondz continually takes us to the point of complete squeamishness and offers release by returning to the thread of another tale we'd begun earlier.

This film is proof that Solondz is Soderbergh minus the sellout. All the filmmaking talent, the use of brilliant ensemble casts, but he hasn't lost his agenda: to put the worst of the human condition under a microscope and examine it thoroughly.

The Shape of Things
You have to hand it to Neil LaBute. Whether or not he does actually singlehandedly own the entire misanthropy genre, the press pretty much thinks he does. Crashing out of the gates with In the Company of Men and barreling through Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute brings it on...and on...and on. Each time setting up a specific set of human failings and watching it play through.

The Shape of Things is one of his more interesting films to me because it is much harder to parse. In this film, the question is "how far would you go for love?" Without recapping the plot, suffice it to say that it will keep you asking questions right up through the very end.
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