Friday, February 13, 2009

Does the Movie Matter (when it is screened to benefit a good cause)?

John Leguizamo, as Frank Diaz, and David Castro as the son, Justin, in "Where God Left His Shoes."

On February 18, the film "Where God Left His Shoes" will be screened at The Crest theater on K Street to benefit Faith and Homeless Families Initiate, "a 2009 pilot program of the Ending Chronic Homelessness Initiative [which will match] ... homeless families with faith communities to mentor and help them obtain self-sufficiency and permanent housing."

Now, this new initiate of an initiate is very very likely to do good work for a good cause, efficiently and effectively rising to its ambitions, helping many homeless Sacramento families.

The little-seen arthouse film to be screened to raise money for the pilot initiative has gotten mostly good reviews [5 of 7 reviewers at call it Fresh, whereas only two give it a thumbs-down Rotten rating.] And even in the bad reviews I've read, star John Leguizamo's performance is bountifully lauded. But I do think it troubling that the film -- about homelessness, raising funds for a homelessness cause -- is denounced by reviewers for presenting homelessness inauthentically.

The Village Voice review ends with these almost-indeciferable words, "the movie's vérité is diluted by a cozy, adult-contemporary empathy with those less fortunate that left me hearing 'Another Day in Paradise.'"

Variety says the movie "piles the pathos high as if to see how many hard-luck cliches its pugilist hero can fend off without succumbing to schmaltz."

Slant magazine ends its positive two-star review with this sentence: "It's cheap emotional manipulation for a topic that needs none: The Bicycle Thief for the Starbucks generation."

The New York Times' review of the movie begins with these words: "A fishy odor of unearned sanctimony clings to 'Where God Left His Shoes,' Salvatore Stabile’s queasy-making drama about a homeless New York family seeking shelter on a snowy Christmas Eve." And goes on to say, "The bureaucratic hurdles [the main character] encounters are real enough, but [his family], who are neither illegal immigrants nor drug abusers and who apparently have no relatives or friends on whom to lean, come across as much more helpless and victimized than they would actually be in such a situation."

Only Film-Forward demurs, writing that the protagonist's "plight is so realistic and the film’s reflection of our economic problems so devastating and direct, we can’t help but be deeply touched."

The movie did win a prestigeous award at Sundance, the 2007 Humanitas Prize. According to the Humanitas Prize website, the prize "honors stories that affirm the dignity of the human person, probe the meaning of life, and enlighten the use of human freedom." All that is all to the good, but perhaps veracity isn't an element that the prize-awarding committee values, even in a fictional film presented as being real or possible.

For us who live in Homeless World, getting news out there about the truth of our situation is of high value. Sentimental or phony or hyped depictions of homelessness can only add to the general misimpression of what life is like "out here."

I'm not meaning to criticize anyone, exactly. I mean, What can you do? The Community Services Planning Council and the folks of Ending Chronic Homelessness are wanting to raise funds and the film producers made "Where God Left His Shoes" available for that effort. The movie is well-regarded and seemingly a perfect fit to the ideals of anything called the Faith and Homeless Families Initiative.

It remains that presentations of the true nature of homeless life continue to be rare, overwhelmed by what is hyped, extreme and sentimentalized.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this movie, and it is truly wonderful. The only "unrealistic" depiction of homelessness in this movie is the fact that men were able to stay in the same homeless shelter as women and children. Apart from that, this is the same type of story that takes place all too often to too many people. It's worth a watch.

February 13, 2009 at 11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's seems curious to quote the NY Times in this context since, essentially, the reviewer says that if you are not mentally ill or a drug addict you should be able to help yourself out of homelessness. To those who have experienced homelessness, is that amore "truthful" depiction than in the movie.

My suggestion to this blogger is to see the movie before criticizing it. Otherwise you are just reviewing reviews - which as opinion pieces have no obligation to be objective or truthful.

February 14, 2009 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Anon 1: OK; fair enough. I hope to see the film if it plays in town, at regular prices.

Anon 2: The Times reviewer DOES NOT say what you say he essentially says. External reviews listed at IMDB are repleat with 'authenticity' criticism of the film.

Reviewers MOST CERTAINLY have a journalist's obligation to be fully truthful and fair.

Also, the blogpost asks a question, that I think is worth thinking about. Basically, it alights on the idea that organizations serving homeless needs have an obligation they may be neglecting of bringing to the public very valid depictions of homelessness.

Frankly, the trailer for the film is very suspicious by itself. It presents the movie as playing on viewers' heartstrings; not as insight into the homeless condition.

February 14, 2009 at 2:25 PM  

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