It’s Valentine’s weekend and we take a romantic trip to The Electric Cinema to see It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy that is one of only three films to win all Big Five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). As usual, Mike hasn’t seen it before, while José’s seen it plenty. Does it hold up?
José talks of its democratic appeal, set largely in the American South during the lowest point of the Great Depression and showing people coming together despite hardship, lack of work and even fainting from hunger. We discuss the development of the relationship between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, including the wisdom of sharing a motel room with a man you just met, the propriety depicted (such as forgoing a lucrative reward, instead only claiming your expenses), and of course, the madness of Alan Hale’s singing.
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A road movie about cultural dislocation. Arash has been living in Paris for the last five years but is returning home to Iran to sit for his law exam. He hasn’t taken to France. ‘French people don’t have a reason to be interested in you,’ he says, ‘what I’ll miss most is the alcohol aisle in the supermarket’. All his friends are Iranians. Two of them, Ashkan and Hossein, convince Arash to go on holiday in the last two weeks before he’s due to return home, hoping he’ll stay. Maybe he’ll meet someone and fall in love…
Like with all road movies, what the characters learn on the road is something about themselves and something about the country made of up of the places they visit. What makes this film distinctive, and thus more interesting than most of this type, is that what they learn about the country they are visiting is always dialectically counterpoised to the country they originate from: thus the reference for the South of France is the North of Iran; the girls they meet on the road are shown how women in Iran wear a scarve and what the various ways of wearing the scarve signifies etc.
Through the trio’s travels in the South of France, we learn about Iran:
Arash: I don’t know about you but I’ve been doomed since childhood.
Arash: They used to call me the son of the Devil.
Arash: Whenever I heard the call to prayers or religious hymns, I would hide behind the drapes and start screaming.
We learn that the very obese Arash originally put on the weight as a deliberate ploy to avoid military service; that Hossein had to mortgage his family home in order to give the government the fee necessary to guarantee his return from Paris to do his military service. Hossein who’s since married a French woman is stuck. Imagine at 33 having to return to work for someone else for free for two years. Does he abandon his wife in France, ask her to meet up with him in two years in Iran, or forfeit the home where his family leaves in Iran. Hossein’s problem is that he misses Iran; he sleeps better there; he’s happier there; but he’s more himself in France; can only fully realise himself – come closest to the person he’d like to be — outside of the strictures of home.
The film presents a very different picture of Iranians than one is accustomed to from the media. Here we see an easy, affectionate friendship between three blokes, who talk of love, poetry, and Tarantino; and why they don’t want to go to the mullah’s version of heaven: ‘That’s why I only drink the hard stuff, I’m going to hell on a high speed train’. It’s where he’s sure his friends will be. And who wants to spend eternity with mullahs? We get to see little of French culture, the landscape, a few village parades, the odd exchange of cigarettes with the natives. Even the girls they meet and share part of the road with them seem to me to be immigrants (I don’t think the film is explicit on this but when they perform a song, they sing in Spanish; one of the other girls they talk to, a waitress, is of mixed origin – her father is Moroccan, etc.)
We do get to see a group of men—funny, open, emotionally at ease with each other — restrained still by the patriarchal, authoritarian culture of home – Arash, surely close to thirty or more – has to answer to his father on the phone like a teenager; distant, perhaps excluded, from French culture but already changed by it in a way that makes a return for most difficult, perhaps impossible. Arash, modest, funny, at ease with himself as with others is a character you’ll come to love. France would miss him if it had ever bothered to get to know him.
I’m still trying to process American Honey but first impressions are: that it’s great and original, that it’s too long, that it doesn’t know how to end, that Sasha Lane and Shia Lebeouf are excellent; that you’ve not quite seen anything like this: I wrote a series of posts on films –significant ones from female directors — that mourn the idea of America but this is the Ur-Mourning America text and amongst the most relevant and alive of road movies.
It’s a film that really stays with you and that you feel that you should see again but don’t really want to. There are moments where it’s a really hard watch even though nothing terrible really happens. I love the structure, the way it begins and (almost) ends on a commentary on two different kinds of broken families, but also the way each stop in the road trip becomes a commentary on America as well as an advancement of plot and a development of relationships, with the rap singing in the bus a kind of Greek Chorus running commentary.
I love the equivalence between Star and Jake: we can see how easily she might opt for prostitution; but he’s been a pimp, thief and whore from the beginning, less profitably and less self-aware of it. I love how the film makes us feel sad for both; how it’s inclusive in all kinds of ways: gender, sexuality, to a lesser extent – ethnicity — it would have had to become a different film with more black kids on the bus. I love how the film has a neoealist feel — the poverty of the kids on the bus is written on the skin — but also how it uses imagery poetically.
I can’t think of a higher compliment than to say the film feels both real and poetic. I think Riley Keough gives an extraordinary performance as Krystal, the ruthless leader of the work-gang. I think it’s a film everyone should see at least once.