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Culture Documentary

Samuel Goldwyn Films


Samuel Goldwyn Films

Documentary

Exporting Raymond

How do you adapt a U.S.

In American comedy, wives are scolds and husbands are hapless. In Exporting Raymond, Phil Rosenthal-executive producer of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond-introduces to Russia the harried Debra and henpecked Raymond Romano. As Rosenthal advises a Russian network on how to adapt the sitcom, he struggles to find a way to retain the premise-the squabbles of a disputatious but loving multigenerational family-and rework it for a different culture.

Hunkered in an endearingly ugly sheepskin coat, he treks through the bleak Moscow landscape and the dank halls of the Russian studio. Rosenthal befriends his driver, a Soviet military veteran, and he thaws a rigidly coiffed costume designer who insists all Russian wives do housework while wearing cashmere and stilettos. When Rosenthal interviews a curator who venerates Britney Spears as the best American pop culture offers, we get a sense of the obstacles Rosenthal faces.

The documentary has warm and funny moments, but some of these moments seem disconnected and the film ends up feeling stretched thin. Meanwhile, the show's central question-is Raymond universal?-remains unsatisfactorily answered. Rosenthal persists in believing that his view of the family is a universal one, but the Russians keep insisting that their men are more macho than Raymond and their own families do not share the Romanos' bickering power struggle. Rosenthal may be right, but I left the film wishing he'd explored the nuances of Russian family life more deeply.

Rosenthal has his querulous and distracted moments, but he heroically battles all cheesy fare and struggles to communicate the idea of a sitcom that exaggerates real life but is also recognizable as real life. As he tries to resolve his creative differences by befriending his detractors, it's hard not to love him. Just like everybody-maybe even in Russia-loves the character he created.

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Marc Valessela/IFC Films


Marc Valessela/IFC Films

Documentary

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France

In a film that blends paleontological wonders with existential pondering, Cave of Forgotten Dreams asks the question, "What constitutes humanness?" German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France, where researchers say they have found the earliest known cave paintings. The charcoal paintings etched on the curved walls of the cave-some say from 32,000 B.C., others say 10,000 B.C.-look as though someone scratched them there last week.

A landslide sealed the cave thousands of years ago, creating a perfectly preserved time capsule until explorers discovered it in 1994. Only a few scientists are allowed inside, and Herzog labored under a set of strict rules to preserve the cave's delicate environment. He had to use battery-powered cameras and lights that did not give off heat. The film crew was forbidden to step off a 2-foot-wide walkway and could only stay in the cave for a few hours at a time. Despite the logistical difficulties, the film is a cinematic tour de force. Herzog uses light and shadow to create the illusion of a flickering torch on a cave wall, just as the painters would have seen it long ago. The filming elevates 3D to true artistry, giving shape and depth to the curves and contours of the cave wall. The paintings are more fluid and full of life and movement than medieval paintings thousands of years later.

There's a sense that these ancestors were not the hulking, empty-headed cavemen often portrayed but souls with the urge to communicate and represent the wonders of their world. The paleontologists and archaeologists approach the paintings with awe, dreaming about the lives and hopes of the people who created them. "It is," says narrator Herzog, "as if the modern human soul had awakened here."

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Michael Buckner/Getty Images


Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Documentary

I Am

The most engaging element of the film is writer/director Tom Shadyac's personal backstory

If the name Tom Shadyac doesn't ring a bell, chances are the names of his movies will. Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty, and Patch Adams are a just a few of the films that have earned the writer/director enormous commercial if not critical success. His latest movie, I Am, is a documentary that seeks to determine what's wrong with the world and what can fix it. It marks a radical departure from his previous work.

The most engaging element of the film (not rated) is Shadyac's personal backstory. After a biking accident left him depressed and in constant pain, the multimillionaire realized that private jets, palatial homes, and hobnobbing with fabulous film-industry elite didn't bring the satisfaction he thought they would, so he set out to find a more meaningful way of life.

Shadyac is sincere (in the end, he sold most of his stuff and moved into a trailer park), but once he moves past his own experiences, the answers he offers by way of liberal luminaries like Howard Zinn, Desmond Tutu, and Noam Chomsky dig no deeper than '60s-era sloganeering, with capitalism set up as a cancer. Observations like "Accumulation of private property is considered a mental illness among indigenous cultures," and "Nothing else in nature takes more than it needs" might excite the average poli-sci sophomore, but isn't likely to move reasonable adults who've had, well, any experience with real life.

This isn't to say that Shadyac doesn't make some valid points that Western Christians in particular should confront. Conflating the American dream with Christianity has brought us to a place where enormously popular pastors of enormously populated churches teach that the blessings of heaven always manifest themselves as material wealth-not exactly the stuff of picking up crosses and dying to self.

The film's most profound insight, which ironically inspired its title, undercuts Shadyac's argument that humans possess cooperative, empathetic, essentially good natures. With two simple words G.K. Chesterton sums up our collective sin nature that prevents this earth from becoming the utopia Shadyac and his experts envision. Asked by a London newspaper in 1908 what's wrong with the world, he answered simply-"I am."

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