Wrap-up Reviews From The 62nd SFFILM Festival

by on April 30, 2019

What does it mean on an everyday level that America has gone from being the world’s greatest manufacturer to being yet another source of cheap labor?  Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary “American Factory” offers some disconcerting answers.

 

            The new documentary’s setting of a Dayton, Ohio GM assembly plant had been previously visited by the filmmakers.  They filmed the last truck being built there before the plant’s closure. Flash forward a few years. Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang buys the shuttered plant and retools it to become Fuyao Glass America.  He hires many of the formerly unemployed GM workers to work in the new operation. However, the initial optimism displayed by both Chinese and American workers soon gives way to sometimes acrimonious culture and labor clashes.  

 

            For the American workers, this documentary chronicles lives in the midst of reversals.  Taking the Fuyao job is better than unemployment. But the pay is half what these workers made at GM.  Many of the workers look old enough to remember when the cheaply made goods description applied to things made in China instead of America.  The remarks the Chinese workers and managers make about American workers being lazy or needing excess flattery to do their jobs bears queasy resemblances to decades-old complaints made by American managers and workers about their foreign counterparts’ lack of work ethic.  Most tellingly, matching the work ethic of their Chinese counterparts may mean for the Americans giving up such hard-fought labor rights as 8-hour days.

 

To the credit of the Chinese workers and managers, they didn’t set out to antagonize the American workers.  An early sequence at an American worker’s farm shows how the people from two countries bonded over the joys of shooting guns.  Cao wanted to do right by the Americans by initially having an American managerial staff. However, once Fuyao Glass America’s production and quality goals start falling badly behind, it’s time for the managerial boot.  

 

One of the film’s most astonishing strengths is its capturing of candid yet unflattering moments from Chinese managerial staff.  A manager talks of his plans to fire two pro-union workers within a week. An American practice that Fuyao America’s managers have no problem with is hiring consultants who specialize in discouraging workers from supporting union organizing efforts.

   

            More often, though, the Chinese and American attempts to understand the other country’s culture and people pass by each other instead of really meeting.  An American manager shown the semi-military techniques used to get Chinese workers prepped for the day’s labors tries applying those same techniques to American workers with comically unimpressive results.  And would the Chinese banquet attendees still have happily sung along to The Village People’s “YMCA” if somebody explained to them what the song was really about?

           

            Bognar and Reichert’s willingness to give all sides their due pays off by pushing the situation they chronicle beyond simplistic us vs. them didacticism.  One American worker talks about how the Fuyao job will give her the independence to move out of a sister’s spare bedroom. The Fuyao managers feel the intense scrutiny of other businesses waiting and watching whether Fuyao’s Dayton operations will be a model for other foreign investors or a fiscal black hole.  Even Cao has a moment of self-doubt regarding whether his way of doing business makes him a builder or destroyer.

 

            Were there ways that the friction captured in “American Factory” could have been avoided?  Maybe instead of just considering whether the investment made sense from an economic perspective, it would have helped to study whether the new country’s work culture was compatible with Fuyao’s normal operations.  Another possibility might be accepting the host area’s work culture but find work-arounds that let the company meet its goals. For example, if the companies insist on a 12-hour day while the workers like keeping their 8-hour days, could part-time workers be hired to take on the last remaining 4 hour block?  Or would 8-hour workers doing an overlapping 4-hour block solve the problem?

 

            The final images of “American Factory” leave matters ambiguous.  Is this film a farewell elegy to the American labor movement’s legacy?  Would more cultural training during managerial decision-making processes help prevent future labor management clashes?  The viewer can but hope.

 

***

            A more abstract picture of the world of work and manufacturing comes via Jodie Mack’s experimental animated film “The Grand Bizarre.”  Its starting point is asking what we signify with the goods we choose to create and consume. But it’s doubtful anybody would immediately think the answer would come via an animated world tour which involves turning even bird chirps into musical beats.    

 

            Mack’s film can be characterized as a series of encounters between the world as it is and the world as humans want it to be.  The images she creates juxtaposes patterned cloths from around the world against natural or human-made environments. Everything from the pounding surf to a chicken coop’s exterior proves fair game for Mack’s visual juxtapositions.

 

Conflict doesn’t seem to be the point of these juxtapositions.  Even though the film begins with images of things burning and clothes being washed away by sea waves, there’s no sense of either the natural or the human-made world trying to conquer the other.  Instead, even when the natural world visually dominates a scene, the bright human-made goods find a small place of existence, whether it takes the form of a reflection in a motorcycle mirror or even a simple outdoor clothesline.

 

By contrast, seeing brightly colored cloths in such man-made environments as a ship’s cabin or on carved stone steps evoke various tensions.  These contradictions include utilitarianism vs. recreation, individual expression vs. communal good, and short-term pleasure vs. long-term use.  

 

The variety of patterns seen in the cloths convey a sense of the creativity in peoples around the world.  One sequence shows cloth patterns attempting to approximate actual plant images. Complete replication feels less important than creating the best possible visual allusion.  Other cloth patterns seem expressions of the weaver’s experimenting with various color combinations. Mack’s film celebrates the human creativity that moves cloth beyond its merely utilitarian purpose as a base material for covering the naked human body.

 

The often lively musical soundtrack draws its rhythmic effects from combining beats and simple sounds.  The latter ranges from a single syllable to the chirping of birds. One particularly memorable moment renders the repetitive loading and unloading of trailer trucks into a simple fun rhythm.       

           

            Mack’s simple music provides emotional grounding to keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the film’s visual torrent of cloth patterns.  The incredible number of these patterns make concrete a sense of the immensity of international trade and the global supply chain. Individual creativity becomes lost in the mass of material generated for consumption.  The sheer volume of consumer material created gets an appropriate metaphor in the image of many different types of patterned cotton and muslin cloths rolling down a set of street steps with the fluidity of a river.

           

            Despite its punning reference, “The Grand Bizarre” definitely can’t be called an animated paean to capitalism.  Bemusement and a sense of the absurd better describes Mack’s stop-motion assessment of the great engine of trade that we humans treat as part of the natural order of human affairs.  

           

***

Hassan Fazili’s powerful yet personal documentary “Midnight Traveler” grounds the viewer in the real travails faced by one refugee family.  A several thousand mile journey to reach safety in Europe exposes the Fazilis to smugglers’ treachery, host countries’ short tolerance spans, boredom, and endless bureaucratic roadblocks.  Shot on three smartphones, the film repeatedly reminds the viewer that the core motivation for people to become refugees is desperation. Denying that truth denies refugees their humanity.

 

***     

John Schlesinger’s seminal “Midnight Cowboy” does not need to prove its claim to being a masterpiece of American cinema.  Its preservation in the National Film Registry, its high placement in a national critics’ poll of great American films, and even its home video existence under the Criterion Collection umbrella easily establish its artistic bona fides.  But SFFILM’s 50th anniversary screening of a 4K restoration of the film does offer an opportunity to consider the reasons for its artistic longevity.

 

What proves immediately striking is how deeply the film’s Americanness expresses itself.  New York City, that iconic American metropolis, provides the main setting for the film’s story.  Over the course of “Midnight Cowboy”’s running time, the viewer sees such classic American themes as small town boy seeking their fortune in the big city, personal reinvention, unwarranted optimism, the search for the one big score, the cowboy as sex symbol and icon of masculinity, and the male desire to prove one’s sexual prowess.  

 

Yet other Hollywood products before and after “Midnight Cowboy” have tackled some or all of these themes as well.  What distinguishes Schlesinger’s classic is showing success proves less dramatically interesting than sympathizing with this duo despite their unlikeliness of achieving their dreams.  Joe winds up being hustled more often than he does successfully hustle others. Ratso’s dreamed of life in Miami would have taken half-a-dozen miracles to fulfill. As Eugene O’Neill showed in “The Iceman Cometh,” the ability to have pipe dreams makes up for the hopelessness of a person’s life.

 

The brotherhood of pipe dreaming is just one basis for the duo’s eventual bond.  Both lead characters hail from lower class origins. Joe used to be a dishwasher for a Texas diner.  Ratso’s the son of a shoeshine man. The two leads know that staying in their normal station in life are emotional dead ends.  A particularly poignant moment sees Joe catching the stare of a dishwasher hoping for escape from his own dead end job. Yet neither Joe nor Ratso can be said to have an escape plan except “see what chance brings.”  Even if they proverbially continue to roll craps, that’s better than merely accepting their lot.

 

Late 1960s New York City embodies the social divisions Joe and Ratso try repeatedly to bridge.  The presence of fashionable well-to-do women on the streets and the occasional peek inside a luxury apartment or two seem like chimeras to our two anti-heroes.  The condemned buildings, cheap diners, grimy subways and seedy adult movie theaters form the truer reality of Joe’s and Ratso’s world, especially when Schlesinger captures this street-level life without bowing to moralistic condemnation.  The disorienting lights and drugs of a Greenwich Village party in the mode of an Andy Warhol Factory event proves the closest encounter Joe and Ratso have with an alien environment.

 

The film’s non-judgmental treatment of sexual matters possibly contributed to the period’s censors slapping “Midnight Cowboy” with an X rating.  It certainly wasn’t for the onscreen depictions of sex…whose visual explicitness stopped at a woman’s briefly glimpsed bare breast. Joe’s relationship with the sex-loving Crazy Annie turns out to be a lot sweeter than those the girl had with other boys from Joe’s hometown.  Gay sex may be treated as a source of religious guilt or even economic desperation. But those reactions come out of the characters’ own backgrounds, not a wholesale moral condemnation of gay sex in and of itself.

If Schlesinger’s treatment of sex disconcerted the puritanical moviegoer of the period, the fragmented revelation of Joe’s backstory would have left them utterly nonplussed.  What the viewer learns of Joe’s past lacks the comfort of familiar character tropes. Instead, there is a strong sense of unrevealed vital pieces of Joe’s life or at least a feeling that there are missing yet important connections in the life fragments of the would-be hustler that are revealed.

 

The relationship dynamic between Joe and Ratso may start at the familiar point of naif and street-smart individual.  Yet these two men, damaged in different ways, feel less like completely self-sufficient people than separated pieces of a whole man.  In a way, the same could be said of the 1960s America that serves as the film’s setting.

 

***

The Last Man On Earth story gets a quietly dour take in Ulrich Kohler’s “In My Room.”  It’s less concerned with ticking off genre boxes than in using its tropes as a vehicle for exploring human shortcomings.

 

Armin leads a not-very-good life.  His TV news cameraman job goes into the toilet thanks to his not knowing when the camera is on or off.  An attempt at a one night stand with a woman falls through thanks to his personal neuroses. Finally, his mother may be dying, but his father alternates between prematurely getting past her demise to becoming a mental basket case.  After sleeping in his car one night, Armin awakens to find that apparently every other living human being has suddenly disappeared. But the supposed Last Man On Earth has been wrong before.

 

Kohler’s film will confound viewers who know how these last human survivor stories go.  How or why everybody else has disappeared is taken as a given rather than a mystery to be unraveled.  Sudden isolation nudges Armin to use his mechanical skills to get electricity or have food animals. Yet it takes Kirsi’s presence to answer the central question of whether Armin has grown or changed as a person.  She is understandably suspicious of his desire for children.

 

The Last Woman On Earth’s suspicions suggest that the appeal of Last Human On Earth stories is wish fulfillment for a certain type of person.  The genre feeds off the fantasy of revealing a truer or supposedly better self that’s freed from the constraints of social circumstance. But Armin’s police car joyride through abandoned village streets feels more like indulgence in an illicit thrill rather than a moment of emotional liberation.  

 

The film argues that mass disasters don’t always spur societal resets.  Instead of inventing something new or treating others differently, Armin and Kirsi content themselves with salvaging and re-using what the rest of humanity has left behind.  Yet the lack of replacement parts and food expiration dates will eventually halt the life these two are currently living, even if they refuse to recognize the long-term picture.   

 

“In My Room” doesn’t hesitate to take a drily cynical view of the human capacity for adaptation and change.  It’s ironic that neither Armin nor Kirsi changes who they are in the wake of what’s befallen the rest of humanity.  Kirsi remains a self-sufficient wandering loner. Armin remains primarily focused on his own pleasure despite his protestations to the contrary.  Genre fans may dislike Kohler’s refusing to treat the probable end of humanity as a tremendous tragedy. But then, with Armin and Kirsi representing the last of humanity, what reason is there to cheer on humanity’s continuation?   

 

***

            Backstage dramas in the run-up to a high-profile play’s opening may seem like a dramatic setup that’s a step down for director Stanley Kwan.  But the director of such Hong Kong cinema classics as “Rogue” and “The Actress” turns his new film “First Night Nerves” into an entertaining tale of forgiveness and acceptance.  

 

            Renowned writer/director Ouyang An is premiering his new play “Two Sisters” at Hong Kong’s prestigious City Hall Theatre.   Starring as the older sister is Xiuling, a famed stage actress making her professional return after a five year hiatus. Playing the younger sister is famed movie star Yuwen, who wants to become a success at live theatre.  However, a host of behind-the-scenes problems threatens to undermine the play’s opening. The worst of these is the longstanding bad blood between the two lead actresses. Xiuling hasn’t forgotten that Yuwen shot to fame thanks to the latter “stealing” a lead movie role the older actress coveted.

 

What makes “First Night Nerves” better than the standard backstage drama is the misdirection that he pulls off with this dramatic setup.  While the viewer expects Xiuling and Yuwen to descend into catty behavior, Kwan primarily focuses on the secrets that paint both star actresses as morally grey instead of simple paragons of good and evil.  Xiuling’s mourning of her dead husband turns out to be less noble than expected. Yuwen’s success turns out to be less reliant on the casting couch than rumor has it.

 

Another joy to be found in Kwan’s film are the meaty moments given to even the supporting female characters.   Cong, the show’s bankroller, turns out to have a tangled emotional history with Xiuling and her long-dead husband when the latter was alive.  Fu Sha fights off her grandmother’s homophobia while waiting for the day Xiuling acknowledges she’s more than just a good friend. Yuwen’s personal assistant is willing to do unexpected chores for the actress out of a strong sense of gratitude.  

 

“First Night Nerves”’ portrait of LGBT relations in Chinese society is a mixed one.  There are still people who deny a relative is LGBT or has some visible discomfort with LGBTs.  Yuwen, for example, can’t shake the ick factor when it’s mentioned that An’s a partially-transitioned transwoman.  Fortunately, there are other characters who’ve accepted their LGBT relatives with love. And there are characters like Xiuling’s personal assistant Nini, who encourages Fu Sha to show Xiuling her love.

 

Kwan’s film may lack entertainingly nasty one liners.  But it more than compensates with lead performances from Sammi Cheng and Gigi Leung that will make the viewer fall in love with both star actresses by the time the curtain finally falls.  

 

(“Midnight Cowboy” is available on home video via the Criterion Collection.  “Midnight Traveller” won the McBaine Documentary Feature Award and will be eventually broadcast on PBS.

 

Suburban Birds” won a Special Jury Mention in SFFILM’s Golden Gate Awards New Directors (Fiction) Competition and will be screened at the Roxie Theatre starting on May 10, 2019.)   

 

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