The Kid with a Bike: Excellent Portrait, Weak Story

THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le gamin au vélo) 2011
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Les Films du Fleuve, 87 mins. PG-13
* * *

There are long sequences in The Kid with the Bike in which we see the namesake character peddling furiously across Liėge, Belgium. We theorize that he’s searching for the back-story of the adults in this story.

That sounds more negative than is intended. This is an excellent character study of a distressed 12-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret). The problem is that we never learn much about anybody’s motives but his. We meet Cyril in a state-run boarding school where he’d ended up–we don’t know how–because his father has abandoned him. Cyril, not surprisingly, refuses to believe his father would do such a thing, and escapes from his minders to find his dad and his treasured black bicycle. He’s not hard to find and is easily tracked down at the empty, torn-wallpaper apartment where he once lived with his father and recently deceased grandmother.

Then the logic begins to weave toward the “say what?” end of the spectrum.  Cyril bolts from his guardians one final time and ducks into a clinic in an attempt to elude them. When he’s found, he clamps onto one of the patients, an attractive young hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) and must be pried loose from her body. Such an event would shake most of us to the core, but when Cyril begs Samantha to let him live with her on the weekends, she agrees to consider his request. A few days later she shows up at his school having bought his bicycle from the man to whom his father sold it before leaving town. Thus is launched what will strike most viewers as a highly improbable foster family situation.

Doret is terrific as Cyril–the perfect blend of sullenness, impulsiveness, and deep seated hurt that one would expect from a traumatized preadolescent. His face is etched with his warring emotions–on one hand he’s on the verge of uncontrollable weeping; on the other he’s ready to strike out in fury from the incomprehensible rage that roils within. We understand perfectly why we wants Samantha to care for him, but is more attracted to the town’s local bad boy, Wes,  (Egon DiMateo) who recruits young boys to do his criminal dirty work. We also easily grasp the symbolism of Cyril’s bike–his ticket to freedom to be sure, but also a Zen-like escape into physical and mental oblivion on which he peddles away his anguish.

Like many stylish European films, this one allows the camera to linger on objects, faces, and scenes far longer than most American directors would dare. Those raised on f/x and non-stop action will find the pacing languid and will long for something “to happen.” Things do happen, but they take their time. That’s appropriate for the film’s subject: a probe of young Cyril’s psyche. What is far more problematic is the Dardenne brothers’ thin development of everybody else that populates this film. We meet Cyril’s father, for instance, but we never learn why he abandoned his son or why he thought that was socially acceptable. Nor is Cyril’s mother even mentioned. Much more perplexing is Samantha. De France does a great job with the character and she needs to, as she’s given nothing to explain her motives. Why would she take in such a damaged kid? Is she a liberal do-gooder? A repressed social worker? A sucker for a sob story? Does the kid strike some sublimated maternal instinct? Would that the other characters have half the depth of Cyril.

I’m sure that the Dardennes purposely left these issues vague so that we’d concentrate on Cyril. We do, but the experience feels oddly empty in the end. The Kid with a Bike garnered quite a few film festival prizes and won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. We would suggest, though, that it was often nominated but seldom victorious because it is, in the end, a classic “small” film.  As a touching profile of a wounded young boy it’s first rate. Just don’t expect path breaking filmmaking, a gripping narrative, or a lesson in logic. 


Pina A Mixed Blessing on Film

 PINA (2011)
Directed by Wim Wenders
Nieue Road, 103 mins. PG
In English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Croatian (with subtitles)

* * *

The challenge of making a documentary of an iconic figure within a small specialty is always the same. Does one aim the film at aficionados, or toward a general audience? The Pina of Wim Wenders’ latest film is dancer/ choreographer Pina Bausch. She offered still another challenge; Bausch (1940-2009) was dying when Wenders, a fan of her work, took on the project. By necessity, the project became, in Wenders’ words, a film about and for Pina.

If you are a modern dance fan, you will not need to be convinced to see this film; you already know Pina Bausch as a challenging, experimental, and creative spirit. But how does this film play for those who know little about modern dance, or those such as yours truly, who has just passing familiarity? I had never heard of her at all until about four years ago, and had never seen any of her work until it appeared on the movie screen. (I would add that the cinema was sold out, so Bausch obviously had quite a few fans!) The answer is that Wenders did some very interesting things, but non-fans are likely to share my view that the film is a mix of fascination and repetitiveness.

Since Bausch couldn’t offer much, Wenders focused on her dance company, many of whom had been with her for decades. Wenders uses two devices, the first being an opening sequence that is where mime-meets-dance. A parade of gesturing dancers takes us through the seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and those gesticulations reoccur throughout the film. Get the metaphor? The second technique is modified from A Chorus Line. Remember the confessionals in which each member of the troupe explains why he or she became a dancer? Wenders does something similar, though all we see are expressive faces beneath which we hear their voiceovers. Needless to say, we also see quite a few dance sequences, some of which we are supposed to recognize as classic, but one must be intimately familiar with Bausch’s repertoire to make those connections.

The film is stylish and some of the dances are spectacular, sensual, and poignant; others are clever and/or humorous. Needless to say, each of the dancers is masterful. Particularly fascinating are the pieces in which Bausch explodes our expectations of what dance is and where it should appear, as in sequences in which the urban landscape (monorails, intersections, sidewalks, gravel pits, abandoned factories) become the stage. These works blur the bpundry between guerilla theater and dance. There are also amazing pieces using on-stage water, but because Wenders doesn’t give us a lot of background we don’t really know if Bausch pioneered this, or simply riffed off others. (Water on stage isn’t all that unusual any more.)

Bausch assembled an international troupe, but whether her work is universal is an open question. As a novice and outsider, I was equally thrilled and bored by the film. Bausch definitely repeated herself, and she also dabbled in the sort of introspective choreography that sounds better as an artist’s statement than it works on the stage. I confess to having little patience for contact improv or works in which dancers dreamingly meander across our line of vision, and Bausch did a lot of that. This, of course, is a matter of taste and preference; if this is your cup of tea, fine. As a film, though, I’d say this one works about half the time. It may be that Wenders, who also wrote the screenplay, was simply too close to his subject to think beyond his camera and how the things that inspired him might look to those without insider knowledge. Unless you already know, Wenders’ film will probably strike you as impressionistic rather than revealing. --Rob Weir

PS--A 3-D version of the film is in select theaters, but mine wasn’t one of them, so I cannot comment on whether that enhances or detracts from the visuals. 


Don't Vote for Mitt or Trust Best Buy

Indulge me in a story that explains why I’ll never vote for Mitt Romney or trust Best Buy. Back when I taught public high school I had an eighth-grade kid whom I watched take the paper from a (much brighter) student and copy answers onto his own exam. When I confronted him, he remarked, “I didn’t no nuthin…” “Really?” I asked. “You didn’t just take Randy’s paper off his desk?” “Nope,” said he. “Dude! I just watched you do it.” “No, you didn’t” he insisted, even as I held Randy’s paper aloft. He continued to hold onto his lie, even as I explained to him that his major accomplishment was to make one problem (cheating) into two (+ lying), and then a third (+ calling me a liar). His arrogance led to a fourth and fifth—a trip to the principal’s office and a parent/teacher conference.

Moral of the story: If you do something you regret, have the courage to own up to it and never compound your woes by lying about it. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t, so I’m not making a plea for sainthood, but I will appeal to Socrates and what philosophers call “virtue ethics.” Back in my high school teaching days I took (for fun no less!) an ethics course at St. Michael’s College from a wise and kind man named Peter Tumulty. We read (among others) Socrates, who insisted that it’s never virtuous to do something that you know is wrong. Professor Tumulty took us through opposing viewpoints and exceptions, but he held no truck with branches of modern thought known as “situational ethics” and “moral relativism.” One might, Professor Tumulty insisted, be able to argue that a lie is necessary if it prevented a greater evil, but one should never deceive oneself into thinking that made lying ethical or virtuous; above all, one should never confuse lying in pursuit of self-interest with virtue.

This is why I wouldn’t consider voting for Romney; he is, in my estimation, a person of low moral character who is short on honor and virtue. He reminds me a lot of my naughty, haughty eighth-grader. To say he’s no Socrates doesn’t even begin to get at it. If I might hazard an off-color analogy, Mitt’s like a with his pants to his knees man and a hooker in the back seat who insists the two of them were just doing a tick check. Mitt can spin it from here to Salt Lake City, but Obama’s healthcare plan is Romney’s plan—the very one in place here in Massachusetts where I live. (Disclosure: I’m a single-payer supporter who’d gladly socialize healthcare, but as private plans go, the Massachusetts system is about as good as these get.) Now comes the revelation that Romney left Bain—it should have been spelled Bane—Capital in 2002, not 1999 as he’s been insisting for the past 13 years. Romney continues to lie about this even though the paper trail is clear. It’s not some smear tactic by his political enemies; the evidence—much of in his own words and those of his wife—is overwhelming. Gee, Mitt, how did those papers end up on your desk? I suppose some hypothetical Randy must have planted them there.

Mitt can spin it like an eighth-grader, but the bottom line is that he’s lying and his motive is pure self-interest. His spin is unethical, lacks virtue, and is without honor. I can almost hear the anti-Obama crowd chant, “All politicians lie and Obama lies worse.” And this would be a defense of what exactly? If I know anything from observing politics it is that it never ends well when a politician lies. Ask Bill Clinton. Or Larry Craig. Or Newt Gingrich. Or Henry Hyde. Or Eliot Spitzer. Or Richard Nixon. Or even (conservative saint) Ronald Reagan. (Iran Contra didn’t end so well, did it?) Maybe Obama does lie, but thus far no one has caught him with his pants to his knees. (If someone does, he should be held accountable.)
My problem with the all-politicians-lie argument brings me to Best Buy. Americans have become too comfortable allowing lies told in naked self interest to go forth without question or accountability. A recent Best Buy flyer came with this assertion that all of its Apple products were “on sale.” Except… that’s a big deception. Apple discounts only for educators, military personnel, and employees. An Airbook, iPhone, or iPad is supposed to cost the same everywhere unless the item is discontinued, the store is in liquidation, the retailer strikes a sweetheart deal with Apple, or the merchant is violating an agreement with Apple. The latter two scenarios happen, but neither was the case with Best Buy; it merely advertised Apple’s own promotions as if they were uniquely its own. In truth, you’ll get the same deal whether you buy at the Apple Store, Best Buy, or Shifty Mitt’s Fly-By-Night Electronics. In other words, Best Buy became Best Lie out of self-interest. Just like Mitt Romney. And that’s a good reason to avoid them both. If you lie to me before I’ve even purchased the product, why should I believe you’d honor your warranty?