Although by no means masterpieces, I can recommend three movies, two of which are still showing in New York, in the following order of preference.
Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric”, playing at the IFC Center, is a wistful character study of a middle-aged postal clerk named Eric Bishop whose only pleasure is following the local soccer team, Manchester United. He also has a special place in his heart for Eric Cantona, United’s former superstar. Everything else in his life is falling apart, however.
He has two teenage sons who can be charitably described as louts. Ryan is the older one and appears to be an aspiring hoodlum. When Eric returns from work one day, he discovers a cement mixer on the front lawn that Ryan has “nicked”. When he confronts him, Ryan tells him to piss off. He doesn’t even call him dad, but refers to him as Eric. The younger is named Jess, his Black stepson from his second marriage. While Jess is as nearly as much of a screw-up as Ryan, he at least has some affection for Eric.
Eric is lonely and miserable. The only bright spot in his life besides rooting for the local team is babysitting for his granddaughter whose mom lives with his ex-wife Lily. When he first met Lily, he was a whiz at local dance contests, especially when they played rockabilly. Not long after he and Lily won first prize, they got married. But within a year or so, he abandoned Lily mostly out of an unwillingness to assume responsibility. Now, with the connections made to their grown daughter, he is moving inexorably to reconciling with Lily and picking up where he left off. Unfortunately, he is so psychically damaged that he would appear to lack the basic social skills to reach out to her.
Into this woeful state of affairs, a Knight in Shining Armor appears. Out of the blue, Eric Cantona (played by the former superstar himself, who produced the film as well as acted in other films) shows up in his bedroom and begins to give him advice about dealing with life and love. We understand before too long that this just a figment of his imagination rather than a real person. The best way to think of the relationship between the two Erics is not in terms of the schizophrenia found in “A Beautiful Mind” where Russell Crowe chatted with a fellow student seen only by him (in reality, schizophrenia does not entail visual hallucinations, only auditory ones.) The analogy instead is with Woody Allen in “Play it Again, Sam”, where his nebbish character converses with his idol Humphrey Bogart about how to navigate his way through difficult personal problems.
Steve Evets, who once played in The Fall, the great rock band led by Mark E. Smith, was a perfect casting choice for Eric Bishop as this wiki article would indicate:
Born in Salford, Evets joined the Merchant Navy after leaving school, but was kicked out after three years, after jumping ship twice in Japan and spending his eighteenth birthday in a Bombay brothel. He then briefly worked delivering pipes before starting his acting career, initially by forming a street theatre company with two friends. As there was already a Steve Murphy on the books of Equity, he decided on the stage name Steve Evets: “The first thing that popped into my head was ‘Steve’ backwards, so I put that on the form.” In 1987 Evets was stabbed through the liver, lung and diaphragm, glassed in the face and had his throat cut in a pub fight, he spent time on a life support machine and as a result had six major operations including the removal of parts of his ribs that had become infected from the unclean blade. He has 3 children to two different women and has an ex wife that he has no children to.
In other words, the actor playing Eric Bishop has almost the same relationship to his character as Eric Contana has to his. A stroke of genius on Ken Loach’s part to cast Steve Evets, it would seem.
Eventually Eric the mail clerk learns that Ryan has become tied to a local gangster who pays and pressures him to conceal a pistol under the floorboards of his bedroom. The sentence for concealing such a weapon is five years. When Eric discovers the gun, he waves it at Ryan, demanding an explanation. After Ryan says that the gangster won’t take no for an answer, Eric goes to his lair to extricate his son from a perilous situation, all the more so since the gun has already been used in a shooting at a local disco.
The film’s final scenes involve Eric confronting the gangsters after taking some advice from Eric Cantona about using teamwork, just like Manchester United. They do not mesh that well with the earlier scenes that are much more about emotional growth rather than combat. That being said, the most endearing scenes involve neither the imaginary conversations nor the combat with the hoodlums. Instead, they depict Eric and his postal worker pals hanging out in pubs or their homes making small talk of the sort that the leftist Ken Loach is particularly good at directing. This is the British working class at its most engaging and what endures as this feel-good movie’s most memorable moments.
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No longer playing, Marco Bellochio’s “Vincere” is a biopic about Mussolini’s affair with Ida Dalser who was locked up in a mental hospital after making herself inconvenient to the dictator with demands that he marry her and look after their son Albino. With her total and consuming devotion to Mussolini, as well as her son’s who also ends up in a mental hospital, you almost feel that the fascists had grounds for confining her. Of course, the entire country was somewhat detached from reality under fascist rule so there is some basis for looking at the “sick” and the “healthy” in the same terms as Philippe de Broca’s “King of Hearts”.
During the time that Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Mussolini (Filippo Timi, who also plays their son Albino) are intimate, you get a stunning portrait of Il Duce’s sleazy character. Starting out as a socialist, he capitulates to war fever at the outset of the war and makes fiery speeches about the nation having to redeem itself in battle before advancing toward socialism. Unlike the French and German socialist parliamentarians, Mussolini’s nationalism morphs into something far more toxic.
Dalser worships Mussolini and sells her business in order to help him get a fascist newspaper off the ground. She appears less motivated by ideology than hero worship, however. When her idol breaks with her, her tenuous hold on reality begins to fade. As a symbol of the Italian nation, she is a useful reminder of how sexism facilitates authoritarian government in a country that never fully completed a bourgeois revolution. It is the same kind of subordination to male authority and charisma that you can see in the excellent documentary Videocracy.
Unfortunately, as her psychological descent deepens, she becomes less interesting as a character. There is always a risk that when you build a movie around a mentally ill central character, your audience will lose the ability to identify with him or her. Bellochio’s treatment of Mussolini is far more interesting and one almost regrets that his focus was not on the vile dictator who remains a compelling figure and a reminder of the awful effect that hero worship has on politics as well as human relationships.
Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
–Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (1938)
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Also showing at the IFC Center is “The Human Centipede”, a horror movie directed by Tom Six, a Dutchman. The centipede in question is an experiment conducted by a mad German surgeon on two American female tourists and a Japanese man. Obsessed with the insect, he attaches the three people together, sewing the mouth to the anus until something resembling a human centipede is achieved.
The movie premiered at the Soho Film Festival this year so you can figure out that this is not exactly the sort of product made in Hollywood that would show up at your local Cineplex. Its closest relatives are the campy movies about Frankenstein and Dracula made by Andy Warhol in the 1970s. The mad scientist (Dieter Laser) is the most interesting character in Six’s movie, a kind of Dr. Frankenstein mixed with an evil Nazi-era concentration camp doctor. The performance is over-the-top, which is the only thing that makes sense in such a movie.
Tom Six seems to have exactly the right attitude for such a movie, given his interview with Twitch, an online film zine:
Twitch: Yet the film does have an awful lot of horror cliches in it ie: the mad doctor, the secret lab, the monstrous experiment even the girls…
Tom Six: LOL Yes, I wish more people would point that out.. What I did was use all the horror clichés–two naive ladies, forest, flat tire, no phone, fall into trap–which are all very commercial to set the audience at ease and then I get them. The basic situation for the film is so repulsive and disgusting that I knew I had to ease the audience into it. I used to tell a joke that politicians should be stitched ass to mouth so they would have to swallow their own bullshit all day.