Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Postwar Drama

Two new videos tackle similar themes

By Noel Murray, Rob Nelson, and Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

On the wall--recommended new releases

Capitaine Conan/The Long Way Home--In many ways, Bertrand Tavernier's World War I drama Capitaine Conan and the Academy Award-winning documentary The Long Way Home couldn't be more different, but they are alike in their surveillance of the postwar landscape. War doesn't stop on a dime, both films explain. There are occupying forces, refugees, and scars that don't heal overnight.

Tavernier's film follows (loosely and sometimes confusingly) a pack of ruthless French soldiers, who after Nov. 11, 1918, are reassigned to keep the peace in a small Romanian village. However, the men find it hard to adjust to state dinners and guard duty, and it's not long before their pent-up aggression explodes in a series of petty (and not-so-petty) crimes. The plot revolves around court-martial proceedings, but the debate is not one of law but one of appropriateness--how can you expect a war hero to become a paper pusher? How are you going to keep 'em down on the farm after they've razed Paris?

Similarly, The Long Way Home deals with displaced persons, as it meticulously details the years between the liberation of the German concentration camps (1944) and the foundation of the state of Israel (1948). "The Jewish Problem," as it had been called for centuries, threatened to choke a rebuilding Europe, as a decimated people wandered between villages and military installations, looking for the remnants of homes and family.

The Long Way Home begs for a sequel, to show how the Jews went from overcoming adversity and building a new homeland to degrading the Palestinians almost as shabbily as they themselves were degraded after the war; but even the incomplete story is fascinating and loaded with context. What lingers is the single-minded vision of a people determined to survive, if only to show their children that the world can be just. --Noel Murray

Clockwatchers--Set in Anywhere, U.S.A., this keenly observed and darkly comic indie is named for a quartet of office temps who toil at Global Credit while receiving no credit of their own. Each of the four has her own ironic way of coping: Paula (Lisa Kudrow) believes she'll soon make it as an actress, but in the meantime she makes it with various junior-executive jerks; Jane (Alanna Ubach) is an obsessive-compulsive, counting the days until her wedding to a guy who's probably cheating on her; Margaret (Parker Posey) yearns for a permanent job while relishing every minor opportunity for sarcasm or insurrection; and Iris (Toni Collette) is a sensitive shoegazer who longs for conversation but rarely speaks, instead reserving her most intimate thoughts for the safe space of her diary. As director Jill Sprecher keeps her camera in the cubicled trenches, and as her sharp eye fixes on the most minute details in this company of men, Clockwatchers begins to notice that the master's tools might be used to tear down his office--or at least to pry open the door a little wider.--Rob Nelson

Man With a Movie Camera--As part of its Soviet avant-garde series of treasures from the silent Russian cinema, Kino International has released a new version of Dziga Vertov's 1929 classic, a record of dusk-to-dawn life in Moscow intended to demonstrate a new principle of cinematic realism called Kino-Eye. The Soviet film theoretician conceived of the camera as a disconnected eye, free to record events from superhuman perspectives.

If that sounds dry, brace yourself for a shock: At less than an hour, the film is a whirling delight, a kinetic overload of motion, elation, and unrestrained optimism. Accompanied by a bustling new Alloy Orchestra score that owes more to Carl Stalling than to Prokofiev, Vertov's plucky cameraman (who appears throughout) dodges trains, prowls factories, leans out of moving cars, and attempts to represent sound visually with pumping pistons and whirring wheels. Lest we forget this is cinema, Vertov films the audience responding to the film. Some of his wiggiest effects would seem to violate the idea of verit. But that's the intoxicating power of making movies--you start out trying to record realism, and you end up animating a plate full of prawns.--Jim Ridley

Six O'Clock News--Documentarian Ross McElwee continues to chronicle his life in this latest piece, which played on PBS two years ago. Unlike Time Indefinite and the masterpiece Sherman's March, Six O'Clock News finds the filmmaker turning his camera away from himself and toward the media. McElwee develops a fascination with the way reporters cover natural disasters, so he becomes a "storm chaser," following tornadoes and hurricanes across the country and interviewing the people who have survived both the storm and the press. Six O'Clock News is rather freeform, which gives McElwee a chance to talk to a neighbor with a wall of TVs, to document an interview of himself done by a local news crew, and to check on his old friend Charlene, who is recovering from storms of her own.--Noel Murray

Off the wall--alternatives to The Big Lebowski

The Big Fix--The Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski (one of the best and funniest films of the year, no matter what other critics say) is not the first film to cross a rickety counterculture with the work of a gumshoe. For example, there's this surprisingly deep California crime film from 1978. Richard Dreyfus stars as a cynical private dick who gets hired to track down a refugee revolutionary (F. Murray Abraham). The search for an icon ends up becoming a search for something that has been lost by many; and, as befits late-'70s malaise, what gets found is a betrayal of everything a generation once stood for. It's pretty heavy, man, but it's also pretty interesting both from a historical and from a cinematic perspective.--Noel Murray

Cutter's Way--On a par with the two above-mentioned Big films is Ivan Passer's low-key 1981 thriller, a darker but strikingly similar take on the fate of '60s idealism. Here Jeff Bridges ("The Dude" in the Coens' film) plays Bone, a laid-back, amoral hustler whose closest pal is Cutter (John Heard, in a devastating performance), a maimed, embittered Vietnam vet who rages against the country's power structure. When Bone witnesses a tycoon's heinous crime, Cutter presses him to take action--a decision that leads to revenge and redemption. In many ways this is Lebowski's mirror image--a ragged group of '60s outcasts renewing its struggle against forces of commerce and corruption--but Passer's hazy atmosphere of regret and decay is unique and haunting. And the last shot's a killer. --Jim Ridley

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