Last week, as the American media worked its tail off to insure that the Bush Restoration is extended for four more years by questioning the military record of a then twenty-something John Kerry in Viet Nam*, I ran screaming out of my house, tore my hair out of my head and, as I clutched my knees to my chest and babbled incoherently in the dark corner of the 2 Train, raced uptown to see a double-feature. Not even the pleasantries with the ticket taker (nice guy!) at Lincoln Plaza could take my mind off of the growing fear that everything was falling apart. As the ritual usually goes, though– lights fade, credits roll, and I was transported out of my anxious worldweariness and into Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s present day Paris in It’s Easier For A Camel.
(Ok, maybe this is just an excuse to put Chiara Mastroianni’s picture on my blog… but read on, it all ties together in the end…)
In Camel, writer/director/star Tedeschi plays Federica, the daughter of a dying indutrialist who is coming to terms with the fact that she will soon inherit a huge fortune. Her guilt surrounding her impending wealth is palpable yet playful, and Tedeschi does a fine job of dramatizing Federica’s doubts. In one scene, she even has Federica and her lover share a couple of choruses of the socialist anthem The Internationale at a crowded intersection. In another, Federica fantasizes about what it would have been like to have been kidnapped by Communist Italians, winning their trust and uniting them with her wealthy family for a rousing banquet. In other words, the woman is actually introspective about her money and sympathetic to its meaning in a social context. And that’s how you know its a foreign film.
Of course, the film is more concerned with the personal context of 30-something Federica’s life, and her anxieties are not so far removed from those of any single woman in the city. She wants to be loved, wants adventure, and has an old flame that she can’t let go of. She also wants stability, and so she dates an attractive, working-class man who resents her priviledge so that she can constantly confront her own doubts. Meanwhile, she is clearly the favorite child of her father, because she does indeed enjoy his company and he enjoys her joyous approach to life. You instantly get the idea. Money isn’t the real issue. The film is concerned with human relationships and personal happiness and by the time Federica’s father’s coffin fails to fit into the lear jet that is scheduled to return him to his resting place in Italy, the point is clear. You can’t take it with you. You are alone, and hopefully, content. The film is a lovely statement.
Back to the 1 Train and downtown to Film Forum for the second half of the double feature, Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves. As the train rolled into 34th street, I was instantly reminded of the RNC convention that was (at the time) coming all too soon. Viet Nam? Are they joking?!? The dread rises again. Off the train. Walk the block toward the blue neon. Ritual. Lights fade, credits roll. This time, McElwee’s traditionally personal cinema has been transformed by the previous film, and his story of a lost tobacco fortune really connects with me. I wonder what Federica would have made of McElwee’s complaints against the Duke family who, it is suggested, stole his own family’s fortunes in the late 19th century? There are some genuinely great moments in Bright Leaves; The petty but hilarious comparison between the two family’s public parks and graves, the exploration of the possibility that Gary Cooper played a fictionalized version of Ross’s great grandfather McElwee in Bright Leaf boiling down to a laughing dismissal from the author’s wife (which effectively undermines the whole premise of the film.) And then there is the transcendent moment when a dreadlocked woman, sitting on on her back porch, discusses the loss of her mother, a non-smoker, to lung cancer before picking up a banjo and singing the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard in a film.
As she sings, both films begin to resonate, bouncing off of one another. The singer regretting her own contribution to her mother’s death, the legacy of the land as fertile provider for monstrous tobacco, McElwee’s guilt over his family’s association with the launching of the tobacco industry, his not-so secret (yet taboo) desire to have profited from it personally, the personal profit of Federica from her father’s death, her political guilt in receiving the fruits of his industrial exploitation (hinted at in an early flashback regarding factory layoffs). Both films are about families, legacies, inheritance, and the search for one’s own contribution. For McElwee, it is his own cinematic legacy to his son coupled with his collection of images of his own father played against the fictional ‘home movie’ of Bright Leaf. For Tedesci, it is her desire for a relationship and love, for stability and freedom from guilt. Both filmmakers are looking at who they are by looking backwards and discovering themselves through their familial relationships, questioning the people they have become.
I was very moved by the whole experience, particularly because I have such a tenuous relationship to my own personal history. I wonder how much of who I am is truly shaped by my relationship to my family. What have I inherited? I am unsure. I am of the self-made individual school, and despite tremendous support from my parents, I don’t really see too much of their lived experience in my day to day life. Am I not looking hard enough?
Back on the train, out of Manhattan, toward Brooklyn. I think to myself that maybe the President could use a look at both films. I crack a book, begin half-reading, half-remembering a day at the movies. Over the Manhattan Bridge on the N train. Ritual. Lights fade as we go back underground. Stations roll by. I inherit New York City over and over and over again.
*Can someone, anyone, please explain to me how Karl Rove won the high ground on military service? While John Kerry was serving his country overseas, Bush was probably ducking his National Guard service by doing coke off of a hooker’s ass somewhere in Texas. And now America is questioning John Kerry’s military service record? Tell me this is a dream or something, because I really can’t believe it. Seriously…