Haiti, Sex, Death

Before last Sunday night I thought of Haiti as a hopeless Caribbean shithole, one of the worst places to live in the world because the government corruption and the politically-motivated beatings and killings never seem to stop, and because the poverty levels for most of the citizens are beyond belief.
I still see Haiti as an island most foul, but a knockout documentary called Ghosts of Cite Soleil, a kind of Cain-and-Abel story that was filmed just before, during and after the overthrow of Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide in March 2004, has added a new dimension.

The real-life 2pac and Lele as they appear in Asger Leth’s Ghosts of Cite Soleil

I now see Haiti as less of a Ground Zero for abstract political terror and more of a place where people on the bottom rung are trying to live and breathe and create their own kind of life-force energy as a way of waving away the constant hoverings of doom.
In short, this excellent 88-minute film, directed by Asger Leth (the son of Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth), adds recognizable humanity to a culture that has seemed more lacking in hope and human decency than any other on earth. I saw it at the Wilshire Screening Room two and a half days ago, and it’s been a kind of growth experience for me. I feel like I almost “get” Haiti now, and I haven’t stopped telling people about it since.
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Everyone will say that Ghosts is City of God but in ‘real’ verite terms…and it is that, of course. But it’s less about violent street crime than stink-from-the-head Haitian politics, and it explores an unusual romantic triangle between a white French female relief worker namd Lele and two gangster brothers, 2pac and Bily (not “Billy”), and it has a tragic ending that touches you as much as any well-crafted Hollywood tearjerker could…and yet it happened all on its own.
2pac and Bily are in no way the “good guys,” but in a way they are. They wave guns around and talk all the time about defending their territory or making an enemy back off or perhaps having to kill each other, but somehow the film makes them seem like half-sympathetic pawns…somewhat vulnerable sociopaths desperately trying to escape from their cage.

The brothers were leaders of gangs (there were five altogether, all of them known as “the Chimeres”, which is French for “ghosts”) who were being paid big money by the Aristide government to rough up or in some cases eliminate political oppo- nents. Director George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl), who invited me to Sunday’s screening in his capacity as one of the doc’s exec producers, said 2pac and Bily received “hundreds of thousands” of dollars.
When Aristide was finally forced out of office 2pac and Bily were suddenly targets of the new guys in power who wanted to get rid of all remnants of Aristide’s reign, including the “muscle.”
What was special in the making of Ghosts of Cite de Soleil was that Leth had totally open access to both brothers (as well as their government opponents), and also that life played out like a story written by a skilled dramatist.
This is precisely what Ghosts of Cite de Soleil could be the next time — a dramatic movie shot on location in Haiti with actors, a script, grips, electricians, etc.
On Monday I spoke with Cary Woods, the doc’s executive producer, who agreed that Ghosts of Cite Soleil could become a mainstream feature because (and this is primarily me talking) it has all the Shakespearean elements: poverty, political warfare, corruption, the cycle of violence, Cain and Abel, a romantic triangle, and a tragic finale.

And as a scripted feature it could get a bit more into the warring-brothers- sleeping-with-the-same-woman thing, which the doc doesn’t really run with.
Woods told me that a certain big-name actress has expressed interest in playing the Lele character if and when a script is written and a film is up and rolling, and then producer Seth Kanegis called me from somewhere in the Caribbean Tuesday afternoon and said Woods is looking to hire a distinguished, big-name writer to do the screenplay.
This would be a perfect feature for Oliver Stone, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Werner Herzog…any director who could take the grit and social squalor of Haiti’s Cite de Soleil and reenact the story with feeling and realism.
The thing that needs to happen right now is for Ghosts of Cite Soleil to be accep- ted into the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight section so the festival-scout community can see it and talk it up. And then it should go to Toronto Film Festival in September, which would probably lead to some kind of distribution deal.
A film like this can only do what it can do. Film buffs and admirers of hot-button filmmaking and drama-in-the-rough will go for it, but some movigeoers would probably have a bit of difficulty with a film of this sort…a raw-looking, hand-held video piece about killings and squalor and interracial sex.

Ghosts executive producer Cary Woods

The feature that could come from this — that’s the thing. But there are miles to go before that happens…if it happens at all. Life is a gamble and movies are about rolling stones slowly uphill.
I haven’t mentioned the Wylcef Jean hip-hop on the soundtrack (the Haitian-born musician is also one of the film’s exec producers) and 2pac’s seeing himself as a burgeoning hip-hopper and his dream of becoming a musician-star. A Wyclef Jean soundtrack CD of some kind would, I understand, be part of the Ghosts package when and if it opens theatrically. I’m not 100% sure about this, but it would make sense.

King of the Empties

I’m developing an idea that Matthew McConaughey is a kind of anti-Christ. I’m 35% to 40% serious. He may not be the Satanic emissary of our times, but I honestly believe if and when the real devil rises up from those sulfur caverns and begins to walk the earth, he’ll look and behave exactly like McConaughey.
He’s not just the absolute nadir of empty-vessel pretty boy actors. I’m talking about an almost startling inner quality that transcends mere shallowness. It’s there in McConaughey’s eyes…eyes that look out at the wonder and terror of life but do nothing but scan for opportunity…something or someone to hustle or seduce or make a buck off. Eyes that convey a Maynard G. Krebs-like revulsion at the idea that life may finally be about something you can’t touch, taste or own.

Matthew McConaughey and fan

He has the soul of a Texas bartender who dabbles in real estate and has an overly made-up and undereducated girlfriend who drops by at the end of a shift to give him a lift home, except that he tends to ignore her when there’s a good game on and all his empty-ass buddies are there…a bartender who will clean shot glasses for 20 minutes before looking in your direction…a guy with a thin voice and a hey-buddy Texas drawl who sorta kinda needs to be stabbed with a screwdriver.
I’ve known guys like McConaughey all my life, and I feel I’ve come to know them as a predator tribe. Guys with fraternity associations and shark eyes and quarter-inch- deep philosphies that tend to start with barstool homilies like “the world is for the few.”
Because of this I can easily wave away his respectable performances in Dazed and Confused and Reign of Fire and focus on the void. I agree about these standout performances and his being tolerable in one or two other films (U-571, etc.), and because of this I was able to handle his being in movies without cringing for years.
But then came the double-whammy of Two for the Money and Failure to Launch, and now the mere mention of his name…
McConaughey is the emperor of the so-called vapid squad. He can kick Paul Walker’s ass with one hand tied behind his back, in part because Walker is now off the shit list after his sweat-soaked danger-freak performance in Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared. Forget the unfairly maligned Matthew (a.k.a., “Matt”) Davis, who gave a genuine and unforced performance as a decent-guy football player in John Stockwell’s Blue Crush…next to McConaughey he’s almost Brando-level.

With Sarah Jessica Parker in scene from Failure to Launch, which earned $24.6 million this weekend

I forget who the other contenders are but none of them hold a candle to Matt because they haven’t got that deep-down emptiness, which is what it’s all about. Not a matter of craft or affability, but essence.
Here’s some of the reader commentary so far…
“All of McConaughey’s roles fit into one of two categories,” wrote Richard Swank. “He’s either ‘Happy Go Lucky Matt,’ playing a kind of blissed-out stoner that seems to be fairly close to his offscreen persona (Ed TV, Dazed & Confused, Failure to Launch), or he’s ‘Serious Matt,’ where he plays a toned-down version of same who’s a little more intense, but with no more depth ((U-571, A Time to Kill).
“However, there’s one exception that is so out-there that it turns the rule completely on its head: Reign of Fire. Seriously. It may be a goofy sci-fi b-movie about dragons, but McConaughey’s performance in it is so over-the-top, so obviously committed, that it really calls into question whether he has to be the crummy actor he is in everything else.”

McConaughey in Two for the Money

“McConauughey is Pauly Shore with better genes.” — Bill McCuddy, Fox News movie guy.
“McConaughey seems like an affable guy in real life, hosting the college football champion Longhorns and squiring the Ashley Judds around. However, like George Bush, he compensates for depth with a gigantic dose of Texas hubris. But women like him, and that’s the foundation of his popularity. And I agree with you about Don Johnson being just about the most vomitorious actor ever.” — Arizona Joe
“To me, Matthew McConaughey is the acting equivalent of a karaoke machine,” says Toronto Star critic Peter Howell. “The viewer projects into him what they want to get out, and the result is occasionally amusing, yet it always feels false. Remember that his fame started as a total fraud: a Vanity Fair cover when he’d done absolutely nothing to warrant such attention.”
“He’s the Bob Cummings of our age.” — Lewis Beale
Journalist James Sanford interviewed McConaughey during his Sahara tour “and found him to be a genuinely pleasant, dedicated and surprisingly insightful guy. If I had been able to look into the future to see Two for the Money and Failure to Launch at that time I would also have asked him why he has such bad taste in scripts, but what can you do?

“When I was a theater manager in 1994 and we were showing Dazed and Confused, I predicted he was going to become a major star — again and again people came out of that film asking who McConaughey was and what had he done before. He has a kind of effortless, laid-back cool that seems to drive women crazy. He can also be pretty funny (i.e., his crazed performance in Bill Murray’s Larger Than Life or the nutcase he played in the abominable Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But finding the right material for him seems to be difficult.
“It might be wiser to find projects for him that could challenge him to develop his dramatic skills. He also needs to work with a diction coach; he is also handicapped somewhat by his strong Texas accent, which makes absolutely no sense when he’s playing someone from Staten Island (How to Lose a Guy…) or Baltimore (Failure to Launch).
“One thing he definitely has going for him is honesty onscreen: For better or for worse, he can’t fake his emotions — as evidenced by his utter lack of chemistry with Sarah Jessica Parker (whom he reportedly did not get along with) in Launch.”
“I basically agree with you about McConaughey, but the guy pretty much gets a free pass from me because of Dazed and Confused . Hell, can you point to one minute in his career when Keanu Reeves was that fun to watch? And they still let him make movies. Maybe McConaughey should have packed it in after Dazed, knowing that he’d peaked and it was all going to be downhill from there.” — Phil Napoli, Clifton, NJ.