Sunday, December 06, 2009


“Rachel Getting Married” and “Until Night Falls” could not be more different in content, but there are some curious echoes in the way they were made that create an interesting comparison. In a sense they are both high-grade (studio-quality) movies made by people with money enough to indulge their own ideas, which means they are in a sense “indies,” independent film. But the nature of the people means a huge difference that is best revealed when listening to the voice-over commentary.

Each addresses a modern social dilemma. “Rachel Getting Married” is really about fictional Rachel’s sister, Kym, who is a junkie just back from rehab. She is not quite ready to face her family and ends up relapsing, although one begins to feel that the whole family needs rehab. “Until Night Falls” is about a homosexual poet struggling to survive in Cuba when Castro “liberated” the country and then set about persecuting all deviance from the party line. Gays were first set free, then incarcerated. Then exported to the US in hopes of exactly what happened: in the US Reinaldo Arenas was unknown, ignored and died of AIDS. In both movies the story line is not what’s important. In fact, even the scripts were evidently helpful but not definitive, as both directors believe in spontaneity, the creativity of actors, and the high-grade talents of technical people.

To deal with the last first, Julian Schabel, the director of “Until Night Falls,” is a painter and Cuba is a spectacularly lush tropical location. In addition some historic color film of the actual revolution was incorporated and had to be matched. The cinematographer explained that he used a “chocolate filter” which is something like using gels to tint the light on a stage, except that for a movie the color is supplied by a filter on the camera. The effect of a “chocoate filter” is to warm and “antique” the colors. (Cinematography by Xavier Pérez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas.)

The sound track was original music by Carter Burwell who used many long sustained chords on strings without vibrato and a synthesizer, while removing the intervals of notes that determine whether we experience the music as either “major” (optimistic) or “minor” (sad). In the commentary he explained that he kept the music open and indeterminate when it was responding to Reinaldo’s internal state, often mystical in response to the land, but used Cuban energetic music for the scenes that were external. He was creating one of the characteristics of memoir, which is rooted in reality while expressing poetic response to it. This seems to be very hard for American audiences to understand. They are mostly just kids anyway and in the case of the Cuban revolution don’t remember these events even as news stories from far away. Javier himself was only born in 1969.

Javier is amazing, from an acting family, a sort of Spanish version of the Redgraves. He is VERY savvy about what he’s doing and how to present himself to the public, for whom he is humble and wide-eyed. He explains that he barely speaks English and tells us that being gay is not a problem, because in Europe sex in general is not a fixation the way it is in the Puritan Americas and because violence is what he truly despises. Then later he played one of the most chilling murderers in cinema when he did “No Country for Old Men.” Still protesting that he hated violence.

For “Before Night Falls” he manages to look child-like and almost girlish sometimes, while other times being heroically athletic. To survive in Cuba he could not be swishy until the day he decided to leave. In fact, we see many handsome, manly men in Speedos or less, with the sharp and competent women pushed to the background. Two notoriously playful “androgenes,” Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, take roles in sequences that are near-comic relief. (I was grateful.) In fact, Depp plays both Bon Bon, an outrageous and capacious transvestite who might or might not also be Captain Victor who torments Renaldo before setting him free. Sean Penn is less recognizable driving a mule and a cow in tandem along the Great Highway of Life as fate in the form of the revolution hurtles towards Reinaldo.

Some people complain that all this information, gleaned both from the commentary and from, interferes with their ability to enter the fantasy which is their main goal when watching a movie. They would be perfectly safe listening to the commentary on “Rachel Getting Married” which is just an extension of the fantasy, a clear attempt to keep the experience of making the movie alive in the minds of the creators. Jonathan Demme, the director, appears to be a dear friend of Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter and the script writer. Everyone else is part of a certain upper-crust and initiated group of people at the center of a penumbra of ethnic musicians who mostly perform their hearts out in the background. Now and then they are foregrounded in a big and long-winded way.

The major tech problem appears to be erasure, muting loud music being played in the next room enough to hear dialogue, and ignoring continuity jumps for the sake of the intensity of the acting. Much of this movie is hand-held camera, lurching around a huge old Connecticut mansion which the producers assure us had “every room dressed.” Meaning decorated. The basement of this house is also featured as the place where Kym “has her first sex and her first pot.” As though that were perfectly normal for teenaged girls of a certain class -- and maybe it is, though the class might not be the one that normally inhabits such a house.

The movie is worth seeing in large part because of Debra Winger, who haunts the plot and the screen with her delicate beauty and heart of darkness. Demme cast her because, he said, the part needs to be someone remarkable and he was right. A dance-away mother.

Seeing these two movies close together raises plenty of questions about class and capitalism and self-indulgence and family . . . enough for a very long essay. According to one commentator, Reinaldo’s attacks on the Castro regime are much muted to make the gay issue major. It is speculated that this may be because the Vardem family are Communist in sympathy. (The movie was shot in Mexico.) After watching indies made by Native Americans with almost no money, one hardly knows how to react to young women with enough connections and money to stage “Rachel Getting Married.” The ruined-by-poverty but still gorgeous buildings of Havana break our hearts.

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