Saturday, April 21, 2012

Applause and Bully

           “I can’t conceive of any more misery”  Lennon/McCartney (1962)

                                                Review by Ken Burke
Be forewarned that this grim Danish film takes you into emotionally-barren Ingmar Bergman-style territory in a story about an actress whose life is tragic on- and off-stage.

Hard to watch because it shows life's cruelty rather than a fictionalized version of it in a documentary about the endless horrors for some in their adolescent years.
            In my last posting I cited the Rolling Stones’ song “Time Waits for No One” as the likely reason why I wouldn’t have any option for posting in what has and continues to be a very busy week for me in the non-blog (that is, actual paid employment) world.  However, I come to you anyway with a determined attempt to get in some filmic commentary after all, on two very adult films (rather than the more popcorn-munching material such as Think Like a Man [Tim Story], The Lucky One [Scott Hicks], The Three Stooges [the Farrelly brothers] and The Cabin in the Woods [Drew Goddard], which I’ll leave to their box-office wars because the ones I’m interested in aren’t drawing in much cash, which is a real shame but unfortunately not unexpected).  So, on to some quick (for me) comments on Applause and Bully.

            For those of you familiar with the Beatles’ catalogue you might wonder why (or you might even “Ask Me Why,” the song from which the leadoff quote comes) if I wanted to emphasize one of their songs with the word “misery” in the review title that I didn’t just use “Misery” (1963), where the singer laments about lost love and its awful aftermath.  I chose the other song instead because of the irony of application, in that the line I’ve cited isn’t about being in misery (as the protagonists of these reviewed films are) but about NOT being in that condition because of entering a state of bliss that comes with successful romance (the next lines are “Ask me why, I’ll say I love you, And I’m always thinking of you”).  That’s the emotional and mental state that our films’ primary characters are seeking, the relief that comes from not being able to “conceive of any more misery,” but that’s not really an option available to any of them, making their lives as consciously displaced as my intentional edited use of the Lennon/McCartney lyrics.  The first of our desperate souls is Thea Barfoed (played by the spicily-named Paprika Steen) in the Danish film Applause (Applaus) directed by Martin Pieter Zandvilet, released in Denmark in 2009 but just now getting to us. Thea’s got everything you could want regarding “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” (to quote Sugar Kane [Marilyn Monroe] in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic Some Like It Hot): alcoholism, divorce, estrangement from her children, and a stage actress career where she’s now performing as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf so she has to channel emotional turmoil on a regular basis in public even as she’s trying to purge it from her private life.  That’s really about all you need to know concerning this film’s plot because it’s essentially another piece of Photographic Realism (like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike, review posted here on April 12, 2012) seemingly shot in mid-def video with images that focus on Thea’s hard times in a very intense, unflattering manner done with frequent closeups on her uncompromising face, a tactic that is simultaneously riveting and overwhelming in the widescreen format of the film’s visualization.

            All Thea wants is to be close to her kids, but her previous failures as wife, mother, and sociable human being make it hard for those she’d like to have share in her personal life to see her as anything but raging, unpredictable Martha off stage as well. Whether it’s possible pick-up German guy at a bar, her dresser at the theatre, or her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch), she’s consistently hostile and even seems to have no rapport with her kids on a rare visit until she gets out some Viking toys and they all have a whooping good time simulating wanton destruction.  Yet when the time arrives for a family meeting with the social worker counselor that she’s arranged she doesn’t even show up, leading to a fight with her ex that once again channels the confrontations in Virginia Woolf.  By the time that she take her sons to a picnic by the lake you wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she decided to drown them and commit suicide (which I wasn’t eager to see but felt properly prepared for), but fortunately she just decides to disengage from her obsessions with her kids and stay away from them in an attempt to work on her own problems.  This may all sound too much like being burdened with a distant relative’s miserable story at a holiday dinner gathering, but Steen’s performance is so mesmerizing, so dramatically on target that it’s hard to look away from the car wreck that has become her life and hope with her that she's able to rebuild it.

            When you think of brooding Scandinavian directors and the powerful women that they’ve shared with the world on screen you probably first come to Ingmar Bergman, with such haunting interpersonal investigations as Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Autumn Sonata (1978, all of which feature the stunning Liv Ullman, in concern with Bibi Anderson in the first, Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, and Ingrid Thulin in the second, and Ingrid Bergman in the third) or Lars von Trier whose penetrating work in such emotional attacks on the audience as Breaking the Waves (1996, with Emily Watson), Dancer in the Dark (2000, with Björk), and Melancholia (2011, with Kirsten Dunst) stand as arguments for him as Bergman’s successor—although if you’re more historically aware you’d likely start any such Scandinavian remembrances with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s magnificent 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc (definitely one of my all-time Top 10) in which Renee Falconetti embodies enlightened reserve and attendant suffering as the heretic-turned-saint, with her fiery end in the film mellowed to canonization over the centuries—but Zandvilet proves himself capable of adding to that canon with Applause, which is likely all this film will get much of rather than profits because it’s an admittedly melancholy tale that’s not likely to tear many away from The Hunger Games (Gary Ross) or Titanic (James Cameron) in 3-D, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of your own comfort to share the enthralling discomfort of another you couldn’t do much better in the current cinema than to see Applause (although you may find the subtitles a bit strange at times if your print is similar to mine because the English translation was occasionally joined by an additional version, seemingly in Swedish based on what I’ve seen in Bergman films).

            If you’re really up for a challenge, though, look no further (but please look at, because this film desperately needs the exposure) than Lee Hirsch’s Bully.  Even with all of the free press this documentary got over its ratings battle to come down from the restricted-attendance R category (which finally resulted in the coveted PG-13 needed to more easily reach its target audience with some last-minute edits of the dreaded f-word, which seemingly is more shocking and offensive for our national Ratings Board members than it is for the kids who live with this language every day) it’s not raking in much at the theatres so I can only hope that it will endure long enough for an audience to build, or maybe it will eventually be shown in schools, at least ones in more enlightened districts than the ones depicted in the film where hesitation and denial on the part of school authorities helped contribute to the suicides of two of the profiled youngsters.  As the camera roams around the South and Midwest to focus on five particular victims of uninvited repression we see the shocking ease with which the cruelty happens and the even more shocking blasé attitude of some of the attackers who don’t even seem to care that they’re being caught on camera physically and verbally harassing 12 year-old Alex Libby in Iowa just because he’s unattractive enough (“fish face” is one of their nicer choices) to be noticed and not hulky enough to fight off his oppressors, so he keeps rationalizing as often as he can that what’s happening to him isn’t really so bad.  For Georgian Tyler Long, though, the inability to stop the constant taunts at 17 became so overwhelming that he finally committed suicide, which at least brought about a public outcry and pleas from his parents and few friends (especially traumatized but outspoken Devon who admits that as a very young boy he used to be a bully himself) for this type of cruelty to be better monitored and stopped before others embrace the only escape they can imagine from their constant torture, as evidenced further in Bully by another suicide, this time of Kirk Smalley, an 11 year-old Oklahoma boy, whose heart-broken parents formed the anti-bullying group Stand for the Silent to rally support for those unfortunate kids who are constantly menaced by their peers.

            However, 16 year-old Kelby, an Oklahoma lesbian girl who at least has a circle of supportive friends to help somewhat in repelling the unthinking monsters in her life, tried suicide three times herself and still has to live in the Bible-belt environment she shared with Kirk, where many in her community and even some of her teachers condemn her homosexuality, while Ja’Maya, a 14 year-old black Mississippi girl, gets so fed up with it that she takes a handgun from her home and uses it as a prop threat (there’s no indication that she ever intended to actually shoot anyone) to try to keep her bullies at bay on yet another hell-bound school bus.  She understands that what she did was wrong and fortunately did not have to serve extensive jail time for her bad decision, but you can clearly see through testimony from her and her family how anyone so abused by such constant mockery from her fellow students would decide at some point that she had to do something to get her tormenters to back off, even if it was just a dramatic bluff.  Hirsch’s camera can’t possibly be in position to capture most of what is reported about these tormented kids (although we do see Ja’Maya’s “crime” on surveillance video; Alex could use such monitoring on his bus for the many usual days when the attacks on him aren’t being recorded by Hirsch) so most of the film consists of interviews with these kids, their parents, their school authorities and other ineffective law-enforcers in their communities, but this is not stagnant talking-heads footage; rather, it’s revealing, powerful, and ultimately atrocious evidence that anyone would have to live so many of their formative years in daily fear of abuse simply because “boys will be boys” (and girls aren’t innocent either, as we’ve seen in news stories about cyber-bullying that parallel and enhance what’s being forced into mainstream conversation by this compelling film).  Boys may also be good sons if they live long enough, but Tyler and Kirk just couldn’t go on waiting for relief from their daily traumas so they chose to exit the constant cruelty rained down on them.  Both of their fathers deliver memorable eulogies in various ways with loving memories of their departed children.

            Tyler’s dad is powerfully plain spoken, but Kirk’s—an ordinary, humble working man—is the most eloquent of all, in his private statements to Hirsch and in his public speech at a huge rally intended to honor young Kirk’s memory and challenge his son’s community to rise above hate (ironically, a catch phrase for WWE wrestler John Cena, promoted as a hero [despite all the “Cena sucks!” chants that are gleefully shouted by the bullies at the “sport’s” televised events] by an organization that has honorably embraced the national anti-bullying campaign but still presents hours of weekly footage of arrogant jerks who intimidate the more decent athletes in the company, constantly carry out sneak attacks—at times with weapons—and rarely face any confrontation or condemnation from the fictionalized management figures in the scripted stories, so that retribution for such acts comes only occasionally, most often on expensive pay-per-view events that are constantly hyped on the weekly cable shows that aren’t regulated by FCC standards for the regular violence they dish out for profit).  I had some problems myself with being bullied in grade school (where the Catholic morality lessons didn’t always carry over to the playground) and junior high (where I learned to hang around the periphery of a gang of toughs, never joining in with their periodic raids on our cross-town rivals but being familiar enough to them that when they were hunting for someone to punch they released me on my own recognizance), but nothing like what the sad, desperate kids in this film must endure.  This is not a comfortable viewing experience—really, it’s shameful that this bullying problem is so widespread, but what can we expect in a culture where it happens on the sports fields, in political campaigns, and in corporate skyscrapers all over America.  However, this exposé demands to be seen, if only to give the bullied some hope, the bulliers some shame, and the absent adults in these kids’ lives some insights into what their own aggressive offspring are doing to their fellow classmates, the undeserving victims of these junior tyrants whose social swagger may unfortunately result one day in them becoming the principals and police who turn a blind eye toward these hostile taunts as the children of their weaker neighbors again pay the price of simply not knowing how to avoid the cruel ones whose empty lives are filled up with their vicious acts of terror on the weaker members of the disparate herd.  You may not want to watch what Bully is trying to reveal, but if this message doesn’t get out to the millions (and millions, as another WWE favorite, The Rock, would say) of kids who are perpetrators, victims, or silent bystanders of this ongoing reign of terror then all we can expect is more of the same, handed down from generation to generation.

            If you’d like to know more about Applause please consider the following links: (Applause star Paprika Steen answers an audience question, then just let it run at the end for auto flow of five more questions and answers)

            If you’d like to know more about Bully please consider the following links: (15 min. clip of Ellen Degeneres interviewing David and Tina Long, parents of Tyler who committed suicide in 2009)

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