Sunday, January 17, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: When political violence is no longer unimaginable

Screen Grabs: When political violence is no longer unimaginable

Stories of oppression, terror, murder—and heroism. Plus: 'Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story,' more

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As the US remains in the extraordinary position of having a President who refuses to acknowledge he hasn’t been re-elected, and who continues to encourage those who agitate for a populist coup, we often seem on the brink of political violence Americans are accustomed to seeing only in “banana republics,” or other nations we routinely dismiss as corrupt and backward. That violence did not explode as feared around Election Day, when the Electoral College certified its results, or when the Supreme Court shot down yet another bogus challenge from Team Trump. But who knows what January will bring? 

Two new documentaries highlight the kinds of scenarios abroad that no longer seem quite so unimaginable in the “land of the free.” They highlight instances in which jail or outright assassination is the price for whistle-blowing, human rights advocacy, or investigating the crimes of an elite. Jeff Kaufman’s Nasrin profiles Nasrin Sotoudeh, the lawyer and activist whose high-profile progressive stances in Iran have so far been answered with two prison sentences (the second still ongoing). She’s particularly invested in women’s and children’s rights, two things with very little legal standing in that theocracy. In fact, opponents often claim that “human rights” are a Western construct not relevant to Iranian culture or religious belief. (On the other hand, the film advances the notion that the majority populace is far more liberally inclined than the hard-liners it’s ruled by.) 

Here, juveniles face the death penalty; religious minorities are freely persecuted, even to the point of murder; a father might continue to see his underage daughter despite several authorities confirming she is likely suffering sexual abuse at his hands. Women’s rights are drastically worse than they were 2500 years ago, in ancient Persia. The cases Sotoudeh represents have challenged all those norms, and the tension heightens as she refuses to wear the hijab. 

Partly shot in clandestine fashion by anonymous fellow countrymen (for fear of official reprisal), Nasrin is not, even given those limitations, particularly well-made. It’s padded with superfluous footage (do we really need to see the subject shopping? hear what a gracious hostess she is?), sometimes seeming more like a testimonial dinner than a focused address of the issues. Still, her heroism is dramatic and impressive, shedding light on a country whose ongoing mistreatment by numerous other nations (particularly the U.S.) hasonly reinforced its reactionary isolation. Nasrin opens Fri/18 in virtual cinemas nationwide, for info go to www.nasrinfilm.com.

Guatemala’s submission to the Oscars this year is La Llorona, an unusually artful and interesting supernatural tale (currently on the genre streaming platform Shudder) that imagines otherworldly vengeance for atrocities committed during that nation’s long recent civil war. For the real-life version, there’s Paul Taylor’s The Art of Political Murder, which currently on HBO and HBO Max. When the 36-year conflict between right-wing military government forces and leftist rebel groups ended, the Catholic Church’s Human Rights Office sought to investigate war crimes—particularly the genocide against primarily Mayan indigenous peoples, who comprised most of the approximately 200,000 civilians killed—because it was the most respected, least-controversial organization at hand. (Others who’d made similar efforts had been killed, jailed or exiled.) 

Two days after his damning Recovery of Historical Memory Project report was announced in May 1998, 78-year-old Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death with a chunk of cement. Crime scene evidence was epically “mishandled” by police, and there were attempts to paint the deed as the result of a supposed gay love spat. Needless to say, these were just obvious attempts to shield military leadership from further exposure of their crimes—which now included a church leader’s de facto state-sponsored execution.

Art doesn’t focus on the admirable Gerardi’s career or the civil war itself much. Instead, it concentrates on the way in which the investigation of his death wound up distracting from larger issues, ultimately becoming their own form of indictment. It’s a twisty tale with considerable suspense. Justice does prevail—yet this case proves how ruthlessly the powerful and guilty are willing to act in order to prevent that happening. 

Other new arrivals to streaming or other formats:

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
An immediate pop-culture sensation upon its premiere in mid-1991, The Ren & Stimpy Show greatly broadened the palette for TV cartoonage, as it took the blueprint of classic Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry merriment to new levels of surreal insanity. It was also controversial, as the program that opened the door to “Adult Swim,” South Park, etc. was on ostensibly kid-friendly Nickelodeon. The biggest problem, however, turned out to be its own mastermind: Creator John Kricfalusi proved such a mercurial perfectionist, so abusive towards both subordinates and network bosses, that he got fired from his own hit show after just one season. 

That spectacular flameout is chronicled in Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary, with which Kricfalusi cooperated—though maybe he shouldn’t have. Presumably meaning to repair his reputation (further damaged by revelations of involvements with underage aspiring female animators), he instead ends up reinforcing it, refusing to accept that his own behavior was the biggest factor in a professional freefall. Happy Happy is fun, fast-paced, and has plenty of animation clips to satisfy fans. But it’s also a scarifying portrait of an empathy-free artistic ego run amuck. It’s available from Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms, as well as on DVD from Kino Lorber.

I’m Your Woman
Though the ’80s championed ultra-macho solo action heroes in the Rambo or Rocky mood, the prior decade’s preferred brand of celluloid testosterone was more buddy-oriented, with teams of cops, crooks, or whatever… all throwing punches against “The Man.” One thing that didn’t change was that there was seldom much room for women, apart from various thankless and/or decorative supporting figures: Nagging girlfriends, neglected wives, demanding mistresses, brassy prostitutes, sometimes killed off but invariably rendered topless for a scene or two first. This 70s-set crime drama from director Julia Hart (Fast Color) flips that formula by focusing on exactly such a character, who’d normally be abandoned after a couple scenes in favor of the hero’s bullet-splayed progress.

Jean (Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is the bored trophy wife of Eddie (Bill Heck), living in garish Me Decade suburban Pittsburgh splendor while he’s out doing…er, whatever it is he does. Noting that she pines for a child (but apparently can’t have one), he returns home one day with a baby. Where did it come from? Whose baby is/was it? He won’t say, and she is accustomed to not pressing. Just when she’s beginning to adjust to this bewildering new situation, however, Jean is instructed that she and baby must flee, now. Eddie is in deep, unspecified trouble, and by extension so is she. Escorted by Cal (Arinze Kene), who won’t or can’t tell her more, she embarks on a serpentine voyage through various shaky “safe houses” where Eddie refuses to resurface—but where his criminal deeds will keep her terrified and on the run, sometimes aided by new allies like Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake). 

Those expecting a full-bore crime thriller may find I’m Your Woman too “nothing happening,” as it focuses entirely on Jean’s confusion and helplessness. (She’s never lived alone before, and only knows how to cook eggs…barely.) But it does eventually bring on the violent peril, in a satisfyingly unpredictable way. Soft-pedaling its period setting, I’m Your Woman might have given Jean a little more shading (isn’t she allowed to have a backstory?), but the performances are all strong enough to compel our interest. This is a sort of female companion piece to Lynne Ramsay’s fascinating 2017 You Were Never Really Here, in that it’s primarily about the tense, furtive waiting that comprises most of a reluctantly criminal life—in which the terrible thing one fears passes in a frantic instant, but its anticipatory dread seems to go on forever. I’m Your Woman is streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Markie in Milwaukee
There have been a whole lot of recent documentaries about transgender persons, many charting a transition process ending in the fulfillment of someone finally feeling truly “themselves.” But people are complicated, and not every such story slots neatly into that same inspirational bracket. Director Matt Kleigman spent a decade filming the subject of this new feature. It provides a discomfiting portrait of an individual whose conflicts with him- and/or herself may not get resolved during this lifetime.

We first meet seven-foot Mark Wenzel on a day in 2013 when he has legally ceased to be Markie, the female identity he’s embraced for nearly a decade. As the film leaps back and forth in time, we struggle to piece together a very contrary overall picture of a 60-something life: A towering boy attracted to (and strongly dissuaded from) crossdressing early on, an evangelical minister, marriage and kids, “reparative therapy,” estrangement from wife and kids, LGBTQ activism, religion-fueled repentance, et al. Mark and/or Markie are almost always on camera, using it as a confessor, sometimes seeming to work at convincing themselves of the rightness of wherever they’re currently at. (We too seldom see him meaningfully interact with others to gauge his relationships, or whether he’s as self-absorbed as he appears.) 

There is no simple conclusion to draw here: Wenzel cannot reconcile the deeply embedded contradictions in his life, and neither can we. His classic midwestern “niceness” makes it hard to tell if this is a source of private torment or not; his monumental, course-changing decisions take place off-screen. A case like this could easily be used to dismiss the whole idea of gender dysphoria as some petulant individual “choice.” But Mark and Markie suggest that maybe the reason they won’t, can’t stay in an easy-to-understand category is because humanity has more complexities than we have categories at present. Markie in Milwaukee is currently playing Roxie Virtual Cinema (More info here). Also there, and of some related interest, is another new documentary with the self-explanatory title Queer Japan (More info here). 

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