Festival shifts into gear with two spectacular and entertaining films

April 05, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'American Dream,' 'Life and Nothing But' When: "American Dream," 9:15 tonight; "Life and Nothing But," p.m. tomorrow.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art.

Tickets: $7 for "Dream," which includes reception; $20 ($18 for BFF members) for "Life and Nothing But," including a champagne and gourmet reception afterward.

Call: 889-1993 for information on these and other screenings.

The Baltimore Film Festival does itself proud this weekend with two brilliant films, Barbara Kopple's "American Dream" and Bertrand Tarvernier's magnificent "Life and Nothing But."

The Kopple film is epic in scope, but dramatic, not didactic, in approach. It follows -- or rather it penetrates, to an extraordinary degree -- a brutal, grinding six-year labor dispute in Austin, Minn., during the '80s.

Anybody who's ever been through a strike will suffer instant deja vu so vividly does Kopple plunge us into the heart of that darkness. It's a sadly resonant situation: the Hormel Corporation asked workers in its Austin plant to absorb a voluntary pay reduction from $10.69 an hour to less than $7, while the company itself was making record profits. But at the same time, the union local, P-9, had been itself overtaken by a militant wing and had even gone so far as to hire an outside "consultant" to guide the group through the dispute on a broader front (that is, utilizing extensive public relations techniques) and then, if necessary, through a strike. Meanwhile, the International counseled against a strike.

It was the season of hardball, and when hardball is played, it's the little people who get crushed (you could ask the Kurds, but that's another story). Kopple's camera gets so deep into this complex tragedy and with such precision and dignity it's truly stunning. And while her sympathies are definitely leftist, there's nothing dishonest or cheap about the shots she takes. The men in suits get their chance to talk; they convict themselves out of their own mouths. (It recently won an Academy Award for best documentary feature.)

(Kopple and Cathy Caplan, one of the film's editors and a former Baltimorean, will appear to discuss the film.)

* "Life and Nothing But" is most reminiscent of another great French film on the subject of war which showed no battle. Like "The Grand Illusion," "Life" is a threnody, a meditation on death. It is actually set in the culture of death, melancholy enough, but crushingly so when amplified 1.5 million times.

That number, of course, is the number of French deaths in World War I, a figure made more absurd by the utter frivolity of the deaths; it was a generation thrown away to settle a quarrel among cousins who just happened to be kings. But such slaughter breeds, of necessity, logistical nightmares. After the war, France was literally buried under bodies; meanwhile, the living sought information on the dead.

Square in the middle of this uniquely modern dilemma we find Major Delaplane, played with grace and dignity by the brilliant Phillipe Noiret. The major is a casualty officer, faced with the daunting task of trying to locate the close to 300,000 missing-in-action, from a collection of body parts, skeletons and personal effects.

Yet as time passes -- the film is set in 1920, two years after the war -- there are pressures to commemorate the dead and move on. It is one extraordinary strength of the film that it finds scandal at the heart of a national icon by suggesting that the "unknown soldier" conceit, so beloved by the French and so imitated by us, was a scam: It was a way of forgetting about the corpses and turning the land to profitable use (op cit, Tony Richardson's "The Loved One," where Rod Steiger shouts, "Get those stiffs off my land!").

Fighting considerable pressures from above, Delaplane represents what little survived of civilized decency: He wants to give the dead their due. In his struggle, he also rediscovers his own life. It's a great movie.

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