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Saturday, April 28, 2001

When the Rialto theater opened just over a year ago, I was happy to see a showcase for art films and foreign cinema come to my town. At first I was there every weekend, sometimes two or three times. Then I moved out to the country, and taking a few hours out of the day to see a movie became a rare occurrence.

There's no excuse for this, really. The theater isn't in the next county, and the Sebastopol Cinema near my house shows some of the same films (but not regularly). But I've felt isolated, or tied down, or something, out here, and I haven't gone to a movie by myself in months.

Today I went into town to see Himalaya, which I'd heard of only yesterday and knew nothing about. It sounded like something that should be seen on the big screen, though. The director is Eric Valli, who among other things is a National Geographic photographer, so the breathtaking scenes of mountain vistas were no surprise.

The story was a surprise, though. Mostly non-professional actors play Nepalese villagers, fictional versions of themselves, coping with a crisis of leadership when their chief is killed. A battle between the old guard and the young pretenders becomes a classic story of the painful transition from one generation to the next.

Two competing caravans of yaks head over the mountains to trade the villagers' salt for the grain they need to sustain them. One group is led by the aging father of the dead chief, the other by the chief's young assistant. The old man is bound by traditional ways but sustained by his knowledge of the mountains. His rival has the stamina and enthusiasm of youth but sets out with a brash overconfidence.

The long, difficult trek over steep rock and through blinding snow becomes a test of the resolve of both men and their followers. These proud people put as much pressure on themselves to succeed as the external conditions impose on them. In the end, survival depends on examining how much they are willing to take upon themselves, and how much they leave in the hands of fate.

Oddly enough, Billy Crystal's film 61*, shown for the first time on HBO tonight, explores similar emotional territory, in about as different a setting as you could imagine. Two men cope with their stressful job, which is equal parts competition between them and cooperation for the common good. They find that the more they work together, the closer they come to achieving their individual goals.

61* is a baseball movie, but only in the same sense that Himalaya is a yak caravan movie. It's based on a true story, the race between Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris for baseball's home run record. But that's just setting. It's background. If you don't know the ways of the mountain people, or the ways of baseball players, you learn a little while seeing these universal themes played out on the screen.

The portrayal of Maris and Mantle in Crystal's film is an affectionate one, and the conflicts between them are shown as less severe than the pressure each puts on himself. Mantle is the amiable superstar chosen by the fans as their favorite. Maris is the tightly-wound newcomer whom the press has tagged an interloper, unworthy of the record.

Part of the appeal of this film is in seeing how the public perception of these men differs from the reality. People don't want to know the truth, if it conflicts with their prejudices. The one baseball writer who doesn't pander to the general disdain for Maris stands out as heroic, in a sense, himself.

The courage to face down the demons is a common theme in both of the movies I watched today. Both show people at their worst, blinding themselves to the good and valuable traits of others. But both also show people at their best, putting aside pettiness to see that virtue triumphs.

yellow iris amongst the weeds

Now, I'm not saying that all films have to have an uplifting message. There's a place for crashes and explosions and lust and murder. I'm just saying that I like to leave a theater feeling hopeful for humanity. And maybe that's the real reason I haven't been to many movies lately.

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Latest recommendation:

Aimee, The Mombat Situation, entry for April 27

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