June 21, 2005
CineVegas. A Tale of Two Lands.Jonathan Marlow on the latest films from the CineVegas Vanguard Directors. If all things are merely the sum of their parts, CineVegas can be distilled into one day and two choices. Director of Programming Trevor Groth cleverly paired two features at the close of the festival and, by extension, two Vanguard Director awards to deserving filmmakers Wim Wenders and George Romero. Both, in their own way, inspirations for my own aspirations as a filmmaker (and clearly many other folks in the industry as well). In the case of the former, The State of Things gives evidence to what is truly possible when presented with an impossible situation, both real and imagined. With the latter, Martin demonstrates (in much the same way as the Dead pictures) a startling expression of the human condition in allegorical terms. It is not by coincidence that these two programs, presented consecutively (although requiring some unexpected tricky maneuvering to attend both) deal with the shape of the world through the prism of American influence and interference. Wender's Land of Plenty is a quasi-realistic drama of a young, idealistic woman returning to a post-9/11 America to find her uncle, a Vietnam vet who envisions himself as an independent secret agent in the "War on Terror." Romero's Land of the Dead, presented as a World Premiere (it fortunately opens nationwide this Friday), is a "scenes from the class struggle" sort of film, pitting the haves, the have-nots and the undead. If you've seen the three previous installments, you can likely guess where it will all lead. America's declining relevance on the world stage, despite much bluster and fear-mongering, make both films timely if not equally well-crafted. Land of Plenty, filmed when the financing of Don't Come Knocking stumbled (since completed and recently screened at Cannes to mixed reviews), views America as somewhat off its natural path in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Due perhaps to the relative youth of the team that brought the film to completion, Plenty supports a heavily plotted script that uncomfortably sports a superficial take on our disconnected world. Lana (the persistently earnest Michelle Williams) serves as the catalyst for a Pollyanna-esque viewpoint. The film's bewildering solution to our problems? Things are not as bad as they seem. This opinion is not shared by Romero's Land of the Dead. The end times are no longer nigh, they are upon us. Day, the weakest of the four Dead films, established that the undead possess the ability to learn. Heaven help us if these abilities lead to some form of collective intelligence. Without getting into the specific machinations of the plot, imagine a spunky Thunderbirds-like crew set in an Escape From reality (in reverse) where the living are segregated to an island and flesh-eating zombies rule the outside world. A restored skyscraper, remade into the model upscale community Fiddler's Green, becomes a beacon for Big Daddy and his rag-tag army of flesh-eating stumblers. The words are uttered by the have-nots but the actions are left to the undead - in your numbers, rise up and take control. Where Plenty evokes the Lord in its Mission setting, Dead speaks in Biblical proportions. Harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? Kaufman (the perfectly cast CineVegas Creative Advisory Board Chairman Dennis Hopper), chief architect of this hierarchical setting, is not a reflection of the way things will be. As with all Romero films, Kaufman is a reflection of how things are today. His crass lack of concern for anyone but himself channels Dick Cheney and his cronies' Ameri-centric efforts in a form that other US fiction filmmakers are evidently unprepared to address. During a conversation at the CineVegas closing night party, LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called the film Romero's masterpiece. I would still reserve that distinction, if only by a slight edge, to Dawn of the Dead. Given that US screens are frequently filled with Romero-lite horror fare, it is a treat to see the real McCoy back behind the camera with a reasonable budget and cast. These upstarts have nothing on the man that essentially (re-)started it all. Wenders, however, in the midst of a decade-long narrative decline, is in need of a rediscovery of his "vanguard" roots - a move fully in evidence in New German Cinema compatriot Werner Herzog's three recent films. Not fair to compare, admittedly, but the truth is there. If Romero can return from the Dead, as it were, twenty years later, anything is possible.
Posted by dwhudson at June 21, 2005 4:42 AM