Promises, Promesses: A great film returns

Here again so soon?  I know, and it may never happen again, but just as I was posting Wednesday’s  CQF, this urgent piece, The Legitimate Children of Rape, turned up on the New Yorker’s website. It’s a devastating, factual corollary to the conjecture and imaginings of that last CQF post, and as such it’s real required reading.

The writer, Andrew Solomon, whose multi-faceted credits are a digression all their own, has been researching a book, “Far from the Tree” which deals in part with women – worldwide — raising children conceived in rape.

He opens this article with the figure from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that in America we have an estimated twenty-five thousand rape-related pregnancies each year.  Not all of them will result in live births, but any percentage of that figure that represents women raising children conceived in rape suggests the enormity of the situation.

Solomon writes, “One of the few groups founded to address this population, Stigma Inc., took as its motto, ‘Rape survivors are the victims. . .their children are the forgotten victims.’”

You may want to erase details that Solomon records from your memory; dis-remember the actions and the daily emotional turmoil of these unwilling mothers whose lives are  “the living reproof to Akin’s remark.”  I did, but I can’t. In the face of the extremism of Akin, the newly anointed Paul Ryan and their comrades in office, they are stories we may need to remember.

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The mail today wasn’t all bleak.  Criterion’s August releases are a lovely mixed bag, which includes, to my great joy,  La Promesse, the first film by Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

It not only marked them as artists to be watched, but stamped the beginning of their remarkable working relationship with actor Jérémie Renier, which has continued and deepened through 14 years, 4 films and international honors. Among those are the wrenching L’Enfant and the 2011 prize winner The Kid with a Bike.

Here’s the way La Promesse looked to me at the time. (Pace Cinemania)

La Promesse, a merciless, modestly made and utterly unforgettable film by the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne has finally made it out of the film festival circuit and into theatres, thanks to Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films.

Optimistic in the face of corruption, tender despite its grimy setting, La Promesse, watches the birth of a moral center in a 15-year old boy, fight it though he might. Igor (Jérémie Renier), blond, likeable, still a virgin, is accomplished in the layers of lies it takes to smuggle illegal immigrants into present-day Belgium, and get away with it.

He’s learned the tricks from his dumpy, chiseling father Roger (Olivier Gourmet), to whom lying comes automatically. (Rather than wait in a line, Roger bullies his way to the counter with a story that his son has been hurt in an accident.)  An unemployed factory worker, like nearly all the men in this Liège suburb, Roger now smuggles in men from Africa, Turkey, Romania, wherever, puts them up in cold and literally stinking flats, uses them as cheap labor and charges them for every necessity.

Lonely himself, Roger’s relationship with his son is creepy and explosive. He calls Igor “his best friend,” gives him an expensive present, then whacks him around.  He’s already taken the boy out of school, the better to follow the family business, but because of Belgium’s strict schooling laws, Igor is in the apprentice program of a garage. He might even be picking up a trade, but when his father whistles, Igor runs.

The current crop of workers includes the African-born Hamidou  (Rasmané Ouedraogo), a lean, middle-aged man with great presence, and his newly arrived young wife Assita (Assita Oedraogo, no relation.)  Tall and striking, Assita carries with her their infant son, whom Hamidou has barely seen since he came to Belgium to work.

Igor gives that promise to Hamidou after the frail laborer has fallen from a scaffold in the wake of a labor department raid.  Horrified, cradling the mortally injured man, Igor swears to the desperate African that he will look after Assita and her baby.

Roger gives one stony glance at Hamidou and refuses to take him to a hospital – too many questions. At his father’s orders, the stunned Igor helps him “bury” (that is, cement-over) Hamidou’s still warm body. Then the two begin a chain of lies to Assita, suggesting that her husband may have run off because of gambling debts.

Igor tells no one about his vow, not even his father whom he loves and fears equally, but the enormity of what they have done weighs on him more each day. It’s made heavier as he begins to see Assita, now frantic and despairing, as something more than a faceless, expendable immigrant.  Before our eyes, we see this boy, on the knife edge between cynicism and grace, turn toward the light.

It’s this astonishing moment of hope, growing like a flower up through cement, that makes La Promesseso heartening – and so rare.  At first, with its hand-held immediacy and the realism of its streets and claustrophobic flats, it seems utterly naturalistic. It’s not, although Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who write and direct jointly, come to features after years as documentary filmmakers.

La Promesse has a furious vitality; the camera – and the editing – drives forward, darting, ranging, and propelling us into the action. It also contains one blood curdling moment that is the purest Greek tragedy: Assita, pursuing a chicken to slaughter it for a truth-telling ritual, grabs it – as it runs onto the very boards which cover her husband’s body.

The cast mixes non-actors with theatre professionals: Olivier Gourmet, the father (a memorable blend of fear and corruption), is from regional theatre; the extraordinary Renier as Igor, is virtually a beginner, Assita Ouedraogo is a schoolteacher from Burkina Faso.  Clearly, the Dardennes are masters at achieving honesty, not “performances.”

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Check Criterion’s snippet from their long interview with father and son, Gourmet and Renier, and a tantalizing piece on Acting for the Dardennes here.  I cannot wait to see the DVD.

Oh, for goodness sake!

Now, do you see what I mean about my uphill slog against technology?

No, I did not send out a blog with all the links sideways and cattywampus. When I checked them, every one of the three links in the blog you just got this afternoon worked.  Then, when I went back later, to bask in my nice, tight, shipshape effort, not one of them worked.

That means that all of you who got a message that there was a new CQF, and tried it, are now rolling your eyes, saying, sotto voce, “Well, what can you expect, after a while the light does dim.”

Click here, please.

And thank you.

I’m declaring amnesty!

You can’t know how happy it has made me to see that stalwarts of the 24-hour news cycle and front runners in the race for an opinion on everything that matters have begun to buckle.

Writers deeply practiced in the wonders of technology are suddenly muttering about their desperately paced lives, as they scramble to keep up, keep current, keep balanced on that knife edge – and no, I’m not going to provide links; you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Providing links, offering a reaction, keeping up, before the spotlight shifts and we’re all on to the next new (frequently dreadful) thing, has just about done me in.

I love this little blog. I love that its very existence brought me back in touch with old friends; with writers I vastly admire, with the best editor I ever had, and with a collection of complete strangers. (Yeah!)  But now I understand why one of my closest friends, whose own blog sustained me for years, said, “I’m SO sorry!” when he heard I’d been given CQF.  It’s a devilish beast to keep fed, let alone readable.

Subjects should be a snap.  But my own klutziness with technology, added to my fervor for gathering everything I want to show you about the subject at hand, has become a bolo around my ankles. More than once.

Do you remember the CQF about Ronald Searle, who died at the age of 91, at the end of December? He was not simply a master cartoonist, he was indeed closer to being Britain’s “blazing graphic talent” (see the Guardian obit below.)

Searle was also the creator of St. Trinian’s and its school girls, true “little monsters, wicked as sin” on the page and in all those films. His instantly recognizable line – shaky, savage, and dangerously insightful — blazed the trail for Ralph Steadman and his ilk. And Searle’s works for the New Yorker for nearly 40 years: cartoons, sketchbooks, covers (and especially cats), rivaled Saul Steinberg’s for their airy complexity.

If you don’t remember that blog it’s because I didn’t write it.  My arms got so full of stuff to attach or to excerpt or to Xerox for you that this compound-complex hero had been dead a good long while before I stopped accumulating. By then I was too embarrassed to drag in with a very cold postscript.

I had started here, with this startling obit:

Whoa! Who knew about Searle’s six years in a Japanese prison camp, with that forced march to work on the death railway in what was then Siam? Probably toute Britain, but not I.  How does one come back from that; does that experience bleed through into one’s work and one’s take on life?  How could it not?  His life, beginning to end, took on a deeper fascination.

I found this insightful career summation, written when he was still alive:

By now, I had his prison sketchbook To the Kwai – and Back; War Drawings 1939-1945, and was Xeroxing drawings for CQF (and fretting about copyright if I reproduced one or two.) And I was close to ossifying friends with some of the gasp-inducing moments from Searle’s life. (Who walks out on a wife and twins, to save his life and his own art?  Possibly only someone who has had to cling to life itself so tenaciously, although for an outsider, keeping a balance of sympathy was pretty delicate.)

You can only share so much of the astonishing life of a stranger, I found, before you’re branded a relic and a blinding bore. So, the links to the riveting Ronald Searle are now yours, with this gala one thrown in, since it’s such a work of love and scholarship and it has such varied examples of his work:

I’m moving on, with the caveat that I am granting myself Amnesty from Keeping Up.

I now know that I cannot possibly include every link under the sun, just because it’s feasible, but if I’m late, I’m not going to fret about it.

If it happened last night, during the Women’s All-Nation Maybelline Olympics, I may or may not be on it.  However, I’m still wondering why Appointment in Samarra was never brought up in the case of Jessica Ghawi, one of the more vibrant young victims in the Aurora Colorado midnight shooting carnage.  The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote about her this way, online:

Jessica Ghawi was twenty-four. This was the second mass shooting that came close to her. The first, in June, was a shooting at a shopping mall in Toronto; there were five minutes between her and a scene in which five people were shot and one died. She went back to an internship in sports broadcasting, and, on Thursday, to the movies, where she died. One wishes it seemed more bizarre or eerie or uncanny that one person would have encountered two different acts of gun violence. But lately, it doesn’t.

Then I realized, Amy Davidson is young and sensible; this is another case of my reaching back toooooo far and too esoterically. Well, whatever.

As for that Samarra appointment, in 1933 W. Somerset Maugham retold the Arabic fable this way (and of course, John O’Hara used it as an epigraph and the title of his first novel):

Death Speaks:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

As for constitutionally being far from current, I make no promises that it won’t happen again.  Courage!