The Short and the Long of the Best…
Learning to Drive;
Edgar Reitz Comes Home
It’s relatively short (90 minutes) and I didn’t plan to write about it but, in all honestly, I simply had to. Learning to Drive is a real honey; compelling story, fresh, realistic, quirky dialogue, and two characters who you will remember for a long time because you just can’t stop caring about them. The story, in its barest outlines, could have been just another Odd Couple two-hander; they meet cute, have little in common, yet somehow manage to bond and persevere until they drive into the sunset together.
Forget it! What makes this gem stand out is the serious talent that went into its conception, its script (thank you, thank you Sarah Kernochan), its realization and those same spacious pages that the cast and director (Isabel Coixet) inhabit together from first frame to last. Based on an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker story by Katha Pollitt, the film took 11 years to emerge from magazine to movie and, as frustrating as that journey may have been, there are no shortcuts I know of to creating such lapidary work.
Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are equal partners in this brilliant caper, but share their skills with Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber, Avi Nash and Matt Salinger. DP Manel Ruiz just keeps getting it right and the editing (by Keith Reamer and Thelma Schoonmaker) flaunts its rhythms all the way through (one touch: we’re not in Toronto, and when Clarkson and Kingsley drive around, they are always geographically correct). Well, that’s a minor detail. But had this movie been made with a lesser talent for holding the reins than Coixet’s, it would has been just another charmer without the finesse and perception that loft it way beyond its genre. (AMC Loew’s Lincoln Square; AMC Empire 25; Angelika Film Center)
Home From Home (Anthology Film Archives, Sept. 8 – 17)
Years ago, having worked many months in Germany, I was drawn to MoMA to see Edgar Reitz’ Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany. MoMA offered two choices: see all 16 hours in two days, or opt for four hours a day for two weekends. Guided by some fateful instinct, I chose total immersion. Reitz was telling the tale of Germany between the wars and and beyond and, after spending the weekend with the three families from Shabbach whose interlocking stories explained the riddle of how, and why, Germany did what it had done in those years, I was never quite the same. But I craved more.
Almost a decade later, Reitz mounted Heimat: A Chronicle of a Generation, which revisited some of the key players from 1960 – 1972 from a different perspective. This time it took 24 hours to tell their story. The Public Theatre stepped up to the plate and offered weekly subscriptions (180 minutes per week) in its tiny screening room. The word got out: that tiny screening room was packed with the likes of Susan Sonntag, Wallace Shawn and their friends in a communal trance for the entire run. Eventually, PBS showed part of the series and Bravo (then a very high-end film subscription channel) the rest, with repeats..
But times changed. Heimat Three (A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings) parsed the last decade of the 20th century up to the Millennium in just six hours, and was shown here only at the Goethe Institut in Boston. PBS had moved on to Downton Abbey, and Bravo had become a bargain-basement repository for NBC’s schlockiest fare.
It’s more of a pity than you might imagine, for Reitz is a truly mighty filmmaker, using his camera (often subjectively) as his script’s equal partner in ways that only a master can conjure. This becomes obvious in the very first episodes, where he enables us to experience the first long-distance radio broadcast as the miracle it must have seemed to small-town Germans in 1920. Or to fly slowly over Shabbach inside an antique biplane that allows us to take in the beauty of the forests below. This will pay off in spades in episode 15, when we are inside a supersonic fighter jet in the same location, turning the forests into a green blur. While seeing the entire 53 hours on the big screen is no longer possible, you can find it all on DVD: https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.edgar-reitz.de/&prev=search It’s an incredibly self-indulgent binge, but will satisfy whenever you’re hungry for real film food.
In the meantime, The Anthology Film Archive is offering us the gift of Reitz’ newest: Heimat: A Chronicle of a Vision,—a prequel to the later drama—that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany before its revolution and unification into the country it would become under the Hohenzollern Kaisers until 1918. This is no dry history, but a living, breathing emotional high that keeps you hypnotized, watching and feeling, until the story ends. And you will still want more….
For a full schedule of the Mighty Reitz (including two of his early pre-Heimat films and a program of shorts), go to Reitz schedule You won’t get this opportunity often, so take advantage of the here-and-now, now! (September 8 – 17). To buy tickets: