Scheherezade in Prison: Four short movie notes

Scheherezade in Prison: Four short movie notes March 6, 2021

Four very different films–all of which I’d recommend! This past week has been very good to me as a moviegoer. (Or, you know, a moviestayhomeinmychildhoodbedroomandclick”begin streaming”er.)

I also reviewed Minari for America magazine. I also really liked that movie, which, pace the Golden Globes, is so American it might as well play “The Old Rugged Cross” over the closing credits.

My Darling Supermarket: This is a Brazilian documentary about a supermarket and the people who work there. It starts out as if it’s about attention: the way attending to your work can be a way of honoring the world, which the filmmaker then replicates by attending with equal skill and diligence to the work itself. Lots of close-ups of hands laying tile or scraping dough or crafting the beautiful swooping lines of the store’s price signage. I’m obviously sympathetic to this worldview; submitting one’s attention to the physical world, and the work we do within it, is the focus of several scenes in Punishment. And in this early portion Supermarket already shows director Tali Yankelevich’s excellent eye for close-ups and unexpected, terrific musical choices. (Music by Andre de Cillo and Alex Buck.)

But as we get to know the individual workers better, the film’s genre begins to twist, and then to twist again. Suddenly this is a movie about existential crises, about faith and ghosts, about all the places people search for meaning–from romance to surveillance to, uh, Goku. The filming follows the genre shifts, as we get hints of horror and sci-fi pastiche woven into the documentary fabric. It’s thrilling to watch someone so skilled in her medium, letting her subjects explore their world for us. It’s also a little wrenching, in the moments when you notice the ways that it’s harder to feel your life matters when so much of it is given over to a supermarket.

The supermarket is also filled with American-style positive-thinking bromides. HAVE A NICE DAY! This is something I noticed in Divine Love and Hard Labor as well, the encroachment of American quasi-religious, work-ethic optimism. Is this in fact a Brazilian thing, or did I just happen to watch three Brazilian movies which display it?

Streaming at AFI.

Flatliners: Holy cats, Joel Schumacher is good. This tale of med students who figure out a way to journey into death and back overspills genre boundaries: It’s religious horror, fantasy/sci-fi, moral drama. It’s got Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon just acting their weird little faces off. And it is directed to the max by Schumacher.

Gosh it’s so nice. The confident, swoopy camera; the use of light and color, always extreme and hovering just on the edge of OTT; the ’80s-esque music by James Newton Howard; the stunning set design, esp. for the place where the “resurrections” take place: a part of the med school that’s under construction, surrounded by paintings of Prometheus and minatory statues, with a creepy wall of empty gloves and a lot of makeshift Frankenstein medical equipment. LOVE IT. Fair warning, do not watch this film if you’re sensitive to flashing lights, because Schumacher took the whole “move toward the light!” thing and went wild with it. But the moment I knew I would love this film comes early, I think when Sutherland is going to the under-construction hall for the first time, and the camera glides us past a little battalion of orange and white traffic barricades, the white lights on their top bars blinking eerily in time to the music.

So yes, this is a movie about sin and repentance, and how atheists are trippin’, and you’d think I’d like it for those reasons. And I will say that if you put together “Joel Schumacher” + “1990” + “do the people we have lost go on to someplace safe and healing, or are they punished or lost forever?”, I think it’s not a reach to read this as an AIDS movie. But mostly I loved it because it is so, so, so well-made.

On DVD from Netflix… embrace delayed gratification.

Night of the Kings: This is a strange, loping tale of a prison in the forests of the Ivory Coast, which is run by an inmate-boss. The current boss is dying. In order to preserve his power for just a little longer (and maybe experience some of the terrible joys of power one last time), he appoints a new inmate to be the “Roman,” or storyteller, on the night of the red moon. The storyteller must keep going until sunrise if he hopes to live.

This too is very confidently-directed. The plot jerks and circles back on itself. Events don’t happen at all when you might expect them to. The involvement of the Roman in his story at first seems like it might be a mystery, maybe even part of the central drama of the movie, but I don’t think it is. Myth and realism flow together–and, because this is how realism works, some of the characters express disbelief and frustration with the mythic parts!

There’s something here about individual choices or power vs. communal power, I think. The head of the inmates has almost absolute power; and yet much of the actual violence is conducted through subordinates, and even when two rival heirs want to battle for the throne, they ride on the shoulders of their supporters. This interplay between individual and community makes the storytelling scenes incredibly vivid, since the other prisoners constantly interrupt the Roman, not only to challenge his tale but to illustrate it with dance and song. Those scenes were thrilling and like nothing else I’ve seen at the movies.

I was not as emotionally gripped by this film as I expected to be, possibly because its storytelling conventions are just genuinely foreign. So that isn’t a criticism. It’s a note that this movie is not trying to be, idk, “Ivollywood.” (Lol that’s a dumb way to put it since both Bollywood and Nollywood have their own very strong narrative conventions which your basic white American viewer has to adjust to. But you know what I mean, this movie is not gonna Save the Cat.) I was really glad I’d watched this, and I think anyone interested in stories-about-stories would enjoy it, but it did make me aware of my own expectations as a viewer.

Also AFI.

His House: This film, by contrast, uses all the genre conventions of Western horror to tell a powerful tale about the refugee crisis and its attendant survivor’s guilt. And the conventions do their work: I was moved, fearful, shaken; my stomach clenched, my hand went to my mouth, I was right there with the characters. This is writer/director Remi Weekes’s feature debut, but boy, you sure can’t tell. Even as I was choking up or jerking back in fright I found myself thinking, “This is so well-edited!” (By Julia Bloch.) Just every shot a perfect length, so much tension, so embedded in the characters’ emotions.

Married couple Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (an especially affecting Wunmi Musako) escape South Sudan and end up in refugee resettlement in England. They’re basically put on probation: If they can stay in the house they’ve been given, and follow the terrifyingly strict rules, they won’t be sent back to die. (The Netflix content warnings on this film are a trip btw. They list “self-harm, fear,” which is fair, but also “language” which lol, and “smoking,” which is wild considering that the actual tool of bureaucratic abuse we see is a smoking ban. They should warn for the smoking ban!) Bol and Rial try to settle in to their sort of horrible, trashed house. Bol smiles at white people with this amazing rictus of acceptance. They explore the local Methodist church and the health clinic. And then the ghosts come.

His House is an extraordinary haunted-house film, and also an excellent horror film in the genre, “Is she crazy?” Except this time both halves of the couple get to be maybe crazy! As they fall apart under the pressure of the dead, we get to watch both of them make choices which are at once frightening and deeply understandable. You’ll feel so deeply for them, even as the movie does not make excuses for them.

This isn’t a flawless movie. The British are in fact too nice imho! There are some unfired mantelpiece guns in the form of the rules, laid out so frighteningly at the beginning but not actually enforced.

And at first I thought this movie was heavyhanded. A character actually says (this is from memory, sorry), “Prove that you’re one of the good ones.” Come on! But thinking about it afterward, I started to see the subtlety. I think this character really might say that line, in a kind of joking-not-joking irony, of course you know I’m exaggerating because I personally am one of the good whites but also please do follow the rules. And that hidden irony doesn’t translate to the couple at all–which is fine since, you know, it didn’t matter. In the end, no matter what he would have said, “Prove that you’re one of the good ones” is what he meant.

The movie’s final scene at first struck me as the most egregious example of heavyhandedness. One character straight up states the moral of the movie like he’s Orko from He-Man! But here too I think Weekes is smarter and twistier than that. This moral, which is definitely the actual moral of the movie, is pronounced by a refugee character in front of and for the benefit of a white British audience… because refugees are expected to perform their moral lessons, as they’re expected to perform their suffering. The fact that it is a true moral which the speaker has actually accepted is the sickly-sweet cherry on the sundae. It’s a moment which is both false and true, at the same time and in the same way, and in retrospect I think it’s brilliant.

Streaming on Netflix. Caveat spectator: death of a child, ptsd, grief, survivor’s guilt, gore, smoking bans.

Darling, though also perhaps menacing, supermarket via Wikimedia Commons.


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