Thursday, 28 July 2011

Double bill – Congolese gangsters and the back end of New Hollywood

Been dead busy sorting out all the Minicine stuff recently, which you'll hear all about pretty soon. Just thought I'd post this little nugget of a double bill though that I saw at the Media Museum last month.

Viva Riva (Djo Munga, 2010)

A Congolese gangster film following the character of Riva (Patasha Bay), who has returned to his home of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He’s there to make some quick money having stolen a truck full of fuel. He gets in all kinds of trouble as the Angolans from whom he stole the fuel come after him at the same time as he becomes infatuated with Nora (Manie Malone), who just happens to be Kinshasa’s top-dog gangster’s missus.

It features really two dimensional characters in a very simple heist/caper plot. In particular, the attempt at building a romantic relationship is pretty strained. The clichéd nature of these characters aren’t necessarily to the films detriment; they embody the sort of bluntness that genre cinema usually harbours. Along with this genre focus comes an enjoyably exploitative element, with an air of spectacle around the violence to varying degrees of success and around the sex to high degrees of success. Another welcome element of the genre heavy characters were the Angolan gangsters, led by Cesar (Hoji Fortua), who even seemed to have their own theme music cues. In this respect, they were very reminiscent of Bollywood-bad-guys.

The main strength of the film then comes off the back of this genre platform providing a simple canvass on which the film paints a picture of Kinshasa and the DRC. The background setting and the Congo's exterior locations, landscape and cultural references were well utilised in order for it to say something very true and honest about the country. Add to this the way that the Angolan characters are constantly remarking how much of a dump the Congo is. Further, Nora’s whole purpose is to show the corrupting influence the place has had on her and that the only way to be safe or have a future is to get out of there. The fact that the whole caper element surrounds the natural resource of fuel and its limited supply is telling of a country bereft with deprivation, bringing a power battle to control essential resources. An aspirational obsession with Western culture also shows a sort of confused cultural identity, i.e. They largely trade in US dollar bills as opposed to the Congolese Franc.

It would be interesting to see this alongside the Congo in Four Acts, a film I saw at this year’s Bradford International Film Festival.

A link to an interview with the director

Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Rich Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses a mysterious figure dumping something in a bin. That something turns out to be a dead girl. Although he is determined to turn a blind eye and leave it be, Rich’s friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) along with the dead girl’s sister persuade Rich to persue their prime (though unconfirmed) suspect, the town mayor (or some such figure).

Although this is a very late New Hollywood film, I felt it had a mid seventies feel. It seems to be an extension of the rift seen in a film like Easy Rider between the two central characters and hence between two similar (still within the counter culture) yet removed notions of America and American identity throughout that period. A major difference here though is the physical and psychological scars left from Alex’s time in Vietnam, presumably - judging by his speech about hating the USA (see below)- against his will or better intentions.

Alex: “I watched the war on TV like everybody else. Thought the same damn things. You know what you thought when you saw a picture of a young woman with a baby lying face down in a dictch, two gooks. You had three reactions, Rich, same as everybody else. The first one was real easy: 'I hate the United States of America'. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch. 'There is no God'. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? 'I'm hungry.’”

Alex is angry at the establishment, so determined to fuck it up somehow; he really didn’t care how he did it, who the target was or even whether or not they were guilty. This is significant; that despite it seeming clear and that Alex is in the right, there is no complete evidence or justification for anything. In this respect, all characters’ motives are quite ambiguous. The man that Alex focuses all his hate and accusations onto is the pinnacle of what he considered wrong with America. It almost didn’t even matter whether he's done what he's being accused of, it is simply the fact that he is this establishment figure that Alex needs to bring him down.

Bone's constant efforts to explain away Alex’s assertion is what angers Alex further and led to him incessantly referring to Bone as a coward, which seemes as though it's coming from Alex the 'Vietnam vet' to Bone who avoided going to war. More importnatly though it is much more about Alex as a militant member of the counter culture and Bone, who shares values but isn't willing to cross certain boundaries. Bone - in Alex’s eyes - is far too willing to settle down, join the establishment and make excuses for them, so they can continue with their action, in this case to carry on raping and murdering.

Oh and it needs to be stressed that John Heard's performace in this film is phenomenal!

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