Cinematic Culture Clash

I believe it was Chaim Potok who once said something to the effect of “all great literature is about the clashing of cultures.”  In his novel, The Chosen, his insular idea of culture clash was an Orthodox Jewish boy befriending an Hasidic Jewish boy.  I think the same can be said of great cinema, though independent filmmakers often take a more volatile approach.

Below are four films that have passed through my Netflix queue this year that I believe deserve to be singled-out, praised, buzzed about…chosen.  All four are in a way about the clashing or melding of cultures and the effects that has on individuals, and three of the four are from directors with immigrant heritages.  Three of them have a good chance of making my top ten list for 2009, while another (from 2008) is in the running for my top 25 of the decade.  As is often found in independent films, with lower budgets and tighter focus on achieving a personal dream, filmmakers hone in on story and character with often startling results.  Low profile or lost in the shuffle either due to foreign origin or lack of widened stateside distribution, they deserve a larger audience, and those selective cinephiles who routinely uncover them have a duty to pass on the word.  Queue these up, post haste.

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The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin).  Akin’s acclaimed film received a 2008 release here in the states and generated some mild buzz and decent business, though I didn’t catch up with it until this summer.  The multilayered episodic plot of the film is impossible to summarize in a capsule review, but it involves the intertwining stories of a college professor, a prostitute, a troubled political activist and others against the backdrop of Turkish immigrants in Germany.  Expertly told in an elliptically folding manner, the narrative is riveting to watch unfold and the characters’ actions are unpredictable and at times heartbreaking.  Like the films of Mexico’s Inarritu, the film globe hops (from Germany to Istanbul), and like the films of Canada’s Egoyan, Akin’s own Turkish German heritage is held up to a mirror.  Just how good is The Edge of Heaven?  Had I seen it in 2008, it would’ve been my pick for the number one film of the year in my annual top ten list and it is currently on my short list for the top 25 films of the decade.  Literate, bold and startling, international cinema doesn’t get any better than this.

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Goodbye Solo (Rahmin Bahrani).  A decidedly American film set in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Bahrani’s quiet and powerful character study shows us  the story of Senagalese cab driver (with an Hispanic wife) taking on the odd job of driving a depressed old “Southern” man to what may be his final destination in Blowing Rock.  The whole “odd couple friendship” that blossoms out of the obvious culture clash may sound hokey, but Bahrani elicits subtle performances from his leads, and this combined with subtle direction in the closing scenes on the winding road through the Smoky Mountains to and from Blowing Rock leaves the audience in a contemplative mood.  This is the perfect example of a fresh, thoughtful American independent film.

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Jerichow (Christian Petzold).  Apparently the best films coming out of Germany today (like Akin’s aforementioned masterpiece) are about Turkish immigrants.  This one has what sounds like the plot of a Hollywood potboiler:  Dishonorably discharged from his service in Afghanistan, a German soldier comes home and becomes entangled with a Turkish businessman and his mysterious wife.  This is one of those films with a deliberate pacing that reveals nothing of what’s to come, and the screenplay and the performances allow you at times to despise and sympathize with each of the main characters who are anything but one note.  Tiny details of everyday life are gleaned, like how a snack shop empire is run or how cucumbers are harvested, while stunning and haunting images of Germany’s northern countryside and shoreline are used as backdrops for a searing but refreshingly restrained melodrama.  The denoument and final line are haunting.  Hollywood would’ve killed to have made something this good.

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Strangers on a train in SIN NOMBRE.

Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga).  Fukunaga’s slick and stylish love story/crime saga was a minor hit on the art-house circuit earlier this year.  Aboard a train heading north, the paths of a Honduran teenage girl and a Mexican gangbanger cross while both plot daring escapes to America.  The director puts both the plights of illegal immigrants and the culture of gangland violence in-your-face.  The story arc where the two become starry-eyed for each other is a bit cliche, but it works for the most part.  There are shades of everything from City of God to Traffic to Romeo & Juliet, to dare I even say it…The Last of the Mohicans — check out the artistic preening and posturing of the gangbanger’s tattoos!  Fukunaga is a gritty romanticist, a master of violent montages and small intimate moments that create a tapestry that’s easy, though at times uncomfortable, for the audience to weave themselves into.  Sometimes shocking, a little bit predictable, Sin Nombre is a great entertainment.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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9 comments on “Cinematic Culture Clash

  1. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,

    D.H.Schleicher said, “Hint: It wasn’t on my top ten list at the Davies…because I didn’t see it until a few months ago.

    I’ am not even going to take an educated guess…because I don’t know the answer…plus I’ am
    under the weather (Please excuse my use of that colloquial expression)…Therefore, that could be affecting my train of thought.

    By the way, I’ am at the halfway mark when it comes to reading your book.(I really hate when that happens…I don’t want let the characters or the book go…in other words, finish reading the book.)

    I’ am so sorry, about that slight digression…
    …I must admit that I have heard of three of the four films that you, mentioned in your post and they are Sin Nombre, Jerichow, (I think that this film has noirish elements.) and Goodbye Solo.

    David, I most definitely, will wait for your response to your question. (That is if no one else guesses the answer before you reveal the answer.)

    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee – The answer to the question in my email is found in this post 🙂

    Jerichow does have some noirish elements. It’s slightly Hitchcockian, too…has that element of surprise…though there are also shades of neo-realism. –DHS

  2. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,

    David said,”DeeDee – The answer to the question in my email is found in this post”
    Alright…thanks for pointing that out to me.

    I’ am not even going to take an educated guess…because I don’t know the answer…plus I’ am
    “under the weather”…Therefore, that could be affecting my “train of thought.”

    David, I will go back now and re-read your post, to be honest with you, I have been in and out of a deep sleep since Thursday…due to my RX medication (and my bout with what ever “flu-bug” this is I’ am battling.)

    Therefore, you can only guess where my concentration level is at this time.

    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

  3. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,
    (Insert Drumroll)
    The answer to your question…
    What is…The Edge of Heaven?
    DeeDee 😉

    YAAY! I’m glad you are starting to feel better. –DHS

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    David: That’s a marvelous lead-in there with the quote from Chaim Potok, and a great concept here. I’m sorry to say that JERICHOW never resonated with me, though the reviews (yourself included) were mostly positive. I found it narratively static an demotionally distancing, but heyy that’s just me. I am thrilled to read of that spectacular assessment of THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, a film I have long promoted (and even gotten into some rows over). It’s a powerful work, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that piercing cry of Fassbinder luminary Hanna Shygula, when she heard of her daughter’s death. Ms. Shygula gave an extraordinary performance, and the story threads came together compellingly. Fatih Akin didn’t play for superficial endings either.

    GOODBYE SOLO is a film I’ve championed all year, and like you it’s a strong contender for my Top 10 listing. It’s really the perfect choice for this thematic consideration here, as it does show that stereotypes are often thrown to the wind.

    I did like SIN NOMBRE, though perhaps not as much as you. Still, it’s more than intriguing and some segments are narratively electrifying. Again, and excellent choice for this round-up.

    What would I think of adding? I would pose Tom McCarthy’s shattering THE VISITOR, which was my #2 film of 2008, behind WALL-E, and the recent AMREEKA, which chronicles the employment difficulties and deceptions of a sincere Palistinian woman in the USA. Would I overstay my welcome here is I brought BABEL into the discussion? LOL!!!

    Marvelous, marvelous post.

    Sam, Amreeka is one I have yet to see. I am not a big fan of The Visitor as I thought it sacrificed character development for a hamfisted political message. Babel certainly had its moments…but I thought it was a mess of a film, especially the episode in Tokyo. I feel it tried too hard to link all of its stories and deliver some sort of grander message about modern life and human nature, whereas The Edge of Heaven felt more intimate, authentic and organic in its intertwining narratives.

  5. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,
    Have you ever re-read a previous post and cringed? …Well, I did just that after re-reading my second post…Geez! That is some “serious whining” going on.

    David, Did you by chance checkout the Lamb Chops today?
    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee – haven’t we all? 🙂 Yes, I saw the new Lamb Chops…thank you — and I also saw that widget you created for my site…can I get the html for that in an email? Again…many thanks. Though I find it amusing they never seem to post the Lamb Chops I submit. –DHS

  6. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,

    DHS-said,”I also saw that widget you created for my site…can I get the html for that in an email?”
    Sure!

    DHS- Said, “Though I find it amusing they never seem to post the Lamb Chops I submit.”

    David, you are not along that happens to me all the time…because sometime Blake C.Griffin, (He is in charge of posting the submission(s) told me that sometimes he receive to many requests.

    Therefore, I guess that he just move forward (to current submission(s)…once the previous submission(s) become too “dated”…I’am talking about even after a week! 😕

    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

  7. DeeDee says:

    Oops! I meant to say…“David, you are not [alone] that happens to me all the time…”
    DeeDee 😉

  8. El Gringo says:

    I had a chance to see Sin Nombre at Sundance and I watched something else. Ever since then, I’ve regretted it. Now it’s out on DVD, “Coming Soon” on Netflix Instant Watch, and readily available. No excuses. Your “Thumbs Up” will push me into watching it ASAP.

    El Gringo
    He-Shot-Cyrus.blogspot.com

    Hey, El Gringo, thanks for stopping by ‘the Spin. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Sin Nombre. –DHS

  9. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.Schleicher,

    DHS-said,”I also saw that widget you created for my site…can I get the html for that in an email?”

    Aye-Aye Captain,
    I just fulfilled your request…
    …check your email!
    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

    Thanks, DeeDee! Got it! –DHS

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