¡Palante, Siempre Palante! The Young Lords (1996)
Directed by Iris Morales
This informative and vital 50-minute-long documentary (which originally premiered on PBS) focuses on the Young Lords, a US-based group of Puerto Rican social activists that formed in 1968 with a Black Panthers-inspired eye towards uplifting oppressed people. The film combines archival footage with firsthand testimony from former Young Lords (including the filmmaker) to recall the group’s history, from its beginnings engaged in organizing free breakfasts in East Harlem and seizing government-owned brooms for the purpose of street cleaning, through an increasing broadening of ideas on how to achieve revolution and claim a free Puerto Rican identity, until divisions into factions led to dissolution in 1976. The film’s title, taken from the Young Lords’s newsletter, is a contraction of the Spanish words for “forward!”, and it evokes a spirit that remains relevant today.
“I was a community activist and member of the Young Lords, which represented a new generation of Puerto Rican activists in the United States,” says Morales, who has also written a recent book about the Young Lords, and who will participate in a talkback following the Maysles film screening. “In the mid-1980s, I was running a youth video training program in New York City. We couldn’t find films about the participation of Puerto Ricans and Latino/as in the social justice movements of the 1960s. The young people in the program encouraged me to produce ¡Palante, Siempre Palante! The Young Lords in order to fill this void.
“From the start, I knew that I wanted the members of the Young Lords to be the film’s narrators, and to relate our experiences from the inside out, collectively. My goal was to make the history accessible to young people, especially Latino/as who rarely saw themselves represented in a positive light, and especially in film. I wanted young people to see themselves as agents of positive social change. The past peoples’ movements contain lessons of successes and failures that can inform the ongoing struggle for justice and human rights. I continue to believe in the power of the people to create a society that works for the benefit of the many, instead of for the few.” Aaron Cutler (January 22, 5pm at the Maysles Cinema)
Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire (1972/2010)
Directed by Tony Palmer
By the early 70s, Leonard Cohen was already a successful singer-songwriter and published author, but his prophet-like charisma and romantic reputation was still a work in progress. Cohen was used to performing solo, but for his 1972 tour through Europe and Israel he was accompanied by a new set of talented musicians to play a total of twenty concerts. It was a difficult tour for Cohen—he thought of himself as a weak singer and even offered to pay audiences back their money in a couple of concerts. British filmmaker Tony Palmer beautifully captured it all in his documentary, Bird on a Wire.
Palmer was granted full access. He frames Cohen and his band in intimate close-ups, cutting back and forth between performances and their lives on the road. Palmer’s incredible access allows us to witness some deeply emotional, private moments. In one instance, Cohen sits backstage in Jerusalem, with the neck of his guitar pressed against his forehead, tears rolling down his face. It dawns on him that he just performed the last concert of this long and exhausting tour. We hear the crowd singing and cheering for more but Cohen can’t put himself together for another song. In his extraordinary and heartbreaking New Yorker profile last October, Cohen recalls this moment, “So I go out on the stage with the band… and I started singing ‘So Long, Marianne.’ And I see Marianne straight in front of me and I started crying.” It’s unclear whether his overwhelmed state was due to Marianne, some acid he took earlier, the fact that it was Jerusalem, or because it was the last concert of the tour… probably all four but nevertheless, I can’t think of a better way to end a Leonard Cohen story. Alejandro Veciana (January 18-31 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)
Mac & Me (1988)
Directed by Stewart Raffill
Should you stake your family’s happiness and survival on some All-American corporate products? Mac & Me says yes, or else wheel off a cliff to your doom. Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s triumphs in capturing the world’s tears/dollars via a cuddly, candy-eating alien in 1982’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Stewart Raffill (between The Ice Pirates and Mannequin II) attempted to warm audiences with his own suburban sci-fi. Instead, we got the equivalent of a six-years-neglected batch of McDonald’s fries nuked in the microwave. On a desert planet—presumably where the E.T. Atari games were buried—NASA picks up a family of unhealthy-looking pucker-mouthed aliens. The youngest of them—later dubbed “Mac,” which means “Mysterious Alien Creature,” and nothing more—latches onto a family: Christine Ebersole raising two boys (teenage Jonathan Ward and wheelchair-bound Jade Calegory) on her own. Blatant product placement wrapped around bumbling hijinks ensue—in lieu of a bike chase, see G-Men tail Calegory through the suburbs on foot! Witness lives get saved via Coca-Cola’s revitalizing elixir, teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony! Get down with the McDonalds dance number, even if I feel sluggish after eating one Big Mac! This shameless fever dream of Reagan-era ideals—maintaining a big home on a retail salary; riding away in a pink Cadillac after achieving citizenship—is made even more fascinating when you consider that Alamo allows you to watch it while eating upscale versions of the junk food depicted onscreen. Touché. Max Kyburz (January 18, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)
The Producers (1968)
Directed by Mel Brooks
Most people are familiar with the story, whether they’re fans of this classic film or the stage musical, or suffered through the musical’s film adaptation… or even watched the Curb Your Enthusiasm arc about a restaging of The Producers with Larry David in the role played here by Zero Mostel. But even those unfamiliar with Mel Brooks’s stroke of genius will trace back to it via references, style and even a kind of humor that has permeated into popular culture. Nowadays the film might seem dated, but just another look is enough for you to start noticing how many people are willing to participate in a play about Nazis and Hitler, or who are actually undercover Nazis who become aware of or revel in their ideology through the production. After all, it seems that Nazis were always there—only this time they manage to be funny. Jaime Grijalba (January 19, 6:15pm as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Lubitsch’s masterful wartime satire has had many imitators, including Mel Brooks’s 1983 remake and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but none matches the original’s audacity and effortless blend of comedy and drama. Released during at the height of Hitler’s power, the film follows a troupe of Polish actors who impersonate Nazi officials in order to thwart a German spy. The script is flush with delirious one-liners (“Heil myself”), running gags, and inspired performances, including Jack Benny as a self-involved actor and jealous husband. Similar to the unlikely resistance fighters in his film, Lubitsch pulled a fast one on authority by producing a fearless political statement within the rigid studio system. A.J. Serrano (January 20-22, 11am at IFC Center’s “Autocratic for the People: An Unpresidented Series of Star-Spangled Satires”)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
The starting point of Ghost Dog is obvious: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a variation on Alain Delon’s stoic hitman in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. But whereas Melville merely paid lip service to the samurai ethos—in the form of an on-screen quote at the beginning of the film attributed to an apocryphal Book of the Bushido—Jarmusch layers his film with a dizzying array of multicultural associations. Ghost Dog’s obsession with ancient Japanese customs clashes with the general amorality of the Italian mobsters who eventually go after him; one of the mobsters, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), turns out to be almost as much of a hip-hop enthusiast as Ghost Dog; the eponymous main character’s best friend is a Haitian ice cream man (Isaach de Bankolé) who can’t speak much English, though language doesn’t appear to be much of a barrier in their interactions.
More than just a playful, rich essay in cross-cultural ties in a globalized modern age, Ghost Dog is also a study of a deeply contradictory figure: a man with one foot in the present and another in a past he only knows through literature. Jarmusch doesn’t let Ghost Dog off the hook for his foolishness in holding onto a code of honor that clearly has no place in the contemporary world, but on a certain level, he empathizes with it. Perhaps the character’s final passing of the Book of the Samurai torch to young Pearline (Camille Winbush) is less a validation of the character’s overly romanticized worldview than a more modest acknowledgment of the worth of remaining aware of both the past and of cultures outside our own—which just about sums up Jarmusch’s own lifelong artistic credo. Kenji Fujishima (January 20, 21, midnight at the Nitehawk)