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Life with the dull bits cut out

Howie Movshovitz
Special to the Daily Filmmaker Bob Young helped found the Harvard Film Society. His movie, "Alambrista!" offers a look at a young Mexican immigrant's hopes for the American Dream - and the reality that awaits him.
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This is personal. I’ve known Bob Young for many years. We’ve had many conversations about film in general and his films in particular. We’re friends. I think he’s one of the finest filmmakers ever.

We first met in 1980 right after I saw “Alambrista!,” a film about a young Mexican man who enters the U.S. illegally, hoping to make enough money to send something home to his wife and child. A few years ago, an international group of scholars interested in Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in this country, agreed that “Alambrista!” was the only good film on the subject.

Young’s first feature, “Nothing But a Man” (1964), is about a young black couple in the South. The two not only fight the dreadful, virulent racism of the time, but there’s a class difference between them – he works on a railroad gang and she’s the daughter of the local minister. And so the conflicts run all over the film, and they run deep. Supposedly, “Nothing But a Man” was the favorite movie of Malcolm X.



Bob Young may be white, Harvard-educated and from a comfortable background in New York, but he’s also made the best American films about Latinos and African-Americans. One reason is that Young works from a fundamental respect for other human beings. He finds other people fascinating. Part of his respect is that he sees how other people also live complicated lives, and that human situations are neither simple nor one-dimensional.

In a long conversation about “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (1982), Young said that early drafts of the script amounted to, “Look what happened to this poor Mexican.” Young looked at me and said, “Who cares?” And then he added, “Of course, we care, but that’s not enough.” His point was that the tearful story of unfortunate Mexican immigrant farm workers – or poor blacks in the American South, or Jews in Nazi Germany (see his “Triumph of the Spirit”) – has been told over and over. All one can do in the face of those chronicles of misery is to nod sagely and caringly, and the experience is over. Nothing’s been shown, nothing communicated, nothing seen or learned. There must be something more at stake than the mere fact of wretchedness.



So “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” became a film about people who hide their weaknesses and failures. A sheriff’s deputy can’t admit that he’s a lousy translator, and his failure results in shootouts, death and injustice. In the 1994 “Caught,” which is a masterpiece, it isn’t just simple infidelity that rips apart a long-time marriage, it’s also Greek-sized Oedipal complexities.

After I’d been taken by Young’s features, I learned that he’d begun his career as a cinematographer and documentarist. “Eskimo: Fight for Life,” made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1970, follows an Inuit group on their last migration before they accepted the urgings of missionaries to move to town. The film makes an intimate connection with Inuit life. Young’s gutsy, close-in, hand-held camera work in “Cortile Cascino” makes poverty in Sicily immediate and palpable. The film was made in the early 1960s for NBC, only to be suppressed for still-unclear reasons.

In that same conversation about “Gregorio Cortez,” Young said several things that ring like mantras for his work. He talked about how actors must not “indicate,” they must never signal to the audience what their character, the dialogue or the scene is “about.” In other words, they must stay always in character, and allow meaning to come from the whole of the film without anyone telling the audience what to think or how to feel. Young also said that as a director and a writer it is his responsibility to create “situations” and dramatically viable moments or events that reveal the essence of story and character. This principle is Young’s variation on Hitchcock’s famous comment that film is “life with the dull bits cut out.”



That one conversation was like a year at the greatest possible film school. He talked about lenses, colors and camera movements. To understand and appreciate Young’s filmmaking, it is crucial to realize that Young comes to filmmaking first as a photographer/cinematographer, not as a novelist or playwright. He is primarily a visual artist and the core of his expression has always been visual.

When you see his new film “Human Error,” and I recommend it, watch the film. In his long career, I don’t think that Young has ever used a special effect. But now he makes a movie that’s all special effects. He took an absurdist script, with dialogue that loops around itself and seems to wind up at the beginning every 15 minutes or so, and set it in a world entirely created in digital animation. Lots of filmmakers do digital animation now. Many schools, colleges and universities have programs in digital animation. But for all the “Toy Story” variants and “Captain Nemos,” I have yet to see a filmmaker understand the meaning of the digital image. It’s one thing to make a passable digital image of a fish swimming; it’s another to understand that the precision of digital imagery is no closer to truth than a hand-drawn Chuck Jones cartoon. Digital is just another style.

Bob Young is the first filmmaker to get the character of digital imagery in any significant way. In “Human Error,” he shows that by nature digital imagery has a disturbing flatness and a deep-seated sterility, which makes the film unsettling and raises the ante on the story and the dialogue. And that understanding spells the difference between the standard-issue filmmakers and great ones.

Vail Film Festival Kick-off

Screening, “Human Error”

Lifetime Achievement Award to Bob Young

7-9 p.m.

Vail Cascade Theatre


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