Friday, January 18, 2019

“Green Book”: Driving Mr. Daisy

I’m firmly convinced that as an actor Mahershala Ali can do just about anything. I first became aware of Ali in 2016, via his role in Barry Jenkins’ award-winning film, Moonlight. Ali played a South Florida drug dealer who befriends a needy young boy, and the supporting actor Oscar he took home is a testament to his uncanny blend of tenderness and menace. To my surprise, he also popped up in a second 2016 film, Hidden Figures. In that paean to the role of African-American women within America’s space program, the drug dealer had evolved into a straight-arrow military man with romance on his mind. Yup, once again he made me a believer.

Now comes Green Book, in which Ali has me accepting him as a classically-trained jazz pianist, being chauffeured around the Deep South by Viggo Mortensen’s dese-dem-and-dose blue-collar Italian, at a time when segregation is still in full swing. Naturally, the two have nothing in common at the start of their journey, but are fast friends by its conclusion. Green Book is intended to be heartwarming, and many people (including the Golden Globes voters of the Hollywood Foreign Press) have found it just that. But I must admit I’m not one of this film’s greatest fans.

You see, although I buy Ali as  a piano virtuoso, I have a hard time with his performance away from the keyboard. It’s really not the actor’s fault. Though this film is based on a true story (and is co-written by the son of Mortensen’s character), the role of Dr. Don Shirley seems more of a cinematic construct than a human being. Obviously the intent was to portray him as a complicated and fundamentally lonely soul: a man whose skin color cuts him off from the white world and whose classical education makes him uncomfortable among his fellow blacks. The film also touches on his homosexuality, a detail that some of his surviving family members have questioned. Personally, I have no problem accepting any of these basic strands of Shirley’s character, but the screenwriters have hamstrung Ali by giving him language that seems flatly unconvincing. Yes, he’s supposed to be a man of culture, but his dialogue throughout the film is so stiff and formal that he seems less a human being than a walking, talking thesaurus. And some of his behavior—demanding that Mortensen’s Tony Lip improve his diction, insisting on dictating improved versions of Tony’s letters to his wife back home—just doesn’t ring true.

There are lots of other heavy-handed aspects of this screenplay as well. The writers seem to be working extra-hard to make their points about cultural differences. It’s cute that Tony gets Don to try snacking on KFC (and then flinging the bones out of the car window), but can we really believe that a man born and raised in Florida has never in his life tasted fried chicken?

Maybe it’s because screenwriter Nick Vallelonga is Tony’s son, but Mortensen’s character seems as real as Ali’s mostly does not. I’m told by Italians of my acquaintance that those noisy family dinner table scenes are absolutely on the money. Interestingly, while Don Shirley’s relatives have loudly expressed their disapproval of this film, a number of Hollywood’s prominent African-Americans (like the not-easily-pleased Harry Belafonte) have given it their full support. I think they’re glad to see audiences recognize a time when black travelers south of the Mason-Dixon line were not permitted to dine in most restaurants and stay in most hotels. Hence the need for the legendary Negro Motorist Green Book that gives this frustrating film its title.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Cuban Sundae: Strawberry or Chocolate?

Cubans are crazy for all things Hollywood. There’s no question that their number-one matinee idol is Che Guevara, whose soulful image shows up everywhere. But there’s also passionate enthusiasm for Marilyn Monroe, the queen of the souvenir shops. It’s not so surprising that the faces of these two popular icons make an appearance as part of the décor in Cuba’s most famous homegrown movie, Strawberry and Chocolate. Or, if you want to be a purist, Fresa y Chocolate. This film, from 1993, has the signal distinction of being the only Cuban movie ever to be nominated for a foreign language Oscar. No, it didn’t win: it was up against Russia’s Burnt by the Sun (the eventual winner) as well as Ang Lee’s Taiwanese-language feature, Eat Drink Man Woman. But, as they say, it’s an honor just to be considered.

Strawberry and Chocolate was financed in part by the
Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos,with help from both Spain and Mexico. Given the movie’s Cuban governmental connection, its subject matter comes as something of a surprise. This film, frank in its dialogue and in its depiction of the human body, is basically an exploration of what it’s like to be a gay man in post-revolutionary Cuba. From reading the work of my screenwriting students who have Cuban backgrounds, I know there was a time when to be gay was to be considered an enemy of the state, with consequences that were often horrendous. This film doesn’t go quite so far, but it hardly shies away from revealing the nation’s deeply-entrenched homophobia. (These days, I doubt Cuba has become a paradise for homosexuals, but they do have a powerful public champion in Raul Castro’s daughter.)

Strawberry and Chocolate was shot in the difficult era when Cuba was trying to move past its lucrative former connection with the Soviet Union. The first character we meet, David, is a poor university student caught up in revolutionary ideology. He wants to be a writer, but is majoring in political science because he feels this is the best way to help serve his people. He’s a straight-ahead guy, and a bit of an innocent. His one try at romance has not worked out well.

Cut to a scene at Coppélia, Havana’s famous “ice cream park.” This huge installation, the size of a city block, was promoted by Fidel Castro as a place to provide sweet treats to the Cuban masses at rock-bottom prices. It’s there that David is accosted by Diego, who is waspish, witty, and decidedly gay. He’s also well acquainted with art, literature, and classical music. He lures David to his imaginatively cluttered flat, nattering on about an art exhibit he and a friend will stage through a foreign embassy. Though David has no wish to pursue the acquaintance, his strait-laced college roommate decides that Diego is clearly subversive, and that it’s David’s patriotic duty to investigate him.

The plot of the film, such as it is, does not go where you’d think it might. Fundamentally, it’s a character study of two young men with very different preferences, though an emotionally complex neighbor lady who skirts the law in large ways and small also figures in. From what I saw on screen, the Havana of 25 years ago hasn’t changed much from what I witnessed in person this past December. There’s still beauty and clutter, vibrant people in dilapidated surroundings. To the extent that this is a love story, it’s mostly a valentine to a city and a culture that, despite the quirks of a byzantine political system, are still unforgettable.