Listen to Me Marlon (Film Forum, NYC;
Laemmle Theaters, L.A.)
We Come as Friends (IFC Center NYC, August 14)
Not since Maximillian Schell made Marlene (by using his extended audio interview with her as his script), has anyone pulled off a remotely similar coup. Ms. Dietrich was alive at at the time, but reclusive, burdened by time’s signature on her iconic face and body, so audio was all the bodacious (and inventive) Mr. Schell could get. He built a set for the film modeled on Dietrich’s palatial 16th-arondissment nest and used it to frame archival material cut to her audio interivew. It was, in the end, a curious (but always interesting) way to reveal perhaps more about his star than he might have been able to by using conventional sight and sound.
In Listen to Me Marlon, director Steven Riley had a subject who was not always reclusive, but dead; he had a cache of 200 hours of audiotape (much of it made privately by Brando himself “..in the possession of the family estate and uniquely gifted to Passion Pictures for the production of this film,” and he had brilliant technology (Cyberware) at his fingertips which had produced a three-D model of Brando’s head in 1980 that could be used to “speak” his lines. With the requisite bodaciousness and inventiveness, Riley edited Brando’s audio tapes and pieced together bits of Brando’s life from a vast film and theatre archive that was a mosaic of pain, evolution and astonishing genius.
It’s a record of a life lived up to, and exceeding, limitations by a talent like no other and Riley, like Schell, was blessed with the imagination and shrewdness to know what to do with it. Not only is it fascinating for the fans Brando left behind who will never give him up, but it hypnotizes all the way through. He may have been known for his beauty and intuitive Method technique, but Brando deserves to be remembered for his intelligence, raw sensibilities and sardonic wit. It’s all here—more than you might expect—from the explosion of Streetcar to the wreck he would become later in his final tours of duty.
Despite the still images, and film/TV clips from 49 productions like a cascade of modern fireballs, and no matter how many times you’ve seen the whole films that source the clips, he remains breathtaking; even more so when the parade has gone by and the coda to his life involving his children is a plunge into fate’s implacable cruelty. It is, in its way one of the saddest accounts of the cost of celebrity which even the riches of Brando’s prodigious talents couldn’t protect him from. He paid dearly for them.
We are lucky to have Steven Riley’s source material, and even luckier to be able to see what he made of it. We are also lucky that he was working with the right stuff—not only with Brando’s audio and film archives (and that 3-D head)—but with producers who seem to have cornered the market on the best stuff that’s out there. Trust me on that one: http://films.passion-pictures.com/. Meantime, you can marvel at Brando’s life and Riley’s skill right here, right now: http://filmforum.org/; http://www.laemmle.com/films/39545
We Come as Friends
Hubert Sauper was an award magnet for Darwin’s Nightmare; now he’s on the way to repeating his achievement with We Come as Friends. What he really deserves is a Medal of Honor, for those who “distinguish themselves … at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” He is a singular daredevil with a mission, who takes on an impossible task: It begins with building his own airplane (out of
what looks more and more like foil, spit and bailing wire as it crashes, burns, and rises again like some unquenchable home-made phoenix). It gets him from France to the Sudan as it lurches toward partition, overrun with foreign companies moving in for the kill.
Sauper is both brave and clear-eyed, and honest enough to admit to being afraid. Yet the courage of his convictions keeps him, and his crew, going until they have recorded enough proof of the Sudan’s inferno to make an airtight case for just how bad it is. They don’t do it by telling you anything—they show you so you can add the glue yourself. It’s not neat and linear; it piles on the evidence piecemeal as the filmmakers snatch and grab, do what they have to do, and flee for their lives.
There’s a parade of recognizable politicians and mushrooming crowds of foreign corporations finding new and creative ways to revive Colonialism for our century. There are urban and rural Africans losing their heritage and their land, unaware of what, exactly, they are giving away, and other Africans who will be cut in on the spoils. There are Chinese oil workers watching Star Trek at the end of the day. There are even excruciatingly cheerful missionaries still basking in the virtue of improving the lot of the natives (once they embrace Christianity), and–against all odds–even moments of desperate humor captured on the fly. As you add up the evidence, there’s an eerie sense of the past and the present co-existing; all the ills of the 19th century enhanced by technology that strips the land and its resources much faster and more efficiently than the Europeans ever could 200 years ago. It’s a very big cast, but Sauper has chosen and balanced his subjects well and you will soon discover their roles in the story.
In lesser hands you might think We Come as Friends will deliver what you already know. You would be so wrong! It proves that there is no substitute for conviction and knowledge, or for actually encouraging your audiences to think (and feel) for themselves. It’s exhilarating enough to become habit-forming and bestows a power you might not remember you had.