by Ray Pride
"The past isn't forgotten," William Faulkner once observed, "It isn't even past." While contemporary deca-million-dollar studio filmmaking roots itself zealously in an eternal present wrapped in ages-old plots or an eternal future wrapped in spanking new special effects, arthouse movies that audiences respond to are often grounded in some kind of tradition. Even restored reissues remind us: the past is prologue, and Woodstock has a fresh DVD out now.
While the indie smash of the summer has been My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- sure to surpass the $50 million mark -- there are other heritages to explore, such as in the Bollywood Lagaan (Aug. 19, 20 and 23), almost four hours of made-in-India crazy comedy, musical numbers and cricket. Set during the British colonial era in a small farming village in central India, Ashutosh Gowariker's heartwarming concoction, odd to American eyes, is a more polished version of the hundreds of movies that come out of the world's most prolific national cinema. The villagers have been suffering a drought, and the colonial tax, or "lagaan," administered by the local rajahs for the British is causing their poverty to worsen. The villagers go to the Rajah to petition for an amnesty, but to no avail: there's a cricket match in progress. When Aamir Khan, one of India's biggest superstars, playing the leader of the villagers, laughs at the game, he's offered a wager: beat the British at cricket, and the tax is canceled for five years; lose, and it's tripled. Despite all odds -- and all plot summaries -- Lagaan is utterly foreign, genuinely exotic, and for those with the patience, funny and touching.
More accessible is Mexican-born, New York-based director Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother, Too) (Aug. 12, 14 and 17). A road trip shared by best friends Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal, from Amores Perros) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), two randy 17-year-olds from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, it's the kind of sexually frank, hilarious but ever-so-serious comedy about adolescence we never get from big-business-financed American movies, which are eager to offend no one with PG-13 movies about grown-up subjects. It's the biggest hit ever in Mexico, and it's made more than $15 million domestically so far.
Cuaron has worked in the U.S., making the exquisite kids' movie, The Little Princess, and the gorgeously designed but shallow Great Expectations (with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke and Robert DeNiro). The disappointment of the latter led the gifted 40-year-old to return to Mexico, where he wrote Y Tu Mama with his younger brother, listening incessantly to a single Frank Zappa song, keeping his 18-year-old son's generation in mind all the while. With their girlfriends off on European vacations, Julio and Tenoch imagine their summer will be filled with all sorts of colorful infidelities, convincing discontented Luisa (Maribel Verdu), the 28-year-old wife of Tenoch's cousin, who they met at a wedding, to join them on their trip to an imaginary beach paradise. What can this threesome find on the way to a paradise that may just exist after all? Sex, drugs, beer, jealousy and the meaning of life, just maybe. Sexually frank and explicit, Y Tu Mama Tambien is an important movie in the renaissance of Mexican cinema, but also in world cinema, for its canny study of sexual politics, economic forces and the meaning of friendship and beauty. (Cuaron's sophistication just got him hired as director of the third in the Harry Potter series.)
A re-issue of Woodstock (Aug. 28-30) suggests another vision of paradise, one that hasn't lasted the decades since it was made. While Y Tu Mama is grounded in the lessons of life, Michael Wadleigh's documentary of the 1969 concert (the director's cut of which, coincidentally, at 224 minutes, is precisely the length of Lagaan) suggests that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll were the answer to everything, even in massive rainstorms, acres of mud and multiple-screen mosaics of middle-class kids tripping their brains out. But yet... the movie is invaluable for its footage of Jimi Hendrix, who surpasses his legend as a player and a presence.
One of the legendary presences of French cinema, Eric Rohmer, is 82, and he continues to experiment -- not with rock 'n' roll or drugs, but with sexual politics. His latest, The Lady and the Duke (Aug. 8-9), tells the true story of a royalist Englishwoman and her revolutionary ex-lover during the French Revolution. It sounds like familiar territory, with headstrong young women triumphing over social boundaries. Yet The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer's third and most ambitious historical film, is a triumph of digital cinema, in which actors step in and out of painted historical backdrops, paintings which were prepared to allow a dreamy sense of time and place at a reasonable cost. "The face of Paris has changed so drastically," Rohmer has said, "that there is not one line of sight left from revolutionary time."
Grace Elliot (Lucy Russell) is a Scottish woman who left behind a memoir of life during the French Revolution, and Rohmer draws from her role as the mistress of the Duke of Orleans to show the conflicts and concerns of the time without relying on the political figures obsessed upon by historians. Grace is a typical Rohmer heroine: articulate and favored by older or more powerful men (she was once a lover to the Prince of Wales as well). Artist Jean-Baptiste Marot painted intricate, meticulously researched backgrounds, into which the actors were keyed, while the interiors were filmed in a studio with similar attention to detail. It all gives the film a surreal, fairytale-like atmosphere, at once an alternate reality, but also an imaginative meeting of technology and a time past.
Time is memory, and memory exists only in our minds, and movies like this quartet that recognize that glorious subjectivity are the ones we should treasure most.