Sunday, February 9, 2014


Some stories immediately grab you. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of them. It's about a couple dealing with the illness and eventual death of their child, a darling little girl named Maybelle (after Maybelle Carter, the country singer). The story of parents losing a child is a staple of the cinema going back many years.  Somehow, the characters in this Dutch film make it seem like we're seeing bereaved parents for the first time.

The couple is Didier and Elise. He's a bluegrass singer. She's a tattoo artist. At first glance they could have come out of a trashy American movie about pick-up trucks and meth labs, but they're in Brussels. He loves all things American, especially the Appalachians, where his favorite music was born.  She gazes at him fondly as he rhapsodizes about music. She falls in love with him. She joins his band. They literally make beautiful music together. They're a great couple: he's bearlike with a sly humor; she's a sexy minx. They marry.

We see the subtle differences between them. He's practical. Underneath his clownish exterior, he's gruff, not one for daydreams. Elise, beneath her tattoos and rebellious persona, wants simple things and simple pleasures. When birds crash into their front window and die, she places decals of giant crows on the glass, hoping to ward off other birds. Didier tries to explain that this is only a short term fix, and that birds are too stupid to understand that glass is not something they can fly through. They argue over whether the bird decals will be useful or not. It's a funny scene, but bittersweet; a bird had died earlier in front of Maybelle, bringing her to tears.  The sight of her running away, clutching the dead bird in her hands, is one of the film's many haunting images.

Felix Van Groeningen's film moves around in time. We see much of the sadness early, so we know what will happen to this couple. We know early on that little Maybelle isn't long for the world. Watching Didier and Elise try to make the best of it is what breaks our hearts. They're good parents. They're good people. You hope the death of their daughter doesn't tear them apart, but you sense it will.

The movie knows more about couples than most movies do. It knows that even the strongest bonds can be torn. When Didier and Elise start to fray, you're disappointed, but you'll nod, yes, this was expected. When Elise starts throwing accusing barbs at Didier, you want to call her a bitch, but you understand where her pain comes from. When Didier loses his temper at a concert and begins railing at American politicians and the religious right for delaying stem cell research, you want him to stop, but you know where his pain comes from, too.

It's so refreshing to watch a film that doesn't feel like it was plucked from a Sears catalog of plots. The characters in The Broken Circle Breakdown look like people you might see downtown, or in the darkness of your local pub.  Didier is a middle-aged man, but his passion for all things American and his love of music makes him seem like a teenager. Johan Heldenbergh plays Didier at a low boil. He's amiable, and has a disarming grin, but we learn of his bad side, his drinking and his stubbornness. As Elise, Veerle Baetens makes an incredible leap from fiery vixen to distraught mom. If they were Americans, they'd be worthy of Academy Award nominations.  Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle is like an angel fallen to Earth to momentarily grace us with her presence. Even the members of Didier's band,  onscreen only fleetingly, seem like fully developed characters. How did they do it?

A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, is the first documentary by Esther Robinson. It combines 16 MM footage shot by her uncle, Danny Williams, a filmmaker who drifted through the Andy Warhol circle for a time in the 1960s, and interviews with people who knew him in those days, including Warhol's manager Paul Morrissey, former Factory gadfly turned poet Gerard Malanga, and musician John Cale of the Velvet Underground.  The topic of discussion is Williams' mysterious disappearance. After leaving the Warhol clique, he returned to his family home in Rockport, MA. One night he drove  out to a local beach and was never seen again.  Did he go for a late night swim and drown? Was it, as some in the film surmise, a late night rendezvous gone horribly wrong? Did he simply lose his footing on the rocks, fall into the ocean, and struggle futilely as he was carried out to sea? 

Williams was a shy, Harvard educated 26-year-old with some talent as a filmmaker. The clips shown here are stunning, slow motion experiments with various Factory members as his subjects, including Warhol. Williams was allegedly Warhol's lover for a while. One would think the combination of his talent and the fact that Warhol took him on as a boyfriend would've meant an upward career trajectory, but as one of the Factory members recalls, Williams arrived looking like a neat preppy, and left the place a full-blown drug user with broken glasses. Warhol's circle, made up of insecure, jealous types, ate the guy up and spit him out. 

Returning home wasn't fun, either. As depicted in the film, Williams' mother is a hard nut. She doesn't hide her disdain for having an effeminate son, holding up various photos of him and labeling each as soft or submissive-looking. She stops short of blaming Williams for allowing himself to be dominated. "Domination is evil," she says. Then, like clockwork, one of her relatives describes her as dominating. Williams' brother is interviewed, too. He seems unsteady, full of secrets and hallucinations. I can't pinpoint the exact problem within Williams' family, but they aren't a lovable bunch. 

If Williams' family seems odd, the Warhol group is downright off-putting. There's a snide attitude about them. They either can't remember anything, or they act as if Williams should've known better than to invade their little group. Some of them do admit they they weren't always nice to him, and some admit that he was a very talented young man. Did Warhol treat him badly? Sure, but Andy treated everyone badly, so it seems. 

Warhol comes off horribly in the movie, and by the end I started thinking of him as a Charles Manson type of guru, surrounding himself with half-wits and gullible hippies, feeding them a bunch of nonsense about art and stardom. The only person who comes off well is Cale, who has no reason to protect the people he describes as "insecure." Unlike the others interviewed, he doesn't act like he was too high to see what was happening. He describes Warhol as a manipulator and a crook. Naturally, the Warhol apologists come to his rescue, saying that he grew up poor and loved money, but Cale is too smart to swallow those bromides. He's also astute when he suggests the various scenarios people ascribe to Williams' death is actually the way they themselves would like to die. For instance, if a person thinks Williams simply walked out to sea and drowned, that's their own romanticized death-wish. 

Me? I imagined Danny Williams simply parked his car, and disappeared, changing his name and starting over somewhere else, just to get away from his family and everyone else who had mistreated him. Cale's right. That's what I'd do, too.

Robinson gives A Walk Into the Sea a slow, macabre beat, as if we're onlookers at a late night car accident. I wish there'd been a bit more about Williams' childhood. What sort of kid was he? That's just a quibble, though. I particularly enjoyed the clips from Williams' films. It's not an exaggeration to say he had more style and vision than the Factory's other "filmmakers." Meanwhile, filmmaker Albert Maysles is particularly moving as he reminisces about the time he hired Williams as an editor, marveling at the skills of the young man. Williams was only 22 when he was hired by Maysles, but obviously left an impression. 

This film was released in 2007,  won some minor awards, including a Silver Plaque Special Jury Prize at the Chicago film festival, and then went down the rabbit hole where all festival docs seem to go. It was shown recently in Rockport as part of a local artist series. I'm glad I had a chance to see it. It's well-done. Robinson, who went on to produce other documentaries, made A Walk Into The Sea to give her uncle a voice after all these years. She did that, and also shined a light on Warhol and his group. They come off badly, you know. I couldn't stand 'em.

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