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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Slums, Snobs


(Broadway Books) 

AN OLD MYTH TELLS OF A bird that had to press its breast against a thorn in order to sing, which it then did beautifully. Political troubles have served as that thorn for some writers, and the end of those troubles has, along with its benefits, deprived them of their singing. George Konrád, the Hungarian author of major novels about the travails of life under totalitarianism, has dwindled as a novelist since democracy reached Hungary. Athol Fugard, the white South African author who wrote excellent plays about racial anguish in his country, has sent here no plays of note since racial oppression eased there. Presumably neither KonrAd nor Fugard would want earlier conditions to return in order to help their writing; still, these facts exist. 

A film director named Gavin Hood has found a way to keep Fugard present. He has adapted Fugard’s only novel, Tsotsi, for the screen, and has directed the film, which just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. The novel was written in 1961, before Fugard became internationally known, and he didn’t even try to get it published. (See Russell Vandenbroucke’s book on Fugard, Truths the Hand Can Touch.) In 1980, after Fugard became famous, the manuscript was discovered in a collection of his papers and, with some revision, was published. Now Hood has been moved to film it.

Fugard’s plays are notable for their strong structure and driving truth. His best play, Boesman and Lena, which was dexterously filmed by John Berry in 2000, is, in my view, a great work that will last. Tsotsi, to judge by the film (I haven’t read the book), is nowhere near that stratosphere. It is sentimental, but at least it is so purposefully sentimental that its very frankness of metier is helpful.

Its theme is of course racial. The title means “thug,” in a South African native language, and it is the sobriquet of a nineteen-year-old black youth who lives in a slum outside Johannesburg. He is a member of a small band of criminals who steal and sometimes kill for a living. For Tsotsi himself, a flashback to his childhood explains his behavior; for the others, environment is enough. (Hood makes that environment a bustling organism.) One night Tsotsi hijacks a car after shooting the wealthy black owner in the leg. Tsotsi drives off and soon discovers that in the back of the car there is a baby. The moment that he discovers the baby, we discover the rest of the picture—in plot, anyway. Enforced paternity will alter Tsotsi’s character. 

Left at that, the film sounds flimsy, but two factors make it sound. First, all the characters are seen with Fugard’s empathic ruthlessness: he is humane but truthful. Second, it is flawlessly acted. The cast is so good that a kind of counterpoint arises between the riskily lachrymose story and the firm verity of the acting. Two of the actors stand out. Tsotsi is played by Presley Chweneyagae (whose first name is as notable as his last): his emotional range and resources are continuously deepened as the film progresses. Terry Pheto, as a young mother who is forced to be the baby’s wet nurse, is sullenly enchanting.

Their excellence, along with all the others, raises a familiar wonder about films from unusual sources. Quite evidently there is a substantial body of acting talent among South African blacks; some thirty-five years ago Fugard himself, in his New York productions, introduced us to gifted black South African actors. Word of theater activity there recurrently reaches us, and the quality of the acting in Tsotsi, its subtlety and skill, implies a theater culture in which these people can grow. Hood has clearly helped them and, in the knowing way in which he uses them, is almost boasting of the results. His cinematographer, Lance Gewer, has also helped greatly by immersing the action in a generally sepia light that supports the Fugard synthesis of naturalism and ache.

THE FILM SNOB*S DICTIONARY (114 pp., $11.95) is a better book than its title suggests. The authors, David Kamp and Lawrence Levi, who are active journalists in New York, have sharp eyes, fine-tuned ears, and more knowledge of what they discuss than they care to brag about. Their title burdens them with the obligation to be witty, and it is a burden of which they make light. In their opening acknowledgments paragraph, they include “everyone who has ever shouted ‘Focus!’ in a revival house.” 

Kamp and Levi beguile us with sketches of film individuals and film topics that are current with those who are, almost offensively, in the know or those who want a quick way to seem in the know so that they too can be almost offensive. Of course some people joined that second group long before this book was published, so perhaps the book will have a therapeutic effect. Maybe those people will be too snobbish to remain snobs when Kamp and Levi make it seem so relatively easy.

This 114-page handbook ranges from the frothy to the serious, but it never loses its sardonic sheen. Instance: “Tarkovsky, Andrei. Russian director (1932- 86) of stunning intellect and visual acuity, but afflicted with a glacial sense of pacing that makes watching his films not so much an entertainment choice as a lifestyle.”Some of the entries conclude with chat lines. Instance: “Deep focus. Fetishized cinematographic technique that enables all the action in a shot, from the foreground to the deep background, to remain sharply defined.” Then comes a line for use over espresso: “Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s graceful use of deep focus recalls the work of Yasujiro Ozu, non?” Another: “Diegesis. Unnecessarily opaque film-studies term for the world inhabited by a film’s characters: the music playing on a character’s radio, for example, is diegetic sound, whereas the ominous music foreshadowing the character’s graphic decapitation is non-diegetic sound. The diegesis of Last Year at Marienbad is deliberately ambiguous, not unlike that of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” (This cuddling of serious films and trash because of technical similarity is symptomatic of the snob.) 

Interspersed along the way are some feature pages, such as “A Guide to Snob Nomenclature”: “‘Jack,’ never ‘John’ Ford (for the iconic Western director.”) A few entries deal with critics, including this one. That paragraph made me wriggle and laugh. Gad, was my reaction snobbish?

This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.