Trapped on the Big Screen

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The movies are an effective way to show how helpless and afraid a person can feel.  On October 21, films at two of the Detroit Movie Palaces both demonstrated the power of movies to show people trapped in threatening circumstances.

The films Maria Full of Grace (which I saw at the Michigan Theater) and The Birds (Redford Theatre) both showed how fate could push people to edge of their survival instincts.  Their problems were so compelling that you shared a lot of their desperation as they tried to find a way out.

In both films, I could see events closing around the main characters. I could feel my own waves of helplessness as the plots turned the corner towards possible doom. A sigh of relief greeted the small rays of hope that appeared towards the ends of the stories.

In the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, which I saw at a late afternoon matinee at the Michigan, a young Columbian girl gets caught up in international drug trafficking.  She goes from having a simple but frustrating family life to involvement in the roughest parts of organized crime.

Maria is also pregnant, and at the end of the movie, she makes a crucial choice that she hopes is in the best interests of her unborn child.  The showing of this film at the Michigan in the smaller Screening Room helped make it more emotionally intimate. Maria was played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance.

That evening, at the Redford, I took in Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying, apocalyptic 1963 thriller The Birds.  The Redford was creatively decorated with scores of crows, cut from black construction paper and placed in creative places like on the ceiling, in the bathrooms and on large photographs of the theater.

The early 1960s color of the Redford’s print of The Birds glowed with a stunning depth that added more realism to the film, without it feeling overproduced.  The film kicked off two weekends of Halloween fun at the Redford that a week later included the original 1931 Frankenstein.

In both Maria Full of Grace and The Birds, strikingly beautiful women (Moreno and Tippi Hedren) showed the effect of terror on their world.  The contrast between their almost perfect looks and their horrific situations magnified the difficulties of their circumstances.  Both Hedren and Moreno played characters who defiantly pushed themselves forward, even in the best of situations.

Community was an important part of each film.  Maria had two families in this film – her immediate family in Columbia, and her extended Hispanic family in New York City. A crucial element of The Birds is the effect of bird attacks on a small seaside town in California.

Both films ended with an open-ended mixture of uncertainty and hope, as the main characters move carefully into the next phases of their lives.  You worried for them, but you knew that they were committing themselves to moving forward.

I watched these movies thanks to the small windows of opportunity that the Detroit Movie Palaces create to see compelling films like these.  Maria Full of Grace was part of the Michigan’s Sundance Institute Art House Project Film Festival Series, and was shown only twice.  The Birds received three showings at the Redford.

So now these films are intertwined in my memory, and I look forward to discovering other compelling themes shared by good films.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.                 

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