Guest: Lauren Levitt - "THE WEDDING PLAN: QUITE A PIECE OF RAGING PROPAGANDA" by Samuel B. Prime

Editor's NoteLauren Levitt and I met late last year under... extraordinary circumstances. Separately, we chose to attend a queer-leaning, fetish-themed dance party at a strip club in Hollywood. It might have been one of the worst decisions either of us had ever made, except that somewhere between the stale alcohol on the breath of a slurring stripper-waitress and mutually getting ripped off at the door, we found one another and started talking about - what else - movies. Lauren is a PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California.

- Samuel B. Prime, Founder


Disclaimer: the final paragraph of the below review reveals plot details, including the ending

Months ago, my friend Sam asked me if I wanted to review a movie for LA Ciné Salon. “Absolutely not. I try not to do anymore work than I absolutely have to,” I said. “But I think you’ll find it interesting, and I don’t know anyone else who could write about it as well as you would,” he replied. The film, he explained, was about a 32-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman who, after being dumped by her fiancé, decides that she is going to get married in the span of a month, trusting that God would provide her with a groom. An Orthodox Jewish rom com about societal pressure for women to get married did sound interesting, I admitted, but I still wasn’t planning to write about it.

Fast forward two months, and we are sitting in a preview for The Wedding Plan by American-Israeli director Rama Burshtein. The film opens with a scene of the protagonist, Michal (Noa Kooler), visiting a matchmaker. The matchmaker is preparing a meal, and she makes Michal knead and separate the dough for bread before subjecting her to an interrogation about her reason for seeking her wisdom. The matchmaker is unsatisfied with Michal’s reasons until she breaks down, all of the reasons why she wants to get married gushing out of her as the matchmaker spreads fish guts across her face: she wants to be respected because she is married; she wants a husband to keep religious traditions with; she wants to love and be loved; she wants to be alive. It is like a passage out of a gender studies textbook on the ideology of heterosexual marriage. The matchmaker tells Michal to wipe her face and that her married son, who runs a wedding hall, will cut her a generous deal on the wedding.

In the next scene, we see Michal and her fiancé at a tasting for their wedding menu. The mood is tense, and Michal’s fiancé will not tell her what is wrong. Finally, he admits that he is not in love with her. Determined to get married with or without him, Michal puts a down payment on the wedding venue, buys a wedding dress, and continues to go on a series of increasingly unsuccessful dates against the advice of her dressmaker, family, and rabbi. It is pretty clear to me how this movie will end: Michal will fail to find a husband at the end of the month, but she will realize that she has people who love her and that getting married is far from the most important thing in the world. How could it end any other way in 2017, the same year of Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist dystopian novel about the conservative ideology of motherhood as the destiny of all womankind? 

About a third of the way through the movie, Michal travels to the Ukraine to visit the tomb of a famous rabbi to pray for a husband, and while there she serendipitously meets a scruffily handsome Israeli pop star named Yoss (Oz Zehavi). (I think we are supposed to know who this guy is, but honestly I have no idea.) After Yoss flirts with her and asks her where she lives so that she “can’t disappear,” Michal tells him about her plan to get married within the month to a mystery groom, freaking him out (as she does nearly every man she meets) by insinuating that they might get married. 

Upon returning home from the Ukraine, she discovers that her best friend is getting married to her ex-fiancé. I might have been wrong about this being a rom com, I think. It isn’t very funny, and the tone is frankly somber. Suddenly, Yoss turns up at Michal’s house asking her to marry him. At this point the film is looking like some kind of Mary Sue fangirl fantasy, but Michal refuses because she thinks that he is not serious. However after more disastrous dates and with only a few days before the wedding, in desperation she turns up at one of his shows and sheepishly proposes to him. This time he turns her down.

The day of the wedding comes, and there is still no groom to be found. Finally, the owner of the wedding venue (the matchmaker’s son) proposes to Michal. It turns out that he and his wife have been separated, and she just granted him a divorce the week before! At first Michal says no because she thinks that he is not serious either, but he wins her over by telling her that he fell for her the first time he saw her in his mother’s waiting room and that he had decided to marry her at the end of the month if she didn’t find anyone else. Nevermind that none of this makes any sense. The film ends with him singing to her about how beauty and grace are only superficial.

“That was quite a piece of propaganda,” I say to my companion Sam as we leave the theater.

“That it was,” he replies. I think I might have to write about this one after all.

Lauren Levitt

THE WEDDING PLAN opens theatrically in Los Angeles today, May 19th, 2017.

"TRUMAN: His Master's Choice" by Samuel B. Prime

By Brendan Lucas

In Tetrapharmakos, or Four-Part Cure, the Greek philosopher Epicurus assures his followers that “what is terrible is easy to endure.” With its focus on simple pleasures, the value of enduring friendships, a withdrawal from public life, and a rational approach to life and death, Cesc Gay’s Truman (2015) embraces an Epicurean view in its depiction of a man’s waning life. An aesthetically restrained film, Truman asks profound questions about the value of prolonging life and portrays the social fallout of a dying man’s experiment in frank, radical honesty.

Married with children and living in suburban Winnipeg, Spanish expatriate Tomás (Javier Cámara) travels to Madrid for a surprise visit with an old friend, aging theater actor Julián (Ricardo Darín). Diagnosed with likely-terminal lung cancer, Julián decides to forego additional treatment. Past his prime and resigned to his fate, he instead chooses to spend his remaining time making his final arrangements and bidding farewell to friends and family - though not before saying his piece and defending his controversial decision to those that will survive him.

Faced with a life that he believes is no longer worth living, Tomás helps Julián navigate the social awkwardness of this disclosure to his friends and loved ones, who prioritize their own hurt feelings and indignation upon learning of his willful refusal to continue treatment; when confronted with death, his friends and family project their own discomfort, as well as the sting of perceived rejection. Divorced and with an adult son living abroad, one of Julián’s only remaining immediate family members is his dog Truman. His repeated attempts to place Truman with a suitable adoptive family humorously symbolizes the absurdity of planning his own funeral, of renouncing his own life and yet trying to control the life of another. As dogs are said to reflect their owners, Truman represents a beautiful combination of the friends’ best attributes - Julián is fundamentally brave and lives unashamedly, while Tomás, generous to a fault, gives of himself without expecting anything in return. Truman is impulsive and unselfconscious, yet - like all beloved pets - gives more than he takes.

Spanish cinema is no stranger to dealing with death in light of incapacitation. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro, 2004) explored the real life efforts of Spanish right-to-die activist and quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro. Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002), which also stars Javier Cámara as an obsessive caregiver to a comatose patient, examines the fate of those who are kept alive indefinitely with characteristic darkness and sensationalism. In this tradition, Truman asks: when faced with dismal odds against a terminal disease, is fighting the good fight done for the benefit of the patient, or out of an obligation to our family and social circles? When approaching almost certain death, are we in some ways coerced into clinging to life because it is more acceptable than admitting defeat? 

Truman affords a humane glimpse of a looming philosophical and emotional question, one that may become increasingly common as popular attitudes about life in our modern world shift from “quantity” to “quality.”

TRUMAN opens in Los Angeles and select theaters on April 14th, 2017.

- Brendan Lucas

Strong Look, Weak Presentation by Samuel B. Prime

A kinetic promise of a documentary that resonates loudest in its moments of stillness, KIKI aspires to follow in the footsteps of the non-fiction giantess PARIS IS BURNING (1990), but falls short of expectations by losing sight of its stated subject matter and falling victim to the unavoidable datedness introduced by its political elements (primarily re: the election of Barack Obama). Maybe it is less that KIKI presents outdated information than a lot has changed for the worse in too short a span, but attempting to balance an ensemble of colorful performers with political context reeks of a novice director too nervous or insecure to place their trust in the audience to “get it.”

KIKI succeeds insofar as it introduces its audience to members of the New York ballroom culture scene whose stories are anything but simple, while simultaneously encouraging that they be seen for precisely who and what they are. It accomplishes this by spending the bulk of its runtime with these characters, allowing them the space to tell their stories of hardship and self-realization in full. The stories are unquestionably moving. What amplifies these stories are a series of still and silent video portraits, most often used to introduce a character. Mercifully, KIKI avoids usage of superimposed text to clarify names and roles. Instead, the audience is encouraged to look at the person, captured in a handheld medium-shot, while they simply look back at - and into - the camera. “See me for everything that I am,” these portraits seem to say. Unlike other elements in the film concerning important, but ancillary, political or societal subjects, these stunning portraits invite dialogue (or, an exchange). That the film ends with revisiting these portraits one-by-one confirms their centrality to the piece as a whole. However, the moments in-between unfortunately prove less satisfying; a mixed bag of performance preparation, competition snippets, and good scenes that - while amusing in a basic way - should have been left on the cutting room floor. 

If there is something missing, it is a basic dramatic arc. KIKI is more a general survey of a scene than it is an urgent and specific story to be told. That is not to deny the importance of the LGBTQ rights-related issues expressed within the film, but to state that there is no big competition, main character to follow, or - really - conclusion. As a result, you could say that KIKI defies convention, but not in a way that feels conscious or purposeful. KIKI attempts to be too many things at once and in the end divides its time and attention between categories that each could separately be their own film: major voguing competitions in New York City; a few key characters who comprise a specific community or subcommunity and who find themselves through dance and performance; a thorough, determined look at the visibility of and revolution in LGBTQ rights in the past decade. As it stands, nearly everything in KIKI feels like a gloss. We see the surface of things, yearn to go deeper, but never get there. The result is a film that feels broadly important because of its continued relevance, especially regarding the still rising number of HIV-positive members of the ballroom community and the disproportionate threat of violence against trans members, but only incidentally demonstrates skill in its presentation. For some, the fact that KIKI exists and will make headlines, thereby engaging with and engaging others in discourse on the many subjects it champions, will be enough. Maybe that is enough. Formally, however, it requires more rehearsal.

KIKI opens today, 02/24, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and on VOD! 

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon

Bright Lights, Big Kitties by Samuel B. Prime

In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the development of Istanbul's sewer system brought with it hoards of vermin. The solution: the sworn enemy of the filthy, disease-ridden rat, that most aloof and calculating of hunters: the cat. Ever since, the ubiquitous presence of hundreds of thousands of free-roaming and free-spirited felines has been an indivisible part of Istanbul's identity. To know the city, to love the city, and to be part of its metropolis is to be charmed by the many four-legged interlopers who define it - and who shape the lives of others - with every purr. Such is the subject of Ceyda Torun's first documentary feature, KEDI (2016), a nonfiction film that would (much to its credit) titillate the late Chris Marker - whose love of cats is well-documented and whose LE JOLI MAI (1963) it loosely, though perhaps incidentally, emulates - and that ought to seen far and wide by as many folks as possible.

While the cats obviously cannot speak for themselves, the humans whose lives they inform speak on their behalf. Although it is clear that most of the humans in question feel a certain sense of ownership and affection towards the cats in question, it is generally accepted that the cats of Istanbul come and go as they please. To be in one's presence is a kind of welcome grace, but also - in most cases - a mutually beneficial relationship. The humans of the film provide food, shelter, and emergency medical care and the cats provide company, act as exterminators, or in the case of a cat known as Psikopat ("the neighborhood psychopath") protect the local turf by keeping the streets free from unwelcome riff-raff and mangy alley cats. Even dogs know better than to mess with Psikopat. When it comes to the cats of Istanbul, their undisputed importance means vastly different things to its denizens.

In spite of the stereotype of the "crazy cat lady," there are characters in this film who adopt and/or care for cats as a means of self-healing. One woman confesses to having nearly sixty cats living in her home and that her therapist tells her that taking care of the cats is an attempt to make up for her own shortcomings. While not in denial, there is a certain melancholy to someone who helps others and is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to help themselves. Another man confesses to a nervous breakdown and that caring for packs of the city's cats has imbued his life with purpose and utterly refreshed his everyday experience with a previously unknown serenity. Altogether other anecdotes honor cats with singular wisdom - they are uniformly referred to as good judges of character - or even supernatural properties; a man relates a tale of how, following a personal disappointment, a mysterious cat led him to a wallet filled with money. A film filled from top to bottom with broad opinions about animal companions and specific, savory anecdotes about the approximately ten central cat characters who represent the larger whole, KEDI seems to settle on one essential truth as its thesis: to bestow love upon an animal is a remarkably human act and to do so generously means you are capable of a deeper love, even a romance, from one human being to another. Through the eyes of a cat, we see ourselves as all the more human.

KEDI opens theatrically in NYC on February 10th and the greater LA area on Friday, February 17th, 2017. 

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon

Guest: Brendan Lucas - "THE SALESMAN (2016): Fragile and Uninhabitable" by Samuel B. Prime

“Which then is best? He that layeth his foundation on piety to Allah and His good pleasure?

Or he that layeth his foundation on an undermined sand-cliff ready to crumble to pieces?”

A multi-layered meta-adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is a slow-burning drama that gestures obliquely beyond its intimate domestic setting toward the massive, impersonal forces that are shaping modern Iran. From housing shortages and urban sprawl to moral opprobrium and government censorship, the film seems to comment on the destructive reverberation of these forces in the lives of everyday people among Tehran’s middle class. What’s more, beneath the surface of Farhadi’s domestic drama is a subtle critique of the fundamentally gendered, culturally informed notions of honor and moral obligation.

Emad, a high school literature teacher, and his wife Rana are actors in a local theater company who are suddenly awoken in the middle of the night to find their high-rise flat collapsing. The displaced couple relocates to a cramped, semi-vacated apartment at the recommendation of a fellow actor; but when an unknown intruder attempts to force his way into Rana’s bathroom, the couple’s world is thrown into emotional chaos, with Emad resolving to discover the identity of the intruder without the benefit of police involvement. Starting from a relatively simple dramatic premise - a stranger forcing his way into the wrong woman’s bathroom - The Salesman unfolds with startling emotional complexity and speaks to the understandable limitations of a moral worldview based on an unquestionable male authority. Equal parts chamber drama and vigilante thriller, the film transcends its seeming mundanity and instead proves to be a brilliantly observed and acted story of mounting obsession.

Echoing Arthur Miller’s play, The Salesman culminates with the dramatic discovery of infidelity, and its potential to expose and destabilize the fictive basis of a nuclear family. Drawing from his experience in the Iranian theater, Farhadi brilliantly recasts The Death of a Salesman to demonstrate the practical as well as ideological hurdles of adapting Miller’s text for a contemporary Iranian audience - for his characters struggling to realize a sanitized production of a mid-century American social satire, as well as those faced by Farhadi himself, who as a filmmaker attempts to push the boundaries of critical dissent. During a rehearsal of the play, a cast member balks at the absurdity of a fully-clothed Iranian woman believably portraying Willy Loman’s half-dressed American mistress. Later, in the anxious bustle of opening night, rumors circulate among the actors that additional scenes will have to be excised or altered at the last minute to appease religious authorities. Similarly, whether out of self-censorship or willful omission, Farhadi skirts depicting the home invasion in full, leaving the audience to infer what exactly took place. Through such a dramatic ellipsis, he acknowledges those unspoken restrictions of decency currently imposed upon Iranian cinema, and the impossibility of conveying a true feminine perspective.

Consider another 2016 film about a woman’s attempt to cope in the aftermath of a home invasion - Paul Verhoeven’s subversively explicit Elle (previously reviewed by Samuel B. Prime) - in which Isabelle Huppert portrays a Parisian femme libérée whose blunt, matter-of-fact approach to her past trauma and unmet desires is equally in direct opposition to the political correctness of her colleagues, as well as the elliptical ambiguity and innuendo of The Salesman. The heroine of Verhoeven’s film combines survivor and avenger into a single character, who uses her power and privilege as a high-salaried tech world entrepreneuse to launch a covert investigation of her assailant, while at the same time attempting to realize her own sexual and emotional needs. Elle is a genuinely shocking psychodrama, as well as a darkly farcical comedy of manners; one that Verhoeven, with characteristic black humor, deftly prevents from careening into the abyss of fetishized revenge fantasy.

Farhadi and Verhoeven both utilize sites of fictional roleplaying to investigate their characters’ ability to maintain public face in the wake of an invasive private trauma. These collaborative sites of formalized make-believe (a video game production studio in Verhoeven’s Elle; a community theater in The Salesman) explore both masked desire as well as the outward-facing demands of bourgeois propriety.  As male-dominated fields, theater and gaming work primarily to realize male desire, and both forms privilege the exploration of men’s emotional subjectivity to the exclusion of female perspectives. With their shared emphasis on the transgression of domestic space, the two films highlight the ultimate failure of an ethical worldview that remains violently male-centric. In the wake of eruptive male destrudo, women are disproportionately and irrevocably affected (men are immune).

In a society that attempts to maintain inflexible religious prescriptions against the onslaught of an increasingly complex and interconnected modernity, individuals are crushed from above by the downward economic pressures facing the working and middle classes, and trapped from below by the ever-present bedrock of a theocratic worldview. Unable to push back against the forces disrupting his life, Emad seeks to impose control by policing the domestic, and sublimates his frustration by dispensing vigilante justice, ironically, on an aging, out-of-work middle class salesman. Although the putative moral of The Salesman - the tempering of masculine vengeance through feminine mercy - seems heavy-handed, a more nuanced critique lurks at the margins. The city, with its shoddy, slapdash construction, aging facades and structural instability, symbolizes the fragility of those rigid ideological systems that, while normally dormant, have the potential to rupture without warning in ever-widening ripples of cause-and-effect. Seizing upon the recurrent motif of a collapsing apartment building that is at the mercy of unseen, tectonic forces, The Salesman presents a deceptively intimate story that obscures its own subtle and yet far-reaching critique from within the system, and dares to condemn the edifice of modern masculinity as something so unquestionably fragile as to be uninhabitable.

The Salesman opens in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, January 27th, 2017.

- Brendan Lucas