Alexandra (Cinema Guild)
The Unforeseen (Cinema Guild)
Frownland (Frownland, Inc.)
Galina Vishnevskaya, the renowned singer who is now in her eighties and who has hitherto acted principally in opera, plays the leading role in the Russian film Alexandra. Possibly this came about because the previous film by this director was a documentary on Vishnevskaya and her late husband, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. That director is Alexander Sokurov,
a man with a heavyweight reputation. His three best-known films here are a free adaptation of Shaw's Heartbreak House called Mournful Indifference; Mother and Son, which was as pensive as a film can be and still be called a motion picture; and its exact opposite in pace, Russian Ark, a trip through the Hermitage that coursed from beginning to end without a single cut. His interest in opera singers has an antecedent: he once made a film about Chaliapin. Now there is Alexandra.
If Sokurov had not been virtually canonized by some serious people (Susan Sontag among them) as an artist far above the career fray, we might speculate that, while making his recent documentary, he thought it would just be shrewd to move Vishnevskaya into fiction and to invent a story that exploited her, one that would command respect because of her very presence. Result: Sokurov wrote a screenplay that cuddles his star in what has to be called a clever plot.
Alexandra is a grandmother, a plain woman from St. Petersburg, who is invited by her soldier grandson, Denis, to visit him at his base in a war zone. The location is never identified, but clearly it is Chechnya. How such an invitation could have been issued--or how it could have been approved (as we learn) by a superior--is unexplained, except by the international rules of film-plot exigency. Alexandra arrives, with both aplomb and irritation, in a freight car along with soldiers.
The camp is rude, but the men are not. Indeed, one of the most telling strokes in the film is Sokurov's concentration throughout on the faces of the many soldiers who see her during her stay--almost with a kind of wonder, disbelief soberly tempered with belief. Denis, who is a hardened regular army type, is truly happy to see her--there has been a seven-year separation--and they fuss over each other as if they had never been apart. At one point he even braids her long hair as he used to do when he was a boy. (An echo here of Mother and Son, in which affection between the two is the being of the picture.)
Some incidents had to be invented by Sokurov to keep the picture going, so Alexandra meets a Chechen woman of about her age in the market of the neighboring town and visits her home in a bomb-damaged building. The interchanges between them, of experience and care, remind us--not over-subtly--that humans are humans, whatever their nativity. Alexandra then deplores the barbarity of war with the tough and soldierly Denis--sometimes by implication, sometimes as explicitly as if the subject had never been raised anywhere by anyone. She keeps asking Denis if he has killed people; he avoids answering. One afternoon, however, when he returns from a raid, she asks him again, and his silence conveys that he has done it that morning. Alexandra then tells him things about killing and war that we know before she speaks.
Strangely, however, the familiarity of the film's purpose does not make it tedious. The juxtaposition of an old woman and an army camp has its effect, as movie gimmicks often do: we become open to the things she has to say. Vishnevskaya's person, her plump and unassuming dignity, have their way with us. (Aided, too, by the knowledge that this same woman once sang Aida at the Met.) The complexity of the young man, who is both professional fighter and grandson, is realized by Vasily Shevtsov. Beyond these assets is the blunt fact that Sokurov actually made this film--dared to make it not only in Russia today but in the world today. The state of mind about war that we carry with us to this film is almost touched with gratitude, nostalgic and pleasantly inutile though the reminder is.
A documentary called The Unforeseen, set in Austin, Texas, also deals with a familiar idealistic subject, yet it so heartily disregards our familiarity with it that (once again) a certain freshness results. The subject is the ruthless greed of real estate developers who disregard--or minimize--obligations to community benefits and to beauty.
In the late 1970s a developer named Gary Bradley, with partners, launched a project called Circle C Ranch involving two thousand homes on the outskirts of Austin. Bradley ignored the fact that his development would pollute a spring-fed swimming pool called Barton Springs, beloved by the people around it. The film traces through the next two decades the protest meetings and other actions that tried to halt the matter, including the state legislature's benign acceptance of Bradley's enterprise. (In some shots Governor George W. Bush smirks remotely.)
How it all turned out let us leave to the film. Notable is the presence of Robert Redford, often concerned with environmental causes, who is interviewed at length on the Barton Springs defense. Redford co-produced this picture with Terrence Malick, a director who, too, has been involved with this subject.
Two other elements lift The Unforeseen above most of the many documentaries that address social ills. First, the director, Laura Dunn, somehow persuaded the film's villain, Gary Bradley, to sit down and talk. And talk. Since he is an attractive man, articulate and, in a sense, understandable, he out-stars Redford as he virtually confesses on camera. The conclusion of his interview is a memorable surprise.
Basically, however, in addition to everything in the picture that calls out for the preservation of beauty, is the picture itself. The making of this film about beauty is beautiful. Lee Daniel's camera makes us understand why the Barton Springs community wanted to protect the place: the green landscape apostrophizes the idea of green, and the pool makes spring water very clean. Dunn has shot and edited this film (her first) so that it holds us with its visual quality even if we might have thought we could not be interested. Her title is a phrase from a Wendell Berry poem that is read on the soundtrack, atmospherically relevant to the action, and Dunn apparently wanted her picture to be as much like poesy as possible with this prose subject.
Like the anti-war theme in Sokurov's film, Dunn's theme cannot in a sense be raised because it is always there--it never leaves our minds. Both themes gnaw at us because we know that both ask the impossible. War will not stop; neither will spoilage of nature by developers and builders. As for the second issue, which is the only one that it is possible to discuss, Redford admits that change is inevitable but asks that the result not be wreckage. He is keen on the defense of Nature (he implies a capital letter), which can mean only landscape that is untouched. What he does not explain is how it would be possible to accommodate a billowing population with all its technologies and yet leave forests and spring-fed pools in place.
Still, Laura Dunn does a service by reminding us, exquisitely, that human beings have a kind of family obligation to fight, however quixotically, for the things they loved as children, including landscapes.
The first minute of Frownland is so clumsily made and acted that it is like opening a door on a mess. The surprise is that the film never attains any better quality, yet it goes on to amuse, even--we might say--to exist. The writer-director, Ronald Bronstein, said that he wanted to celebrate "a very particular kind of underground sensibility." ("Underground" usually signifies the species of independent film, born midway through the last century, that spurns convention in technique and in viewer expectation. The god of the underground film was--probably still is--Andy Warhol.) We can begin to settle into Bronstein's picture when we see it almost as a signet of that sensibility.
Keith Sontag, a young New Yorker today, lives on a bed in the small kitchen of an apartment that he shares with a fellow who despises him. Keith is, as the other man says, disjointed and sputtering. From the beginning to the end of this film, he is in some sort of frenzy, and we never quite know why. (Thus the title?) The opening sequence deals with his girlfriend, who is having a tearful fit that is never explained. Keith does some door-to-door selling of a kind of coupon that is never explained. The mate later takes a job exam, and we never learn what the job was or whether he got it. Along with this disregard for story structure, the camera work is vintage 1930 and the sound sometimes simply shuts off. Dore Mann, who plays Keith, can approximate frenzy, which he has to do quite a lot, but that is the sum of his talent.
All these elements and more are reminders of much of underground film--especially its egotism, its belief that "If I'm interested in this, you must be too." But at the last, due to Bronstein's giddy commitment, Frownland metamorphoses just enough from proudly amateurish film-making into an enjoyable comment on itself.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann