BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 24, 2007
Great World of Sound
The first surprise about Forever is that it attracts. This is a documentary about a cemetery, and the very idea draws us. True, this is the most renowned cemetery in the world--Pere-Lachaise in Paris--but still it seems amusingly perverse that we want to see it, to find out what the film will do with a lot of graves and monuments. Obviously part of the draw is that many of the deceased in this place were
famous. (Pere-Lachaise began grandly enough: it was founded in 1804 by Napoleon.) Still, even with that glamour, it is a further surprise that the Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann quickly transforms a cemetery into a pleasant limbo, located somewhere between death and life.
Although we see many of the monuments, she concentrates on visitors. Helped by a camera that makes the most of marble and of flowers, helped by editing that glances along with the interest of our eyes from stone to person to statue, Honigmann is tactful, curious, understandably insistent. Surprises continue. The visitors she interviews range from relatively predictable to astonishing. All right, a woman tends the grave of her husband who died years ago after a very brief marriage, and someone writes "Vissi d'amore" on Maria Callas's tombstone. (And we get a clip of Callas singing. Quite often the film provides a bit of the dead person's past or the visitor's present.) Somewhat more amazingly, two blind male friends who are cinephiles visit the grave of Simone Signoret--and we glimpse them at a screening of Les Diaboliques, the dialogue of which they know by heart. A Persian taxi driver comes to sing Persian songs at the grave of the Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat. A woman tends the grave of Apollinaire, apparently because she is as moved by the story of his love and lover as she is by his poetry.
The surprises continue (though the interviews are not arranged in a mechanical crescendo). A group of French people come a considerable distance to visit the grave of Proust, though several of them have never read him. Proust figures again in the life of an illustrator. This man was so affected by the work and the grave that he created a comic-book version of Remembrance of Things Past--what might now be called a graphic novel--which was a success. The weirdest interviewee, made even weirder because he is obviously intelligent, is a man we first meet at the grave of Modigliani. He is an artist, he says, who has been inspired by Modigliani's portraits. And what is his work? He is an embalmer. We see him applying cosmetics to the face of a dead woman--the influence of Modigliani is not quite clear--after which he interlaces her fingers over her chest.
Among all the above and a number of others, the most touching subject is a young Japanese woman whom we meet at the grave of Chopin. She is a pianist, devoted to Chopin's music especially, because her father loved it. He died, she says, of overwork, and her implication is that he made her piano studies possible--in Paris with Chopin's grave (so to speak) available. When she plays Chopin, she thinks of her father. The film closes with her debut in a recital hall, playing a nocturne.
The pianist's story is a fair index of what Honigmann is exploring in her film. A cemetery, she is saying, is much more complex than we might have thought--especially, though certainly not exclusively, in kinship with artists. (Hundreds of other sorts of distinguished people lie here.) Pere-Lachaise keeps the dead with us--indeed, almost by reminding us that they are dead. It was not possible to be with Chopin as a person while he was alive. It seems easier now.
The history of the human race is grossly double. On the surface are the achievements; below are the scams. Beneath every method of doing something worthwhile, there has been devised an attendant scam--in politics, science, industry, whatever. Great World of Sound details one such scam: not a major instance, but a greasily typical one.
Pat Healy plays a former radio engineer who gets a job with a North Carolina company that purports to record pop music, to find new musicians and make them successful. (Healy doesn't see the picture's opening shot: someone sprays gold paint on an ordinary vinyl record, and the seeming golden smash will then be used as proof of the firm's prowess.) The company's record label is Great World of Sound. Healy takes the job because he needs it and is almost eager to be persuaded, even though, we feel, he may scent something peculiar in the air.
He and another salesman, played by Kene Holliday, go on the road together from Biloxi to Birmingham, stopping at hotels along the way. The record company has put ads in the local papers ahead of time, so wherever the two men stop, they are besieged with musicians who want to audition. These hopefuls are pop and country musicians of all kinds--a lot of guitar--and the audition sequences, which might have dragged, are slickly edited. The company's hook: if the musician or group has any possibility at all, Healy and Holliday announce that the test recording will cost
$10,000, of which the company is willing to put up 70 percent. The musicians have to advance only 30 percent.
It works pretty often. Some recordings are apparently made, though of course very little happens with them. The ending of the film is inevitable but, in a way, welcome. As we move toward that ending, we nod wryly at the smoothness of the inevitable scamming in this business, too.
But on the consoling side, we meet a director named Craig Zobel. This is Zobel's first film, and it might have been his tenth. He is sure-handed and brisk. Robert Longstreet and John Baker are disarmingly fluent as the two executives of the phony company. Healy seems too much on the reticent side to be a successful con man, but Holliday, who is an evangelist minister as well as an actor, fills the screen to the brim with his bounteous energy.
I doubt that this is on the Israeli government's agenda, but an occasional film from Israel almost seems intended to adjust the world's view of that country. In the news it is a country at war--well, certainly not at peace--and this fact gives it in the news reports a bloc-like, undifferentiated air, as all warring countries have when seen from elsewhere. But occasionally an Israeli film comes along that, though presumably not made for that purpose, breaks the bloc into recognizable individuals, and unites that country with our country in intimate modes of personal stress. Of course this individuation can be true of films from any country; but this latest instance, The Bubble, is from Tel Aviv.
The first sequence takes place at a checkpoint on a road where Israeli soldiers inspect Palestinians for possible suicide bombs. This episode sets the mood precisely for the quite different story that follows. One of the soldiers is a young reservist named Noam, who is, most of the time, a music-store clerk. The bulk of the film deals with Noam and his friends, male and female, who could be having the same sorts of fun and affairs and spats and reunions in Tribeca-- almost. For these young Israelis, the possibility of bombings, of mortal struggle, is always being momentarily ignored. They live, as one of them says, in a bubble, which they try to preserve.
The screenplay by Gal Uchovsky and Eytan Fox rests on a familiar conflict revised to a contemporary pitch. Noam is in love with a Palestinian who loves him; and not just to skip the Romeo-andJuliet cliche but out of a kind of verity, the Palestinian is Ashraf, a young man. For Noam's friends, the young ones anyway, this affair is run-of-the-mill; but it is anathema, and not just because Noam is a Jew, to Ashraf's thoroughly Muslim family in Nablus.
Much of the film, its love and other affairs, will seem familiar, but that is presumably one of the points of the film--for audiences here and, I should think, in Israel, too. All this Village Voice hoopla occurs right up there on invisible front lines. It takes a certain kind of courage, or at least a dedication to the bubble, to live the way these young people do, with their CDs and smart talk and screwing of various kinds when they know that they will be shocked but not surprised if at any moment, day or night, they hear a bomb. And Ashraf's complications with his family, religious and sexual, give the hip episodes an additional sobering color.
Fox, the co-writer of the screenplay, is an experienced, knowing director. We sense his surety throughout. Ohad Knoller is good enough as Noam; Yousef Sweid is several shades deeper as the more conflicted Ashraf. Alon Friedmann, as a "queen" who is Noam's friend, provides the fluttery decor that makes the film's underlying gravity all the more affecting.