film responses: Hannibal & Bobby

By coincidence a couple weeks back, we rented a couple of hagiographies, of sorts.

Hannibal Rising is a repulsive but finally silly attempt to recuperate the serial killer, Hannibal Lector, via an etiological investigation of his childhood and adolescence. Hannibal became a cannibal because he watched a group of Russian soldiers cook and devour his sister. He spends the rest of his life seeking vengeance against the depraved gourmands. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, I guess, as well as attracted to him — those luscious lips, those pained eyes — but not even the filmmakers can muster much enthusiasm for this recuperative project. They can’t seem to decide whether it’s a parody or a tragedy or both. It’s just a lukewarm horror film lumpenly padded with a lot of dumbass art-school filigree.

Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, on the other hand, is as warm and artful as the best Hollywood filmmaking can be. The “saint” in question is Bobby Kennedy and the film takes place on the day of his assassination in the Ambassador Hotel. Although the film’s preamble, consisting of old news footage, is a short introduction to Bobby’s politics and an explanation of why he was running for President, and although much is made in the DVD extras about his assassination being the “death of innocence” for Americans wanting a peaceful future — Estevez says himself that the “rug was pulled out from under the American people” — the film’s real strengths aren’t partisan, they’re humanist. Although the interactions of the characters often show them taking political stances — the girl who marries a boy to save him from the front lines in Vietnam is one obvious example — more often what’s depicted as important is a lot more ordinary. Work, family, infidelity, love, sex, loneliness, alcoholism, a new hairstyle, the Dodgers, and yes, everyday politics.

The film is constructed of intertwined scenes, usually shot with a gliding, unobtrusive handheld Steadicam, depicting couples from varying social, economic, and racial categories. Each pair is characterized through their personal relationship with Hope, and with each other, not with a political candidate or agenda. Despite the disruption that the assassination represents — it also functions as a kind of sobering correction or reminder — I felt that nearly everyone would come out the other side of the tragedy with their hopes intact, except perhaps, and notably, the young black activist who is plunged into despair after the shooting. But even he has hope in the person of a woman he just met and in his own nascent self-confidence and leadership skills handled so delicately earlier in the film. He just hasn’t seen all that yet.

So I don’t agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum that the movie’s main “premise is that Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency may have been the last chance this country had to save itself.” It’s not just the final intertitle that declares that all the other victims of that night’s shooting survived or that the anthem that ends the film, “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” sung by Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige, is blatant in its defiance of cynicism. No, it’s the observed life witnessed and testified to throughout the film and the dignity accorded all the characters, even the ones who have shirked their duties (exemplified in the young campaign workers who avoid canvassing to be hilariously introduced to LSD) or the ones who have temporarily lost hope.

I’m making it sound cornball and will even more as I conclude that this is one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time, with humble and nuanced performances from a cast of big Hollywood actors, essentially working for peanuts. My favorite couple is that of Jose and Edward, played by Freddy Rodriguez and Laurence Fishburne. Their scenes together are the most touching for me, even as the script is at its most florid, delivered wonderfully in the able diction of Fishburne.

Because of Bobby’s presence in the hotel, young Jose must work a double shift and miss the historic Dodgers game he was planning on attending with his father. Instead of skipping work and perhaps losing his job and forfeiting his future, or instead of profiting from their sale, he gives them away. “There is no price,” Jose says when Edward asks how much he wants for them.

If that’s not hope, I don’t know what hope is.

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