By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Street Fight,” Red Envelope/Netflix, 2007]
We Americans have difficulty regarding elective politics as much more than a wrestling match between loudmouths, the citizenry’s needs, rights and welfare be damned a situation that, if you cornered me on my darker days, I would suggest is a deliberately contrived state of affairs, and has been at least since Woodrow Wilson created the ingenuously labeled Office for Public Information in 1917. Marshall Curry’s unpretentious and absorbing video doc “Street Fight” doesn’t diagnose the disease so much as record its outrageous symptoms, documenting the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, a city terminally plagued with poverty, unemployment and racial tension. It has enough cultural crosscurrents to fill out a novel: the challenger Cory Booker is a young, studly, articulate, Yale-educated lawyer hollering for change; longtime incumbent Sharpe James, who in die-hard Republican fashion (both candidates are officially Democrats) has created his mini-empire by bleeding the poor for the profit of developers and business, bluntly maintains that he’s “the real deal.”
Neither talk about policy; both are African-American, a fact that comes into question in James’s version of Huey Long-style skullduggery. In fact, as his title suggests, Curry lucked into an old-school ratpit of electoral crookery and violence. James is apparently a compulsive liar, at various times asserting that Booker is white, Republican, gay, Jewish and a KKK benefactor. Curry’s camera is routinely assaulted by Newark police (who are caught on video performing other crimes), and the film’s reigning visual motif is a huge close-up of a lens-gripping palm. “I’m in over my head,” Curry narrates at one point after a cop breaks his camera “in broad daylight, in front of reporters,” warranting no reaction. The passing of a few years, an Oscar nomination last year and the outcome of 2006’s election (Booker won, finally) may all seem to take the edge off Curry’s film as a piece of reportage, but if you worry less about Newark and more about American politics in general, it’s a sobering experience.
And there’s politics by way of breathtaking mise-en-scene wizard Theo Angelopoulos, who’s been exploring the vast, bloody arena of Greek and Balkan social upheaval for more than 35 years, in a filmmaking style that takes Tarkovsky-Tarr traveling-shot poetry and ups the ante into the stratosphere. Maybe it’s a cultural thing: American movies favor control-crazy brevity, but for cineastes in Eastern Europe, where memory of the past weighs on life like cloud cover, the syntax of the long, spatially expressive tracking sequence is the way movie time should be constructed. For Russian long-take pioneer Mikhail Kalatozov, the whole world captured in a single motion meant our righteous empathies had nowhere else to look; for Hungarian master Miklos Jancso, breadth and length were ways to understand the canvas of war. Andrei Tarkovsky’s moody set-ups were metaphysical questions, growing less answerable the longer they became. For Angelopoulos, whose most recent film “The Weeping Meadow” is the first film in a projected trilogy, his stock-in-trade mega-shot is a translation of history into visual experience. Time grows gargantuan, landscapes change, masses of people engage in epochal social phenomena. It’s not a strategy dilettantes should entertain; Angelopoulos, one of Europe’s most demanding film artists, stands as the master of monumentalism.
The movie shares the awed sense of solemn apocalypse with Angelopoulos’s “The Travelling Players,” “Landscape in the Mist” and “Ulysses’ Gaze,” but it’s a lighter film than usual, more musical and folktale-ish, more indulgent of old-school melodrama. The story is never fed to us pre-chewed, but instead occurs continuously on- and off-camera, passing before us like the steam engines that incessantly interrupt scenes and divide characters. It’s 1919, and a crowd of émigré Greeks return from Odessa after the Bolshevik Revolution; among them, a family with one son brings with it a young orphan girl, Eleni. Years pass in an unceremonious cut; a near-comatose teenage Eleni is brought home after having given up illegitimate twins. Another cut and the young woman is fleeing her own wedding married not to the grown son, who loves her and helps her escape, but her aging stepfather.
Literally trailing after these scrambling souls as they follow each other into the crossfire of the mid-century world war, the revolution, the fascist junta, civil war Angelopoulos’s massive real-time moviemaking keeps the mad tragic-Greek drama at a dreamy distance. Often, the director seems capable of coordinating entire landscapes, and weather, too how did he manage to flood an entire plain, scores of square miles we’d already seen dry and supporting houses, for a single scene? (Sleight-of-hand F/X are not in Angelopoulos’s tool kit.) No less astonishing is an uncut, nine-minute sequence that begins with an impromptu beer-hall dance and climaxes with a death. The construction of emotional moments via editing and montage doesn’t interest this man instead, he’ll do what it takes to move a mountain and make a vision or drama happen for real.
“Street Fight” will be available on DVD January 9th (Red Envelope/Netflix); “The Weeping Meadow” is now available on DVD (New Yorker).