Megalopolis—Immigrant Cities

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on December 1, 2008 by tzaniello


1993, 94 mins., French with English subtitles
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenplay: Mathieu Kassovitz

Metisse (literally, a mixed race woman), the original title of this comedy, was perhaps more accurate and nasty but less metaphoric and cute: Lola (played by Julie Mauduech) is a creamy brown Parisian from Martinique with two lovers, Felix (played by the director, Mathieu Kassovitz), from a working-class Jewish family, and Jamal (played by Hubert Kounde), the black Muslim son of an African diplomat. Like her forerunner Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), Lola doesn’t like making up her mind but unlike Lola she’s pregnant.

Although the film is filled with anti-black and anti-semitic slurs and jokes, it treats the racial and religious divide in a relatively carefree manner, eventually reconciling the brawling men and transforming competing fathers into domestic pets attending Lola. Although we eventually learn who is the biological father, we never see the baby when she arrives. “What color is the baby?” Felix asks a nurse, who laughs and says that the baby is pink with green stars.

We leave the new happy and unconventional family as a voiceover from racist right-winger politician Le Pen curses at the “bastardized, impoverished race” his fellow citizens are creating.

See Other Films:

La Haine
Crimson Rivers

Further Reading:

Maslin, Janet. “Café Au Lait: Interracial Romance, Leavened by Humor.” New York Times, 19 Aug. 1994. Kassovitz’s film debut “imagines a world where laughter is a formidable weapon, beating out bigotry every time.”


2001, 109 mins., French with English subtitles
Director: Coline Serreau
Screenplay: Coline Serreau

The violence, both physical and spiritual, against Malika, or Noémie, her street name (played by Rachida Brakni) the Algerian woman in this film, is hard to watch; the explicit condemnation of Algerian men both at home and in France is somewhat compensated by the piggishness of the French men we also meet in the film’s other plot motor, that of petit-bourgeoise Helene (played by Catherine Frot).

In order to rescue her sister from the clutches of her father and his oppressive patriarchal culture, Noemie, formerly hooker non grata at home, showers her family with gifts: “With one shitty motorbike,” she tells her sister, “their honor melts along with their religion.”

The film closes with four women sitting on the shore of a lake, having escaped the creepy men in their lives: the eldest, Helene’s mother-in-law, not surprisingly turns out to be the moral center of the film, protecting women and celebrating difference.

Further Reading:

Nesselson, Kisa. “Chaos.” Variety, 19 Oct. 2001. Rave review: “Scripter-helmer [Serreau] has zero patience for the hypocrisy and political correctness that relegates abusive practices to ‘cultural differences.’”


Labor and the Megalopolis

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on October 7, 2008 by tzaniello



2008, 20 mins., USA

Director: Michael Zhao

Agit-Prop Documentary

Available at


            As one of the only industrialized countries in the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention on shipping hazardous waste to the Third World, the United States now exports 50 million computers, TVs, and cell phones to the Chinese “e-waste epicenter,” Guiyu, a leading importer of one million tons of e-waste a year.  It has surpassed its former rival, Taiwan, that is still attempting to treat its pollution years after the industry that once employed 60, 000 people was stopped by environmental regulations. At one point filmmaker Zhao pans the banks of the infamous Ernjen River in Taiwan, whose banks are still lined with discarded circuit boards.

             Guiyu in Guangdong Province, like most of China, has lax pollution controls. In  their haste to extract gold from the circuit boards and sell to sell other recycled components, local entrepreneurs employ thousands of workers who routinely absorb mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants as they dismantle and burn the discarded electronic devices. This e-waste has conveniently filled up the shipping containers that had disgorged their millions of tons of imported Chinese retail goods in the USA.

              Zhao points out that Guiyu had been a “trash town for decades,” but the air is now choked with “burned plastics and baked circuitry,” as the residents pursue what only could be called a cottage industry of e-waste, with homes filled with electronic components. Zhao himself could sometimes spend only a couple of minutes at the workers’ side, so irritating were the fumes; the workers themselves got used to ten to twelve hours of day.


YouTube: (excerpt)


Other: “E-Waste: Dumping on the Poor,” an interview with Zhao:





Leonard, Andrew.

The Circuit Board Bakers of Guiyu., 7 Nov. 2007 ( Reviewer argues that “a lifetime of blog posts decrying the environmental toll of high-tech industrial production does not begin to approach the impact” of the film: “The images are extraordinary and unforgettable.”


Metropolis on DVD

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on September 20, 2007 by tzaniello


1996, 123 mins., Vietnamese with English subtitles

Director: Anh Hung Tran

If I had know that Cyclo, both the name and job (pedicab driver) of the film’s lead character, would end up with two live animals (lizard and goldfish) in his mouth, I might have passed on this fascinating and disturbing–occasionally surrealistic–vision of contemporary Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I would have then missed the even more graphic violence and kinky sexuality provided by this second feature from the Academy Award nominated director of “The Scent of Green Papayas.”

With these R-rated warnings in mind, what would we gain from this film? Some insight into the crowded Asian metropolis and its pre-auto stage, certainly an understanding of the infiltration of simple working-class jobs by criminal syndicates (however small in scale), and a study (as Jonathan Rosenbaum of “The Chicago Reader” has written) of the “endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.”

The “male misery” is obvious enough: in the backstory Cyclo’s father (also a pedicab operator) was run over by a truck, but now Cyclo’s new boss (aka The Madam) loses both a son and a devoted lackey (aka the Poet). But this is only half the story, as the film takes somewhat for granted some extraordinary human trafficking that only gets punished when the Poet discovers that Cyclo’s Sister has been raped by a client.

If the metaphor at work in this film is that the underclass is open for exploitation by rampant entrepreneurial underground capitalism because that’s how the Asian metropolis handles the transition from socialism to red capitalism, then perhaps this accomplished director should watch some “Godfather” epics instead of (only) Italian neorealist films like “The Bicycle Thief,” which he parodies early on in the film when Cyclo has his pedicab stolen

Films Available in DVD

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on August 22, 2007 by tzaniello

Advertising Rules!

(aka Viktor Vogel: Commercial Man)

2001,108 mins., R

Director: Lars Kraume

Screenplay: Lars Kraume and Thomas Schlesinger

With sporadically amusing comic hijinks inside an advertising firm, a young man flummoxes his way into the leadership of a 120 million Deutsche Mark advertising campaign for Opel Auto. Trouble is … he had already suggested the same visual elements of his Opel campaign to a new girlfriend, who has just secured for herself a coveted exhibition slot for his idea. How will Viktor Vogel—aptly nicknamed Commercial Man in the original German release–cope?

The ancestor of this satire on advertising agencies is the American film Putney Swope, perhaps (alas) considered only a funny relic of the 1960s: Putney is a token black man in an ad agency who is elected chairman in a fluke vote and who transforms the company into Truth and Soul, Inc., a militantly Black business. Viktor (played by Alexander Scheer), transforms the ad agency in the heart of the German metropolis by being crazy, outspoken, and young: no accident that the agency’s name is Brainstorm. He get his job in the agency just by crashing a meeting and eventually pitching a no-fail idea for a new multi-million mark deal for Opel Auto. His idea features a women shooting arrows into packages of supermarket food and other products while she is on “the hunt” for the right car. Get it? Life gets complicated because of a growing friendship with his reluctant mentor, Eddie Kaminsky (played by Gotz George), who had been a radical documentary filmmaker (his success was a cinema verite shoot of a Palestinian uprising) and who now just wants to retire with a golden parachute. Viktor having pitched his idea to Rosa (played by Chulpan Khamatova), the new girlfriend, now presents him with a dilemma.

Of course Eddie has to choose—friendship with Eddie, love with Rosa, or success at Brainstorm. Since this is a comedy he makes all the wrong choices at first but his essentially good character triumphs at the end. The satire of how an ad firm works is light but pleasant: where “the client is king,” the staff is sycophantic. As soon as Viktor’s ad campaign is successful, all the staff changes from cool Berlin black to zany slacker duds like Viktor. When Viktor’s stock plummets, black is in again and what used to be “in” (Viktor) is out again, according to the new creative director who dismisses Viktor unceremoniously.

Although one should probably never overestimate the public’s fascination with dysfunctional corporations in the cinema, Viktor like Putney certainly should tickle the fancy of any radical tourists, ad busters, or gentle anarchists.

Babylon 5: “By Any Means Necessary”

1994, TV Series

Director: Jim Johnston

Teleplay: Kathryn M. Drennan, based on series created by J. Michael Straczynski

While science fiction with dystopian themes might be a natural for a vision of labor in the future, surprisingly few films can resist the special effects and futuristic gadgetry characteristic of the genre instead of a focus on work. Enemy Mine and Screamers, for example, both open with intriguing premises about the dangers of mining on future and alternative worlds but use the locale primarily as backdrop for other matters. At least in Babylon 5 one episode of the TV science fiction series actually offers an out-and-out strike by cargo handlers.

Babylon 5 is a massive space station in which “humans and aliens” can “work out their differences.” The year is 2258, after centuries of space exploration and space warfare. The “conceptual consultant” for the series is Harlan Ellison, known for his dystopian science fiction.

By Any Means Necessary (Production Episode 114) is double-plotted: an accident in the cargo hold (caused by cheap microchips used by a subcontractor to bid low) has caused the death of a worker, the brother of the cargo crew’s foreman. The incident highlights their understaffing and low wages. In the meantime two of the resident aliens, G’Kar (played by Andreas Katsula) of the Narns and Londo (played by Peter Jurasik) of the Centauri, are continuing the ancestral feuds between their peoples (the latter has a sacred plant needed in the former’s religious ceremony).

A professional labor negotiator is brought in from earth to settle the workers’ hash, but they continue their boisterous and fairly violent strike. The only solution is a trick played by the military commander, Jeffrey Sinclair (played by Michael O’Hare) who settles the strike with the union negotiator Neeoma Connally (played by Katy Boyer) by following the “Rush Act” (named satirically after right-wing radio show personality Rush Limbaugh) that allows him to settle work disputes “by any means necessary.” Instead of invoking military force—the negotiator’s preference—he offers an amnesty to the workers, increased wages, and a promise to increase the size of the workforce. Crisis over. And the duel between G’Kar and Londo is also settled, albeit more surreptitiously.

Whether the puny globalized transition period that we are now in will learn these mature lessons of the future remains to be seen.

Late Night Shopping

2001, 87 mins., UK

Director: Saul Metzstein

Screenplay: Jack Lothian

Late night, yes, but not much shopping: instead four night shift workers hang out after their shift at an all-night café in Glasgow and analyze themselves and their dead-end jobs with cynicism, humor, and even touches of despair.

Failed relationships are what a supermarket shelf stacker, a telephone operator, a hospital porter, and an electronics assembly line worker have in common. This is a laid-back comedy, surprising us with twists and turns of plot and character-driven coincidence. The shelf stacker, Vince (played by James Lance) has a one-night stand with Madeline (played by Heike Makatsch), who is the estranged girlfriend of Sean (played by Luke de Woolfson), the hospital porter, who is seduced by a visitor to his hospital, and on and on, until everyone in the film is involved in the comic round of comic sexual encounters (an updated version of the classic Max Ophuls’ 1950 film La Ronde).

The film captures the repetitive and boring work of all four, and so if they seem a little preoccupied with sex—both talking about it and doing it—one does one really blame them. All of them imply they would like to move on from these jobs but virtually none of them express any strategy for doing so.

For those who track British comedies, it might suffice to say that this is Trainspotting without heroin, or The Full Monty without the Chippendales. But we might also say it is simply the real world of low-end Glasgow.

A Painted House

2003, 98 mins., TVM, PG

Director: Alfonso Arau

Screenplay: Patrick Sheane Duncan, based on John Grisham’s novel by the same title

The cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta in A Painted House, John Grisham’s autobiographical novel, are as far removed from the intrigues of the lawyers he usually writes about as can be imagined. Luke Chandler (played by Logan Lerman) is just ten years old, but seems older, as he observes his parents (played by Robert Sean Leonard and Arija Bareikis) and his grandparents (played by Scott Glenn and Melinda Dillon) try to survive in the Korean War era on 80 acres of temperamental cotton. The family has to hire migrant workers, both Mexicans and hill people (“hillbillies”), to help pick the crop. But they also have to worry about tornadoes, floods, and violent disagreements among their migrant workers.

Although it is 1953, it feels like a decade before, as Detroit auto plants tempt the rural workers to head north for steady factory work and a shot at their own homes, TV, and a telephone. Even Luke’s parents eventually leave, but not until Luke witnesses two violent deaths that elude the forces of law and order. Luke himself becomes consumed by the idea of having the family home painted, a local mark of (some) status. Bigger issues–such as the family’s carryover and never-ending debt–do receive attention, but almost to a lesser degree.

This TV movie, although it was directed by Alphonso Arau whose magic realist Death by Chocolate was a surprise hit in 1992, veers dangerously close to the greeting card sentimentality favored by the film’s producers, Hallmark Cards. Only when we learn the hard lessons of the beautiful but tricky cotton crop–captured in a number of stunning overhead and crane shots–do we feel that the economic forces of small family farms are confronted.

Important Globalization Film Finally Available on DVD

Posted in Blogroll on August 15, 2007 by tzaniello

BAMAKO (aka The Court)

2006,115 mins., NR
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Screenplay: Abderrahmane Sissako

In an open courtyard in Bamako, the capital and largest city of Mali, an unprecedented (and of course unlikely and impossible) trial of the World Bank is underway, with prosecutors, defense lawyers, and formally attired judges, all of them in front of an audience—besides us, the viewers, the real jury?–of average folk from the community. Witnesses tell of the failures in social services because of the enforced privatization of previously public functions, such as health services and the rail transportation.

In the meantime, a cabaret singer, married folk, and spectators both idle and attentive, hang their wash, gossip, and strut their stuff (one recurring joke is the sexy woman who insists on having her dress straps tied behind her in front of everyone at the beginning of every court session). In the adjoining rooms a child and an adult both lie ill–the child never wakes up–and another man commits suicide, an act that seems to bring the trial to an abrupt end without a verdict (as if a verdict were likely or possible), even though both sets of advocates have given their closing speeches. The presiding judge remains mute.

What are the arguments of this unique trial? The defense explains that it would not be in the interest of the World Bank to destroy a country’s economy. The prosecutors want the World Bank to be sentenced to “community service” for “eternity” and to cancel Africa’s debt. Of the various testimonies by witnesses, perhaps the most memorable is that of a peasant who is first told not to speak early on but finally chants his testimony—the only “speech” not subtitled, presumably because its plaintive sound speaks the message sufficiently. (We never know what he really says.)

This could only be called a charming but deeply moving anti-globalization film. Characteristic of Abderrahmane Sissako’s slightly off-kilter style–his earlier films, “Life on Earth” and “Waiting for Happiness,” share some of Sissako’s leisurely exploration of social malaise—“Bamako” is nonetheless sui generis.