Simple can mean many things. It can mean simple and elegant. It can mean simple and unexpectedly affecting. But it can also mean simple and therefore lacking depth or complexity. And it can mean simple and just plain stupid.
In the good simple, there is the Hollywood offering In Her Shoes, directed by Curtis Hanson, ready to hit theatres in the next month. Starring Cameron Diaz, the can-do-no-wrong Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine, it tiptoes through a landmined field of fraught cliches and miraculously avoids them. Here good performances become the ally of a much stronger script once the story moves to Florida and the characterization of Simon Stein, as the man who woos Collette’s character is one of the finest fully-drawn sympathetic male characters of recent commercial cinema. A good date film, or fluff night, it is surprising just as Imagine Me and You was surprising until its end.
In the simple which means lacking-depth department, there is Carlos Saura’s hugely disappointing dance film Iberia. In recent years, this master of Spanish cinema has toured the world bringing us outstanding dance and art meditations on specific themes, often using only studio space, multimedia and a wealth of gifted dancers. His films Goya in Bordeaux and Tango are most notable in their ingenuity with the form and elasticity with narrative, giving us a context for a wide range of thoughtfully considered dances. Iberia doesn’t attempt either. Using the work of Isaac Albeniz as its inspiration, instead of exploring thoughtfully considered themes in the dances, Saura instead relies on situations: nuns dance alongside chadorred women (for what reason we are not told) while peasant women of great size have their own dance aria (a wonderful idea - or would be - if they could actually dance). It all seems very forced and gimmicky without any really deeply felt meaning. Too bad! from such a master - but then I should have guessed from its positioning in the week.
(In this country, we are fortunate enough to have Moze Mossanen as by far the most interesting narrative dancefilmmaker working today. Combining innovative visual style, arresting choreography and music with unusual narratives told only in dance, he in many ways fulfills what Saura’s vision is all about.)
Simple and strange is the collection of short films known as All the Invisible Children, organized by and benefitting UNICEF on the theme of children’s global suffering. Out of the seven shorts by seven eminent filmmakers, I could only stay for four, but saw enough to see (as usual with this kind of compilation) a wide range of impact and style. Strange is the only word I can think of to describe the choice made by the producers to lead off the movie with the two most incompatible films, first by Burkina Faso director Mehdi Charef and second by Serbian master filmmaker Emir Kusturica. The former, called “Tanza” deals with child rebels protecting homeland, barefoot in the jungle and armed with automatic weapons. It is dramatic and sweetly poignant and ends with a child lowering his head out of fatigue on to the bomb he has come to place in the school he used to go to. It is almost sentimental. The Kusturica, however, is a mocking, satirical look at the almost utopian prison life of Serbian gypsies and how superior it is to the lives that otherwise await them. The short is completely irreverent and almost dreamlike while staying deeply cynical. What do we make of it, in light of the first film? The most powerful of the shorts I saw was Spike Lee’s Jesus Children of America. About children living with AIDS, it was the first time I’ve seen this filmmaker take on his own community with the same command to take account he has given to white America. The film is riveting and deeply impactful at the end, but through a frank straightforward visual style. What are these films like as a collection? And what do they say? Who knows.
Simple and just plain stupid is the only way to describe Kirill Serebrennikov’s Bed Stories, a series of vignettes that take place on beds in Moscow. The director is a leading Russian theatre artist who clearly hasn’t understood yet that directing actors for the screen is all about subtlety. Characters rage, emote, gesture so largely that even in medium shots you wish you were sitting further back in the theatre. The result is over the top and unendurable.
With it, however, was the screening of a much subtler and elegant short, Twilight, by director Victoria Gamburg, about a woman obssessed with finding her missing child in the streets of St. Petersburg. Often going out at night or early morning, the life on that mystical city’s streets reveals a dampness and decay that lie just under the surface of Russian society in a post-glasnost country. A much subtler and more meaningful message than occurred on all those beds in Moscow.