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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Le Quattro Volte, My Perestroika

Le Quattro Volte (Three and a Half Stars)

Italy/Germany/Switzerland: Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010

Movies, more than any other art form, can precisely show and beautifully render the appearance and feel and flow of reality: the look of the world, the way time passes, the way humans and animals and other life forms act on our planet. (And also, more distantly, the look of other planets or even stars). Few fictional films have rendered the look and feel of the world more powerfully, more memorably, than Michelangelo Frammartino’s Italian film Le Quattro Volte, or “The Four Times.”

Frammartino’s film, set in a tiny village in Italy‘s Calabria mountain country, is like some pure, austere culmination of Italy’s great neo-realist film movement. Not a documentary, Le Quattro Volte manages to feel like one, to give us the illusion of unmediated or unaltered life. Not exactly a drama, it manages to carry us into the heart of all drama, life and death, and successively, into the souls not only of an old dying man who herds goats, but of a goat kid, of a majestic tree, and of the charcoal made from that tree’s burned remnants. (Souls? Yes.)

The title refers to the philosopher Pythagoras, who once lived in this approximate area, 2,500 years ago, and to his concept of the four stages of life: intellectual, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Those four stages correspond also to the central subjects of each of Le Quattro Volte’s four chapters: the old goatherd (intellectual), the goat kid (animal), the tree (vegetable) and the charcoal in the kiln (mineral).

Does a single soul pass among all these various forms? Maybe. More crucially, Frammartino invites us to view all life as important, as a worthy subject for his art and our closest attention.

SPOILER ALERT (Ignore, if you feel like it.)

The first chapter is almost unbearably poignant — and if it stood alone , that segment might be regarded as a neo-realist classic almost as moving as De Sica’s Umberto D or Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, both of which it recalls. We watch the old goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda) and his dog leading his herd of goats, with their clamorous bells, into the unpopulated mountain pastures, and later lead them home, to the combination room and barn he keeps them in. We watch his one strong link with the outside world: his nightly trading of goats milk for ashes scraped from the local church floor, ashes which he dissolves in water and drinks as medicine or holy water. One night, he misses the trade of milk for ashes and dies the next day.

The second chapter shows a goat kid being born (an incredible sight), then shows the animal following the herd into the forest, becoming trapped in a trench and separated from them, then wandering, lost, in bad weather, until the kid reaches the majestic tree. The third shows us that tree towering toward the sky, then being cut down in a vast, merry and colorful town celebration. Finally, in the fourth chapter,  we watch the logs being burned in the kiln and turned into wood charcoal.

This is a film you don’t necessarily interpret but feel and absorb. In each section someone or something dies and is transformed. And though there are sure to be intolerant and dismissive viewers of Le Quattro Volte who say that “nothing happens” in this remarkable film, they are wrong.

What could be more momentous, more moving, more dramatic, than life and death? And transformation? (Transfiguration?) Frammartino’s story is the tale of all the world and we who live on it — and he tells it so beautifully, so lyrically, with such austerity and grace, that we are held rapt, spellbound by his images of life and death, of time and its stop. (Italian, with subtitles.) (Music Box, Chicago)

My Perestroika (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.A.: Robin Hessman, 2011 

Robin Hessman’s documentary about one of the most momentous political events of the 20th century — the collapse of the Soviet Union ad the seeming end of the Cold War — makes it look puzzlingly unmomentous, almost mundane. Hessman, an American, who worked in Russia during the ‘90s on their version of “Sesame Street,” focuses on five Russians, including four ex-schoolmates, and follows them from the ‘80s to now: though the traumas and upheavals of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, glasnost, perestroika, and finally the dissolution of the USSR.

 The quintet Hessman builds her movie around are Olga Durikova, once the class beauty, now a single mother who works for a billiards company, Ruslan Stupin, a ex-punk rock star (with the group NAIV) who’s now a subway/street musician, Andrei Yevgrafov, a successful entrepreneur who runs a chain of posh western-style men’s wear stores. and two history teachers, the husband and wife Borya and Lyuba Meyerson. Some of them yearn a little for the past (and its security), some are delighted by the change. Almost all of them are too busy to focus much on politics.

 My Perestroikais not particularly memorably shot or edited, but its human material makes it fascinating. At the end, even with the revelations or intimations (or are knowledge from elsewhere) that the new Russia is corrupt and violent, and might eventually be a threat as the old Russia was, one is amazed by how quiet and, in the end, non-bloody, and how seemingly inevitable, the fall of Communism finally was. (Russian and English, with subtitles) (Music Box, Chicago) 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon