By Ray Pride
I was all ready to start my engines for “Fast & Furious,” but won’t have an opportunity to see it until Tuesday night.
As a critic, I miss getting to review big commercial movies on a regular basis for an opening-week review, for ill or better: it’s part of the conversation as a critic that I’ve only just realized is missing when weeklies don’t see screenings far enough ahead, and that force dailies to file fairly late in some cases. There are advocates, like the producer Don Murphy (“From Hell,” “Transformers”), of eliminating courtesy advance screenings altogether. When did a critic ever sell a ticket, he likes to venture.
Justin Lin, who directed “Fast & Furious,” the fourth in the series, as well as “The Fast And Furious: Tokyo Drift” and ” Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), has a good eye, and the material, however shallow, promises eyeball kicks in profusion. Would’ve been fun to contrast the strategies of montage in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible,” Parts I and II, showing this week at Siskel in newly struck black-and-white prints (which were shown to Chicago critics on Monday). It’s the kind of whimsical pair-off Jonathan Rosenbaum used to do at The Reader and J. Hoberman sometimes still does at the Village Voice: the vagaries of chance and commerce that create a coincidental dialectic between two radically different film texts.
The larger picture of the economics of film distribution and filmmaking is increasingly hard to hold; to paraphrase Gramsci, old systems are troubled and the new one is not yet born. Presuming I had the whole of the next couple months of movie releases in my head, a garrulous post-collegiate buttonholed me the other night with the opening conversational gambit, “So! What can we expect!” All I could come up with off the tip of my tongue was “Aging. Slow degeneration of faculties. Eventually, death.”
Unfazed, he said he could live with that. And what about…? A dozen arcane movies tumbled into the air. The level of callow enthusiasm made me realize just how unbearable I had to have been at that age, but still, I also recalled going to Friday 9am opening-date screenings at Loop theaters like the United Artists or the yet-to-be restored Chicago Theater, or double features at the Sandburg or the Parkway. Am I being nostalgic in any fashion? For less confusing times, perhaps. For fewer choices flickering within reach? For something more reverential, less flippant, less disposable? Wondering about the secular cathedrals now dark. Images still flow. Stories still get re-told. Roger Ebert still celebrates the offbeat and off-kilter, the eminently simple pleasures of watching. Of observing.
Seeing without being seen, as well. Last week, I got a simple lesson in observation at the end of a documentary festival in Greece. Eariler, I’d had conversations with a young Rwandan director who made one of several films about genocide playing at Thessaloniki, which programmed a section of films directed specifically by African directors. It was the last Sunday of the event, time had been well spent. I had a drink with a few filmmakers and colleagues and chose to stop by a friends’ apartment rather than ending the event on that bloody note: he is a good storyteller and I’d gotten more than the gist of the horror, physical and moral, of that tragedy.
I pass the square of Agia Sofia, the “Church of the Holy Wisdom.” A crowd is gathered for a rally, a rank of blinding bright white lights between the speaker and the Byzantine edifice behind him. I have my DSLR camera with me, walk past without even framing a picture. The speaker’s voice resounds into the flat several blocks away. Greek words like “patriotism.” It’s a neighborhood I know well; I feel safe. I walk past again half-an-hour later, 9:15pm, after dark. Opposite the rally of 150 or so is a rank of riot-equipped police. Observing, I reach toward my very visible camera bag, more to protect its contents than to take out any equipment. Three, then four middle-aged men are abruptly in my face shouting in Greek, “Who are you?” “Who sent you?” “What are you doing?” I’m surrounded. I move to protect my bag as punches fly and fall. Long-ish story short, I was told later I might have been taken for “an anarchist infiltrator” by the dozen or so men who kicked, swung, slapped, as I crouched on the ground to protect my face. Fast, furious. Less than two minutes and about a pint of blood soaking my hair and cascading down the back of my jacket later, several police pull me away, to insure “bodily integrity,” as the jargon of Greek law has it.
My upturned palms are covered with blood from the gash on the back of my head. I hold them up. “American… Journalist… NOT political. What do you need?” A rare incident, even coming from ultranationalists, I’m assured later by Greek friends, the police, the U. S. Consulate. And a modest one compared to the blood that had run through the aisles of so many of the thirty or so documentaries I’d seen in the ten days prior. Just looking. My “crime.” Just being seen looking. And remembering the image of my two bloody hands, red, “La chinoise”-red, which I could not take a picture of.
“Ivan the Terrible” plays for a week at Siskel. “Fast & Furious” peels out Friday.