Moving pictures in every sense
December 27, 2003
It’s been a peripatetic year on the big screen. In movie after movie, a theme of restlessness and migration has emerged, in both content and form (consider “American Splendor,” which so ingeniously blurred the lines between live action and animation, fiction and documentary). Movies have always been a lagging indicator of social change, and it finally looks as if a 21st-century cinema is beginning to emerge, one that emphatically refuses to stay in one place.
Everywhere we looked, movies were addressing or reflecting the cultural exchanges, encounters and tensions of a shrinking global village. Consider: the genre-flipping of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and the lyrical dislocation of two lonely Americans visiting Tokyo in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” Or the exhilarating depictions of the immigrant experience in the documentary “Spellbound” and Jim Sheridan’s “In America” and the dark side of the melting pot as seen in the harrowing “House of Sand and Fog.” From the giddy multicultural gab-fest of the comedy “L’Auberge Espagnole” to the wrenching political ironies and tenuous comprehensions of “Nowhere in Africa” and John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys,” the cinematic zeitgeist was that of people and societies in transition, on the move, breaking free of such Old World constructs as language and geography and history. Come to think of it, “Finding Nemo” might have been the only fish-in-water story to make it to theaters this year.
The list goes on. One could argue that even “The Last Samurai” and “The Missing” qualify, in a typically revisionist Hollywood way, as meditations on history as New Age-y cultural exchange. But it’s probably no surprise that the two strongest and most sophisticated examples of the trend came from Britain–Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World.” Both movies featured unforgettable protagonists: In “Dirty Pretty Things” newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor played Okwe, a Nigerian physician who holds down two menial jobs in London while trying to make enough money to return to Africa and join his son. As he solved a taut murder mystery while lending unprecedented narrative presence and dignity to the laborers most movies have rendered invisible, Okwe emerged as a thoroughly new brand of hero, one whose unerring moral strength is truly suited for a new age defined by the promise of porous cultural borders on the one hand and exploitation on the other.
“In This World” arrived on screens after “Dirty Pretty Things,” but it was almost a prequel, as it followed the journey of a teenage Afghan refugee, Jamal, as he traveled from Pakistan through Asia and Europe in an effort finally to end up in England. Although “In This World” was fiction, it had all the urgency and immediacy of nonfiction: Winterbottom cast nonprofessional actors and used a hand-held digital camera to photograph the action. The result was an absorbing, ambitious film in which Winterbottom smashed the boundaries between documentary and fiction while exploring the very real global economic boundaries that his young hero must overcome to survive.
Neither “Dirty Pretty Things” nor “In This World” ends happily, exactly – the New World’s bright prospects have been too tarnished by its grimmer realities to allow for anodyne answers. But they do end triumphantly, as hopeful but intellectually honest depictions of what playwright Tony Kushner has called the “painful progress” that defines our individual and common life. (Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Kushner’s “Angels in America,” broadcast on HBO this month, rates as one of the year’s best movies.) The propulsive force of growth and change, Kushner suggests, is how desire and destiny, duty and faith are made manifest in our lives. It’s what makes us human.
But maybe it just makes us alive. Consider what may be the year’s most visually ravishing film, the documentary “Winged Migration.” The birds in that film are compelled to fly thousands of miles by dint of biological and behavioral imprint. Watching as they gracefully play out a deep Darwinian imperative, it’s difficult not to think of Okwe and Jamal. Their reasons may have been more complicated, but there’s no arguing that in their case, too, movement was a matter of life and death.