Reel Dad: BPM captures essence of social movements
by Jonathan Schumann
This week, Jonathan Schumann — who shared the “Take Two” movie review column with his “Reel Dad” Mark Schumann from 1999 to 2006 — returns to Arts and Leisure to review this featured selection at this year’s New York Film Festival.
Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), which captures the AIDS activist movement in Paris, feels like so much more than a film. This is a searing historical document that sheds light on a too often forgotten fight. It also captures the passion and idealism that drive social movements and acts of civil disobedience. This passion is the film’s beating heart, and that comes through with palpable exuberance, a bit like catching lightning in a bottle.
The film — originally titled in France as 120 Battements Par Minute — focuses on the Paris chapter of Act Up, the organization that fought the medical community and pharmaceutical industry to pay attention to the burgeoning AIDS crisis. There’s plenty of focus on the machinations of the movements and the art of protest. These scenes of disruption — storming the offices of a pharmaceutical company and smearing the walls with fake blood — capture the fierce will and moxie that standing up to institutional power demands. Even more impressive, though and what makes BPM so thrilling, are the scenes of joy and exuberance that bookend these protests. Also, the film is not short on sex or the dance floor.
Campillo eventually focuses in on two members of the movement, Sean (Sean Dalmazo), a veteran of the movement, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a newcomer. Sean is positive, Nathan isn’t, and as is often the case in gay love stories, they find love in an unlikely place. Their very human relationship — messy and passionate — helps center the film and reminds us that at the heart of any social movement are actual people, flawed as they may be, trying to make a difference. I’d argue this subject matter is particularly important in this cultural moment. Grassroots social movements are defining the Trump era — protests are officially the new brunch — and that truth makes the film feel all the more urgent.
It’s been quite a year for queer stories in film, the stately coming of age tale Call Me By Your Name and Beach Rats, which poignantly sketches the formation of sexual identity on the fringe of society, key among them. BPM is yet another vibrant addition to this growing tapestry.
Unlike these other films, though, the specter of death looms throughout BPM — how can it not? Far more commendable, however, is its full embrace and celebration of what it means to live.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center deserves a special shout-out for bringing this film to American shores and for prominently featuring it in this year’s New York Film Festival. Too often gems like this get lost in the shuffle, and organizations like FSLC do great work to bring exposure and due attention to these global voices.
Streaming Recommendation: How to Survive a Plague
In many ways, these films are perfect viewing companions. This film, a documentary about the early days of AIDS activism in New York from director David France, similarly captures the passion and at times reckless determination that drove protesters at the front lines of the ACT UP movement. It’s a crucial cultural document that is anything but a dull history lesson.
(BPM runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. It is in French and subtitled. Parents are cautioned for language, sex and nudity, alcohol, drugs and smoking. 5 popcorn buckets. The film does not have an MPAA rating.)
Gentleman’s agreement: Oscar-winning look at secrets and lies
By Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
As Robin Campillo’s BPM makes us think about how we approach social issues of this moment in time, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement inspired people to look at themselves and their barriers, more than 70 years ago.
After all, at any moment, people can be very closed minded about issues they know little about. Sometimes, people let their fear of others — especially those who may have the audacity to think, look or believe in unfamiliar ways — get in the way of any effort to understand. Some simply thrive in the disconnection that bias can create.
In the 1940’s, as difficult as it may be to believe today, the United States was filled with strong, negative sentiments about Jewish people. In cities, they were forced to live in certain areas; in professions, they were refused the opportunities of others. Even after the nation had fought a war against atrocities, many of which had targeted Jewish people in Europe, many in the United States refused to acknowledge the fundamental equality that our nation promises.
Gentleman’s Agreement puts you into the shoes and the life of a magazine writer who, for a story he is researching, pretends to be Jewish to learn how people will react. He quickly observes that the prejudice he has heard about is real. His girlfriend — who knows he is pretending to be Jewish — becomes frustrated when she can’t reveal the truth to her narrow-minded friends. All of a sudden he is no longer welcome at certain eating and lodging establishments. Even his closest friends begin to experience the bias against those who are friendly to Jewish people.
Director Elia Kazan, in a brave film for its time, refuses to artificially sweeten the message he intends to deliver. By placing the writer in everyday situations, Kazan makes us see the impact of day-to-day bias. Some beliefs are difficult to change. Even today, as much as people have progressed, Jewish people continue to experience prejudice. Some unfortunate traditions simply continue on their own momentum. Only with time have Jewish Americans been able to, slowly, shake off the prejudice that permeated the country. Today, other religious beliefs face the same challenge.
Despite its time frame — and the associated trappings of clothing and speech — Gentleman’s Agreement remains relevant. At its time it articulated a bias that many refused to acknowledge. Today, while the idea of bias against Jewish people seems outrageous, a similar film could be made, with the same plot, about the bias against Muslims or others of different faiths. While the target may change, too many in this country love to stand back and judge.
Gentleman’s Agreement — despite being made some 70 years ago — conveys a message as current as today’s headlines. While those of the Jewish faith may face less prejudice today, other religious and cultural groups experience the hatred of the uninformed every day. How tragic in a country so progressive in so many ways that we continue to let the judgmental, poorly informed voices of a few dominate the conversation. As long as we let the narrow define the conversation, we will get to say very little.
Gentleman’s Agreement, made in 1947, runs 1 hour, 58 minutes. It is available on DVD and streaming online. The film won three Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Elia Kazan) and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm).