Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 22, 2010

The Dry Land; Tirador

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Distinguished by gritty naturalism and compassion for society’s underdogs, “The Dry Land” and “Tirador” should be on the a-list of New Yorkers unwilling to waste money on the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster. “The Dry Land”, which opens on July 30, is the story of a Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, while “Tirador” examines a different kind of stress, that which faces Filipino slum dwellers on a daily basis.

I was prepared to be disappointed with “The Dry Land”, assuming that it would be filled with clichés about burned out ex-soldiers. After seeing the overhyped “The Hurt Locker”, I had made up my mind that unless a movie had some politics about the war, it was probably not worth my time. I was wrong. Despite sticking pretty much to the formula of “Stop Loss”, another movie about Iraqi war veterans suffering from PST, as well as earlier exercises such as “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Best Years of our Lives”, “The Dry Land” is distinguished by its verisimilitude and avoidance of pat redemptive “messages”.

The movie begins with James (Ryan O’Nan) landing at the El Paso airport, the West Texas “dry land” alluded to in the title. He is greeted there by his wife Sara (America Ferrara, the star of the ABC show “Ugly Betty”), who drives him to their trailer home where friends and relatives come for a return home party. When he is asked by his brother-in-law how many terrorists he killed, he winces and says he doesn’t know. In fact James has no memory of the traumatic rocket attack on his humvee that left two of his buddies dead.

On his first night in bed with Sara, he puts her into a choke-hold while he is asleep. She only saves herself by biting his arm.

Returning to civilian life entails getting a job at the cattle yard run by his father-in-law. The film shows James looking in horror at a steer getting killed by an electric baton and then being gutted. After a couple of days on the job, he goes out drinking with a couple of co-workers who decide to go out shooting rabbits afterwards. James, who has nodded out in their pick-up truck, awakens to the sound of gunfire and goes berserk and pummels one of them into unconsciousness.

The remainder of the film is devoted to James’s desperate search to figure out what is troubling him, including the loss of memory over what happened in Iraq. He decides to make an odyssey to Walter Reed Hospital, where one of the survivors of the attack will hopefully fill him in on what happened.

None of this sounds particularly compelling, I imagine, in comparison to the high drama of something like “The Hurt Locker” but you realize within a few minutes that “The Dry Land” is a much more compelling story about painful adjustment to civilian life, since it is told with scrupulous attention to how Iraq war veterans really live. First-time director Ryan Piers Williams began researching the case studies of returning soldiers in 2005 and only put together a story after he was sure that had a story right. He clearly did.

The movie is steeped in authenticity, including the west Texas drawl that the actors were coached in. Among the top-notch cast, Ryan O’Nan must be singled out for an amazing performance delivered mostly through facial gestures and body language. He is eminently believable as an Iraq war veteran and will earn my NYCO nomination as breakthrough actor of the year, as will Ryan Piers Williams for directing debut.

“The Dry Land” opens at the Empire 25 Theater in NY and at the UA 14 Theater in Los Angeles on July 30th. Highly recommended.

Opening at the Indiehouse Theater (http://www.producersclub.com/indiehouse-cinema.html) on Friday, “Tirador” (Slingshot) is directed by Brillante Mendoza, the winner of the best director award at Cannes last year against a competition that included Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

The movie is unlike anything I have ever seen before in my 50 year search for innovative and inspired film-making. It is an utterly unstinting look at the lives of poor people in a Manila slum who we first meet in a police raid on their ramshackle tenement as the film opens. In keeping with the kaleidoscopic character of the entire film, the hand-held cameras follow the cops as they wend their way through each room, each with their own drama.

We see a man lying in bed with a pained expression on his face and his anxious companion at his side. Get up and come downstairs, the cops order them. The cops are told that he is too sick with arthritis to get up. A minute after the cops leave, the “sick” man jumps to his feet and gathers together his stolen merchandise with his henchman. Everybody in “Tirador” is some kind of petty thief, including the cops who beat and torture a teenage boy until he discloses the location of his loot.

The moral landscape of “Tirador” will remind you of Luis Buñuel’s 1950 masterpiece “Los Olvidados”, a portrait of youthful delinquents in Mexico City’s slums. Ironically, Mexico City and Manila have identical histories, originating with the Spanish Empire of the 17th century. Indeed, the characters in “Tirador” (a Spanish word) all have Spanish names, as does the director. Despite Buñuel and Mendoza’s sympathies for the wretched of the earth, their characters are not beautiful souls like the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath”. Their immediate relatives would be the thieves of “Threepenny Opera”.

Unlike nearly all movies, there are no central characters in “Tirador”. Instead, we meet a dozen or so figures who we spend no more than 10 minutes with until the action proceeds elsewhere. In this breathlessly paced movie filmed on location in a Manila slum, you see oblique social commentary that is much sharper than found in movies with a more heavy-handed propaganda goal, including most neo-realist works. In one scene, as one of the characters is fleeing with a necklace that he has stolen from a young woman on the street, you see a couple of pale-faced Mormon missionaries in his path. You can only assume that they have about as much chance of converting Satan in this god-forsaken slum.

Some critics have linked Mendoza to the Dogme 95 movement, which includes precepts such as the need to film on location and the use of hand-held cameras, both of which “Tirador” adheres to. However, the sensibility of “Tirador” could not be more unlike the irony-laden works of people like Lars Von Trier. This is a cry from the heart rather than a postmodernist smirk.

The main inspiration for Brillante Mendoza would be the great Filipino director Lino Brocka who died in 1991 at the age of 52. Openly gay, Brocka sought to tell the story of his country’s downtrodden, even though—ironically—he was a convert to Mormonism. Imprisoned during the Marcos dictatorship, he continued to oppose Cory Aquinos’s government for failing to redress the country’s inequalities.

Both Mendoza and Brocka’s movies are available from Netflix and stand head and shoulders over the “new releases” crap highlighted there. Unfortunately, Mendoza’s “Lola” is not yet available there. From this interview conducted with the great director by the World Socialist Website’s Richard Phillips, you would presumably be as anxious as me to see it:

RP: What inspired Lola?

BM: My stories are all about real people. For example, my writer and I saw a television news item about a grandmother seeking help for the release of her grandson who had been jailed because he had accidentally killed somebody. And then we heard about another item about an old lady begging for money to be able to bury her grandson. We tried to connect these two stories and put them into a narrative and that’s how the story developed. There were some revisions along the way, of course.

Lola was developed about three years ago but I was unable to find a producer. I submitted it to several international script development funds but without success until I won at Cannes [for Kinatay (2009)]. After that I was able to persuade my producer that we had to do this film.

RP: Could you further elaborate on the story?

BM: It’s about of two women in their twilight years who are trying to help the people that they really love. It’s not just about poverty but also the resilience of these old Filipino women who might not have great physical strength but have tremendous will power.

When you’re poor you really don’t have many choices and that’s what you see in the film. For the less fortunate and less privileged, life is very difficult and I want to show this reality in my films—even if it goes against what official society perceives to be right and good.

This is my approach because I believe in the truth and trying to make my films as honest as I can. Not only must the acting be truthful, but the cinematography, production design and all other aspects. And I always try to have the particular communities playing a major part in all my films. This is necessary in order for us to understand what their lives are really like. For instance in Lola there’s a lot of rain and I did this in order to show what difficulties this creates for these communities. I wanted this ambience and the constant movement of water. Rain is a metaphor for life and for death. It is the source of life but at the same time it can be the source of destruction and catastrophe, which not only happens in Manila but many parts of the world.


  1. Thanks! Two must-sees, fer sure.

    (btw, the title of your post confused me for a bit; there’s a different movie called “The Dry Season.”)

    Comment by macon d — July 23, 2010 @ 12:54 am

  2. Thanks, Macon, that was just a typo.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2010 @ 1:00 am

  3. […] ang parangal ng “unrepentant Marxist” sa pelikulang Tirador ni Brillante Mendoza. Parangal kay Salvador Allende, sosyalistang dating […]

    Pingback by Decaf: Try Mo! « Kapirasong Kritika — September 20, 2010 @ 2:55 am

  4. […] did as a soldier. It should be mentioned that this is the same basic plot that is found in “The Dry Land“, a movie that I reviewed in July of this year. The hero, an Iraq war veteran, cannot […]

    Pingback by A Prophet; Waltz with Bashir « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 6, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

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