Thursday, September 17, 2009

ON DVD: SUGAR

You don't have to be from the Dominican Republic in order to detect a cloud of phoniness lingering over Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Welcome to America" fable Sugar, you just have to have lived outside of your bubble for a learned period of time. In viewing their contrived films, I suspect that both Boden and Fleck have yet to open themselves up to such an enriching experience.

The title character in the duo's follow-up to Half Nelson is a MLB minor-leaguer who originated from the Dominican developmental baseball leagues. What Boden and Fleck end up doing with Sugar (aka Miguel Santos), and his big league ballpark aspirations, is use him as a pawn in their cynical plan to squash the "American dream" ideal of the wide-eyed immigrant. However, what Sugar's patronizing let-me-tell-your-story-for-you approach ultimately ends up arguing in favor of is a segregated America. This isn't deliberate, mind you. Boden and Fleck aren't bigots. It's simply the end result of soft-headed white guilt filmmaking, a point-of-view that allegorizes Single-A baseball life with modern day slave labor and subtly portrays fly-over America as an unwelcoming region (yawn).

Sugar opens on the sunrise glow of a baseball field in the Dominican Republic. Moving to scenes within the home that Sugar shares with his mother, brother, and sister (who argue over watching American Idol vs. baseball... two multi-racial institutions that portray a post-racial America greater than Boden and Fleck would ever feign to), interiors and faces are lit with a rich and hopeful glow. Colors bounce off cement walls in the night streets like a well-photographed and hip Levi's commercial. That gets contrasted with the stale, old farm house of an elderly Iowan couple who temporarily house Sugar during his stint at the Bridgetown affiliate. In the Iowa climate, Sugar's hopeful aesthetic sheen is now gone. Check the way Boden and Fleck shoot Sugar at the dinner table with the couple and their extended family. The distance between Sugar and his hosts - sitting stiff in straight-back wooden chairs - is palpable and uncomfortable. When the old man addresses Sugar, it comes out in loud, drawn-out syllables as if he's communicating with a child. Oh yes, behind that camera, the condescension is dripping.

It is only when Sugar makes his way to New York, and houses up with a Puerto Rican couple, that he appears refreshed and once again "at home": lively, spirited, smiley. Here at the dinner table, Sugar and hosts are shot from tight angles and in close quarters, their body language giving off feelings of warmth and acceptance. The rich aroma from Sugar's Dominican home life has returned.

Had Boden and Fleck portrayed Sugar's new American experience as a mix of cultural clashes and awakenings from Iowa on into New York, then Sugar might have been relevant. Instead, the filmmakers erect convenient, prejudicial walls where they see fit. Sugar gets turned away or rejected at almost every corner in Iowa... often by corn-fed white males, of course. He catches angry looks in a night club, racial slurs from a batter, trepidation from some teens, grief from a coach, discipline from the elderly couple, mixed messages from a girl who rejects his kiss (she only wanted to get close to him so she could recruit him for Jesus). The only true companionship offered to Sugar, while in Bridgetown, comes from fellow ballplayer Brad Johnson, who is black. In Sugar's most cringe-worthy moment, Brad leans over to Sugar on the team bus and asks him if he's into hipster rock heroes TV On The Radio. Yeesh.

Right now, our world is ripe for thoughtful films about the immigrant experience. But Boden and Fleck come at this topic like a pair who have solely used ZNet commentary to equip their artistic affronts, not two open hearts with a genuine perspective to match Sugar's tone of realism. Pop that bubble, guys.

14 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you another Jason and Fox debate. Enjoy ...

Fox: Though I recognize your angle of approach and thus understand some of your conclusions, I think your reading here is limiting and ignores evidence to the contrary. In other words, while your comments point out flaws in Sugar, I think you've also reduced the film to its flaws, as if the rest doesn't exist.

Some specific replies ...

* ...cynical plan to squash the "American dream" ideal of the wide-eyed immigrant...

No offense meant by this, but I'd say your reading of the film is more cynical than the film's reading of the immigrant experience. By "squash" the ideal, what do you mean? If you mean that the film underlines the hardships that come from leaving one's family to take residence in a foreign country, well, I agree with you. But I don't see anything cynical about that. It's not saying "America sucks." It's saying "uprooting from your native land isn't easy."

* ...what Sugar's patronizing let-me-tell-your-story-for-you approach ultimately ends up arguing in favor of is a segregated America...

Yes and no. Certainly the film doesn't create the picture (illusion?) that America is the happy melting pot like we like to say it is. But in reality isn't America largely segregated? Isn't that true? Over time the hatred or distrust behind that segregation has dramatically reduced, yes. And thank goodness. But, in the end, I think it's safe to say that often blacks, whites, Latinos, etc, gravitate toward one another within their race groups.

Speaking from personal experience: For almost 10 years I worked in college and pro athletics and while I never spotted racial tension in any locker room, yeah, the black guys tended to hang with the black guys and the white guys tended to hang with the white guys. There were exceptions, of course. Always exceptions. But portraying this habit of rushing to what's familiar is reflecting what is, not advocating what should be.

* ...When the old man addresses Sugar, it comes out in loud, drawn-out syllables as if he's communicating with a child. Oh yes, behind that camera, the condescension is dripping...

My problem with the portrayal of the host family is that their behavior suggests they hadn't hosted anyone before (they seem new at this), when in fact they were regular hosts. So the first knock is a fair point. But your 'dripping condescension' remark ignores that the host family and the baseball coach who gives Sugar "grief" are routinely portrayed as welcoming, warm, understanding, supportive and forgiving. When the daughter has the misunderstanding with Sugar, she feels uncomfortable; it's an honest mistake made from a desire to be welcoming. Meantime, Sugar is hardly portrayed as some model of perfect behavior. I think this movie is, on the whole, very fair to all sides. Perhaps even too fair. (That coach is REALLY patient.)

* Had Boden and Fleck portrayed Sugar's new American experience as a mix of cultural clashes and awakenings from Iowa on into New York, then Sugar might have been relevant...

On this one I'm not sure what you mean. Isn't that what Sugar is? Isn't it a mix of cultural clashes and awakenings? How is it not that? Earlier you seem to be arguing that there are too many cultural clashes, so I'm just confused by that line as it relates to the rest.

But I'm sure you'll enlighten me. Looking forward to it.

Fox said...

Hi Jason-

To not make such a lengthy comment, I'll respond to you in two separate posts:

By "squash" the ideal, what do you mean? If you mean that the film underlines the hardships that come from leaving one's family to take residence in a foreign country, well, I agree with you. But I don't see anything cynical about that. It's not saying "America sucks." It's saying "uprooting from your native land isn't easy."...

Sugar doesn't underline the hardships of immigrants (for that, I would point to recent films like Lorna's Silence and Take Out), it uses an immigrant (ie Sugar) to mock what Boden and Fleck see as false hopes and dreams set up by American Idol et al. They don't care about Sugar, they care about their political agenda.

Moreover, it's insulting for the filmmakers to even assume in the first place that an immigrant coming to America wouldn't understand that the transition won't be easy. Sugar and his teammates arrive at spring training to pornography and soda (ie milk and honey), thinking that they've landed on easy street. This is culturally arrogant of Boden and Fleck to paint the immigrants in such a naive light.

Yes and no. Certainly the film doesn't create the picture (illusion?) that America is the happy melting pot like we like to say it is. But in reality isn't America largely segregated? Isn't that true? Over time the hatred or distrust behind that segregation has dramatically reduced, yes. And thank goodness. But, in the end, I think it's safe to say that often blacks, whites, Latinos, etc, gravitate toward one another within their race groups....

I don't disagree with your comment, but what I have a problem with is that Sugar ends up as a film that argues for segregation as a solution. I think that's dangerous.

We have too many signs of our country's various cultures and races combining and influencing each other (we have a multi-racial president, afterall) to still be obsessed with the backwards idea that we all need to stay apart in order to function and be happy.

Yes, people of the same race gravitate towards each other, but they also co-exist and function outside of that in larger society (at work, at events, at restaurants, at parks etc.). Sugar shows that Sugar is either an outcast or victim of prejudice in almost every aspect of his Iowan life. That's silly. That's a point-of-view of someone who hasn't been outside their bubble.

Fox said...

My problem with the portrayal of the host family is that their behavior suggests they hadn't hosted anyone before (they seem new at this), when in fact they were regular hosts. So the first knock is a fair point. But your 'dripping condescension' remark ignores that the host family and the baseball coach who gives Sugar "grief" are routinely portrayed as welcoming, warm, understanding, supportive and forgiving. When the daughter has the misunderstanding with Sugar, she feels uncomfortable; it's an honest mistake made from a desire to be welcoming. Meantime, Sugar is hardly portrayed as some model of perfect behavior. I think this movie is, on the whole, very fair to all sides. Perhaps even too fair. (That coach is REALLY patient.)...

I think that's fair of you to mention that the host family is warm, because they are (the dish washing scene comes to mind), but some of their interaction with Sugar still struck me as Boden and Fleck wanting to portray the old couple as being your stereotypical, white, midwestern parochial caretakers. This especially gets played up when their daughter gets all Bible high n' mighty with Sugar.

I think Boden and Fleck try to sneak their condescencion (and cultural superiority) in in subtle ways. In the basement party scene, for example, we are led to believe that Sugar is just going to a party with a cute white girl that has been innocently flirty with him. But then Boden and Fleck play the scene like Sugar has been set up, that the big reveal is that this is a "Jesus meeting". Oh no! I find that stuff to be really cheap.

On this one I'm not sure what you mean. Isn't that what Sugar is? Isn't it a mix of cultural clashes and awakenings? How is it not that? Earlier you seem to be arguing that there are too many cultural clashes, so I'm just confused by that line as it relates to the rest....

My point was that Sugar was just a film of clashes. Any wondermint that Sugar had of coming to a new place, of being in MLB spring training, got wiped away by all of the negative aspects that kept hitting him at every turn (that is, until he "segregates" himself in New York).

Because Sugar is set up as a "welcome to America" tale as opposed to a slice-of-life of the immigrant experience (as Lorna's Silence or Take Out are, which is why their primary focus on struggle works), there needed to be more of a mixed bag of ups and downs... not just downs, because then you're not getting at a truth, you're just furthering a political or social agenda.

Which just takes me back to my suspicious feeling that Boden and Fleck don't really care about the character of Sugar or the immigrant experience as much as they care about squashing what they see as a social falsehood.

Jason Bellamy said...

My turn ...

They don't care about Sugar, they care about their political agenda.

There's not much to argue here because I just flat disagree. I think they "care" about Sugar very much. If all you see is political agenda, well, I don't know what to say. I've seen Lorna's Silence. Do I think that film "cares" more about its character than Sugar does about its character? Not at all. My only observation is this: Any film can be nothing but political agenda if you decide that's what it is.

It's insulting for the filmmakers to even assume in the first place that an immigrant coming to America wouldn't understand that the transition won't be easy.

I'll give you this one. But here's the problem: I don't think Sugar is wildly unrealistic in its depiction. So, yes, the film uses many realistic instances of culture shock and throws them all on to one character, thus exaggerating the norm. But I don't think it's an unfair exaggeration, frankly. At least, if Sugar is unfair it has a heck of a lot of company.

...what I have a problem with is that Sugar ends up as a film that argues for segregation as a solution. I think that's dangerous. We have too many signs of our country's various cultures and races combining and influencing each other.

Indeed, we do. And we also have signs of our country's various cultures and races feeling most comfortable within those groups. So, what's a filmmaker to do? Are you telling me that Sugar's experience is that unimaginable? Why must Sugar portray the ideal? Is Lorna's experience in Lorna's Silence representative of the whole the she represents? Of course not. If Sugar represents one existing version of the truth, why must that be pure political agenda or advocacy for segregation?

Sugar shows that Sugar is either an outcast or victim of prejudice in almost every aspect of his Iowan life. That's silly.

I just want to underline that there is an enormous difference between being an outsider and being a victim of prejudice. The film begins with Sugar not knowing how to order anything other than French toast. Then a waitress helps him out. Victim? Not at all. Outsider? Yeah. The vast majority of Sugar's encounters are about being an outsider. Victim? Very rarely.

More comments coming ..

Jason Bellamy said...

I think Boden and Fleck try to sneak their condescension (and cultural superiority) in in subtle ways.

I don't want to say that this is untrue. Because I think you're correct. However, what I'm trying to argue is that you've taken offense at what you think is condescension and applied it to everything that Sugar does, thus overlooking the vast number of things that aren't condescending at all. Hence our debate.

My point was that Sugar was just a film of clashes. Any wondermint that Sugar had of coming to a new place, of being in MLB spring training, got wiped away by all of the negative aspects that kept hitting him at every turn (that is, until he "segregates" himself in New York)... there needed to be more of a mixed bag of ups and downs... not just downs, because then you're not getting at a truth, you're just furthering a political or social agenda.

OK. I mean, I disagree, obviously, that the film is this one-sided, but I understand the point you're making. Without repeating myself too much, I will note that Lorna'a Silence ain't exactly the most uplifting movie of the year either.

Little more still left ...

Jason Bellamy said...

Touching on a few things from above, a personal story:

A few years ago, as part of my job at the time, I was in weekly contact with an NFL player who spent the summer in NFL Europe (when there still was an NFL Europe). He called me every week to describe the experience of playing overseas, and I transcribed it for an online journal.

To be clear: this was an educated guy. Well-spoken. Thoughtful. Not a live-under-a-rock kind of guy by any means.

His team was based in Germany, and every week I talked to him he described the struggle. He hated the food; got excited when he could find a McDonald's. Because he hated the food, he admitted that he often hung around with his teammates at the training facility rather than enjoy is free time by seeing Germany.

He longed for Ketchup. He missed his family. He was one of the best players in NFL Europe that season and he knew it was important for his development, and yet he generally dreaded the entire experience. I was hardly close with the guy, but I could tell he genuinely enjoyed our conversations -- just an opprotunity to connect with someone 'back home.'

This was a guy going from the States to Europe, where I think we're safe in saying that it's easier to find people who speak English than it is to find people in America who speak Spanish.

The entire time the guy was in Europe, he felt like an outsider. When I watched Sugar, I thought of him.

Just saying.

Fox said...

Jason-

Thanks for the back-and-forth...

Yeah, we can argue until we're blue in the face over whether Boden and Fleck care for Sugar more than their political agenda, or even if they have an agenda, but it's hard to argue something like that, something that is a gut feeling or an ingrained sensibility in us.

I will say that I didn't feel that sense of agenda in Lorna's Silence, because I felt the Dardenne's were focused on the experience of Lorna, while Boden and Fleck were trying to make a wider picture about the "welcome to America" experience. Now this doesn't mean that politics and class and culture don't come into play in Lorna's Silence, because I think they do, it's just not the focus, and I appreciated that.

I should also say that I generally enjoy the way filmmakers from Europe and the Middle East handle politics versus the way many American filmmakers do. We can explore why that is another time, perhaps, but I thought I would through it out there for perspective.

I'll give you this one. But here's the problem: I don't think Sugar is wildly unrealistic in its depiction. So, yes, the film uses many realistic instances of culture shock and throws them all on to one character, thus exaggerating the norm. But I don't think it's an unfair exaggeration, frankly. At least, if Sugar is unfair it has a heck of a lot of company....

The unfair exaggeration, to me, was the variance between Iowa and New York. Sorry, but it came off as East Coast elitism. Sure, there is more of a Latino culture in NYC than in the heart of Iowa, but I still think showing that Sugar so easily melds in with vibes and rhythms of NYC virtually overnight isn't particularly honest.

I just want to underline that there is an enormous difference between being an outsider and being a victim of prejudice. The film begins with Sugar not knowing how to order anything other than French toast. Then a waitress helps him out. Victim? Not at all. Outsider? Yeah. The vast majority of Sugar's encounters are about being an outsider. Victim? Very rarely....

Your point about the waitress is a good one, and it's noted, but I still see Sugar being portrayed as victim more than outsider. Examples: the brutes in the dance club; the batter calling him and (blank) "Puerto Rican"; the Jesus group; the daughter's rejection/seduction (non-sexual) of Sugar in general.

And why do Fleck and Boden only have the black player as the one who reaches out to Sugar? Sure, they are two minorities in a primarily white area, but come on, are we to really beliebe that no other player on the team makes and effort?

Fox said...

On your story about the athelete...

I don't doubt that many people might have that same experience, or that I might have the same as well, but there are two things I'd like to say to that.

1. I think a powerful film could be made about the kind of story you describe if it were in the proper hands (I bring up Take Out again, as an example of a well done film that focuses on a Chinese immigrant who indeed wishes he was back home in China rather than in the US). I know I sound like a broken record, but I think the major flaw with Sugar is that its makers want it to be about the "welcome to America" experience, and the crushing of the expectations that come along with that, instead of about the immigant's (ie Sugar's) experience. Further, they are painting perceptions of Iowa and Iowans and life in the midwest as they go along.

2. There are real experiences, and then there experiences expressed in art. Your friend's experiences are real, but how they would be pushed out into the world through art - either through your pen, or through a filmic recreation - also depends and relies on the experiences and opinions of the person creating that art. This is why we have biased journalism.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, because I believe in the autuer, and I beliebe in and value commentary as a very high form of stimulation.

What I think I'm trying to say here is that, yes, showing self-segregation in a film is fine. It's to be expected. But it's how that truism is portrayed and handled that ultimately matters more. In Sugar, I think Boden and Fleck end up arguing that segregation and the segmenting off of cultures is the solution to a new immigrants unhappiness. While that may be true in instances, I don't find it to be very compelling or moving basis for a work of art. In fact, I think it's kind of sad and disheartening, especially when it comes with uplift, as it does at the end of Sugar.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good thoughts. I see where you're coming from. Without making it sound like I'm saying that you didn't give this film a chance, I do wonder if perhaps you were quick to jump the gun because of your negative reaction to their previous film, Half Nelson, which I would still encourage you to revisit ignoring as best you can the classroom bits (which made you see the film as political agenda) and focusing instead on the story of addiction, which I think is at the heart of that picture.

I'm in a tough spot here because it could be that I'm seeing a different movie than most. Half Nelson affects me because, alas, I've seen addiction up close and Half Nelson gets many of its depictions in that area remarkably right, including numerous little bits that someone who hasn't experienced addiction probably wouldn't recognize or couldn't appreciate the significance of.

Sugar hit home because parts of it were very faithful to what I saw in almost 10 years working in college/pro sports. In your previous comment, when you wondered why only one player reaches out to Sugar, it reminded me of a moment when -- long story short -- a pro player I was talking to had to look at the jersey hanging in the locker RIGHT NEXT TO HIS in order to know who the relative new guy on the team was. The point of this story is that pro sports is so competitive that most of those guys have tunnel vision. It's self-preservation, over and over and over, even though the guys in the TV booth every week (who spend very little time with teams) spin stories about team chemistry and bonding and crap that tends to be based more on what they've seen in a movie than what they've seen on the team they're covering. (Aside: Take it from me ... If you hear a guy on TV say, "Player X is a leader in the locker room," what that really means is, "Player X is popular and everyone knows who he is and so I asked the coach about him and he said, in lazy coach speak, that the guy is a leader. So he must be, because I've seen movies and there's always a passionate locker room leader on every team, and he's usually one of the star players.")

Anyway, this is a ramble. Point is, Sugar for me is very accurate in some ways, so I certainly responded to that. It's not perfect though, and you've made some good counter arguments. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle of what we've been arguing.

Always good to kick it around at Tractor Facts.

Anonymous said...

Fox,

I honestly think your analysis here is spot on. I just finished watching the film about twenty minutes ago and immediately searched the terms "sugar anna boden white guilt" and yours was the first page it brought up. I guess it's a fine world view to have if you happen to have the cash to attend the NYUs or Columbias of the world (and by proxy possess enough financial and class privilege to finance a feature film) but I for one am already bored to tears by this Neo-neorealist "awakening" cliche and its patronizing films that people like A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert seem to get boners for.

Fox said...

Jason-

Thanks for the comments and discussion. As usual, your points made me feel out my thoughts even more.

Fox said...

Anon-

Thanks, and I agree about the neo-neorealist talk that some film critics are kicking around. I remember one writer in our local paper comparing Wendy and Lucy to Bicycle Thieves, and while I don't hate Wendy and Lucy (I think it's average), that comparison hardly sticks for me.

It's a little arrogant, I think, for culture critics to think it appropriate to draw lines between post-war Italy and recession America 2008. That's just silly.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Best topic, but will this really work?

Anonymous said...

Ah, This is awesome! Clears up
some contradictions I've heard