Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whores, Morticians, Granville's Hammer and Talmudic Scholars

I've procrastinated in posting so I have a tremendous backlog of films which I want to catalog.

In the past week, I saw four films at Landmark Theaters.

Whore's Glory; directed by Michael Glawogger; documentary; Thai, Bengali & Spanish with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Bernie starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine & Matthew McConaughey; directed by Richard Linklater; (2011) - Official Website
Hysteria starring Hugh Dancy & Maggie Gyllenhall; with Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones & Rupert Everett; directed by Tanya Wexler; (2011) - Official Website
Footnote starring Shlomo Bar-Aba & Lior Ashkenazi; directed by Joseph Cedar; Hebrew with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

I saw Whore's Glory at the Lumiere, Footnote at the Opera Plaza and Bernie Hysteria at the Embarcadero.  Hysteria was one of the films I had tickets for but skipped at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).  One of the other films I missed at the festival, Where Do We Go Now?, has already come and gone from local Landmark Theaters without my having seen it so I was anxious to see Hysteria.


Whore's Glory was directed by noted documentarian Michael Glawogger.  I had never seen a Glawogger film before.  Although I read the SF Chronicle review, I wasn't quite ready for what I saw.  Many years ago, I saw Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, a documentary about a porn actress who set "a world record by having sex 251 times with 70 men in 10 hours."  That was truly a depressing film as Chong's (real name Grace Quek) family discovered her day job and she seemed deluded in convincing herself that her behavior was an example of female sexual empowerment.  After seeing that film, I thought I was prepared to see to Whore's Glory.

I was mistaken as Whore's Glory is a profoundly depressing film.  Although female sexuality is nominally the subject of the film, the degradation of a legions of women across the world is the overarching theme.  Starting in Bangkok, Thailand, which is a place I consider notorious for prostitution, Glawogger focuses on a bar/bordello which would seem quaint when compared to what would follow.

Young Thai women work as prostitutes at this club.  They sit passively in a glass enclosed room as a salesman tries to sell their services to members of the audience.  Identified by a number on a pin they wear, the girls wait to be chosen.  The effect is like a aquarium.  Men press up against the glass and debate with each other the perceived merits of #253 vs. #187.  Although Thai men were present, the majority seemed to be foreigners as I heard Chinese, Japanese and English spoken by the patrons.  So this vignette confirmed what I had previously read which is that foreigners go to Thailand for sex tours.  However, this was a little antiseptic as there was no interaction between customer and provider prior to the selection.  In addition, the women seemed relatively well adjusted.  Some even prayed that they would get a lot of customers.  The women seemed free to come and go as they pleased and one woman even had enough money to go clubbing and seemingly procure the services of male prostitutes.

The next stop was a city in Bangladesh which reminded me of Born into Brothels which I saw on a rainy Saturday at the Lumiere 6 or 7 years ago.  Covering some of the same ground, Glawogger's second vignette follows a madam in a red light district.  I was amazed at the economics.  Some of the men said they pay for the ladies' services 2 or 3 times a day!  The volume of men these women have to service is mind boggling.  The men were impoverished so I could only imagine what the women were getting paid.  Several of the "women" were teenagers.  Whereas the Thai prostitutes looked like women, the Indian prostitutes looked like girls playing dress up and applying make up for the first time.  It seemed clear these women would be used up and discarded.  There was one older prostitute who looked in her forties to me.  She looked out of place amongst the teenagers.  The luckiest ones will becomes madams and perpetuate the cycle.  

One moment left me a little suspicious.  A teenage prostitute asks rhetorically why women's lives should be so difficult.  I recognized that as a quote by Sita from the Ramayana.  It makes sense that the girl would be familiar with the quote but it made the moment artificial as if it may have been scripted.

After Bangladesh, I didn't think it could get any worse but Glawogger found the truly hellish La Zona of Reynoso, Mexico, a border town across from Hidalgo, Texas.  Having grown up in El Paso, I now about the wretched conditions along the border.  El Paso's border counterpart is Ciudad Juárez which was pretty damn seedy when I was living in the area 25 years ago.  The drug wars have turned Juárez into a lawless frontier town like something out of Desperado.  Nothing I saw in Juárez prepared me for La Zona.

La Zona is an area of Reynoso comprised of one story dormitory style housing.  Women will stand outside their room hawking their bodies to men who drive by.  Whereas the Thai women were reasonably attractive and the Indian women looked underage, the Mexican women looked like used up whores.  Many were addicted to drugs and/or seemed to have a screw loose.  That any man would even consider having sex with these women was beyond my comprehension.  Glawogger seemed to have no problem getting men to discuss their exploits in La Zona.  One man even gave a critique of the girls as he drove by  and in the next sentence mentioned his wife.

Amazingly, Glawogger even filmed one session which couldn't have been scripted better.  The woman seems disinterested and even contemptuous of her john.  Rather than be dissuaded, the young man proceeds with a curious interest in the woman's name.  La Zona is so dehumanized that the women don't even bother with noms de guerre...a name is not necessary to complete the transaction.  The young man, despite the thorough if not enthusiastic ministrations of the woman, is unable to achieve climax.  Unfortunately for him, the time limit is strict.  Despite full tumescence, he is informed that his time is up and that he must leave.  I would think most men would express some frustration and dissatisfaction.  This young man dutifully puts on his pants but can't help but ask one last time for the woman's name.  To me it appeared to be an encounter that would be best forgotten but this young man seems to want the woman's name as a keepsake.  Almost comic in its multiple dysfunctions, the scene perfectly captured the sad and pathetic lives of the prostitutes and johns.  A trip to La Zona is about as erotic as an encounter with a surly DMV clerk.

At nearly two hours, the film could probably have been edited down without losing any of the impact.  One scene in Bangkok, where Glawogger trains his camera on dogs having sex in front of the club went on for too long and seemed unnecessary.  It was indicative of the film which was a tad self-indulgent on Glawogger's part.


Bernie was a late addition to this year's SFIFF.  Based on a true story, the eponymous Bernie (Jack Black) is a mortician or more officially an Assistant Funeral Director in Carthage, Texas.  Unusually skilled in his job which entails treatment of the body, sales of the coffins, organizing funeral services and comfort to the bereaved, Bernie become quite popular in the small town.  He becomes active in local civic and religious circles.  Bernie's life is forever altered when he comes into contact with the widow Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  The wealthiest (and meanest) woman in town, Nugent quickly succumbs to Bernie's gentle ways and kind demeanor.  Over time, their friendship grows to a point which is left undefined in the film.  Were they lovers?  I don't know as it is hinted that Bernie is gay (he does like Broadway musicals).  Whatever they were, Nugent was an insecure harpy who actively worked to isolate Bernie from others.  I won't completely ruin the surprise which I already knew but the second half of the film covers Bernie's trouble with the law in the form of District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey).

Bernie is a satire on small town attitudes.  McConaughey's turn as the big-fish-in-a-little-pond DA is inspired.  His character mangles the pronunciation of Les Misérables in open court and I wasn't sure if it was intentional or not.  MacLaine dominates every scene.  So the two of them buoy the film which I thought was a role a little beyond the range of Black.  Black mugs for the camera a little bit but his performance is as subtle as the character and Black can be.  


I saw Hysteria about 20 minutes after Bernie ended.  Being mild about Bernie, I wanted to see if Hysteria was more satisfying.  The premise of Hysteria is amazing but true.  In Victorian England, a whole range of female maladies were attributed to the catch-all diagnosis of hysteria.  Anxiety, listlessness, insomnia, weight fluctuations, depression, et al. were diagnosed as hysteria.  One character estimates 50% of the women in London at the time suffer from the disease.  The treatment, for women who could afford it, was manual stimulation of their the clitoris.  The treatment was successful if the patient she had one or even multiple "paroxysms."  The doctor would ask the patient how she felt afterwards.  If she felt better, the treatment was obviously effective and recurring, weekly appointments were scheduled.

This all seems silly but is purported to be true.  Hysteria follows Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young doctor who treats hysteria under the auspices of  Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), the undisputed expert in the field.  Dr. Granville's technique is extremely effective and his appointment book fills up.  However, the treatments are taxing on the doctor's right arm and he eventually develops a repetitive stress injury not unlike carpal tunnel syndrome.  This injury reduces the efficacy of his treatments to the severe disappointment of his patients.  Fortunately, Granville's best friend is the wealthy Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett).  Not weighed down by pecuniary concerns, St. John-Smythe spends his days experimenting with electricity.  While holding  St. John-Smythe's prototype for an electric feather duster, Granville has his Eureka! moment.

Soon Granville and St. John-Smythe are marketing their device as a tool to treat hysteria.  Clinical trials indicate that the device (which in real life was known as Granville's Hammer) was much more effective in treating hysteria than Dalrymple's manual techniques.

For the premise, Hysteria seemed to underperform.  The writers & actors should have been able to milk more laughs out of script.  Maggie Gyllenhall appears as Dalrymple's eldest daughter who is the black sheep of the family due to her outrageous ideas about feminism.  Felicity Jones is Dalrymple's younger daughter whose musical skills and expertise in phrenology make her the ideal English lady in the Victorian age.  Granville wrestles with his attraction to both sisters.  Gyllenhall delivered an appealing performance and Everett seemed gleeful as the droll St. John-Smythe.


Footnote is about two Talmudic scholars.  Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is the father and less heralded scholar.  Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is his more acclaimed son.  Eliezer receives a phone call that he is receiving the prestigious Israel Prize for his work.  Later, Uriel is called to the Ministry of Education offices to discuss his father's award.  It turns out that Uriel was the intended recipient but human error resulted in Eliezer being mistakenly contacted and told he was the winner.  The award committee wants Uriel's help in breaking the news to Eliezar.  This is difficult on many levels as the two men are barely on speaking terms.  Eliezar is resentful for a lifetime of professional slights and jealous of the attention his son has received for what he considers inferior and trivial research.  Uriel, for his part is pompous, has little commitment to his research and harbors anger towards his father for the time spent on his research during his youth.

These two flawed men are put in a difficult position.  Wanting to appear as the good son, Uriel convinces the committee to let Eliezer keep the award.  However, the committee chair (a rival or Eliezar) has two conditions.  First, Uriel must write the commendation and second, Uriel must never submit his name for consideration Israel prizes.  The second condition is difficult for Uriel to swallow as he is an ambitious man but he agrees to it.

Soon after Eliezar's award is officially announced, he is interviewed by a journalist.  After some prodding, Eliezar dismisses Uriel's work as lacking in academic worth.  Uriel is initially crushed by his father's criticism when it is published.  Soon, his emotions turn to revenge and in the most damning scene, Uriel reveals to his mother that Eliezar's award was a mistake.  To put your mother and your father's wife in such a position is despicable.

Without any explicit clues from his wife, Eliezar recognizes a phrase from the commendation as identical to a phrase Uriel had used in a previously published work.  Recollecting the phone conversation when he was (mistaken) informed he had won the prize, Eliezar realizes that he was addressed as Dr. Shkolnik.  Combined with his son's direct quote in the commendation (which was supposed to be written the award committee), Eliezar begins to deduce the circumstances of his award.

The film ends with Eliezar waiting in an auditorium to receive his award.  The film gives no clue as to whether he will accept the award or reveal the error and decline the award.  Regardless, the already troubled relationship with his son has been dealt an irreparable blow.

Footnote is a complex film about two unlikable characters who are forced together by their familial relationship.  I though Uriel was the more distasteful but many of his negative qualities could be traced to the father who spent more time with his research than his son.

I was very impressed with the film.

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