Monday, March 16, 2009

Sugar - film review

I wrote a review of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's outstanding film Sugar for Film Comment magazine (March/April, '09). A heavily-edited version was published, but I'm posting the original here:

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's expansive Sugar is an immigrant story framed by American baseball's farm system. Its focus is Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a Dominican Republic native with basic carpentry skills and a promising pitching arm. The film opens on a pristine, US-run, Dominican-based academy where Sugar and his Spanish-speaking peers learn regulation baseball and its English terminology. They occupy dorms but go home on weekends, which occasions a shift from the camp's rigidity to the vibrancy and looseness of Sugar's town. Here, kids enthusiastically play baseball in a dirt pitch far removed from the academy's vast, manicured diamond. Sugar's access to legitimate ball makes him the king of his village and he indulges everyone's vague fantasy - including his own - that he'll master an industry, and a country, he barely knows. Sugar's drafted, training first in Arizona before pitching on the fictitious Bridgetown Swing in Iowa. He sends his earnings home via Western Union.

The lush, colourful Dominican gives way to Iowa's bisected blue sky and green ground, its buildings crammed along the horizon. Sugar is billeted in a rural farmhouse by a pair of elderly, God-fearing baseball devotees. They're knowledgeable and critical, and take a proprietary interest in their charge's progress. Sugar often engages in hushed prayer, especially on the mound. His culture's spirituality, and its love of baseball, permeate their lives. The Iowans, on the other hand, formalize church and ball, each a pulpit from which to promote their values. In a panoramic shot, an impressive bridge looms over the team's stadium, a symbol of the town's wealth and settlement. The diamond's adjacency proves baseball's pride of place, but the citizens interpret their devotion as a right to hurl insults for mistakes. They forget the players are indivisible from the sport they claim to love. 

Sugar is largely mute, isolated by language and location, both in Iowa and on the mound. Pressure from home plagues his performance, as does the arrival of ever younger, hungrier recruits. His silence, and the influx of viable talent, renders Sugar an everyman, easily substituted by players nurturing the same American dream. In fact, the bulk of the film's cast, including the winsome Algenis Perez Soto as Sugar, are amateur baseball players without acting experience. Their familiarity with this situation defines the film's authenticity. It also means Sugar could have been about them. But the crux of the story, and what makes it Sugar's own, is how involvement with organized baseball leads to self-discovery. Confronted by the reality of what was formerly obscure, Sugar adjusts his goals, distinguishing himself in the process. 

Decompressing after a rare good day, Sugar graciously congratulates teammate Brad Johnson, a Stanford alum, on a great catch. Brad attributes the play to luck, but he means Seneca's version - the result of preparation meeting opportunity. Born in the States, Brad knows US culture and baseball's place in it, and has an education to fall back on. Sugar, however, hasn't considered alternatives, and itches from the growing sensation he might not like this job. In a magnificent long-take, the camera sits tight on the back of Sugar's head and shoulders, and follows him through a maze-like video arcade and entertainment complex. The flashing lights, electronic noise, and foreign chatter overwhelm him. He heads for the exit and, soon after, defects from Iowa, and baseball, for New York.

Sports moves typically depict personal triumph against all odds, but within the incompatible, self-denying perameters of rules, teams, external authority, and hostile competition. They champion the misfit who confuses finding themselves with finding a crowd to belong to. Arriving in New York, Sugar's met with familiar music and Spanish speakers of comparable backgrounds. He finds a job, a carpentry workshop, and friends who include him in local, amateur ball. In a lovely passage, players address the camera, stating their name, nationality, and former league team. Professional letdown is replaced by community and fun. Sugar's still one of many, but with a new, hard-won advantage - he can listen to his gut. Boden and Fleck appear to have honed this skill too. Half Nelson's critical success could have lead to opportunism. Instead, they gambled on subtitles and unknown actors and emerged with a better, more sophisticated film than their first. Sugar's personal achievement is uplifting. But it's cause for celebration when artists create just for the love of the game. 

The Aliquando Century

Last week, Queen's University hosted a wonderful, inspiring lecture on the history of book arts and the private press tradition given by William Rueter, the unduly modest, exceedingly gifted proprietor of Aliquando Press. The event complemented an exhibit of Rueter's books on view at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections Library, which was organized by Kingston-based printer Margaret Lock of Lock's Press. To date, Rueter has published 100 books (as well as many broadsides) in the 45 years of Aliquando's existence. While a graphic designer for the University of Toronto Press, Rueter worked on his books in his personal time. When he retired in 1998, he was finally able to give them his full attention. As is typical of private presses, Rueter publishes mostly found texts. They span years, styles, genres, nationalities, languages and subjects and are testaments to Rueter's curiosity, breadth of knowledge, and passion for the printed word. Some deal specifically with book arts (Rueter is a great admirer of Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson and Rudolf Koch), and several are uniquely devoted to classical music composition. The books amount to a portrait of their creator who, in treating work by Bach, Thomas Hardy, Boccaccio and Vivaldi, for example, effectively makes his influences or heroes his collaborators. But Rueter's books also constitute collaborations with contemporary fellow printers and binders, a lovely gesture given that presses of this nature are usually run in solitude and for the proprietor's own edification. He invited Reg Beatty and Don Taylor to create gorgeous, full-leather design bindings for certain of his books, and many contain etchings and wood engravings by such artists as Wesley Bates and Barbara Howard. During his lecture, Rueter spoke of the importance of friendship (between artists and between readers and books), the spirit in which I suspect these collaborations were undertaken. And in spite of Aliquando's openness to other artists' involvement, Rueter is amazingly proficient in all aspects of book production, completing bindings, wood engravings, and linocuts to supplement his letterpress work when necessary. Rueter's books are also characterized by a surprising use of colour. An 85-year-old man also in attendance at the lecture showed me his favourite book in which Rueter used ornamental type as decoration. Most impressive was the fact that the designs were completed in three colours (each colour is printed separately), all of them different shades of green (it would have been much less work to use only one!). I was as moved by speaking to this fellow audience member as I was to meet Rueter and hear his thoughts. An avid collector of Aliquando books, he expressed the same level of excitement as Rueter himself, adding yet another dimension to the idea of collaboration. Rueter maintained that making books is meant to usher beloved texts and images into the world in a new and vital way that connects artist to reader. The presence of one of Rueter's most devoted supporters illustrated the significance and mutual reward of completing this circle. Lately, I've been struggling to figure out how to make the best use of the books arts skills I've learned and the interests I cherish. Rueter served to remind me of why I became interested in private presses in the first place. I'm grateful to him for this uplift and feel renewed joy and dedication to learning more about books.

Friday, March 13, 2009

An Epic Scale in Sitcom Circumstances

 I discovered, last week, I'd get the rare chance to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen - it was showing for one afternoon in town. Originally built in 1918, our movie theatre attempts grandness, and was erected to support both live plays and cinema. I'd never seen Lawrence of Arabia, so I dove at the chance, which is significant since I've been feeling, lately, that cinemas aren't comfortable to me anymore. That, and I'm questioning having given up access to theatres that prioritize film's future by screening impeccable prints. I arrived to learn that instead of watching a filmstrip, we were going to see a projected DVD. Instantly disappointed, it struck me that this event - getting together to screen a DVD in a public hall - was simply a late-winter, get-out-of-the-house activity not unlike gathering at the Town Hall to play Wii bowling (also a local social option). In addition to the movie being projected on DVD (which I could have borrowed myself and watched at home), other of my movie-going standards were disregarded. Before the film, the proprietor of the cinema gave a twenty-minute lecture about Lawrence of Arabia in which he clumsily described and stated the importance of several key scenes. Since film historians frequently write about David Lean's work, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the easiest films to read about. If I'd wanted to study before showing up, I could definitely have done so. But I thought I'd let the movie work on me and be fresh and curious, my interest as pure as I could keep it. We were also promised that there would be overtures, "the way David Lean wanted it," the proprietor explained, and an intermission would be observed, the thought of which raised my heartbeat. Films are about duration and continuity! And why interrupt the progression when it's every director's aim to draw you into the movie's world and keep you held in its grasp? (To be totally fair, the overtures and intermission were embedded in the DVD.) At this point, it became clear that lots of elderly folks in the community (of which there are tons - thus the Wii bowling) had shown up, perhaps to sit somewhere other than at home, or for nostalgic reasons, the film having been made in 1962 when they still possessed their senses. Their hearing, comprehension, and manners deficient with old age, they used their outside voices continually throughout the nearly 4 hour film, asking absurd things like "Is there someone talking?" or "Do you think this is based on real events?" And this in spite of the twenty-minute information preamble! I was squirming in my seat, in the throes of a personal crisis derived, in part, from my ever-increasing disinclination to get out among the people. As the movie rolled on it struck me that it was an "event" film, completed on a scale meant to make going to the cinema feel like a special, theatre-like outing. And here we all were, talking, fidgeting, and chomping on snacks in front of a DVD, as though the building was a rec. room instead of a slightly worse-for-wear movie palace. And this predicament isn't limited to my town's theatre. Over the past few months, I've gone to the multiplex several times (to see Benjamin Button, The Wrestler, and Coraline, for example) only to encounter the fact that the beloved cinema of my youth is now just the cinema of youths. The foyers are filled with frozen yogurt stands, Foosball, video games, the tinny, clamorous sounds of Dance Dance Revolution, and the reaching way kids talk when they're away from their parents... not exactly the right circumstances in which to get quiet and be contemplative. Without the hushed museum-like atmosphere of, say, Cinematheque Ontario, I can't handle the movie theatre anymore. I don't necessarily believe cinemas should be stuffy and tomb-like, but films are deserving of reverence, particularly examples like Lawrence of Arabia. I want to determine the best way to go about my movie-going, especially since, apart from the compromised viewing, Lawrence of Arabia still got under my skin in that vital, entrancing way only movies offer. It's a testament to cinema's power that the beauty and organization of the images, as well as the emotional affect, still registered even though I only had one eye and half a brain focused on the screen. After I shook off the annoyance, I could think about the scope of the film, and the considerable accomplishment of staging the scenes and managing all of those camels! And to operate on such a large scale and still tell an intimate, personal story is a feat few action or event films manage. This is due in no small part to Peter O'Toole; tall, lean, golden, and perfect in his portrayal of the vital, idealistic, and ultimately dark Lawrence. And despite his stature and vision, he's still dwarfed by the settings he finds himself in, vast stretches of desert I'd never see if not for the movie. We're shown a man with an outsized view of his abilities and purpose, who's humbled by their slightness compared to the world's overall complexity and lack of coherence. Other artforms can't address this discrepancy so fruitfully. It's to revisit this idea again and again that I'll keep trying.