Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Abigail Disney/Gini Reticker)
America has had a special relationship to Liberia since 1847, when it was founded by American slaves who had escaped or been freed. They formed an elite that continued to rule the country until the the end of the 20th century, when violence erupted between rebels (many of them young boys wielding heavy artillery) and the repressive government of Charles Taylor. Most Liberians were caught in the middle of the escalating carnage; it is estimated that 200,000 of them died.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell reflects the conflict, and takes us behind the scenes in the villages destroyed by the rebels, the refugee camps, and the Presidential palace, where Charles Taylor shamelessly insisted his corrupt regime was the only alternative to chaos. It’s an increasingly common scenario around the world, but the real miracle of this film is its first-person accounts (there is no narration) by the women who decided to do something about it. Their restrained testimony is all the more powerful in contrast to the horrific footage that plays against it.
Their first small groups grew until thousands protested, peacefully and silently, against the bloodshed. They were Christian and Muslim, from Liberia and other African countries, allied by dressing in white (for peace), lining the routes of presidential motorcades with hand-made signs. They brought their growing numbers to Taylor’s palace in the capital, and eventually reached out to the international community, staging a sit-in outside the “peace talks” (populated by tribal leaders and politicians, all of them men). They invented their strategies as they went
along—including mobilizing to deny sexual favors to their husbands. It worked 2400 years ago when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata (about women mobilizing against war to deny sexual favors to their husbands), and it worked in Liberia. Nothing, apparently, is a more irresistible argument: the husbands agreed to disarm and make peace.
So, the women, and a growing general disgust and impatience with the 15-year-long war, prevailed. In the end, not only was the war over, but Charles Taylor had been exiled to Nigeria, and Africa’s first woman president (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) had been democratically elected in his place.
Goals accomplished, the sisterhod disbanded. But Charles Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes, and they have learned to be watchful. As their leaders assert, “We stepped out and did the unimaginable…..If things ever get bad again, we will be back!” Pray the Devil Back to Hell is available on DVD in mid-November.
Where the Wild Things Are
Sometimes, when you see a movie, it’s better not to have read the book or seen a previous film version. You have no expectations, and can simply respond directly to what you see and hear. And, in Where the Wild Things Are, you will—it goes deep, with its volatile mixture of violence, love, joy, and sorrow mirroring the human spirit (especially that of children, who haven’t yet learned how to mediate their emotions). They’re all mixed up together, and erupt without warning, or logic, in the blink of an eye. So you’re inside a child, yet perceiving with an adult’s eye.
This film is extraordinary, moving and powerful; often side-splittingly funny, but darkness is always just outside the door, waiting to invade if it’s opened a crack. It’s an original, and it works all the time. (But I couldn’t shake a persistent and alluring fantasy about what it might have been like to be a fly on the wall during its evolution….)
It may be that Spike Jonze’s collaborator (in this case the anarchic and brilliant writer Dave Eggers) is a better match for him than the anarchic, brilliant, but self-indulgent, writer Charlie Kaufman (who scripted The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation, both directed by Jonze). But Wild Things is a real heart-in-mouth trip: always absorbing, and it cuts to the bone. Maybe not for children…yet like nothing else, and must be seen, heard, and especially, felt. Perhaps, after applauding all its art and craft, that’s what you’ll remember best.
A Wish-List for Random Reprises…..
Diaghilev’s Theatre of Marvels at the NYPL, reminding us of how truly cataclysmic the cultural shifts of the early 20th century arts were, and how the fabled synergy of the Ballet Russes’ music (Stravinsky); décor (Bakst, Goncharova, Picasso); and choreography (Massine, Nijinska) set off decades of inspiration and imitation. To say nothing of the company’s (mostly) Russian dancers, whose names still evoke nostalgia. Pity that their work was captured only in still photographs, however evocative.
And yet, there was a hint of more some years ago: a librarian at the NYPL Dance Division bought at auction, for $10, an old Ballets Russes (then on tour in the UK) customs declaration. Its list of effects included “a camera and cinematographic equipment,” and was dated smack in the middle of Nijinsky’s brief reign. It seems unlikely that the company, with its cameras and film, would not have trained them on its superstar dancer. Who knows what it might have taught us about celestial motion?
Macmillan’s The Invitation (an over-the-top, but unforgettable, erotic ballet about a young couple corrupted by an older pair; originally with Desmond Doyle, Anya Linden, Christopher Gable, and Lynne Seymour). Joffrey’s Gamelan, (a dreamlike interlude with Indonesian overlay, set to Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Small Orchestra; danced by Christian Holder). Opus 69—one of the earlier naughty jazz ballets, with a score by Teo Macero. Cranko’s versions of Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet; two of the best story ballets of all time, and certainly two of the funniest and most moving, respectively. Shakespeare would have loved them.
And, from London (or from anywhere), Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
P.S.: Where is Pogo, now that we really need him?