The Motion Picture Association of America ratings board doesn't get a lot of compliments, but give them some respect for wisdom and restraint this week. In a Homeland Security/Janet-nipple era in which the terrified ninnies and metrosexuals at PBS panicked that Ken Burns' documentary The War would have actual Army guys swearing, the MPAA slapped a mere PG-13 on the Australian import Kenny, despite the dialogue's repetition of the s-word. About a thousand times, I reckon - or maybe it just feels that way. After all, when shit plays a crucial role in a comedy-drama, it's hardly a term to be avoided.
Shot with mockumentary techniques, the earthy Kenny is pretty much a labor of love - and all about the love of labor, as depicted by director Clayton Jacobson and his brother, actor Shane Jacobson. The latter takes the title role of Kenny Smyth in a faux cinema verité character study. Kenny is a chunky, cheerful, middle-aged divorced chap in Melbourne who - for reasons never explained, but cable TV's Dirty Jobs certainly comes to mind - has a Christopher Guest-style documentary lens trailing him, as witness and confessor, to his daily occupation: cleaning, installing and servicing portable toilets for a company called Splash Down (a real-life enterprise that was a principal investor in the film).
In society, Kenny's career choice is truly the lowest rung. Snooty clients refuse to shake his hand, his brother dis-invites him from a birthday party when Kenny turns up in work clothes and even Kenny's own retired-farmer father (the film team's real-life parent) calls him a "turd burglar" and despairs. None of this, however, gets Kenny down. He enjoys his work, talks poo-biz with the ever-present camera, and does what parenting he can for a small son he borrows on alternate weekends from a she-bitch ex-wife (rendered all the more monstrous because we never clearly see her) who's informed the boy that Kenny is destined to burn in hell because he doesn't believe in God.
What Kenny does believe in, though, is his work. Never mind that it involves emptying and maintaining "shitters": He goes about the necessary-room business not with shame, but rather genuine pride. You could well compare Kenny to Ken Loach's blue-collar dramedy Riff-Raff, right down to the subtitles, apparently imposed with the idea that U.S. audiences won't understand Kenny's native Down Under accent (but really, he's no worse than the Crocodile Hunters and Dundees). At least the hearing-impaired get to see the s-word as well, in all its glory. Some loose plotlines begin to materialize (a bit more contrived and message-conscious than they were in Riff-Raff), as Kenny's disdainful dad suffers a health crisis that changes his 'tude about the turd trade, Kenny kindles a new relationship with a stewardess (oh, another word you can't say on PBS - it's "flight attendant," sorry) and his devotion to toilets pays off with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a giant trade expo in America.
Longtime Australiaphiles may recognize Kenny as a fundamental cultural archetype, the "battler" - usually depicted as an unpretentious, rough-hewn mutt of a bloke from the lower classes, probably descended from the first boatload of Botany Bay convicts, who gets pummeled by life but heroically perseveres through raw determination, a positive outlook and a smile. Hands up, the none of you who saw the imported Aussie tearjerker The Fourth Wish, about a dying child and his coping pa - veritable battler porn. As for Kenny, well, maybe a PG-13 is even a little harsh, after all, for a film with so much going for it. Bigger, costlier features have been shittier than this. It's a pity more viewers have seen Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector than will ever shake hands with Kenny. - Charles Cassady Jr. Kenny Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 8 p.m. Friday, August 22 and at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, August 23
Philip Roth's novella The Dying Animal is a strange choice for a movie adaptation. A brief coda to Roth's Professor of Desire series about the sex-obsessed David Kepesh, who in the first book transformed himself into a giant female breast, the book doesn't naturally lend itself to dramatic treatment. It's basically a monologue in which college professor Kepesh recalls his affair with a Cuban American student 38 years his junior, who ended their relationship and then returned years later under sad circumstances. Director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) apparently saw a tender romance in this slender phallocentric story and has made it into a glossy drama with the unusual casting choice of Ben Kingsley as Kepesh.
Kingsley is a fine actor, but making Kepesh an Englishman is a bad idea; he sounds awkward lamenting that his lover never begged for his "cawk." Penélope Cruz is lovely as Consuela Castillo, the object of Kepesh's desire, though she doesn't quite evoke the voluptuous siren whose breasts drove Roth's Kepesh into an erotic frenzy.
The supporting roles fare better: Peter Sarsgaard is intense as Kepesh's resentful son, Patricia Clarkson is fine in the small role of Kepesh's longtime bedmate and Dennis Hopper is delightful as Kepesh's friend, poet George O'Hearn. (Just the idea of Hopper as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a kick.) The cinematography is beautiful, if occasionally lapsing into visual cliché, and the soundtrack is filled with tasteful classical music. The film's overall approach, in fact, is art-house-tasteful, which seems inappropriate for the risqué Roth - like a Masterpiece Theatre version of Portnoy's Complaint. There also isn't enough story to sustain a feature film; the book consists entirely of Kepesh's thoughts about eroticism and aging - difficult things to exteriorize, though screenwriter Nicholas Meyer makes an admirable effort to flesh things out. The movie is worth seeing for its technical qualities and good performances but is considerably less than the sum of its parts. - Pamela Zoslov Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
There's a strange dichotomy in the films of Jia Zhang-ke (The World, Platform) that makes them fascinating. Within the stillness of the frame - Jia could give the late Michelangelo Antonioni lessons on ennui and alienation - is a whirlwind of pell-mell emotions threatening to burst off the screen and into the audience's hearts and minds. Winner of the grand prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, Jia's aptly titled Still Life provides ample evidence of these conflicting - and seemingly contradictory - strains.
Like Haskell Wexler's epochal Medium Cool, it's a fiction film set against the backdrop of real-life events. Still Life tells the story (stories?) of two people (coal miner Sanming and nurse Shen Hong) who simultaneously but separately come to Fengjie, China, during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Even though the characters never meet, Sanming (Han Sanming) and Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) share a kind of cosmic "being-ness" that unites them somehow.
Because there's so little overt drama in a Jia film, it's easy to overread the images - Still Life was exquisitely shot in high-definition digital video by Yu Likwai - while searching for clues or portents. Fortunately, Jia rewards the patient viewer with his almost soulful accretion of detail, both physical and psychological. Another dichotomy, and one that's central to unlocking the mysteries of Still Life, is the gaping chasm Jia sets up between the natural world (represented by the primordial gorges along the Yangtze River) and a state-manufactured world (i.e., the dam whose construction has destroyed so much and displaced more than one million people in the name of "progress"). But China itself has always been as looming a presence - and as significant a protagonist - in Jia's movies as any of his human characters. As the Little Red Book era of Chairman Mao gradually dissolves into a government-approved pursuit of capitalism at all costs (the environment, the citizenry, et al.), Jia has become an unofficial one-man witness to his country's latest (r)evolution. - Milan Paurich Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:35 p.m. Saturday, August 23 and at 4 p.m. Sunday, August 24.