I was so delighted to read that Ida won an Oscar last night. And it’s not just a Polish thing. In a night that was once again all about men, and bloated stories, at least the Best Foreign Language Film went to a super-tight, 82 minute narrative that was crystal clear and yet full of surprises. That more than passes the Bechdel test. And in a night when The Imitation Game took home a screenwriting award for its unnecessarily sprawling account of Alan Turing – telling stories about him in not two but three times at once – here’s a film that managed to pack more emotional resonance, with no cheap CGI, and all in one time, most of it over about four days.

"You've no idea the effect you have, do you?"

“You’ve no idea the effect you have, do you?”

Truth be known, I saw Ida (screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) in the theater months ago, then watched it with some friends last night instead of the Oscars. It was so rewarding the second time through, I went home and watched it again so I could make a beat sheet of it.

The most gorgeous thing about it is what’s not on the beat sheet. Pawlikowski the director is so economical in his story-telling, you sometimes think he’s just marking time, but only at the end do you notice that practically every time Ida – the young nun who is his heroine – goes to bed, we are there to take a few-seconds-long look at her emotional state of mind, and the journey she quietly takes to the heart of darkness.

You could say it’s a meditation on Polish identity, in which an honest accounting of the pox of anti-semitism leads to a stark choice between hiding in the church and a still-far-away liberal internationalism. While it’s another dirty World War II story, it’s also a character study of a universal type: a person learning from a mentor she didn’t choose, in whose shoes she’ll only dare walk for a short time.

Ida Beat Sheet

The first shot is IDA, all of about 20, staring into the face of a life-sized statue of Christ. She is a young nun helping other nuns restore a statue and reverently put it back in its place.

Chanting. Meals in silence. Spartan surroundings. She’s an apprentice nun, not dressed like the older ones.

MOTHER SUPERIOR insists that she must go to visit her living relative, her aunt WANDA GRUZ before she takes her vows.

Ida packs and leaves the convent in the snow. It’s bright! The streetcar in the provincial town is the big city to her.

She finds Wanda Gruz in her flat, a hard-living city woman who has a man leaving her bed when Ida shows up. Like many people, the man greets the nun with an extra dose of respect.

Wanda tells Ida right away that she, Ida, is in fact Jewish by birth (minute 7!), Ida Lebenstein, from a village called Piaski. This is news to Ida, but Wanda has a photo that corroborates this, and she cursorily sends Ida away.

At work that day, Wanda thinks about Ida while presiding over an ideologically charged trial. She regrets sending her away and goes to get her from the bus station.

Wanda shows Ida more photos, including one with Ida next to a boy – though Wanda denies that Ida had any brother. Ida decides to stay and visit Piaski the next day, and Wanda says she will take her in her car.

On the way, Wanda suggests that Ida is pretty and should try hooking up with a boy while she is out, to try a dose of the things she’ll be swearing off in the convent. (It is minute 13, and already two characters from different worlds are on a road trip together – in Poland in 1962!)

Wanda takes Ida to the farm where her parents lived, but the current occupant, a woman, asks them to come back later when her husband is there. Again, her status as nun is recognized, when the woman asks Ida to bless her baby.

While they’re waiting, Ida goes to church, and Wanda goes to a bar. The bartender says he doesn’t remember the Lebensteins; she can tell he is bull-shitting, and in her irritation she drinks lots of vodka.

A judge, and a privileged Party member, with half a load on, Wanda boldly tells the OWNER of the farm that she knows his father Szymon Skiba helped hide Ida’s parents, and she demands to know where they can find his father.

Ida sees a stained glass window in the barn, like Wanda had told her her mother used to make, but they leave the farm empty-handed, the OWNER still playing dumb.

While leaving the village, Wanda, still drunk, rides the car into the ditch, and gets put in jail overnight to dry out.

Ida stays with the local priest, who denies knowing the Lebensteins – and she denies having any special connection to them.

In the morning, Wanda is released with an apology, and Ida wants to know who she is that she’s so important: She’s “Red Wanda,” a former star prosecutor in Communist show trials, now a Party insider. They’re going to go to Szydlow, the nearest city, to find Szymon Skiba in a hospital.

On the way they pick up a traveler named LIS, a saxophone player also going to Szydlow to play an all-weekend gig for the city’s anniversary. Wanda tries hinting that Ida and Lis should hook up. She’s intrigued enough to watch him play at his soundcheck.

They find Szymon’s flat, but a woman there says he is in the hospital, and once again they have to come back.

Wanda tries persuading Ida to come to the party with her; it is in the bar of their own hotel. Ida insists on staying in the hotel room to read the Bible.

When Wanda comes back to the room, with a guy following her, she drunkenly tries telling Ida she should not take her vows. They struggle over the Bible, and Ida leaves the room testily.

She hears Lis doing a sensuous Coltrane tune on saxophone, during the post-party jam, and goes downstairs to hear him, and joins him while he smokes afterward. She tells Lis the truth about why she is there (whereas she had lied to the priest!) but then says good-night.

Wanda and Ida go back to Szymon’s flat; when no one answers, Wanda tries forcing her way inside. For the second time, Ida steps outside when she feels Wanda is becoming too aggressive.

Wanda is so distraught she can hardly light her cigarette, so Ida says “Let’s go,” meaning, to the hospital.   (This is a major turning point I missed the first two times through, it’s so subtle: suddenly Ida takes control! Since old Szymon is in a hospital, which is a nun’s domain, and not a political judge’s, it’s a place where she is free to open doors at random till she finds Szymon. A midway turn, it comes at Minute 39 in an 82 minute film.)

Ida leads Wanda to SZYMON, who is old and wheezing in bed, and they question him. He admits to knowing Ida’s parents but turns mum when asked if he killed them. Wanda can’t resist asking him about “the boy.”

Wanda tells Ida that she had a son whom she trusted to Ida’s mother so that she could fight with the partisans (which naturally led to her post-war priveleges).

Now it’s Ida who puts Wanda to bed early, and the farm owner (Szymon’s son) comes to their hotel room door. He offers to show Ida where her parents are buried, in exchange for her agreeing to leave them alone – alone in ownership of the farm, of course. She agrees. (Here Ida, who has been pliant with both friend and foe throughout, declines to shake the owner’s hand, partly because one doesn’t touch a nun, but also because she is learning to pull rank on other Christians.)

Ida has a drink at the second night of the party where Lis is playing. She coyly finds him outside while he is smoking. She tells him she still plans to take her vows the following week. (And he delivers the sexiest line of the film, “You’ve no idea of the effect you have, do you?” To a nun!) They’ve got all the body language of two young people hot for each other.

Alone again, Ida looks at herself with her hair down.

In the morning, she says good-bye to Lis, and shakes his hand, at which point he awkwardly kisses her cheek.

In the morning, the farm owner takes them to the woods where he digs up the 18-year-old grave. They gather the bones in blankets, and the owner, crying in the ditch, tells Ida that he personally killed the three victims (her parents, plus Wanda’s son) but spared Ida because she could pass for a non-Jew. That’s when he dropped her off with the local priest. (Which implies that he was lying too when he when he said he didn’t know any Lebensteins.)

Back on the vodka, Wanda drives Ida all night to a city called Lublin, to a Jewish cemetery where they have a plot.

It’s dilapidated and overgrown, but the two women dig a grave and bury their loved ones. Ida still blesses herself with a sign of the cross.

On the car ride from the cemetery to the convent, the car and POV pass from shadow into light. Ida gets dropped off at the convent.

Back to her old routine, Ida is out of step with the other young nuns, and she finally decides she must postpone taking her vows. She watches her friend take her vows before Mother Superior, and cries.

Wanda, meanwhile, has taken to looking at the old photos of her extended Jewish family. She gets blotto and sleeps with another man (her third man of the film, each less attractive than the last). In the morning, she abruptly jumps out the window of her flat.

Ida comes – next of kin, she has apparently been notified. She listens to her aunt’s music – the record she was listening to when she jumped. Cleans. Sleeps in her aunt’s bed – can’t sleep, actually. Tries on her aunt’s clothes and lipstick, and tries smoking and drinking.

Ida attends the spartan, Communist funeral, not wearing a habit. Lis is there!

She attends Lis’ next gig. Now her hair is down, and she’s showing lots of collarbone. He teaches her to slow dance….and they have sex back at her aunt’s place. Lis invites her to join him: Come to his next gigs, maybe even get married.

In the morning, while he’s still sleeping, Ida puts her habit back on. She indulges in one last look back at him, and leaves him there. Back to the streetcar. Back to the country road to the convent, as the sky grows darker.

Awards Weekend

The Independent Spirit Awards are tonight, and I’m pulling for my friend Joel Clark’s film The Man from Reno.

Clark co-wrote the script with director Dave Boyle and co-writer Michael Lerman. Kickstarter. Shoe-string budget. Shoe leather capital. Bootstraps. (Add your own metaphor for pluck.) And they got nominated for a John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature for under $500,000. They’re admittedly up against stiff competition in Blue Ruin, but they’ve already won by getting nominated.

The Cassavetes Award is the heart and soul of the Independent Spirit Awards. Without it, they would be like the Oscars for people who watch those other films too. Like the Oscars, the Independent Spirits seem like awards that are given out with way too much self-consciousness.

Joel Clark on the set.

Joel Clark on the set.

Clark’s next film is a psychedelic epic about Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. He cast me in it as an astronaut at a cocktail party who abuses the humanoid house plants. (I just play one on TV.)

Ever since the Slumdog Millionaire Oscars a few years ago, when one of the Batman movies got shut out, the Academy has given out so many nominations, it’s like the NHL Hockey playoffs; most teams get in. Theoretically, you just have to get hot in the post-season to win an award. Or, there are so many nominees that the final award, more than ever, will be chosen on commercial grounds.

In 1975 the Best Picture nominees were Jaws, Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and (the winner) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’re probably familiar with tomorrow night’s. Boyhood better win, or possibly Selma, or it’s all a crock.

I’d heard that The Imitation Game was the likely winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, so I went to see it this week. So cheap. So much flimsily manufactured suspense. Every time midnight passed, and the Nazis re-scrambled their code, the team tossed their day’s work in the trash, and I kept wondering, “Aren’t they a little curious what yesterday’s messages said?” Then: “Oh my God, we should start deciphering codes by figuring out the smaller words first! Run! Run to the office! Don’t stop for security!” My friend turned to me and said, “Have these people never done a crossword puzzle?”

Go Man From Reno! Go Joel! Go!



History and Its Story-Tellers

Knocked out with a stomach bug last week, I streamed a documentary about the Battle of Stalingrad, and watched every gory minute of it. I admit to a lot of hesitation when I saw, in the “Also Like This” panel at the bottom of the screen, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The War (2007)I knew this was a multi-part, hours-long series, and it could be addictive. It would surely last longer than my stomach bug, and I didn’t have enough Saltines to wait it out. Well, I went for it, and watched the whole thing.

Independent Film dudes disrespect Ken Burns for his sometimes milquetoast tone, but what the hell? He’s the Establishment voice. There’s nothing wrong with his story-telling that can’t be fixed if he streamlined the PBS-y habit of re-iterating his major points as if we’re letting weeks pass between episodes..and if he outgrew that piano sound. And, even if you can’t forgive these faults, Burns more than redeemed himself back in 2012 with The Central Park Five (co-written with Sarah Burns and David McMahon).

And you have to admit, The War‘s focussing on just a few dozen people, and just four home towns, was a master stroke. Judging by the omnipresence of World War II documentaries on Ye Olde History Channel for twenty years now, I’m not the only viewer who uses them as a macabre sort of comfort programming. The War is so distinct from any of the others by making a social history of America at that time. When you keep seeing one character, Babe Ciarlo, only in photographs, you know something’s wrong.

I guess the point of The War, in a sense, was that it was a last chance to get the veterans themselves to tell their stories. There were 3 million living American WWII vets in 2006 when Burns was polishing The War, and today there are less than a million.*

If you want to know how serious a difference this makes, watch the other series I watched last week – Don’t call me a sloth; I was not well! It was The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Where ISN'T that narrator?

Where ISN’T that narrator?

It was very informative, and full of great stories. The Tulsa Riot, Robert Smalls, Charles Hamilton Houston: American stories, I’m ashamed to admit, I did not know. But as Gates crossed the U.S. interviewing historians about the momentous events in Black history, I found myself Googling the historians, wanting to know more about them and their work.

It isn’t until the fourth episode, about the 1900-1940 era, that we first encounter someone whose own memory can be used to construct the narration, and still Gates insists on putting himself at the center of every scene, and often it feels cheap. Dressed like a Unitarian minister, he brandishes a cane the way Michael Moore wears a baseball cap. Moore is the working class narrator who dares you to turn your nose up at him. Gates is the great African-American popular intellectual. You never get the impression he resents his loneliness, only that it’s so much work to bear the burden of history the way he does. When he walks in the fields where Nat Turner worked, he not only struggles and contemplates, he is our surrogate struggler and contemplator. He is a case study in placing the narrator on camera so relentlessly.

In one of Davis Carr’s last columns before he died, he said of Brian Williams, “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it.” I guess the same is true of our documentary narrative voices.

*According to the National WWII Museum, New Orleans.

One Shade of Grey

Not that I needed a reason not to watch Fifty Shades of Grey, but this poster on the train last week stopped me dead.

50 Shades

His name is Grey! Get it? The grey areas with a guy, named Grey. This adds the movie, and the book, to that list of things I’ll never make the time for, just because the pun in the title is so unforgivable. Top of that list, for about 15 years, was Good Will Hunting – although I did temporarily rescind that and watch it once.

When I heard it was about a guy named Will Hunting, I said, “Forget it.” Will Hunting. He’s a good guy, and he’s hunting for good will. Good Will Hunting.

Like the chain of Italian food megastores, Eataly, never. I’d rather have Chef Boy-Ar-Dee at the worst Korean bodega in Midtown.


Kill the Guy With the Ball

If you’re reading this within a few hours of its being posted, then you’re not watching the Superbowl.

Or maybe you are: As much as I say I dislike my smartphone, I’m known to whip it out and imdb the cast while I’m watching TV, and then one thing leads to another…and as a rule I only watch films or TV shows that are more exciting than American football.

I’m not a fan, suffice it to say, and haven’t been since I played one year on the freshman squad, when I was 14. I may have been the only football player in New Jersey with a Moody Blues tee shirt. The hardest hit I took was a helmet-to-helmet collision with my own teammate that probably looked like something out of Scooby Doo. I still remember that ringing feeling I got in my ears whenever I’m walking past a bar on a Sunday in fall, and I hear the guys shouting inside.

I thought hard about that ringing feeling this morning, when I got up and streamed the Frontline documentary League of Denial, from October 2013, about head injuries in the NFL:

These are well-paid gladiators who spend all day knocking each other on their asses, unless they’re one of the fleet-footed, slimmer guys: He gets chased by eleven bigger ones.  Three out of ten of them, the NFL now admits, are going to come down with serious brain damage. Do you think the athletes themselves didn’t read that report, and have some strong feelings about it?

I can’t help suspecting that the head injury issue helps to fuel the passion and indignation I get wind of, about all the other NFL scandals of recent years. The guy who beat his wife unconscious. The one who murdered his girlfriend’s friend. The doping. The murder-suicide. The racial disparity in how the league enforces its code of conduct. You’re dealing with an $8 Billion-a-year institution that’s somewhere above the Mafia but below the National Cockfighters League in its moral standing. Any time some wrong comes up associated with it, the burden of proof is now on the institution.

Obviously, to its fans football it still has all kinds of lovely associations: friends, tradition, beer, bratwurst, Sundays, autumn itself. To me it’s like fashion week. I recognize the talent when I see it, but it seems like a colossal waste of human endeavor. It’s always easier to boycott something you didn’t like anyway, so I completely get the majority of my people who are watching the game right now, but I’ve had it with football.

Karl Lagerfeld or Vera Wang?

Karl Lagerfeld or Vera Wang?

Before I ever put on shoulder pads, we’d sometimes play “kill the guy with the ball” in the yard. An American football (Nerf or real pigskin) was tossed in the air, and whoever caught it would run away from everyone else, who would try to tackle the eponymous “guy with the ball.” Each round ended in a pile-on, and the next one started when the “guy with the ball” would stand and throw it in the air. Only when I started venturing out of my neighborhood did I realize this “game” was more commonly known by the charming name “smear the queer.”

Were we bored kids or idiot savants? We seemed to get the essence of the game.