Celebrating Radical Creativity
Many of us tend to think of creativity in lofty terms, that it’s something to be admired and appreciated largely for its purely aesthetic attributes. And that’s certainly all well and good, as it can move us profoundly. But there are times when creativity can do more – much, much more. It can have an impact that inspires not only its creators, but also those who look upon it in awe and wonder, perhaps even enough to change minds and collective thinking in revolutionary ways. In that regard, the influence it wields can be truly radical, as was the case with an innovative but today little-known 1960s television series profiled in the excellent new documentary, “Mr. Soul!” (web site, trailer).
The American television industry in the 1960s aggressively promoted its latest technological advancement – broadcasting in color. But, of all the hues available, there was one that dominated over all others – white, at least when it came to the color of the characters in its programming and the demographic segment of the viewing audience to which it appealed. Minorities were virtually nowhere to be seen. This neglect was particularly true for the Black community. With the exceptions of sporting events, the Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia (1968-1971) and occasional guest spots by “acceptable” entertainers of color (such as Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne) on variety shows, African-Americans otherwise typically appeared only in news reports about riots and poverty. This had to change, but how would that come about?
The answer rested with National Educational Television (NET), the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). As a government-funded organization, NET had an obligation to serve the people – all the people – including those whose voices were underrepresented or not being heard. This was the ideal venue for the Black community to take its place in the world of broadcasting.
As the first Black producer at New York’s NET affiliate, WNDT (later WNET), Ellis Haizlip was approached by station management to see if he would be interested in developing a program focused on the African-American community, particularly in the areas of arts and entertainment. In essence, the broadcast was envisioned as a Black version of The Tonight Show. Having experience with staging theatrical productions while attending Howard University, as well as putting on concerts and plays in Europe and the Middle East with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and James Baldwin, Haizlip was well positioned (and extremely well connected) to take on the task of producing the newly envisioned show. And so, before long, with funding support from NET and The Ford Foundation, Haizlip was off and running. The new series, Soul!, was about to change the face of television.
As an experienced producer, Haizlip was content to remain behind the scenes. His specialty was providing the means for his artists to perform at their best, enabling them to enjoy the limelight they so deserved; he did not want to do anything that would draw attention away from them. So, when it came time to select a host, Haizlip willingly stepped aside, opting to hand over the show to noted Harvard psychologist Dr. Alvin Poussaint. However, as an educator, Poussaint was not suited for the job of TV host. The torch then passed to the producer’s cousin, Dr. Harold G. Haizlip, also an educator, but, again, the fit wasn’t right. With no options left, the responsibility fell to Haizlip himself, who took on the job reluctantly.
Even though Haizlip was experienced as a producer, he was not trained as an interviewer. He was somewhat reserved and rather cerebral, qualities one wouldn’t readily consider integral to being a television show host. And, as he initially assumed the position, he was noticeably awkward and lacked charisma. However, as time passed, he grew into the job, a development aided by the phenomenal array of guests that he and his staff assembled to appear in every episode of the program. What’s more, since he made it possible for his guests to shine in their own right, their performances helped to camouflage whatever deficiencies he may have had in the role of host. Most importantly, though, even as he developed as a host, he did the same for Soul! that he did for all of his prior productions – he let the talent show their stuff and never upstaged their work. He was indeed an impresario but one without a need to stand out himself or to let his ego get in the way.
What was most impressive, though, was the work he accomplished through his stint with Soul! He helped launch the careers of countless emerging Black artists in music, literature, poetry, dance and acting, while also featuring established figures in those areas. This was revolutionary not only for the fact that the show featured Afrocentric artists, but also that it included segments on things like poetry and dance at all, arts that mainstream television completely overlooked. No one would have seen programming like this on the three major networks of the day.
Haizlip’s lineups were truly impressive. During the show’s run, he featured musical performances by the likes of Ashford & Simpson, Harry Belafonte, Melba Moore, Dr. Billy Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Kool & the Gang, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Delfonics, Black Ivory, Al Green, Bill Withers, Earth Wind & Fire, Hugh Masekela, Roberta Flack, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. Among the actors and actresses who appeared were Novella Nelson, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Arsenio Hall and dancer Carmen De Lavallade. Poets and authors played a major role, too, including Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Haizlip also gave a voice to African-American politicians and activists at a time when it was difficult for them to be heard. He made it a point not to restrain them, either, allowing them to speak their minds and express their frustration, something that never would have made it on the air on the networks. He featured interviews with the likes of Kathleen Cleaver (wife of Eldridge Cleaver and Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party), Georgia Jackson (activist and mother of deceased Black revolutionary George Jackson) and Stokely Carmichael (civil rights activist and organizer of the Pan-African movement). Haizlip also engaged in on-air conversations with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and with boxer Mohammad Ali, who, at the time, was fighting attempts at being drafted for service in Vietnam due to his conscientious objector status.
Given that Soul! was featuring programming found nowhere else on TV, it developed a captive audience with its core viewership. It’s estimated that 65% of the nation’s African-American community tuned in for its weekly broadcasts from 1968 to 1973. This immense popularity truly set its ratings apart from those of mainstream network offerings, quite a feat at a time when viewing options were considerably more limited. But, with such a devoted following, why did it only last five seasons?
Because Haizlip was willing to give voice to his guests, this practice did not always set well with large segments of mainstream society. While Black viewers were taking tremendous pride in having their uncensored views finally heard, it made others uncomfortable, most notably many White Americans. They were afraid of what the show’s more controversial guests might stir up, especially at a time of tremendous racial volatility. Haizlip himself was somewhat controversial, too, given that he wasn’t afraid to admit that he was an openly gay man, a rare commodity in mainstream society at the time. Many were concerned about what NET/PBS might be unleashing through this “dangerously” provocative show, especially since it was being funded with taxpayer dollars.
With the election of President Richard Nixon in 1968, the U.S. began taking a more conservative turn in its politics in the wake of the turmoil of the now-waning decade, and the new Chief Executive was only too willing to comply with this change. Little by little, alternative voices of all kinds – but especially in the Black community – were being quietly but systematically squelched. Funding for community programming in all areas was being cut, and eventually that included minority broadcasting efforts. And Soul!, unfortunately, became the prime target. In 1973, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced that the show would not be included in its funding allocations for the forthcoming year.
Because of the show’s popularity, many wondered why such a seemingly successful production would be cut off in its prime. There was considerable speculation, though no definitive answer was forthcoming – that is, until the release of this film, which includes an excerpt from Nixon’s infamous Oval Office tapes in which he and his advisors openly discussed how to silence the Black voices in the media. In an effort to make African-Americans invisible once again, that discussion eventually led to the decision to cut the funding for minority broadcasting like Soul!, no matter how successful such programming might have been.
However, even though Soul! had a shorter run than most would say it deserved, it opened a door for the future. Were it not for that groundbreaking series, American television never would have seen the emergence of programming like The Arsenio Hall Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as the many comedy and dramatic offerings featuring Black performers in lead and supporting roles.
That’s the legacy that “Mr. Soul!” celebrates. Through interviews with some of Haizlip’s guests (Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, Carmen De Lavallade, Nikki Giovanni, Melba Moore, Novella Nelson and Dr. Billy Taylor) and collaborators (Stan Lathan, Felipe Luciano and Christopher Lukas), as well as those who have assessed the program’s social impact (such as Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University media analyst, and David Leeming, biographer of Haizlip’s friend James Baldwin), viewers gain eye-opening insights into the significance of the show and the man who brought it to life. The wealth of extremely well-preserved archive footage is astounding and is alone easily worth the price of the ticket. But, above all, this picture preserves the memory of a production that made so much possible on so many fronts, one that, were it not for this film, might have easily been lost to history.
As many of the interview subjects in the film observe, Soul! was a truly radical undertaking, and Haizlip was himself a quiet revolutionary. He dared do things with the show that no one else in the industry was willing to touch. That’s because he believed in the possibility of this project and committed to make it happen. Chief among his accomplishments was his knack for breaking through barriers. His ability to envision the untried and then bring it into being showed just how skillful he was in questioning the conventional and subsequently obliterating the limitations that hold us back. He gave expression to the unexpressed, with results that stunned and impressed audiences, which, in turn, helped to change minds and reshape public thinking. That’s no small feat.
Haizlip’s ability to accomplish this provided opportunities to those who might not otherwise get them. One need only look to the list of entertainers, authors and activists who may never have had a chance to make themselves and their talents known. But that was not his only achievement in this regard; he made comparable opportunities available to those who worked on the show’s production staff. In addition to giving jobs to African-Americans, he hired a significant number of women to work on the show, some of whom freely admit in the film that this was a major breakthrough for them. They contend that, although many of them had actively participated in the civil rights movement earlier in the decade, they tired of the fact that it was largely a sexist undertaking. Minorities may have assumed all of the important roles, but those positions were nearly always reserved for men. Haizlip changed that. He believed in them and made it happen on the job front.
To that end, Soul! was an excellent example of a successful collaboration, one in which all of the participants pooled their energies, collectively and fervently working toward fulfilling a common goal. That kind of commitment can make a powerful statement, regardless of the undertaking. But, in this case, the enthusiasm that the collaborators brought to the project and the faith they had in its success epitomize what can result from this kind of zealous cooperation. Would-be joint venturers could learn a lot from this example.
Haizlip accomplished something else worthy of note – he shared his talents, abilities and resources in aiding others without any expectation of personal glory for his efforts. This kind of selflessness is rarely seen in an industry characterized by enormous egos and petty retribution for a lack of reciprocity. In many ways, this was a prime example of the concept of paying it forward. It worked wonders and contributed immensely to the show’s and Haizlip’s success. Having been given the opportunity to produce this series, its creator freely gave back, showing tremendous gratitude for such good fortune, something that made it possible for him to extend the favor to others. That’s a quality sorely lacking in many undertakings today, and we as a society could benefit tremendously by following that lead.
This excellent, informative and entertaining documentary tells a truly captivating story. In addition to paying homage to the show, “Mr. Soul!” presents a fitting tribute to its creator and host, a pioneer whose attainments have not been recognized as widely as they should have been. The film’s expertly assembled collection of interview footage, archive material, and voiceover segments featuring Haizlip’s writings and observations (narrated by actor Blair Underwood) combine to form a kaleidoscopic portrait of a man and his work that truly helped change the world. And its message is still relevant today as we contend with these challenging times. The timing of its release couldn’t be more appropriate, and, even though Haizlip may have been gone for nearly 30 years, one can’t help but wonder whether his spirit has played a role in making this happen at a time when it’s desperately needed, perhaps now more than ever.
Those who have never heard of Haizlip or Soul! owe it to themselves to see this superb release. This 2018 production has largely played at film festivals over the past two years, but, thankfully, it is now available for online streaming.
Sometimes the greatest contributions to our lives and cultures come from those who seem to be the unlikeliest of contributors. At first glance, Ellis Haizlip might have appeared to some as one such example. His reserved demeanor, cerebral perspective and desire to work behind the scenes were qualities that many would not have looked upon as being integral to inspiring groundbreaking accomplishments. Yet he did just that, and in more ways than one can count. That’s radical transformation at work – something we could use more of these days. One can only hope that there are aspiring visionaries out there who will be so moved by this film that they’re eager to follow suit – and change the world in their own way.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
A Festive Good Time
With fall upon us, it’s once again time for the movie industry’s film festival season. But, in the age of COVID-19, this year’s festivals are taking on a new look, one that, in my opinion, is great for both movie fans and filmmakers, a change that I hope will continue even after things return to “normal” (whatever that may mean these days).
The two film festivals with which I am most familiar are those in my home town of Chicago, the Chicago International Film Festival and Reeling, the Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Both programs, which have traditionally featured their programming in local theaters, are this year adopting a new approach in light of prevailing public health conditions – they’re going virtual.
Reeling, scheduled from September 24 to October 4, will feature a program of numerous narrative and documentary features, as well as several shorts programs, all virtually. CIFF, North America’s oldest international film festival, will run from October 14 to October 25 featuring more than 50 films and 9 shorts programs, all of them virtual or at pop-up drive-in theaters.
These approaches will not only allow the events to continue, but they will also provide some valuable benefits that have not been available in the events’ traditional formats. For example, given the limited number of tickets that have typically been available for certain screenings in the past, that issue will be eliminated in the virtual format, making the films accessible to a wider audience than has usually been the case. What’s more, in light of that, attendance at the festivals is no longer limited by geography; those outside the Chicago area will be able to screen the festivals’ offerings without having to make the trip to the Windy City. That’s a major plus for those unable to travel under current conditions, and it could potentially be a game changer for would-be attendees at future festivals. Both of these benefits are clearly win-win situations for both moviegoers and the makers of these films, changes that I’m exceedingly pleased to see and that I hope will become permanent, even if future events allow in-theater screenings once again.
It stands to reason this new approach may be employed at film festivals in other cities as well, as will be the case, for example, for this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival from November 5 to November 22. While there may be overlaps in programming from one city to another, there are invariably differences that occur in their respective schedules. Virtual screening, if implemented through these other programs, will thus enable movie fans to see offerings that may run at out-of-town festivals that aren’t slated to be screened at their own local events, thereby presenting an opportunity for diehard cinephiles to see an even broader range of films than they typically may have been able to do. I know I’d be happy with that!
Tickets for Reeling are currently available. Check out the festival’s schedule for films and screening dates. The screening schedule for CIFF will be released September 22. Tickets for festival members will go on sale September 23, with sales to the general public beginning September 29. Visit the festival’s web site for details.
Who says there are no such things as silver linings? While the global pandemic may have changed many of the ways we see movies, it’s also made some wonderful new opportunities available, and film festivals, it appears, could be among the major beneficiaries. It may not be the same as in the past, but it could certainly be a major improvement.
I can’t wait to see the ending!
The Search for ‘Normal’
Throughout our lives, we’re often bombarded by statements, observations and criticisms associated with what constitutes “normal.” But what is that exactly? It’s often considered something ordinary and everyday, yet it frequently gets elevated to a standard that’s essentially unattainable, prompting us to wonder what good it would be then. Finding our way through such a perplexing maze can become a challenge even under the best of conditions, but it’s especially frustrating for someone with special circumstances, as illustrated in the engaging new character study, “Eternal Beauty” (web site, trailer).
Life can be difficult when we don’t know what to make of it. Just ask Jane (Sally Hawkins), a middle-aged Welsh woman who drifts through life trying to figure it out. That’s a challenge, given that she suffers from schizophrenia and doesn’t know what to grab onto – or even how to do so. As a consequence, she aimlessly ambles from situation to situation, some seemingly “normal,” some delightfully humorous and others dangerously dark. She’s unable to discern which set of circumstances is “right,” either for her personally or for what she believes constitutes the greater scheme of things. And, as she wanders through this uncertain and sometimes-surreal landscape, her frustration with not being able to determine how to handle herself or the direction of her life becomes painfully obvious.
Jane’s circumstances represent more than an inability to cope; that comes with the territory of a larger issue – not being able to fundamentally figure out how life works or what’s best for her. Because of that, she stumbles through her daily existence, looking for the right fit. One could call this an extreme exercise in trial and error, but, when nothing seems to work, onlookers view Jane’s routine with a mixture of sadness, pity, anger and disdain, depending on who’s doing the observing. Their reactions and recommendations often complicate matters, as they’re largely unable to offer helpful advice. They sometimes even make matters worse by spewing uninformed criticism based on a lack of understanding of the underlying issue that Jane is experiencing, making her circumstances that much worse as she attempts to sort out that input in addition to everything else.
Jane’s existence is characterized by incidents and phenomena whose verifiability is sometimes dubious at best. She’s frequently beset by what appear to be hallucinations. She often makes statements and expresses opinions rooted in what seems to be questionable information. And she routinely receives phone calls from a mystery man (Robert Aramayo) who comes across as a possible past lover seeking reconciliation. It’s indeed difficult to verify how much of this is “real,” be it for everyone or just for her. The doubt cast by such unsubstantiated manifestations certainly raises issues for Jane, as well as those who care about her well-being.
Those standing by and watching Jane as she attempts to live her life can’t help but wonder how she ended up in such a state. Some, like her sister, Alice (Alice Lowe), and her doting father, Dennis (Robert Pugh), desperately want to understand and help her sort matters out. Others, such as her mother, Vivian (Penelope Wilton), her brother-in-law, Tony (Paul Hilton), and her other sister, Nicola (Billie Piper), are surprisingly hostile, demonstrating little patience for her erratic, unpredictable behavior and her cryptic, sometimes-caustic statements. And others, such as her psychiatrist (Boyd Clack), perfunctorily follow established, standardized protocols, regardless of whether they’re effective or suitable for Jane’s needs. But all of those responses, to one degree or another, don’t get to the bottom of Jane’s circumstances – or answer the fundamental underlying question raised in this paragraph’s opening sentence.
Some clues are offered in flashbacks to Jane’s youth, when her younger self (Morfydd Clark) suffered a series of setbacks – most notably being left at the altar and a failed effort at competing in a beauty pageant. The emotional devastation she suffered was truly profound. But, the closer one looks, the more one also sees that the kinds of responses to her behavior that are routinely thrust upon her now were present in her past as well. The impatience and intolerance typical of Vivian and Nicola, for example, are apparent in both of their younger selves; the behavior of Jane’s mother and her sister’s younger self (Natalie O’Neill) at times was downright cruel and, on occasion, nearly as unpredictably volatile as that of their target, suggesting that this mental health condition may run in the family. At the same time, Jane was not without well-meaning allies, again her father and Alice’s younger self (Elysia Welch), but their attempts at helping her then were about on par as they are now.
However, even though these conditions from the past may have contributed to the development of Jane’s circumstances as an adult, they don’t appear to tell the whole story, and that’s apparent through her present behavior and her ostensible inability to figure out how to sort everything out. As she seeks to determine what circumstances constitute “normal” for her, whether or not she can find love (as she attempts to do in a wildly unpredictable relationship with a fellow mental patient and would-be aging rock musician, Mike (David Thewlis)) and how to find a suitable semblance of happiness in her life, Jane ponders the possibilities, acting upon them with varying degrees of success. And, through it all, she continues to deal with the assistance and recommendations offered by others, regardless of whether they offer any meaningful help.
To her credit, Jane seems to possess a special wisdom that those unafflicted with mental health issues appear to lack. In part, it accounts for some of her irritatingly acerbic remarks (and clearly explains the defensive reactions that others sometimes have to her spot-on observations). But, if Jane herself would only come to realize that she has this gift, it might help her to turn things around in her life. It just might provide her with answers to the core questions she’s unable to address by attempting to employ more conventional means, the kind the rest of us ordinarily rely on but that are wholly inadequate for her. And that could set her on a path to the satisfaction and fulfillment that have eluded her all of her life.
The overarching question in this story is, “What constitutes ‘normal’?” Is there some kind of standard that applies to everyone? And, if so, why does Jane have so much trouble conforming to it? Why aren’t the suggestions and treatments offered by others doing any good? Wouldn’t that suggest, then, that the one-size-fits-all notion doesn’t work? Is it thus possible that a more variable, personally relative standard is more accurate, more realistic?
For decades now, the principle that has come front and center in the metaphysical/New Thought community is the notion that we each create our own reality. Whether this concept is couched in terms of conscious creation, the law of attraction or even a simple belief in the idea that “life is what you make of it,” the underlying mechanics behind it are the same – that we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in shaping the existence we experience, regardless of the form that reality ultimately takes, for better or worse. Indeed, if it’s something that can be employed to manifest an existence considered “normal” or “mainstream,” then couldn’t the same be said to materialize an outcome that’s outside of those parameters, one that’s “different” or “alternative”? Logically it would seem so, and, if that’s the case, then Jane’s experience would appear to offer an example of that notion at work.
Of course, given that Jane seems to have difficulty relating to the people and circumstances around her, one might legitimately ask, “Why would anyone want to create such an existence?” The challenges involved in that might be seen as overly daunting. Onlookers may view it as sad or tragic. And the creator of such a reality may have to endure endless frustration due to an inability to relate to his or her own circumstances in comparison to everyone else. It could be seen as a case of trying to squeeze the proverbial square peg into a round hole. Yet here’s Jane doing just that, so the question once again becomes, “Why?”
The underlying reasons for why we create the existence we do is, of course, no one’s business but our own. In many cases like this, it often involves materializing the conditions necessary to experience certain life lessons, no matter how unconventional they may be. It’s all part of the growth and development of our greater selves, to learn things that can only be achieved by undergoing such alternative life paths. Admittedly, this may not be the most ideal course, but, if it gets us what we want and need, then it naturally follows we’d pursue these circumstances to achieve the desired results.
In line with that, such experiences make clear that alternative approaches to life like this are just as viable and valid as those considered more conventional. Strange as they may seem to some of us, they may be perceived as perfectly suitable to those living through them. In fact, those traversing these different paths may look upon what the rest of us experience as just as “inadequate.” Experiencers of the alternative may indeed find that their realities enable them to “get into their oils,” a Welsh expression used routinely in the film that roughly means “finding oneself in one’s element,” no matter what that may constitute. As Jane searches for her “oils,” she may discover that an alternative lifestyle that those around her might readily eschew proves highly suitable for her, even if she’s alone in her convictions.
In presenting this view, the film thus provides us with a new outlook – indeed, perhaps even a new understanding – of what someone like Jane is genuinely experiencing. It suggests that she’s not actually enduring a mental illness but that she’s attempting to navigate her way through an alternate approach to reality creation that differs markedly from those around her. Some might be quick to contend that the setbacks she underwent in her youth and, potentially, the impact of family genetics on her physical being may offer “proof” of her “disease.” And it’s entirely possible that these influences may have played a role in helping to shape what she’s going through. Yet they may have also manifested as part of the larger experience she’s now attempting to maneuver through, that they’ve served as “tools” to help bring about the ends she seeks. So, with that in mind, Jane’s experience may actually prove valuable in helping us to better appreciate what those in her condition are actually undergoing and why – and to help us find more effective ways to interact with them that don’t disparage or mischaracterize them, their circumstances or what they’re ultimately attempting to achieve for themselves. This could shed a whole new light on them, us and the nature of reality itself.
Based loosely on the fact-based experiences of a woman known as “Calamity Jane,” this intense character study depicts a protagonist struggling to cope with her existence in an engaging and honest manner but without ever passing judgment on her life and behavior. The film never pleas for pity nor seeks to ridicule, but it quietly encourages us to consider possibilities that may have never crossed our minds before, and it does so more by “showing” than “telling” in its efforts to shape our views and perspectives. Despite a meandering opening segment – one that’s designed to drive home the relentless frustration Jane experiences (but that nevertheless still goes on a little too long) – the picture otherwise capably presents a candid depiction of what we call mental illness, without ever resorting to clichés, excesses or false impressions. Hawkins turns in yet another superb performance as the troubled protagonist, with fine support from Thewlis, Wilton and Clark. Director Craig Roberts’s second feature, now available for online streaming, represents an ambitious effort with a profound underlying message, one with the potential to radically reshape our outlooks on existence, mental well-being and what we consider “normal.”
Understanding the nature of our existence is often a life-long challenge. We often like to think we have it figured out, only to have our assessments torpedoed. And that process can be made all the more frustrating by continually examining it through the lens of what’s supposedly “normal.” We routinely second-guess ourselves, believing we must somehow hold ourselves up to some kind of established (though ultimately arbitrary) standard, only to discover (over and over) that “normal” is a relative quality for each of us, based on our beliefs and what we use them to create in our lives. Maybe we’d all be a lot better off if we just skipped ahead to that notion in the first place, holding to it, no matter how much each of our respective views of what constitutes “normal” differ from one another. We might well find that doing so leaves us a lot happier in the end. And isn’t that what “normal” is ultimately all about?
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Stripping Away the Clutter
How often have you wanted to rid yourself of the unnecessary elements of your life, removing the clutter and seriously focusing only on what’s most important? Like cleaning an overstuffed closet, it’s something many of us say we have to get around to doing one day but somehow don’t manage to find the time – that is, until our hand is forced and we have to do it out of necessity. Wouldn’t it be easier if we made peace with the idea and just went ahead with it of our own volition? Maybe so, but in getting to that point, even the most conscientious among us may find that we need a little inspiration to get started, an issue raised in the delightfully quirky new French romantic comedy, “The Bare Necessity” (“Perdrix”) (web site, trailer).
Sassy free spirit Juliette Webb (Maud Wyler) is looking for a new home. The independent thirty-something has been on her own since her teens when she and her parents decided they didn’t need one another any more. So, over the ensuing years, she has wandered about Europe (mostly her native France) with all of her worldly possessions – mostly a detailed collection of personal journals – in the back seat of her car. Being unburdened by lots of extraneous stuff, she has been able to remain sufficiently mobile. In fact, her vehicle is about the only material possession on which she absolutely relies. So, naturally, it comes as quite a shock when it’s stolen.
While driving through the sleepy, sparsely populated Vosges Mountains, Juliette stops at a rest area to collect her thoughts and do a little journaling. However, while sitting on a bench not far from her car, she witnesses a naked woman hop into the vehicle and take off, leaving her stranded in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Now what?
Juliette makes her way to the nearest town, visiting the local gendarmerie to file a report about the theft. There she meets the local police captain, Pierre Perdrix (Swann Arlaud), a genial but often put-upon sort who spends virtually all of his time attending to the needs of others, devoting little attention to himself. There’s his eccentric officers, such as Michel (Alexandre Steiger), a lovelorn gay man smitten with the captain. And then there’s his dysfunctional family – his mother Thérèse (Fanny Ardant), a widowed radio talk show host whose amorous advice broadcast no one listens to; his brother Ju Ju (Nicolas Maury), a scientist unnaturally obsessed with earthworms; and his pre-teen niece Marion (Patience Munchenbach), who’s dissatisfied with her living arrangements and is looking into boarding schools. And now there’s Juliette, who, with no place to stay, shows up unannounced on Pierre’s doorstep, inviting herself in for meals and lodging while the investigation of her stolen car unfolds.
Juliette’s unreserved, often-irritating demeanor doesn’t sit well with Pierre’s family. The captain often finds her abrasive as well, but, curiously, he seems comparatively more tolerant than the others. Nevertheless, she still proves to be a handful, especially in light of all of the other challenges he’s having to deal with, such as a band of World War II history buffs planning to re-enact the town’s liberation from the Germans, a production including tanks and other military vehicles. And then there’s that thieving naked woman who stole Juliette’s car; as it turns out, she belongs to a local group of radical nudists who run around naked robbing others of their possessions (usually their clothes) to stress the notion of our need to strip down to our “bare essentials.” Clearly, Pierre’s plate is full. Maybe he could stand to empty it a bit.
And that, it seems, may be why Pierre finds himself growing progressively more intrigued by Juliette as he spends more time with her. He’s taken with her sense of free-spiritedness, because it’s something he lacks and could certainly use in his life. He also appears to grow increasingly infatuated with her, especially when he takes steps to loosen the shackles that hold him back. But will he truly let go of what’s weighing him down? Can he detach from the neediness of his family, his co-workers and his community? That remains to be seen.
When we seek to change our lives, we often recognize the need, but not necessarily the means, to accomplish it. Because of that, we need some kind of inspiration to get the process started, to provide us with clues and show us the way. Without it, we’re likely to stay stuck where we are, dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
So it is for Pierre. He claims to be satisfied with his life, but is he really? There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, yet he doesn’t seem to know how to get off the dime – that is, until circumstances around him begin to take a different turn. Those influences plant seeds to initiate change. But, in actuality, the inspiration to launch that effort began with him, even if he didn’t recognize that fact. It first appeared in his thoughts, beliefs and intents, the building blocks of his existence. And now that he has drawn these inspirational manifestations into his life, they can begin to do their work to encourage their creator to begin moving his life in a new direction.
So just what are those influences? For starters, there are the radical nudists, advocates for stripping away what we don’t need and getting back to basics. The naked rebels may not have impacted Pierre personally, but, since he’s the local police captain, he has an awareness of their presence through his investigations of their alleged crimes. That places them and, more importantly, their ideology squarely on his radar. And, given that their core message is perfect for someone who needs to follow suit (even if not literally), this places Pierre in a position to take a cue from what they have to say.
Then there’s Juliette, whose approach to life echoes the radical nudists. But, since she has more direct contact with Pierre than the local disrobed warriors, Juliette has a greater opportunity to prompt the good captain into shifting his outlook and changing his life. Through his ongoing interaction with the unconventional nonconformist, he begins to see what’s weighing him down and holding him back. He comes to realize that he can’t solve the problems of others. In fact, and even more importantly, he recognizes that it’s not his responsibility to do so; that’s on them, and whether or not they choose to act on those questions is up to them, not him.
That’s important when one sees just how much Pierre has put his needs on the back burner to take care of others. For instance, since no one listens to his mother’s radio call-in show, he willingly phones the host to let her believe that people are actually listening. Then there are his self-absorbed co-workers, who seem to be more consumed with their respective hobbies than they are with doing police work, leaving him to handle most of the day-to-day operations while they pursue their personal interests. And, of course, there’s Juliette, who dumps all of her needs on him during the search for her missing car.
However, in Juliette’s case, there’s a different agenda at work. She may come across as helpless, but it’s also apparent she’s quite self-sufficient, especially in light of the fact that she’s been on her own since her teens. Her seeming neediness is designed to inspire Pierre into taking action to change his life – to annoyingly nudge him into placing his own concerns first for once, to stand up and proclaim “Enough already!” This is reinforced, albeit contrarily, by her often-cavalier attitude, showing Pierre just how to go about asserting himself. Her intent thus differs from the others in Pierre’s life, all of whom are willing to remain feeble, dependent upon him to take care of them.
By eliminating such clutter from his life, Pierre has an opportunity to rid himself of what no longer serves him. It enables him to evolve as an individual, to assert his true self – steps aimed at giving him a more fulfilled life. When stripped of the needless flotsam, he can be the person he truly wants to be – and has probably wanted to be – for a long time. It’s indeed amazing what a little inspiration can do.
It should be noted that the influences here can work in reverse, too. Pierre’s stability, for example, rubs off on Juliette, who has essentially been running away from her past for years, both literally and figuratively. By claiming that she can take care of herself (except, of course, when her car gets stolen), she walls herself off from interacting with others. But is such isolation all it’s cracked up to be? Given her willingness to spend so much time with Pierre, despite her proclamations of independence to the contrary, it appears that she may be ready to stop running and settle down. So, just as she inspires Pierre to be less tied down, he, in turn, encourages her to take a closer look at the benefits of establishing meaningful connection. One hand washes the other, and both benefit from the bargain. Maybe happily ever after is possible after all.
This quirky French romantic comedy about the mating dance of an unlikely duo takes viewers down a variety of unexpected paths, easily one of the film’s greatest strengths. Through the pair’s on-and-off exploits together, viewers meet the gendarme’s eccentric family and co-workers, as well as the community’s many colorful residents. And, as their various stories unfold, the picture serves up a variety of meditations on love and life, particularly in the areas of boundaries, holding on and letting go. While filmmaker Erwan Le Duc’s debut feature is sometimes a little too enamored with its own quirkiness, the film’s deadpan humor and off-the-wall narrative pleasantly tickle the funny bone with writing and directorial styles reminiscent of Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and David O. Russell, all with an absurdist French twist. Add to that gorgeous cinematography, and you’ve got a deliciously underrated cinematic delight. This offering may not appeal to everyone, but those who like their rom-coms with an unconventional edge will relish the wit and wisdom of this little-known release. The film has been available for limited first-run online streaming, though its online run may have ended in many areas, so searching for this title may take some work, but it’s an effort definitely worth it.
As most of us have probably found, it’s easy to allow our possessions to take on a life of their own. That includes not only our material goods, but also relationships, responsibilities and obligations that we have somehow allowed to attach to us and remain that way, even after they no longer serve a useful purpose. But, when we can see how eliminating them will enable us to streamline our lives and open up space for new, better and more fulfilling things to enter our existence, we’d be wise to jump at the chance and avail ourselves of it. The bare necessities of life might initially strike us as rather Spartan, but they also often provide us with the greatest satisfaction. And who can argue with that?
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.